With less than three minutes left to play against Arkansas, LSU freshman Ben Simmons steps to the free throw line and calmly sinks the shot to complete the three-point play. The Tigers are up 74-69, as the PMAC crowd roars back to life, trying to will LSU to victory.
As Simmons and the rest of the LSU Tigers run down the court to get back on defense, a player standing at the end of the LSU bench, barely noticeable to most in attendance, pumps his fist in excitement. Throughout the game he has been standing, cheering, clapping and yelling words of encouragement to his teammates.
Clinging to a 74-72 lead over Arkansas with 1:14 left to play, LSU coach Johnny Jones calls a timeout to rally his troops for the final 74 seconds of the game.
The player at the end of the bench who’s been cheering his teammates on, rushes over to dole out fist bumps and high fives to the Tigers coming off the court.
Thus is the role of LSU junior Henry Shortess — encourager, scout teamer and motivator.
“[Shortess is] a hard worker,” Simmons said. “He gives us energy. He’s one of those guys that you have on the bench who’s ready to come in and play wherever it’s his time. In practice he’s one of the hardest working guys.”
Shortess (@H_Short11), a former walk-on turned scholarship player last week, has been part of the LSU basketball program for the past three seasons.
“I am very pleased that we could give a scholarship for this semester to Henry Shortess as he finishes his undergraduate work this semester,” Jones said. “He is hard-working on and off the basketball court, helping make his teammates better by his efforts in drills and scouting reports. More importantly, he is well-liked and respected by the other members of the team.”
Shortess has spent the majority of his LSU career as a walk-on, but was thrilled to join the ranks of the Tigers’ scholarship players on Jan. 21.
“The LSU basketball program has always been very close to my heart, and the love I have for my teammates and coaches has grown tremendously these past couple of seasons,” Shortess said. “It is hard to put into words what being put on full-scholarship feels like.”
Following his senior year at University High, Jones offered Shortess the opportunity to walk-on to the LSU basketball team.
“It was an extremely fortunate situation for me,” Shortess said. “I knew I was going to come to LSU but didn’t really have any plans to play basketball.”
Shortess said Jones asked him to join LSU basketball program because of the leadership qualities he displayed on his high school team, something Jones was keenly aware of because his son and Shortess were teammates during the latter’s senior year.
“It obviously wasn’t for athletic reasons,” Shortess joked. “I think it was more for what I could bring in terms of enthusiasm and consistent effort in practice and trying to be a positive influence on my teammates.”
The idea of such an intense commitment with no guarantee of playing time would deter most potential walk-on prospects, but Shortess said he saw the big picture benefits joining the LSU basketball team could offer.
“I tried to think long term about it and some of the opportunities that might arise from it, in terms of maybe getting a job and the relationships that I would be able to form with people, which has happened,” Shortess said. “Three years from now, I’ve been able to see that really come to fruition.”
Shortess rarely takes the court during games, but his teammates say his contributions are vital to the program’s success.
Whether it’s lifting the spirits of discouraged teammates on the bench and in the locker room or working hard to challenge his teammates in practice, LSU forward Craig Victor II said the walk-on players are the “most important players” on LSU’s roster.
“They keep us going,” Victor said. “For guys that know they’re not going to play, they work just as hard as anybody else on the team. They don’t complain, don’t hang their heads, and they’re full of energy every single day.”
Shortess’ daily goal on the team is “to try and be the most positive person” that he can in order to lift up his teammates.
“It’s an extremely long season with a lot of difficult times, which we’ve obviously had our fair share of already this year,” Shortess said. “I try to be someone that encourages everyone constantly during practice, trying to get people to stay the course. If they didn’t have a great game last game, I try to express confidence in them that we all believe in each other. It’s my role to try to communicate that during practice as well as during the games. I try to be a voice on the bench, whether it’s a scouting report thing or trying to give energy to the team just to keep guys going.”
At first glance few casual LSU basketball fans would suspect the five-foot-nine-inch Baton Rouge native wears the same jersey as LSU freshman superstar Ben Simmons, but that doesn’t bother Shortess.
“It’s usually met with some skepticism obviously, but I’ve gotten used to it,” Shortess said. “It’s never really been me to try to proclaim to people that I’m on the team. It’s usually my friends, when we’re out, they’ll say ‘You know he plays for LSU.’ [Strangers] kind of just give me a look, and I just shrug my shoulders.”
Collis Temple III and Darrel Mitchell were Shortess’ two favorite LSU basketball players growing up, but Shortess has also developed a bond with former LSU basketball walk-on David Fleshman, who was part of LSU’s Final Four team in 2006.
“It really means a lot to me that [Fleshman] is willing to communicate with both me and Brandon [Eddlestone],” Shortess said. “He offers us advice about the experience since he went through it. I’m really appreciative of him.”
Through two and half seasons, Shortess said his greatest memory has been LSU’s trip to the NCAA Tournament last spring.
“Those were the two greatest days of my life, despite us losing,” Shortess said. “I guess we found the silver lining in it, in that it’s really special occasion.”
Though his opportunities to take the court during the game are rare, Shortess relishes the chance to play in front of the same fans he sat with growing up watching the Tigers play.
“It’s really special,” Shortess said. “I never envisioned being in this position, let alone having that type of reaction from the fans.”
Shortess has appeared in five games for LSU this season, the most memorable outing occurring against American University, when Shortess shot a running floater to score his first two points of the season.
“I turned down a few shots to try and get a better shot,” Shortess said. “I honestly hadn’t taken a floater since the eighth grade. That was fun. I was hoping we’d get another opportunity for Brandon [Eddlestone] to come down and score too because he deserves it more than I do.”
When Shortess does take the floor for LSU, his biggest cheerleaders, literally, are his teammates on the bench.
“[Henry and Brandon] work so hard and they deserve it,” Simmons said. “When it’s their chance, it’s their chance. We want to see everybody on the team shine.”
“They’re the true definition of what it means to be a true teammate,” Victor said.
After his playing career at LSU is over, Shortess’ ultimate goal is become a general manager of an NBA franchise.
“I’m just looking forward to continuing to have some type of job that involves basketball,” Shortess said. “I’ve done it all my life, and I can’t imagine doing anything without it.”
Follow Andrew Alexander on Twitter @TheOtherAA.