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ESPN The Magazine: The Playa
ESPN The Magazine

I'm crouched in what I think is a flawless defensive position. The point guard I'm checking is pounding the ball like a jackhammer out top, there's no help to my left or right and I feel like I'm on an island. Do I press up or play off? He's waiting for me to make a decision. I press up, moving within an arm's length of him. He's 5'10" and I've got five inches on him. He snaps a crossover right to left and back to right, then zips by. I'm still stuck left as he lofts a finger roll over the sequoias like he's done it a million times.

Next play, same setup. He pounds; I think. I play off this time, a good five feet. He sees the entire acre between us and pulls up from 25. Cotton. Damn. "You gotta do better than that, ESPN," shouts Greedy Daniels, backpedaling. Hey, I'm thinking, I'm just a reporter-turned-baller. This is a little advanced for me.

But here goes: I cut backdoor for a reverse layup, then follow that with a 15-footer while Greedy's stuck fighting through picks. "How's that?" I ask, cradling the ball in triple-threat position a minute later. Without answering, he slaps the ball away and races all alone for an easy hoop. I have no further questions.

After the game, Greedy finds me at halfcourt and embraces me. "We gotta call you ESPN Classic," he laughs. "Because that was a classic!"

At 25, I haven't played organized ball in seven years. But I came up through the summer camp/AAU circuit, so I've got some cred. Enough that my editor doesn't hesitate to sacrifice my ego -- and body -- to learn about life on the fringe in the new National Basketball Developmental League, the NBA-owned farm system that will offer 88 players a chance to keep their dreams alive.

So here I am, competing against 150 hopefuls the last week of October, all vying for one of those precious spots. They've been invited here by the league, all expenses paid. Survivors of this seven-day competition will be assigned to eight teams in Southeastern cities like Huntsville, Ala., and Greenville, S.C., earning $30,000 for a 56-game schedule that runs from mid-November to late March. Final cuts from NBA camps will replace 27 more of my fellow campers before they play their first game.

But no time to think about numbers when you're fighting for your life. "You just play," says former Indiana State guard Steve Hart, a T-Wolves cut. "That's the only thing you control." Campers with an average age of 24 years and 4 months -- many fresh out of college, some with years of CBA and European ball on their résumés -- will experience competition, pressure, doubt and desperation like never before. And so will I.

But at least I already have a job.

***

The camp is set at the Suwanee Sports Academy in Suwanee, Ga., about 40 minutes outside Atlanta. The main gym has four full courts and a summer camp feel. On the first day, physicals and drug tests are administered. Players wait in the bleachers to see the doctors. Some sit stone-faced, others rock back and forth nervously. Guys who know each other from college ball are talking quietly. Everyone is secretly checking out one another. Keith Booth, he of the 1998 champion Bulls, walks in. "Well," moans one player, "87 spots to go."

I meet my roommate, C.J. Black, a former second-team All-SEC power forward with a 1,000-watt smile and deep Southern drawl. The 23-year-old, 6'8", 255-pounder has soft hands and quick feet and appears to be a lock for this league. He quickly introduces me to former Syracuse forward J.B. Reafsnyder.

"I remember you from Arizona," J.B. says.

Ah, sure. Zona? I have no clue.

Fresh from playing in Greece, Reafsnyder is not so relaxed. He's been bouncing around basketball's underbelly for the last seven years. "Man, I need this job," he says. He's hoping there's room for a rugged 28-year-old, 6'10" rebounder with a nice 15-foot J who's just a little slow-footed. He's so nervous about the week ahead, it takes him 20 minutes and three tries to fill the cup with a urine sample.

I finally see a familiar face in 6'7" point guard Lonnie Harrell. We're both products of D.C. He's a playground legend with great court vision and 25-foot radar who used to play with Zo at G-Town. But his lack of strength and his reliance on his street game, scouts say, has kept him out of the NBA. In a gym of nervous faces, he's calmly hoisting rainbow threes from half-court while giggling to himself. We all have our ways of dealing with stress. At 29, he's one of the oldest players here, and the D-League represents his last hope. I give him love and ask him about his chances. "I ain't worried about nothing," he says. "I'm good."

His confidence is high because of a good showing at Nets camp earlier that week. "I shot Jason Kidd's eyes out in practice," he claims. "It was so bad they put us on the same team." He says Nets coach Byron Scott sat him down in his office and told him to keep in touch because, well, "you just never know."

During orientation, players fill out a 20-page questionnaire. The first question: List four things that cause you stress. In big block uppercase letters, Lonnie writes "NOT BEING IN THE LEAGUE." He leaves the rest of the lines blank. Harrell plans on using the NBDL to shake his street rep. "I need to let everyone know I can play the organized game," he says. "Don't judge me because I can dribble through my legs."

