Trying out for the D-League

Editor's Note: Every year since their 2008 inaugural season, the Erie BayHawks have hosted two open tryouts -- one in the team’s home city, the other in that of their NBA affiliate (beginning last year, the New York Knicks). On Monday, The BayHawks held their first tryout in Manhattan. KnickerBlogger contributor Jim Cavan -- himself a lifelong cager -- wanted to see first-hand how well he could stack up against competition not incredibly far removed from the limelight of the NBA.

I made it into the city by seven, a full hour before the scheduled start time.

This year’s tryout -- Erie’s first in New York since officially becoming the Knicks affiliate last year -- is held at Baruch College, a CUNY satellite on the corner of 24th and Lexington. Loping down two flights of stairs to the college’s basement gyms, I easily find the registration table, manned by one of the team’s trainers. Luckily, I’d paid my $150 registration fee in advance, determined to make sure I secured a spot. I introduce myself, adding that I was the guy that had emailed the front office about covering the tryout from a first-person, Plimptonian angle, and should I also sign in on the media ...

“Oh we know who you are,” the trainer interrupts, cracking a wry, mischievous smile, the kind of smile that says “you, my friend, just paid the equivalent of a Knicks ticket for the privilege of puking in the bleachers.”

A mere 30 minutes before the tryout’s scheduled start, the bandbox Baruch gym could count only a dozen or so hopefuls scattered amongst the six suspended baskets.

“Holy crap,” I thought. “I might actually have a shot at this.”

But by eight, attendance had swelled to close to 40, with each subsequent arrival appearing to get taller, bigger, and -- as evidenced by barrages of effortless 3s and violent dunks -- better at basketball. After gathering around coach Jay Larranaga and assistant coach Ben McDonald for the classic “this is going to test the limits of your manhood, but enjoy it anyway!” introduction, we’re split into teams of seven. Our squad -- Team Black -- was pretty stacked. At 6-foot-4, I was maybe the third tallest (and easily the third slightest) guy on the squad. One thing I’m certain of: I was the only one wearing a Croakie glasses strap and 10-pound Adidases.

First up, a shooting drill: Great for my confidence, because it -- along with screaming at refs -- is about the only thing I do consistently well. One group of 18 or so players was put at each basket, with half of each team lining up at opposite corners. The challenge: Hit 15 combined jumpers from the corner, elbow, and top of the key, respectively (for a combined 45 as a team), going to your team’s opposite line after each shot. After a cold start, I managed to hit five or six in a row, and our side won both rounds handily. At this point, I’m feeling pretty good about things (my shot’s falling, my glasses are still intact, and I’m not bleeding).

Next up: The “Easy Run," and to hear Coach McDonald describe it, it sounded pretty harmless: Starting on one baseline, two equal lines of players -- one at each end of the free throw lane -- jog gently and with even spacing down to the opposite end, do a basic defensive shuffle to the sideline, backpedal to the original baseline, before doing one final defensive shuffle back to the start. Oh, and this too: (1) During the jogs, you have to make yourself look like a human goalpost, with both forearms held skyward and your elbows at shoulder height ; (2) you have to do it for 15 minutes, nonstop. While most “survived” in the clinical, “not dead” sense, this video should give you a pretty good indication of how wonderful this drill felt.

The best part? NBA teams do it for 30 minutes!

A handful of stretches, one humbling one-on-one drill (my stat line: zero points, one rebound, nine broken ankles) and one deceptively difficult passing drill later, we were finally turned loose for eight-minute games of 5-on-5. Having succumbed to full-blown delusions of grandeur vis-à-vis my competition -- a good number of whom had at least played at the collegiate level at some point -- the next half hour pretty much put me in my place. Of course, I had no problem coming off the bench and subbing in at the requisite four-minute mark. But after about two games, it became increasingly obvious that the two or three guys who had a legitimate shot to make it to training camp weren’t too keen on letting some bespectacled scribe eat into their burn.

The good news is we started off 3-0. Key to this was the presence of Cameron Benison, a 6-foot-6, 250-pound veteran of the Puerto Rican circuit and Premier Basketball League, who early on made it quite clear that he had little to no intention of leaving without a plane ticket to Erie. Throughout the day, Benison had his way with the mostly smaller, greener competition, grabbing rebounds at will and generally abusing his helpless defenders in low-post clear-outs.

With the 28-year-old Benison, you got the sense that even he wasn’t sure how many more shots at The Show were left, a sense made all the more palpable with each ice pack carried back from the nearby training room. Still, none of it could stop Benison from inhaling any of the many mice in his house.

During the hour lunch break, I was able to pull aside a few of the day’s hopefuls, to get a better perspective on what exactly compels one to pay 150 times the cost of a Powerball ticket, all for a chance to win a job that pays on the order of 3,000 times less than winning Powerball.

