KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Pierson McAtee takes a few seconds to think about the lessons he’s learned at Kansas State. There have been many, but after a couple moments of thought, one Bruce Weber-ism sticks out. McAtee is quite sure he’ll butcher the quote, but here goes.
“‘If you don’t wake up with something to prove, you’ll never improve.’”
McAtee, a walk-on, feels he has plenty to prove. He hears the doubters on the outside. Can he play at that level? Can he contribute? He’s a redshirt junior, and though you might not see his influence show up on the stat sheet, he knows he’s contributed.
That’s why he wakes up each day with what he calls an “everyday attitude.” He follows that Weber quote, which the coach always preaches to players. Be humble, be hungry.
“Kind of having that chip on your shoulder, whether you just scored 20 in a win last night or didn’t get in the game at all the night before,” said McAtee, who has played only 30 minutes this season. “You can’t ride too high, you can’t ride too low. You just have to come in with a solid work ethic, whether that’s in your job or your sport or school.
“Anything in life.”
It’s a Wednesday afternoon and McAtee is sitting at his locker in K-State’s locker room. The top-seeded Wildcats have just finished an open practice at the Sprint Center and are a day away from opening the Big 12 Men’s Basketball Championship against TCU.
Multiple times, McAtee says that this is “a dream come true.”
He’s been a K-State fan for his entire life. His father, Jamie, has worked as the athletics department’s orthopedic surgeon for almost two decades. Pierson was a ball boy as a kid and a hooper at heart.
He played at Manhattan High, where his mark on the program still lives.
As a senior, McAtee led the Indians to a school-record 18 wins and the program’s first Centennial League title. The team went to the semifinals of the Class 6A sub-state tournament that year, and McAtee was named an honorable mention Class 6A All-State player by the Kansas Basketball Coaches Association.
Weber got eyes on McAtee when the lanky kid showed up at open gyms. McAtee still can recall the day he went into Weber’s office and Weber offered him a walk-on spot. That was their first meeting, and they’ve had many since.
“Couldn’t really see myself anywhere else,” McAtee said. “I’ve never really looked back since. I’ve loved my decision.”
For McAtee, that was validation. He said he knew he possessed the ability to compete with kids at the Division I level. He felt he just needed some time, which is why he redshirted as a freshman.
McAtee went on official visits to a couple NAIA schools. He received looks from Division II schools and a couple lower-level Division I universities. But, to this day, he calls his relationship with K-State “love at first sight.” In his mind and heart, he didn’t want to be anywhere else.
That’s why he became one of the many high school standouts that have taken smaller roles in college. McAtee and former K-State walk-ons he named — Kade Kinnamon, Patrick Muldoon, Mason Schoen, Austin Budke and Brian Rohleder — formed a brotherhood. McAtee feels lucky to have had great ones go before him.
“It’s not a glorious job, it’s not one that’s necessarily easy to do year-round,” McAtee said. “Especially once it gets to the season. But everybody’s got their role. I know my time will come when it comes, as it has with the guys before me. Just kind of got to keep plugging away.”
Said Weber: “He’s an unbelievable, quality young man. He’s really been a good leader, a quiet leader. He comes every day. He has such great passion and love for K-State, for K-State basketball. He’s been a ball boy, he’s watched it through the years. He just takes so much pride in it. ... From his freshman year when he was about 160 pounds and I could knock him over to now, he’s made a lot of improvements.”
Walk-ons are paying to be in the program, with no guarantee of playing time. McAtee has logged 76 minutes in his entire career. He’s scored only 20 total points, seven coming this season.
What keeps McAtee going are the constant conversations with Weber, who he said tells him to stay ready. The opportunity could come at any moment. Guard Mike McGuirl, one of McAtee’s best friends on the team, also preaches the same.
McGuirl said McAtee has brought leadership. This is his fourth year in the program, and McAtee knows how things are done. He helps the younger ones.
And, of course, McGuirl hopes McAtee gets his shot to shine because “he deserves it with the way he’s been helping everybody else.”
“Everybody on this team is equal,” McGuirl said. “We need everybody on this team to win. That’s what’s really the truth. It’s not something we just think. That’s just what it is. Everybody is just a part of the team as everybody else, really.”
There might be no player on the team as well-versed in the Wildcats’ history as McAtee. His earliest K-State memories are from the Jim Wooldridge era. The game he said he remembers most is the 2006 Sunflower Showdown, which remains the last time the Wildcats won at Allen Fieldhouse. He was there, and got to go into the locker room with his dad after the game.
He’s now enjoying a special ride. K-State won a share of the Big 12 regular-season title and, with a win over TCU in the conference tournament, notched 25 victories in back-to-back seasons for the first time in program history.
What McAtee is most proud of is the growth and maturity. This group dropped its first two games of conference play, then rattled off nine straight wins over Big 12 teams.
Instead of being shaken, McAtee saw the team refocus its attention on the basics.
“Those are the type of runs you really never forget,” McAtee said. “You always hold on to that.”
In that hot streak, K-State defeated rival Kansas at Bramlage Coliseum, the program’s first win over the Jayhawks since 2015. Guard Cartier Diarra punctuated it with a windmill dunk that circulated social media.
“That will be on highlight tapes for years and years and years,” McAtee said. “To be able to say that I was a part of that is really great.”
McAtee’s advice to high school players in a similar position is to get to know the coach. Form a relationship. Talk inside and outside of practice. Work on your craft in the summer, and when the season hits, build good practice habits.
Then, know your role.
“Once you figure out your role, just be the best at your role and execute it to the best of your ability,” McAtee said, “and God will kind of take care of the rest.”
McAtee said he knows outsiders might think the Wildcats are spewing clichés when they talk about how they’re a family, about how they’re tight-knit.
But he insists it’s true. He said that no one on the team looks differently at walk-ons.
He’s having the time of his life.
“It’s been really fun,” McAtee said. “I’m just blessed that Coach Weber gave me an opportunity to be a part of it.”