They call him Scarecrow, a nickname that seems oddly appropriate the moment you see Chris Huey step on the floor at Allen Fieldhouse before a Kansas men’s basketball practice.
Huey is a slender 6-foot-7 college senior with a pair of gangly arms, a wiry torso and a head of dark brown hair. He does not look much like a Division I basketball player, at least not one who would ever suit up for Kansas. But on this February afternoon, his hands are up as he fights for post position with the Jayhawks’ Perry Ellis, a potential All-Big 12 power forward, during a scout-team walk-through.
“The best way to describe it,” Huey says of guarding Ellis, “is it’s like a wrestling match.”
If you are reading this story — and you are a diehard Kansas basketball fan — you have probably never heard of Chris Huey, or his Scarecrow alter ego. On most days, Huey is an anonymous figure on the KU campus, a fifth-year senior who works as a student manager for Bill Self and the KU basketball program. But on this February day, as Self runs his team through a practice with a collection of donors watching from the stands, Huey is working his other job: as a member of the KU scout team.
For the next 20 minutes, as the Jayhawks’ “Red” team runs through the half-court sets of the next opponent, Huey is no longer Scarecrow. He is Oklahoma State forward Michael Cobbins. Well, he is a very skinny, slightly awkward version of Cobbins. But he is also on a basketball floor in one of the country’s most historic venues, working up a mild sweat while helping run the plays of Kansas’ next opponent.
“He’s unbelievably bright,” Self will say. “You can tell him anything, and he’ll remember it. He’s been a big asset for us.”
So much so, in fact, that Self approached Huey in the weeks leading up to Saturday’s game against TCU. After a season on the scout team, Self wanted to offer a reward: Huey would suit up against TCU, don a Kansas uniform and take his place on the bench — just like the rest of the players. In the days before the game, Self kept the gesture quiet. But around the KU basketball office, staffers were busy putting him on the official roster, finding proper gear and adding his head shot to the pregame notes.
Huey, who grew up in Kansas City, Kan., is not the first KU manager to help with game prep during Self’s tenure. Over the years, Self says, managers have stepped in to provide an extra body on Kansas’ scout team. But perhaps no manager has spent more time on the court than Huey.
It’s nice to have a spare 6-foot-7 body around, of course. But Self says Huey’s participation has been more of a numbers issue. The Jayhawks have just four walk-ons, and none taller than 6-4. Self would also prefer that his five scholarship big men focus on Kansas’ stuff — not scout-team duties. So on comes Scarecrow. One day, he is Baylor’s Rico Gathers. The next, he is K-State’s Thomas Gipson. This week, in the days before Kansas’ home game today against TCU, Huey assumed the identity of TCU’s Karviar Shepherd.
“He’s been awesome,” Kansas walk-on guard Evan Manning says. “He comes to work every day. He studies the game a lot, and he knows exactly what the Red team needs to do.”
If you ask other Kansas players about Huey, you will hear similar responses. But just make sure you don’t call him Chris.
“Oh, Scarecrow?” Self asks when he hears the real name of one of his managers.
Sitting inside Allen Fieldhouse on a recent afternoon, Huey laughs at the nickname, which was a gift from KU assistant coach Kurtis Townsend. Three years ago, during Huey’s first year as a manager, a few KU big men were running through a preseason post drill. Huey was supposed to hammer the post players with a heavy pad during the drill, and Townsend didn’t think the skinny manager was being physical enough.
Somehow, Scarecrow was born.
“Everybody has a nickname,” Huey says.
In truth, though, Huey is not as soft or brittle as his nickname might suggest. He played varsity at Bishop Ward, where he spent his senior season as a hybrid point-forward because the school lacked adequate ball-handlers. During his senior season, he says, he suffered a collapsed lung after he took a knee to the back during a violent on-court collision.
Huey, though, didn’t want to miss the rest of the season, so he opted to go without surgery and headed off to play college basketball at Saint Mary, a NAIA school in Leavenworth. But during his third college practice, while the team ran dozens of wind sprints, Huey could tell that something was wrong.
“I couldn’t breathe,” Huey says.
His lung had collapsed again, ending his freshman season. And when the lung collapsed a third time a few months later, Huey was ready to move on to Kansas and become a regular student.
“I was here on all the weekends, anyways,” he says, smiling.
Huey, though, wasn’t ready to leave basketball behind, which perhaps can be said about most college basketball managers. It’s a thankless job, really, a daily grind that goes beyond washing uniforms and organizing equipment. But there are perks, too. For Huey and others, like head manager Jordan Buell, working as a manager can be the equivalent of auditing a class on basketball coaching, with Self and his staff as professors.
“It’s always cool to just hear the stories and soak everything up,” Huey says.
This season, Huey did a little more. He’s not exactly sure when it started, but one day at practice, as KU began its scout-team walk-through, a coach told him to get on the floor. From then on, he began participating more and more. Soon, he became the honorary fifth member of the scout team, joining KU’s four walk-ons on the floor 45 minutes before the official start of practice.
“We’ll go over the plays one or twice apiece,” Huey says of the pre-practice regimen. “We’ll learn it at practice, and that day we’ll be expected to know it. Which at first, it’s tough.”
Huey, though, had some help. This semester, he’s working as an intern in the KU basketball office as part of his sports management major. That means it’s his job to input the scouting reports into a computer program that spits out play diagrams.
Soon enough, Huey began to master opposing teams’ specific schemes. He learned which opponents run “America’s Play,” and which teams utilize “’Bama action.” He learned which teams hedge ball screens and like to double the post. He also learned which KU players like to seal hard with their backside (Landen Lucas) and create space with flying elbows (Hunter Mickelson).
“I can see the plays on the computer,” Huey says, “then I see them on the court.”
But to see Huey on the floor of Allen Fieldhouse? Well, let’s just say nobody would mistake him for Gonzaga’s Kyle Wiltjer or Iowa State’s Georges Niang.
“He kind of like a poor man’s Kevin Durant,” Buell, the head manager, joked. “He’s kind of like a 6-7 point guard.”
Manning is a little kinder. Huey is solid, he says, always in the right spot. Scarecrow has learned how to play with his brain.
“He knows his limitations,” Manning says, smiling. “He catches it in the post every now and again, and he’s patient. He’ll get fouled. He’ll get to the line.”