Mike Hart won a spot on the Gonzaga roster in 2008 as a walk-on. Now he's a starter.

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That first season, Mike Hart knew his place. It was on a stair next to the Gonzaga bench. Not a chair, but a stair.

“We had so many guys,” says Hart, “the seats were all filled.”

But maybe that reinforced in Hart the need to do more, to block out on every rebound, to close out on every defender, to induce floor burns chasing loose balls.

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When Gonzaga (6-2) and Arizona (7-3) take the floor Saturday at KeyArena in another Battle in Seattle, there will be a lot of guys who reflect the thrust of college recruiting in 2011. You know, kids who were seen and tracked going back to junior high, who came through the ranks of AAU programs and summer basketball.

There won’t be anybody else quite like the 6-foot-6 Hart, a walk-on at Gonzaga who has been starting all season. He gets 18 minutes a game and averages 5.3 rebounds.

There are, of course, walk-ons across the country, but in almost all cases, they were invited to try out after being recruited, often by programs that had maxed out their 13 scholarships.

Hart, from Jesuit High in Portland, was a complete unknown to the Gonzaga staff, understandably. In a very good high-school program, he was sixth man as a junior and averaged a modest eight points as a senior. His most ardent suitor was Pacific — not the Division I program in California, but rather Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore.

He chose Gonzaga over Oregon on the basis of its business school, and that was going to be it for basketball. Except he would find himself in the GU field house in the fall of 2008, doing what basketball players do, and some of the other freshmen that year — Andy Poling, Grant Gibbs, Demetri Goodson — thought he had potential.

They mentioned him to somebody on the coaching staff, and Hart began coming to the team’s open gyms. That led to the two-day walk-on tryouts, and Zags assistant Tommy Lloyd told Hart he had made it.

“Up to that point, it was definitely one of the most exciting things I’ve ever had happen,” says Hart. “I mean, coming from going to school and stopping something you love so much in basketball, and being told, ‘Hey, maybe not, you’ve got another chance to keep this going,’ that was just an awesome feeling.”

There was also this: “My life changed after that day. I had had so much free time. It was, ‘Boom, here’s your schedule now, you’ve got to get to work.’ “

To retrace Hart’s path is to realize how difficult it is to play the game at a high level if you don’t have prodigious talent. It’s been a brick-by-brick process, with Hart annually setting the bar a little higher, trying to beat the standard he thinks people around him might have set.

As Hart puts it, “Proving myself so that they look at me as a guy they want to play — a guy they can’t not play.”

“Our plan, on day one, wasn’t to start him,” says Lloyd. “It’s a credit to his effort. It reaffirms your belief in the human spirit.”

Around Gonzaga, they’re scratching heads, trying to recall a “true” walk-on who made it to this level.

Athletic director Mike Roth, who has been around the program the past 25 years, says, “I can’t recall a kid we really knew nothing about until he walked on campus, that has played as meaningful minutes as Mike has.”

The comparison some around Gonzaga draw is to Mike Nilson, a walk-on from Shorecrest High who was a defensive stopper on the Zags’ breakthrough 1999-2000 teams. In fact, Robert Sacre, Gonzaga’s gregarious center, just refers to Hart as “Nilson.” And Nilson, a trainer who is around the team, calls Hart his “evil twin.”

Still, there’s more to do. Hart, a junior after redshirting his first season with the team, hasn’t shown to be an offensive threat, so defenses sag off him — one reason he was on the floor three hours before the Washington State game, shooting threes.

Saturday, JC transfer Guy Landry Edi becomes eligible, one more threat to Hart’s playing time.

The ultimate irony? One by one, all the scholarship players of 2008 — Poling, Gibbs and Goodson — left the program, while it was Hart who forged his own niche.

“You celebrate the little victories,” he said, “but you can’t celebrate them too much.”

For the true walk-on, there’s no rest, only the fire within. There’s always somebody out there who thinks you can’t play.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281

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