The other side of NBA free agency

While NBA superstars mulled their decisions, free agents like Kent Bazemore had to sit and wait. Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

You’d think NBA players would get stressed about free agency. So many decisions, the potential of living in disparate locations, and a constant stream of social media information with updates on the movements of potential co-workers.

When I sat down with Kent Bazemore a few days before he signed with the Atlanta Hawks for two years, $4 million, I assumed he’d be caught up in the frenzy like so many of us NBA news addicts. I figured Bazemore’s fingerprints would be callused from keeping up with news on Twitter all week. He’s no LeBron James, but I’d seen Bazemore mentioned in so many free-agency rumors that I’d just believed his entire existence had been reduced to a swirl of confusing speculation. The rangy, athletic guard probably couldn’t get his arms around all the rumors, even with a 6-foot-11 wingspan.

Not quite. Bazemore wasn’t checking Twitter -- he says he glances at it roughly once a day, usually in the afternoon. “You can’t control it,” was his succinct answer for why he doesn’t obsess over the transaction game. Also, he has people to do that for him.

"We got a group chat, me and my roommate, my little brother, my agent, financial advisor, two of my other best friends,” Bazemore said. “They just rant on about that stuff all day. I just watch the Tour de France, I play 'FIFA' downstairs. I actually won the Scottish Premier Cup with my team just now right before you got here."

It’s easy to forget athletes are more than skill sets on the court. They get approached by fans who know them only from their games, so even the redundancy of idle compliments can get annoying. Though a bench player for most of his career, Bazemore gets recognized. Sadly, that recognition doesn’t come with praise of his stellar FIFA play, his golf game, or his recent painting of an eye-shaped sun setting itself over an ocean.

Paintings aside, Bazemore’s Bay Area apartment was something more spartan than you’d expect from an NBA player, which makes sense when you consider his transient lifestyle. After getting traded to Los Angeles, he’d been living out of a hotel near the Lakers practice facility. Though he maintains strong ties with the Warriors organization, he wasn’t expecting the kind of offer from Golden State that would keep him in this Oakland-area apartment.

Bazemore had gotten back from Atlanta the night before, where he’d met with Danny Ferry, Darvin Ham and others in the Hawks organization. It was more like a classic job interview than anything we associate with the NBA, but he enjoyed what can be a nerve-wracking process for others. Unlike what happens on Twitter, there’s a degree of control in a face-to-face meeting. “A lot of guys can’t hold a conversation,” Bazemore said. He knows he can, and appreciates the chance to set himself apart.

What becomes apparent with Bazemore is that he has more energy than you. It’s not a coincidence that his sideline celebrations were known as the league’s most elaborate. Though he’s coming off foot surgery, his days include 20-mile bike rides. On weekends, he tends to go over 40 miles when biking with his girlfriend in the East Bay Hills.

He’s drawn to the fatigue, addicted to the point at which a body no longer functions. "You'll be in the middle of a bike ride and you're just like, man, I don't know if I can turn another rep."

"Do you like that, though?" I ask. A Tour de France race is on TV, and it looks like torture with consent.

The response is fast and unambiguous. "I love it. I love it. I love it. I love it.”

His attention turns to the cyclists suffering at the craggy hands of a French mountain. He’s updating me, filling me in on which guys are running on fumes, which guys are about to fall from the pack. He’s keyed in on the process of exhaustion, interested in how effort takes you to a place where even effort ultimately lets you down.

He might be a little jealous. Bazemore said he wished he’d gotten to run in even more unglamorous D-League games last season. He just wanted to play. He always wants to play.

Bazemore believes it's what carried him to the NBA. In the beginning, his skills didn’t seem to presage an NBA career. "I sucked,” he said. “I was terrible all the way up until eighth grade. When it was time to go to AAU camps, I would score, like, six points in a weekend."

But his mom kept bringing him, and he kept improving. "I've been a pretty optimistic guy my entire life,” he said. “Especially where I come from, optimism really helps you." Bazemore grew up in Kelford, North Carolina, a tiny town where the per capita income is less than $10,000 per year. His family struggled. "No heat in the winter, no air conditioning in the summer, food gets scarce. Four people in the house and my dad got laid off and my mom was the only one making any money."

The desperation of that situation was integral to getting him here, to a point where multiple NBA teams call for his services. "That's why I applaud people like Steph [Curry],” Bazemore explains. He doesn’t understand how anyone gets here without the hunger of poverty. So in some ways his good friend Stephen Curry, a man from comfortable means, is a mystery.

Bazemore used that hunger to get here, but there’s a downside to the trait he trusts. All that gnawing energy took him to a place where energy couldn’t help him: the bench. At times, he was miserable riding pine. People loved his sideline celebrations, but those were as much expressions of frustration as they were of joy. He was antsy in his seat. “I went to a dark place,” Bazemore recalled of all his DNPs. “You only can contain the tiger in the cage for so long.”

There’s a cruelty to how a lifetime of physical preparation can lead to hours and hours of spectating, eons of interminable waiting. It’s the plight of the many players we don’t see in commercials or All-Star Games. Bazemore has an intense desire to use what got him to the top of his profession. Maybe he'll get that opportunity with a fun, floor-spacing Hawks team. His success would be as much about achieving a dream as it would be quelling what made the achievement possible.