Me Got Game
Me Got Game
Like a lot of (deluded) guys who live for their weekly pickup games, Davy Rothbart has always dreamed of playing in the NBA. So when he—along with hundreds of top-flight college athletes—was offered a tryout for the NBA development league, he wasn't about to let anything stop him. Not even the fact that he's five feet ten and can hardly dribble with his left hand
one summer evening, after tearing up the court at Virginia Park in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I check my voice mail and hear this: “Hey, Davy, this is Chris Wallace from the NBA. We’re having a tryout for the NBA’s D-League next month, and we’d love for you to come down. Give me a call.”
I play the message again, wondering if this is just one of my buddies fucking with me. It sounds like the real thing, but where could they have seen me play? Surely there aren’t any pro scouts checking out my spin moves at the YMCA.
Then it comes to me: It must have been that visit to New York a couple of months ago, when I jumped into my friend’s rec-league game at Hunter College and scored twenty-two points in the second half, in jeans and sandals. I guess somebody was watching.
At the bar that night, I play the message for my friends and, after a few beers, for strangers. Later, maybe 4 a.m., while shooting around at the park across the street from my house with my friend Jordan, I tell him, “These once-in-a-lifetime opportunities only happen in Disney movies starring Dennis Quaid and Mark Wahlberg.”
“Yeah,” Jordan says, “but those movies are based on true stories.”
The next day, I call Chris Wallace. Turns out he’s not a personnel guy. He’s a publicity director. My invitation to predraft camp is not, in fact, the real thing; it’s a stunt. I’ve been invited because I’m a magazine writer, and the NBA’s hoping to draw some attention to its kid-brother league. Wallace expects me to make an ass out of myself.
“Should be fun,” he says, chuckling. “You’ll be running with the big boys.”
“Count me in,” I say. I’m gonna show those fuckers what this little white boy can do.
damn, these guys are tall. I’m in the lobby at the Hilton in Arlington, Texas, on Friday afternoon, waiting for my turn at the registration table. Gym bags dangling off the shoulders of seven-footers force me to keep bobbing and weaving so I don’t get smacked in the face.
The NBA Development League is one of those weird pro-sports way stations, like hockey’s AHL or Double-A baseball. It rose up as the old Continental Basketball Association went bankrupt in 2001, and though its connection with the NBA lends it some legitimacy, it still has its bleak qualities: You play in front of sparse crowds in drafty arenas for teams like the Fort Wayne Mad Ants and the Sioux Falls Skyforce. Salaries top out at $30,000. You’re constantly on the road and rarely get to see your family. But down-and-out as it may seem, the league has also become a bona fide pipeline to the NBA. Over the past seven years, thirty-six players have made the leap; the names of these players become a kind of mantra among D-League hopefuls—Jamario Moon, Matt Carroll, Mikki Moore. If they can make it, the thinking goes, so can I.
Once we register and get our team assignments, we’re corralled into a huge conference room for a welcome reception. At my table are two of my teammates for the weekend—Marcus Sloan, from Houston, and Anthony Moore, from Baltimore. Marcus, 24, a wiry six feet nine, shows a quiet confidence; he played four years of Div I ball at nearby Texas Christian University. He’s cautious about his expectations for the weekend. “I just want to play the best I can and have fun,” he says. “Everything else is out of my control.” Anthony, 28, has a round head and a booming laugh. He’s an inch shorter than Marcus but far outweighs him. Since his playing days at a community college outside Baltimore, he says, he’s let himself slip to 303 pounds, about thirty pounds heavier than his ideal playing weight. He looks nervously around the room.
“Got some ballers up in here,” he says.
He’s right. I’ve seen plenty of the guys in this room throwing down monster dunks or drilling buzzer beaters on SportsCenter—Cincinnati’s Melvin Levett, USC’s Dwayne Shackleford, even Ron Artest’s brother Daniel, who’s been playing pro ball in Germany. They’re all strangely somber—200 guys sipping from water bottles, peering around at one another, trying to gauge how they measure up.
Here’s how I measure up: I’m short. I suck at dribbling with my left hand. I graduated from college eleven years ago and never even played high school ball. Still, there’ve been games in my life when I could not miss: That intramural game in college when I nailed twelve of thirteen three-pointers to win the East Quad crown; that playground game on the South Side of Chicago when they started calling me White Chocolate, and guys draped along the chain-link fence were betting twenties on my shots—a huge dude named Lonnie won six bills on me and tipped me out fifty bucks. On days like that, it’s hard not to wonder what it would be like to play ball all the time—to make a living doing what I love best. For the other guys in the conference room—guys who played college ball but went undrafted—this tryout is one last chance to make that dream happen. For me, it’s a chance to see how my rec-league skills hold up.
