How a Trombone Scholarship Led Tanner McGrew on the Path to USA Basketball Call-Up
The former music major and Division II walk-on made his international debut in USA Basketball’s February World Cup Qualifying game against Panama.
Of all the players listed on the USA roster for the February FIBA World Cup Qualifying games against Argentina and Panama on Feb. 22 and 25, the unlikeliest has to be Tanner McGrew.
After all, McGrew went to college on a partial trombone scholarship as a music major at Division II West Virginia Wesleyan College. He later walked on to the basketball team there as part of a journey that has taken him to numerous stops around the world.
And as far-fetched as it all sounds, now McGrew will play for coach Jeff Van Gundy and USA Basketball.
“I was a little bit surprised,” said McGrew about receiving his first national team call-up. “I just never really imagined that I would get the opportunity, but obviously I was excited and ready to come and work with some high-level basketball players.”
Just playing at the Division II level represented a big opportunity. McGrew had his sights set on West Virginia Wesleyan out of high school due to its jazz band program. He auditioned, and was accepted for, a trombone scholarship.
After spending his freshman year playing intramural hoops, McGrew expected to do the same in year two. But new coach Patrick Beilein — son of University of Michigan coach John Beilein — saw McGrew and felt he could help the basketball program.
“He had seen me working out in the gym, and he just kind of came up and asked me if I just wanted to walk on, just be a guy on the roster, because they needed an extra guy,” McGrew said. “He kind of said, ‘You probably won’t play, but we would love to have you.’”
What followed were two nondescript seasons for McGrew before he blossomed into an outstanding Division II player over his final two years. The 6-foot-8 forward averaged 16.0 points and 12.2 rebounds his junior season before upping those marks to 22.6 points and a Division II-best average of 12.4 boards as a senior.
That stellar play led to an even more intriguing development.
“My last couple months of school, I had somebody reach out to me from Australia, and they asked me if I would be interesting in playing, and I had never even thought about playing professionally,” McGrew said. “I did some research and my then-girlfriend and I talked about it, and we decided that it was a good idea and we wanted to be married to do it. So, we got married, and the next week we moved to Australia and we’ve gone everywhere together. We’re a package deal.”
Keep in mind it wasn’t the top division in Australia that McGrew reached when he spent time becoming a dominant force with the South West Metro Pirates. Still, the experience led to a brief stint in Denmark, before McGrew came back to Australia and then landed a spot in the French second division.
Through it all, McGrew gradually added more to his game. The big man developed his outside shot in Denmark and learned how to counter athleticism in France.
“It’s been a learning process,” McGrew said. “I’ve had a lot of different styles of coaches, and I’ve played a lot of different styles of basketball and I pride myself on being able to change myself based on the needs of the team.”
Before this season, McGrew had a bit of a setback with a broken foot that sidelined him for nearly two months. After healing, he joined the Memphis Hustle of the NBA G League and saw action sparingly. He was traded to the Salt Lake City Stars on Jan. 18 and has taken advantage of an injury-ravaged squad to average 14.2 points and 5.9 rebounds in 11 games there.
“(Memphis) gave me a shot and got me into training camp, and I made the team,” McGrew said. “Had some good games for them and some not so good games, but they ended up trading me to Salt Lake City, and there I really have had a quite a bit of success individually.”
The obvious question for McGrew is how much discipline in music contributes to discipline on the basketball court in terms of preparation and work ethic. The answer is probably not what you would expect from somebody certified to teach music.
“With basketball, I love working out,” McGrew said. “Some people dread it, but I literally love to practice, especially individual stuff, I love to shoot, I love to run, I don’t mind any of that.
“Whereas with music, sometimes it was a bit of a chore to practice. I mean, I liked it, and I loved music, but I didn’t have the desire to take my trombone out and practice every day. And to be great, that’s part of the reason I wasn’t great, that I didn’t become a professional musician. You have to have that desire to better yourself every single day.”
It’s clear that that kind of desire is a major reason why he has earned this opportunity. The trombone world’s loss is now the gain of USA Basketball.
“Everybody’s here trying to show that they’re willing to be coachable and they’re willing to play hard, so it’s been a really good group of guys,” McGrew said. “Nobody is being selfish, which is really what this is not about, so I really like that actually.”