“I don’t think anyone knows this, but I cried that night,” Cal Poly men’s basketball forward Ryan Darling said. “It was a dream come true … It was a real important day of my life.”
Three years ago, Darling was cleaning up after Cal Poly’s men’s basketball team. His official title with the Mustangs was team manager. Darling handed players water, wiped sweat off the court and filmed practices. When he wasn’t cleaning, he would sit on the bench and enviously watch Division-I athletes compete.
“As a team manager on the bench, seeing these players make plays, you’re just sitting there thinking, ‘I wish that could be me,’” Darling said. “I knew I could do it, it was just a matter of time. I just had to put my mind to it.”
He played basketball in high school, but adored all sports his whole life. Despite coming from a family of swimmers, Darling dove into a path that combined burnt brown leather and white nylon nets as his favorite way to pass time.
“Whenever you step on the court, you get this energy running through your body, coursing through your veins,” Darling said. “There is nothing like it, you just feel like you’re on top of the world.”
Darling’s dream was to someday play on the hardwood. He often fantasized about holding up a green and gold jersey adorned with his last name. He would daydream of receiving a pass under the basket and dunking over a defender in front of thousands of home fans — as a Mustang.
Not only did he make the team, but he was living his dream. Outfitted in green and gold, he was scoring, dunking and rebounding against Big West Conference opponents.
Not many can say they are living out their childhood fantasy, but Darling is one of the few exceptions.
“Darling has amazing work ethic,” Titus Shelton said. Shelton was a teammate of Darling’s on Cal Poly’s basketball team.“He is eager and willing to learn and do what it takes to be the best he can be at what he sets his mind to.”
It didn’t come easy to Darling. With only two years of experience in high school, he was not recruited. He came to Cal Poly for an education, not to become a basketball player.
Despite his doubts, Darling found himself inside Mott Gym when open tryouts began his freshman year.
“I realized that if I didn’t take advantage of (trying out), it was something that I was going to regret for the rest of my life, ” Darling said.
Competing against upperclassmen with scholarships, Darling struggled to keep up with the other players. When the final team roster was released, Darling’s name didn’t make the cut.
“Ryan’s not one to lay down and give up; he is a competitor,” Shelton said. “If there was something he needed to do or work on, he found out and worked on it.”
Darling never set his sights on giving up. He didn’t see being cut as a failure.
“I think failing is when you truly want something and give up,” Darling said. “This is something deep down that I know that I do want to do. Thinking that this is going to be hard was no reason I shouldn’t try again.”
As his freshman year drew on, Darling befriended some of the players he played against in tryouts and started playing pick-up games with some of them. Anytime the team had an open-gym shoot around, Darling was always there.
“After playing with the team for a while, I started to think that I actually had a shot at making the team, so I decided to put my mind to it and give it everything I had,” Darling said.
Darling was motivated to wash out the taste of defeat he had left over from his previous tryout. He hit the gym to build on the 6-foot-7-inch, 185-pound frame he had when he graduated high school. By the time tryouts came the second time around, Darling recalled tipping the scales 25 pounds heavier than freshman year. But, another tryout was filled with more disappointment as Darling failed to make the team once again.
“To my knowledge, the team was full at that point, but I did well in tryouts so the coaching staff said I could stick around and be a team manager if I wanted,” Darling said.
Being burdened with rejection twice, Darling still had no inclination to hang up his shoes. To show his commitment to his dream, Darling took the position. When the team was on the court practicing, Darling was there serving as a team manager. When the team wasn’t, he hit the court.
“I came into (my junior year) with the mentality that I am going to play,” Darling said. “I don’t care what it takes, I had come this far, I wasn’t ready to turn back.”
When the first day of official team practice came his junior year, three weeks before tryouts, Darling headed to Mott Gym. For him, it was just another day.
“I wanted to see that if maybe (coach Bromley) wanted to use me in some of the drills, but I wouldn’t actually be on the team,” Darling said. “But, I walked into the locker room and found my own set of practice gear.”
Darling held up a green and white practice jersey with the words “Cal Poly” and the number 31 embroidered on the back — he had made the team.
“I believed he could (make the team), I’ve always thought he’s had the ability, drive and athleticism,” Shelton said.
Darling redshirted his junior year and then found limited playing time in his next season.
When former Seattle University head coach Joe Callero took over the reins of the Mustangs, Darling had no need to prove himself again — Callero knew all about Darling.
“He was pretty athletic and pretty active, but he was very raw,” Callero said. “He hadn’t played very many minutes of really competitive college basketball, and he wasn’t really comfortable with a lot of things we were implementing.”
As the lights in Mott Gym turned on for another season, Callero had been around Darling for less than a year, but he immediately noticed Darling’s main addition to the team — energy.
“He has such a positive energy about him,” Callero said. “Every team needs to have an emotional leader — a positive energy leader — and (Ryan) certainly has emerged as a positive energy leader.”
Darling’s work ethic wasn’t only seen in the eyes of the coaches; the players started to rally around him too.
“Biggest thing (Ryan) brought to the team is energy,” Lorenzo Keeler said. “I mean, we know whenever he gets on the court he is going to play his butt off. He is going to play 110 percent and leave everything on the court before he comes back onto the bench.”
Darling racked up 22 minutes through the team’s first 10 games of this season. He was used mainly as a utility man. Filling in for players with foul trouble and injuries, Darling trotted on the court and did what he was asked to do. Halfway through the season, ineligibility struck starting center and second leading scorer Will Donahue. Darling saw his minutes sky-rocket.
Against in-state rival UC Davis, Darling saw the court for 23 minutes, just six fewer in that one game than in the whole 2008-09 season. Darling finished with a career-high double-double—10 points and 12 rebounds.
“He is as good of an example to perseverance in sports as I have seen in 23 years of coaching,” Callero said.
In the game, Keeler hit Darling under the basket with a dish on a drive. Darling jumped up in between numerous defenders and finished emphatically with a two-handed jam. The moment was the image that Darling had once dreamed about when he sat at the end of the bench. He was no longer the one staring at the players, he was the one playing.
“It’s an absolute priceless opportunity,” Darling said. “Someone could offer me a billion dollars to not play out this year, and I honestly don’t think I would take it.”