Finally, in strides a smiling giant with long braids like Busta Rhymes’s. It’s NBA forward Mikki Moore, who takes the mike to welcome us. “My dream started with the D-League,” he says. “Now it’s your time to shine.” Moore has a gentle charisma and charm—he’s the perfect ambassador.
“Just ’cause you’re not in the NBA already doesn’t mean you don’t have NBA potential,” he goes on. “Every year thirty or forty guys jump from college to the NBA. A couple hundred others with the same amount of talent don’t make it. It’s guys like you—guys like me—that have to find an alternate route.” His voice gets soft. “A few years ago, I was playing in the D-League. But last week, I signed a contract with the Sacramento Kings for eighteen million dollars!”
The room erupts with deafening applause. A few guys stand and pump their fists and give each other high fives.
“God bless the D-League!” shouts Moore. “God bless Miller Lite for sponsoring this weekend! Now lace up your shoes and show the world what you can do!”
we split off into smaller conference rooms for team meetings. Marcus, Anthony, and I are on Team 11. Our coach is Brian Walsh, assistant coach for the D-League’s Rio Grande Valley Vipers. He’s a bulldog of a man, about five and a half feet tall, with that perfect coachly ratio of kindness and toughness. He gives us the lowdown: Our tryout won’t include timed sprints, bench presses, or vertical leap tests—everything will be decided on the court. We’ll play four games, two on -Saturday, two on Sunday, all under the watchful eyes of D-League coaches and scouts and Chris Alpert, the D-League’s personnel director. Out of 200 players, Alpert and his staff will offer contracts to ten to twenty of them, making them eligible for the D-League draft in the fall.
“It’s easier to shoot your way out of the running than to shoot your way in,” Coach Walsh warns us. “You’re as likely to get signed for your defense as your offense.”
I see Marcus smiling. In college, I later learn, he was known as a defensive stopper; he led TCU in blocked shots three years in a row. Coach Walsh asks us to form a circle and give our name, height, position, and basketball background. Most of my teammates played Div I ball—either they were the star of a school from a smaller conference, like Valdosta State, or they were the third- or fourth-best player at a school from a major conference—ACC, SEC, Big 12.
When it’s my turn, I pipe up in the huskiest voice I can muster: “Yeah, my name’s Davy. I’m five ten and three-quarters; I play the point. Basketball background—well, I’ve played at a thousand parks and gyms.”
Everyone laughs, and Walsh jumps in to save me. “What you’ve done up till now means nothing,” he tells us. “It’s what you do in four games this weekend that’s gonna determine your basketball future.” He grunts and smiles. “No pressure, though. Okay, let’s run through some plays.”
I follow along closely, and soon my notebook is filled with X’s and O’s. When Walsh is done, we’re all issued matching jerseys and shorts. Up in my hotel room, before crashing for the night, I decide to try them on—it’s the first real uniform I’ve ever worn. I pull on my ratty basketball shoes (nabbed for twelve bucks from Value Village in Ypsilanti, Michigan), stare at myself in the mirror, and—shit, I look like I should be delivering you hot wings to eat while you watch a game, not playing in one.
This could get ugly.
in the lobby, waiting for our bus to the UT Arlington athletic center, everyone’s occupying his own meditative space. Marcus sits on the floor stretching his legs, his eyes closed, head bowed to his knee as though deep in prayer. Only Anthony, a true underdog, seems relaxed. He’s eating crackers and reading an article in a film magazine about the making of Harry Potter.
When we get to the arena, we run our pregame warm-up. I feel good, and every shot I fling up is going down. Marcus whistles. “Dang,” he says. “If I get the rebound down low, look for me to kick it out to you. I want to rack up some assists.”
Once the game starts, its pace is relentless, a nonstop sprint. When I sub in, I’m matched against a six-foot-two guard who played at Southern Oregon. I decide to drape myself on him on the perimeter so he can’t get off a shot, even if it means surrendering the drive. My lungs are on fire; my vision feels fogged. Then the ball rotates to me on -offense, and I let loose a long-range jumper, six feet behind the three-point line.
My teammates shout and wave Gatorade towels. I see a couple of the guys in the bleachers exchange a look. Did they just jot something down on their pads? Walsh subs me out, and I collapse into my seat.
“Beautiful shot,” says Marcus. I nod but can’t catch my breath to say anything.