***

I arrive early for the first day of practice to get my ankles taped. A trainer leads us in stretching for 20 minutes. My on-court debut is shaky. Coach Sam Worthen, who played in the early '80s with the Bulls and Jazz, puts me at the point. Uh, Coach? I'm not a 1. I'm checked by former Hawaii guard Tess Whitlock, who hassles me into a turnover. Then another. I cross him up, and the first play is finally underway.

I'm blown away by the speed. The instant stopping and starting, the constant movement, the balance at high speeds. I can keep up, but my RPMs are too high, and I'm thinking too much. When you're thinking, you're not reacting, and hoops is all about reacting.

I'm awed by how ridiculously easy it is for guys to goaltend shots above the white square. Whoa, what's wrong with your arms, dude, why are they so long? Yet, only I seem to notice. After a quick chat with the coach, I switch to 2-guard, and we run a play called Zipper. Two big people line up on the foul line and screen down on the blocks for the guards, who pop out for the J. I'm on D, and a 6'10", 260-pound guy lays a screen on me that makes me glad I'm a writer.

Again, no one notices. Why should they? It happens every play. My right wrist goes numb, and fearing a fracture I seek the trainer. After massaging it for two minutes he determines it's "just" a bone bruise. On my shooting hand. He wraps a five-pound ice bag on my wrist with an Ace bandage. The combination of the cold and the tightness of the wrap makes it, oh, three times as painful. "How's that feel," he asks. I give a thumbs-up, then unwrap it as soon as I turn the corner.

Discouraged, I head to Court 4 to watch Lonnie. He learns the plays quickly and stays under control. When he whips a no-look on the break, a scout nods slowly. After a couple more assists, he knocks in a trey from the corner. His teammates respond well to his direction. Not once does he dribble between his legs. Today he has helped himself.

Back at the room, C.J. and I check out the Scooby-Doo marathon while we decide where to eat dinner. Our room is on the ground floor next to the hotel lobby, and it's a hive of player activity all week. We prop the door open with the security latch so we don't have to get up when someone knocks. It's only Day 2, but you can barely see the floor through the clutter of hoop gear and sneakers.

We walk five minutes to Ruby Tuesday's, where Reafsnyder is grubbing with a bunch of other players. "How did you do today?" I ask.

"Okay, I guess," he says "What about you?"

"Had seven points."

"You did better than me."

***

The alarm on C.J.'s cell phone goes off at 6:30 a.m. "Let's go, Classic, get movin'," he says. We get dressed and slowly head to the players' bus for the 10-minute ride to the practice facility. It's 38° outside and still dark. My wrist has swollen to the size of the fat end of a Louisville Slugger. I head straight to the trainers and they go to work: five-minute massage, electrotherapy, heavy tape job and two aspirin. It takes 30 minutes to jumpstart the wrist, but I'll play today.

I get dressed in the league-issue blue-and-white reversible, and warm up at a basket by myself. Former U. of Detroit point guard Rashad Phillips comes over to work on his trey. If there's a man on a mission here, it's the lightning-quick, 5'10" Phillips. After winning the MVP at the Portsmouth predraft camp and solid workouts with the Warriors, Knicks and Magic, RP was pegged as a late first-rounder. Draft night came and went, and his name wasn't called. He cried and felt cheated. Shad played on Golden State's summer league squad but, you know, numbers.

Detroit's all-time leading scorer retraces his steps for the last four years. "I did everything right," he says. "I went to school for four years and never got in trouble." He patterns himself after AI, and he thinks that might've made teams wary. "I'm gonna use this league to show people I'm the ultimate pro," he says.

C.J. and I play on Court 6 today. A small group of players sits along the baseline to watch. "What you gonna do, Classic?" shouts 6'10" banger Chris Bacon. "Get yours, SportsCenter," chimes another. My fan club has me feeling loose. I start the game with an offensive rebound and putback. Next, former Tennessee point guard Tony Harris hacks my drive and I convert the freebies. I'm starting to feel like one of the guys. Or maybe my wrist is wrapped too tightly. I run through a staggered baseline screen and drill a corner trey in the face of one-time Charlotte Hornets camper Terrance Roberson. "Get your thug on," encourages C.J. "That's how Room 121 does it."

Meanwhile, C.J. is battling dehydration. His back tightens up and he's having trouble breathing. The trainer pulls him off the floor, and he's done for the day. We win 69-57 -- I had 7 points, 2 assists and 2 boards -- and I walk over to catch the end of RP's game. In three minutes he gets three assists and a steal. "I'm not bothered by the competition yet," says Shad. His way of saying he belongs. We shall see.

Later that afternoon, Shad and I are cruising in my rental. He can't get his mind off draft night. "I still look at the mock drafts and wonder," he says. "I've got a stack of draft stuff at home."

The Iverson comparisons aren't entirely accurate. RP doesn't have a single tattoo. But his left forearm is reserved for the word "misunderstood" if he ever makes the NBA. Like his idol, he's got MC aspirations. He even cut a demo titled "What Lies Beneath," a reference to the real Rashad under the image.

