It is no secret that more and more Turkish Airlines EuroLeague stars are growing beards these days. A lot of players and retired legends who did not sport beards just a few years ago are now proud of them, such as Arturas Milaknis, Juan Carlos Navarro and Fragiskos Alvertis. Others have made beards part of their trademark look, such as Gigi Datome, Vassilis Spanoulis, Sergio Rodriguez and Thomas Walkup, just to mention a few. The last player on that list grew out his beard long before he became a staple in the Zalgiris Kaunas lineup. Walkup started his beard in college when his small school, Stephen F. Austin State University, made it to the NCAA Tournament.
Walkup played for Stephen F. Austin, which calls its sports teams The Lumberjacks. In early November 2015, Walkup stopped shaving and Stephen F. Austin went on a 21-game winning streak, so he decided to let it grow for the rest of the season.
"And ever since then, it's kind of been a little bit of a good luck thing, not a superstition or anything. I just look like a baby with a shaved face," Walkup said. "So I grow it out and it just kind of helps with the grind of the season, I think."
The fact that Stephen F. Austin's teams are The Lumberjacks made his beard an even bigger story. There were many a poster or sign at their games with Walkup's face plastered over a lumberjack body.
"It wasn't just me, but a few of us had beards on the team and we all kind of let them just get out of control and definitely had a lumberjack look to them," he recalled. "It kind of turned into a joke once we got on the national stage."
"It's kind of been a little bit of a good luck thing."
Stephen F. Austin reached the NCAA Tournament and defeated heavy favorite West Virginia 70-56 in the first round. All of a sudden, Walkup and his bearded friends were all over the American press. And they didn't just talk about the beards: Walkup finished the game with 33 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 steals. The pressure never got to him as Walkup made 19 of 20 free throws. Afterward, the media spoke about how he changed his game to become an elite point forward, a role he has played in Zalgiris with great success.
"I think just how we won and we had upset West Virginia, so the level of the game maybe made the beard that much more exciting and gave it more notoriety just because the game was so big for us as a small school. The beard and the lumberjack just kind of created this perfect story," he explained.
The team's Cinderella story came to an end in the second round with a 75-76 loss to a University of Notre Dame squad that featured his current Zalgiris teammate Steve Vasturia and Panathinaikos OPAP Athens big man Zach Auguste.
"It was a heartbreaking loss, especially as a small school," Walkup said, "You don't find yourself in the second round of the NCAA Tournament very often. We had a chance to make history there. And I think that's what made it so heartbreaking."
That is the history of Walkup's beard, which has become part of his look and it's a style that he has come to love, even though at times he has toyed with its length.
"I shaved it down at some point. I don't think I was shooting the ball all that great. So I decided to shave it off a little bit... I think I'm just going to let it grow this season, though," he said.
Walkup has taken note of the many other great players in the EuroLeague with beards and even some who don't currently, but he things might look better if they grew one: "Milaknis is my favorite one, because of how full has come in! I'm jealous because mine doesn't grow that full or with that length, you know? So for sure he has my favorite beard in the EuroLeague. Spanoulis definitely has the roughest beard. It grows really high up on his face and really low on his neck. He definitely can grow a thick beard for sure. Sergio Rodriguez also has a good one.
"One of my favorites, though, probably the best one even though he is not in the EuroLeague this year, is Antanas Kavaliauskas. I have to give him a shoutout because he definitely has one of my favorite all-time beards. He was a couple of lockers down from me in the locker room and the guy puts a lot of work into his beard. I mean, a lot of work into his beard: he oils it up and brushes it the whole deal."
His choice as the clean-shaven player who would look best with some facial hair is also a former teammate: "Aaron White should grow out his red beard. He has a little scruff and he should grow out his red beard."
Milaknis and Walkup are joined by Joffrey Lauvergne, Augustine Rubit, Martinas Geben, Lukas Lekavicius and Patricio Garino to make seven Zalgiris players with beards. Paulius Jankunas, however, is always clean-shaven. Walkup admitted that he has tried to convince the team captain to grow a beard, but wasn't able to persuade him.
"I'm jealous because mine doesn't grow that full or with that length."
"I know at one point he had a mustache!" Walkup exclaimed. "I have tried to convince him to grow it out a little bit, but he says it doesn't come in great. But I think he has a good face for clean-shaven, for sure. And he doesn't look down on it."
Walkup said that although he makes an effort to shape his beard, he does not fuss over it too much, especially when he and his team are playing well: "If we are winning, you're keeping it, keeping it and letting it go, for sure."
In fact, he was clean-shaven before Zalgiris went on a six-game winning streak to reach the 2019 EuroLeague playoffs. During that streak, Walkup did not shave at all.
"I had it growing the whole time. I was clean-shaven at the start and when we played in Madrid, I had a full one!"
What would it take to get Walkup to go with a clean look all the time? He admitted that if he was struggling and "needed a change or something," he might shave, "but I look like I'm still in high school when I do that, so I try to avoid that," Walkup said. "Generally, if I am playing well, I will wear the same pair of shoes as long as they're still intact. Same socks, undershirt, everything."
Walkup wrapped up with a sense of pride that beards have become such a stylish, trendy look: "If you look back 10-15 years ago, nobody really had beards, it was kind of such a rough look. And now, everybody does!"