The next time I enter the game, though, I’ve regained my wind. I’m defending the same player, whom I’ve managed to keep scoreless so far. With just a few minutes left in the half, he drives past me, heading for the rim, when Anthony steps up and sends his shot into the bleachers.
“Dang, I got to call my cousin in Amarillo, ask him to fedex that ball back!” I shout.
The opposing player glares at me, but apparently I look too ridiculous to deserve a response. We end up winning by twenty.
marcus was a standout at Eisenhower High School in Houston and played four solid though undistinguished years at TCU—he was a stellar rebounder and defender but averaged fewer than four points a game. He played his last college game in March ’05, and after graduation his coach hooked him up with a management-track position with Frito-Lay in Austin. “I was the lucky one,” he tells me over lunch in the cafeteria after our first game. “Most players don’t have that kind of opportunity.”
Frito-Lay had him start off in a delivery truck to get some experience. At 3 a.m., he’d be stocking shelves with chips and dip. “There’d be tears in my eyes,” he says. “It’s not that the job was miserable; it’s just that all my life I’d worked toward playing pro basketball, and night after night, driving the truck, I could feel it slipping away.”
Marcus knew that if he stayed with Frito-Lay, in a few years he could be making six figures as a regional manager. For a couple of months, he agonized over what to do. -Finally, after talking it over with his dad, he decided to quit. A pro team in Germany had invited him to try out. He went over, signed with the team, and after a week of terrible homesickness, blossomed into the league’s rookie of the year. Now he had other European teams clamoring for his services, with offers above $100,000. Still, if the weekend went well and he was offered a D-League contract, he said he’d sign on in a flash.
“I’d like to think I’m the only guy who scored four points a game in college who could play in the NBA,” he tells me.
We compare notes on our Game 1 showings. Marcus is a little bit down. He had ten points and eight rebounds but feels it’s not enough. “If they’re taking ten guys total, that’s one in twenty. I’ve got to be the best guy on the court at all times. I wasn’t.”
I feel both proud and despairing over my own performance. I’m clearly in way over my head, but at the same time, I’m pretty sure I outplayed my opponent, a conference all-star. “You just need to shoot more,” says Marcus. “I saw you in warm-ups—you got the range. Don’t be gun-shy. Bombs away.”
He gives me a pound.
“Bombs away,” I say.
the opposing coach in Game 2 is Joey Meyer, who used to coach at DePaul University and now helms the D-League’s Tulsa 66ers. When I lived in Chicago, I would go to DePaul games and watch him stalk the sideline; it’s deeply weird to see him huddling with his assistants before the game and pointing my way, deciding which of his players to match against me.
Meyer has his team fired up, and this game is a battle. They keep beating us to every loose ball, and the whistles all seem to go their way. I look for my shot, but I can’t break free of my defender, who’s got six inches on me. At halftime I’m scoreless, and our team is down five points.
In the second half, we turn things around. Anthony bangs his 300-pound body down low and hustles some second-chance points. Since I can’t get a shot off, I put the ball on the floor, driving past the guy guarding me, slashing through the lane, and releasing a finger-roll over the outstretched hand of the other team’s center. The ball goes high off the glass and in. I hear Joey Meyer screaming at his players, “Whose man is that? Whose man is that?” This may be my proudest basketball moment ever.
Late in the game, the score tied, Marcus gets the ball in the lane and rises up for a dunk but misses—the ball clangs off the back of the rim and into the other team’s hands. He comes to the bench and buries his face in his hands. I can’t tell if he’s embarrassed, frustrated, or disconsolate. I think of him back in the potato-chip aisle and find myself shouting in his ear like a boxing trainer. “Shake it off, Marcus! Just forget about it. We’ve got a game to win!”
Marcus lifts his head and smiles. When we sub back in, he plays possessed. Three times in a row, he calls for the ball in the high post. The first two trips, he nails fifteen-foot jumpers. The third time down, he spins in the lane, skips toward the hoop, and throws down a wicked dunk in traffic. Mikki Moore, who has come over to check out our game, lets loose a mighty howl.
We finish the day unbeaten.
“my dream’s not to be in the NBA,” Anthony tells me as we ride in the bus to Sunday morning’s game. Huh?
“My dream is to be a filmmaker.”
Anthony explains: A former high school star, he was making a name for himself on his community college team and hoping to transfer to the University of Maryland to play Div I ball. But he was also working two jobs, going to school—something had to give. He started missing classes and ended up kicked off the team. “I was so broke,” he says. “All I wanted was not to be so broke anymore. But time works in a funny way once you get a job.”
