In the summer before Rick Ray’s first season, just a few months after he had been hired at Mississippi State, the new head coach of the Bulldogs went through individual workouts his the players he was just meeting and about to be depending on.
Walking across a mostly empty gym, Ray approached one of his walk-ons, Baxter Price, to give him corrections, letting him know what he did wrong and how to fix it.
The senior guard was a little confused.
“He kind of looked behind him and he was like, ‘Are you talking to me?’ That was the first time he had been coached and been in that situation,” Ray said.
A member of what was once called the Gold Team – MSU’s practice players comprised of walk-ons and the occasional ineligible player – Price was used to hanging in the shadows the last three years under former coach Rick Stansbury.
Of course, in those previous seasons, MSU had full rosters. This year, the Bulldogs were only able to even practice 5-on-5 for the first time just two weeks ago.
“It took some getting used to,” Price said. “When you’re a walk-on on a team with 19 players, naturally you don’t do much. Now…”
Yes, now, he can’t wait at the end of the bench for the final seconds of a blowout. He won’t be the first to the showers after practice and his hair certainly won’t stay in place from beginning of game to end.
Early in the season, Price’s role in practice changed, but his game minutes stayed about the same. However, as injuries and suspensions continued to decimate the roster, Ray began using the walk-on more and more, culminating in the biggest moment of his basketball career when Price was needed extensively on the road against the then-No. 2 team in the country.
“I’m really proud and happy for Baxter Price,” Ray said. “I’ve said this before. In the previous game, we go and open up against Florida, and Baxter Price has played 23 minutes for the whole season, then he plays 16 minutes in that game, and he goes out and he performs.”
“That’s a big transition,” Price said. “When you’re a walk-on and you don’t get that many minutes, you know you play at the end of the game and that’s just what happens. If you think in that way, if you think you’re not gonna get in until the end of the game and it doesn’t matter, then you’re gonna play like that. And I did the first couple times I was in the game. I was like ‘Wow, this is off beat for me, I normally don’t do this.’ You get used to it. You build confidence. After that, it becomes easy.”
Originally from Starkville and a graduate of Northwest Rankin High School in Mississippi, Price and his family were friends Stansbury and his clan as he grew up. When Price finished his senior season and was preparing to graduate, Stansbury came to him with an offer.
“He asked me if I wanted to be a part of the team, and obviously, you’re really not in a position to say no when you get an opportunity like that,” Price said.
He said the transition was tough, at first, as he went from playing against 17-year olds he knew to some of the best players in the country every day in practice.
He loved every minute, though, crediting the staff and university for helping him along the way.
For three years, Price knew his role. He worked on his degree outside of Humphrey Coliseum while he did everything he could to make himself and his team better inside of it. He knew he wasn’t going to play unless the score got out of hand, but he also knew his value to the team – at that time – came in practice.
Then, Stansbury stepped down, and Ray stepped in.
The transition occurred at a time when many of his fellow Gold Team-ers were already planning to head elsewhere, whether for a job or because of school, meaning the practice squad was, in essence, no more.
With many of his teammates gone and a new coach walking through the doors, Price wasn’t sure what his future held.
“Coach Ray was phenomenal,” Price said. “He did not have to keep any of us around and he chose to. I’m a walk-on and he comes in and wants to clean house. He could’ve chosen to let me go. I’m very, very grateful for the opportunity that he gave me. He’s meant a lot to me in my development as a person and as a basketball player.”
Of course, things changed, as became apparent that day in the Mize Pavillion when Price realized he was the one coach was yelling at.
“Everything has changed for me over this past basketball season,” Price said, “in a positive way. It took some getting used to. I tell you, you just gotta learn the value of working hard. We come in, we work hard every day, regardless of who you are, regardless of how many minutes you play, you’ve got to value working hard. If you work hard, you’re gonna get some results.”
And he’s certainly seen those results, developing a role as a key reserve in the second half of MSU’s season.
Entering Senior Day, his final game at The Hump, fans will expect to see him on the court.
Of course, that wasn’t always the case.
Used to only seeing walk-ons in the final moments of games, the home crowds were excited to see Price on the floor during meaningful portions of contests at The Hump.
So excited, in fact, they yelled whenever Price got the ball.
“Shoot it! Shoooooottttt!” they screamed.
On the end of the floor by the student section, Price was implored endlessly by his peers to throw it up from the three-point line.
“I’m not deaf,” he said, “so I can hear it. It’ll play mind games on you every now and then.”
Enough so that he’s avoided taking shots in front of the home crowd.
But, Price said, “It doesn’t bother me. These fans are phenomenal. They’re great people. I go around and people are so supporting. I love the fans. Hey, you can’t complain about support. It does not upset me at all. I’m just thankful I have people that actually care.”
“Baxter’s a different person,” Ray said. “Most people would go in that situation and selfishly try to jack up a few shots. Baxter’s not that way at all.”
“I think it goes without saying, when I get out there on the court, I’m not there to score.”
Through the cheering, the coaching, the running and the waiting, Price has been happy, and more than anything, grateful for the opportunity.
In his four years, He’s been to the Bahamas, Hawaii twice and gone on a cross-country tour through Europe. He’s played at Rupp Arena, against top-ranked teams with first-round draft picks.
And one of his final acts he will be the happiest, getting one more game at home, the same coliseum where he used to sit with his parents and cheer for the team he now plays on.
The lone senior in the home finale, Price gets one more game at The Hump.
“I’d like to get Baxter a bucket before he leaves,” Ray said with a smile.