"Pull in here," he says, and I hang a right into a Subway. With $280 in meal money for the duration of camp, fast-food joints are frequent stops. He orders a 12-inch meatball sub; I go with turkey and slap a dub on the counter as he continues. He tells me about his one-on-one, closed-door workouts with MJ this summer. Mike, he says, told him all he had to do was get in better shape and keep his head up. "This is normal," he says. "I've battled odds my whole life."

Later that night in Room 121, C.J.'s hurtin', so before our food run, we stop at Kroger, where he picks up some Pedialyte. It's supposed to hydrate him. After we're back, Tony Harris pops in for MJ's return on TNT. Donald Watts, Slick's boy, drops off his laptop so C.J. can install some software 5.0 thingamajig. C.J. knows electronics as well as a basketball court. He rigs his Gateway laptop to three-inch-high, deceptively loud speakers. Former Clemson forward Tony Christie ducks in, dances a jig to Bubba Sparxxx' "Ugly," then leaves without saying a word. "It's like the Boom-Boom Room in here," jokes C.J.

A half-dozen or so players peek in to see what's going on. I hear women's voices in the hallway at all hours. Our cell phones don't stop ringing -- we're in the pros now. Lights out at 11:30 p.m., which means 2:30 a.m. in Room 121.

***

I wake up on the fourth day of practice to find that my wrist has developed mild tendinitis. Despite icing, the swelling hasn't gone down. A doctor who looks exactly like the Monopoly man suggests I don't play. Good one, doc. Instead, a trainer gives me Celebrex, one of the newer anti-inflammatory drugs.

After practice I rebound for Greedy, who's fine-tuning his J. This blur of a guard, who led the nation in steals last season as a junior at TCU, is a walking contradiction. One minute Greedy's quoting Jay-Z and trying to get juicy details of a teammate's late-night sexual conquest, the next he's giving you his thoughtful philosophy on life. A 4.0 student in high school, he got kicked out of TCU when he tested positive on a drug test.

On the court, Greedy runs the offense with Rolex precision, but can't resist personal challenges. On one such occasion, while he's talkin' excessive smack, the offense gets all Mariah Carey and coach Milton Barnes calls time. He pulls Greedy aside and tells him the importance of paying attention to details. "Run my team, son," implores Barnes. Greedy finishes the second half with four assists and no turnovers. And the win.

***

All 150 players are sitting in a large room at the practice facility. It's Day 5 -- draft day -- meaning 96 players will stay, 54 will be told it's over. No one speaks, and you can almost hear the hearts pounding. If your name is called, we're told, get up and go into the main gym. Problem is, no one is sure if hearing your name means you're in or out.

Those who remain in the room are told they've made it -- for now. "It's all political," one player had said before the draft. "I never win with politics." He was right again. Remember Keith Booth? He was cut too. So was Tony Harris. When the draft order is posted a day later, Rashad learns he was selected seventh. Lonnie went 10th, Greedy 11th and C.J. 14th.

And me? Milt Newton, the league's director of player personnel, tells me I might've made the first cut if I'd been eligible -- but maybe he was just being nice.

As we walk back to the hotel carrying some Popeyes Chicken, Reafsnyder -- picked No. 61 -- is distracted by his uncertain future. He just bought a 19-foot motorboat he can't afford, and his 1996 Ford Explorer is in the shop back home in Knoxville. "If I don't make it, it might be time to get a real job," J.B. tells me.

The next two days are the camp's most intense. Those 27 players cut from NBA teams have arrived. My temporary cast has made me a spectator. What I see is thrive or die. Holes close up quicker, the ball is pushed harder. All the guards seem as quick as Rashad now. Coming off a screen a second late could cost you your job. And this is just the chance at a chance.

After the last game, the campers all gather at center court for a final briefing. League officials thank them for participating, and inform them that the 35 who don't make the final 88 will get a knock on their door at 6 a.m. and be handed a one-way plane ticket. The others will head to their new cities. "There's going to be a lot of sleepless folks tonight," says C.J.

It's 3:45 a.m. and the Boom-Boom Room is closed for business. The door is shut and latched. The speakers are silent, and we can see the floor again. As I pack up my stuff, C.J. fills out his benefits and 401-k forms. "My dad says take out 10%," he tells me. There'll be no knock on C.J.'s door. Same for Rashad, Lonnie, Greedy. There's no knock for J.B., either. (But a week later, Asheville coach Joey Meyer, who recruited J.B. out of high school, gives Reafsnyder his release.)

I help C.J. load up his Chevy Impala for the 2 1/2-hour ride back to his home in Chattanooga for a visit. Lonnie Harrell wanders into the lobby. The NBDL camp has done the street legend well. "I told you I can play the organized game," he says. And because he can, his new address will be in Huntsville.

But hopefully not for too long.

This article appears in the December 10 issue of ESPN The Magazine.



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