He snaps his fingers. “Five years went by like that. If you want to play basketball, don’t get a job.” Plan A was basketball, he says. But five years after leaving school, he realized he wasn’t a basketball player moonlighting as a mechanic, a gas station attendant, a security guard—he was a mechanic, gas station attendant, and security guard who had once played ball. He’d always been interested in film and video and seemed to have a natural talent for it. Now all he needed was $110,000 to buy a professional Viper FilmStream Camera to film a hood action movie he’d written. That’s what had brought him here to Texas.
“The NBA needs big fellas like me,” he says. “I’ve got good hands. I know my footwork. So maybe I bang in the D-League for a minute. Maybe I get called up. One season in the NBA—that paycheck—that’s all I need to set my filmmaking career in motion.”
I suggest that Anthony may be the only player at the tryout who sees the NBA as a stepping-stone. He laughs, lifting his mammoth frame out of the seat as we arrive.
“Okay,” he says. “I make the league, I might decide to stick around for a while.”
for game 3, our undefeated team is playing another 2-0 squad, coached by former San Antonio Spurs forward Jaren Jackson. This guy knows what it takes—he’s wearing a championship ring that I watched him win from my couch. More important, Chris Alpert has parked himself at the scorer’s table, flanked by two assistants. When the weekend’s over, what he’s really going to remember is what he sees in the next sixty minutes. For Anthony and Marcus—and all of our teammates—this is it.
Right out of the gate, I know I’m in trouble. Yesterday’s games have sapped me of my juice, and the guy I’m D’ing up scores twice in a row. At the other end, I throw up an off-balance shot that barely glances the front rim. Coach Walsh yanks me. “Don’t force it, Davy,” he shouts. “Find your rhythm.” I nod, but when I sub back in, I can’t find shit. Walsh pulls me out again, and I take a seat at the end of the bench, sucking breaths, close to tears.
Anthony, too, seems to have run out of gas. He misses an easy layup and then gets his shot stuffed by a player six inches shorter than he is. We’re down a dozen points early, and Walsh is beside himself. He calls time-out and subs in Eric Dawson for Anthony. Anthony, looking dazed, puts a towel over his head and sags into his chair.
In the second half, Marcus goes berserk. He’s suddenly everywhere, wiping up rebounds, scoring on post moves, short jumpers, and fast breaks. It’s like someone’s moving him with a Nintendo controller. In one defensive series, he blocks shots by three separate players, then goes coast-to-coast and slams it down. Not until Jackson calls time-out and Marcus trots over to our bench does he even crack a smile.
We win by fifteen. Anthony and I don’t manage a single point, but Marcus scores twenty-four. Somehow, my disappointment is tempered by the knowledge that Marcus may have just earned himself a spot in the D-League. Once we’re out of the gym, he slumps against a brick wall and puts his head down, overwhelmed. When he looks up, his eyes are wet. “I want this so bad,” he says. “I didn’t even know how badly.”
two months later, I get an e-mail from Marcus: “I made the D-League!”
He’s writing from Switzerland, where he’s been playing with a European pro team called Benetton Fribourg Olympic. In Texas our final game had been our best of the weekend: We’d won by forty points (I’d scored seven and Marcus put up twenty-eight). Alpert and his scouting team wound up offering thirty players contracts, and five of those players were guys from my squad—Derrick Allen, Terrance Mouton, Eric Dawson, Andre Ingram, and Marcus.
Marcus is thrilled but conflicted. He likes his new team and his new coach, he’s had a strong preseason, and he’s making $120,000 to play basketball. What’s more, thanks to the proliferation of international players in the NBA, the league has begun to scout European teams. Should he stay in Switzerland or come back for the D-League? It’s not clear which path will give him the best chance of making the NBA.
“I’ve got a month or two, then I’ll have to make a decision,” he says in his e-mail. “Hey, you been ballin’ still?”
“Ballin’ outta control,” I write back. “Torched ’em last night at the Y.”
Yeah, I found out the hard way—I couldn’t hang. I was good enough only to keep from embarrassing myself. (I’d totaled fourteen points and fifteen assists.) Anthony, who scored three points in our final game, also came up short. But that’s kind of all right. There’s something about laying it all on the line that feels gutsy and noble.
“Plan A was the Viper FilmStream,” Anthony had told me as we spilled out of the gym at the end of camp. “But I can make my movie with a different camera. I’ll just go with plan B. You always gotta have a plan B, know what I’m saying?”
davy rothbart racked up a triple-double last night (over six games) at Slauson Middle School.