For Milan Saha, a 34-year-old, Johns Hopkins-trained attorney, the BayHawks tryout wasn’t an end in itself -- this was Saha’s fourth D-League tryout, and he’s already booked flights for a Western “road trip” that will bring him from Portland to Utah to Boise in the span of a few weekends -- so much as a single step in a grander scheme.

“You don’t see this level of competition in rec leagues, so it’s a good chance to see exactly how good you are and if you can hold your own,” he says. “It’s a chance to show them that, if I’m in better shape as these tryouts go on, that if I’m the hardest worker, I can be the 12th man on a team, be the guy who pushes everyone else when we’re in Idaho in February and everyone’s dragging.”

During the morning one-on-one drill, Saha chipped half a tooth on an opponent’s knee diving for a loose ball. About fifteen minutes later, he would lob what was either the worst shot or the best pass of the day -- an alley-oop to a streaking teammate for a thunderous tomahawk throw-down that had the entire gym howling and clapping. Saha would spend the entire afternoon session changing out wads of mouth gauze, before leaving around 2:00 to “go back to the office.”

John Curcuro, a University of North Carolina grad and professional poker player who had been working the tables at Foxwoods just the day before, was similar in motivation, if slightly more nostalgic.

“I’m definitely living out a dream right here,” says Curcoro, who, like Saha, has tried his hand in multiple D-League tryouts. “But if one of these guys ends up making the D-League, and then makes it to the NBA, you can say you played against him. To me, that’d be pretty cool.”

For the true hopefuls who’d balled in college or overseas and could count themselves as one of the 10 or 15 with a legitimate shot at a training camp call-up, “having fun” and “telling my grandkids” weren’t exactly part of the vocabulary.

Take 24-year-old Kiwan Smith, a Brooklyn native who bounced around various JUCOs before landing at tiny Talladega College in Alabama. While this is his first D-League tryout, Smith has been regularly attending overseas camps since graduating last year. In some circles, he’s still talked about as a future pro prospect. For Smith, there are no Gonzo ulterior motives; no angles, stories or first steps.

“I’m here to make the roster,” he says, more than likely recognizing I was the dude he’d done this to earlier in the day. “That’s it. That’s all I’m here to do.”

I also had a chance to talk to Larranaga, a 12-year Euro-veteran who cut his teeth in Italy, Spain and France. Clichés be damned, it’s clear that Larranaga was born to do this: Jay’s father, Jim, coached his son at Bowling Green, before moving on to George Mason (yes, that team) then, ultimately, Miami. Bronx-born and raised, Larranaga was inducted into New York City Basketball Hall of Fame last week. Jay, meanwhile, was for years a member of the Irish National Team, for which he still serves as coach, having acquired dual citizenship through his mother’s side.

Larranaga’s calm, measured demeanor might have put the day’s candidates at ease. But ask him what he’s looking for in a prospective training camp invitee, his answer is as serious as it is simple.

“If you can’t play as hard as you can here, it’s very easy to not practice hard every day in this league,” says Larranaga, now in his second full year at the BayHawk helm. “We’re looking for that characteristic here -- the guys that work hard. You don’t have to be good at everything. You just have to be good at what you’re good at. If you’re not good at something, don’t do it.”

Does that mean I should quit my day job, I ask him.

“I’ll let you know at the end of the afternoon session,” he quips, rather diplomatically. “Although I will say that we had a writer do something similar to this for our tryout in Toronto last year, and I have to say, in neither case was the writer the worst player in the gym.”

Thanks, coach!

The afternoon session, overseen by Bayhawks General Manager and Assistant Knicks GM Allan Houston, began shortly after 1pm. The break had given my muscles just enough time to absorb the abuse I’d put them through, and, in taking a few warm up jumpers, their feelings were made loud and clear: “You’ll be shooting Richie Guerin set shots from here on out, hoss.”

If the “Easy Run” was simple torture, the first drill of the afternoon was like listening to Teddy Ruxpin read Ulysses cover to cover through a point-blank megaphone. We had to continuously jog three quarters of the court -- and back -- at progressively faster paces dictated by a seemingly benign beep. By around “level 7” (about 28 down-and-backs), even some of the most obviously talented athletes started dropping like flies. I dropped out at level 9, and was still recovering two days later. The guy who lasted longest? Speedy guard Ed Wilson, who made it to Level 15 at a pace just below a sprint. By the end, the entire gym, including Houston, was gathered in awe around Team Blue’s floor general, clapping in unison and seemingly willing him through the final few laps.

After another passing drill, we broke out for the final set of full-court runs. Fatigue now a real issue, we split our final four games (my stats: five minutes played, zeroes). Benison, along with Jamaal Lynch, Landry Nguema, and Gordon James, continued to assert themselves as legitimate invite contenders. Making the most of my time on the sidelines, I watched the crop’s cream steadily rise from the hardwood: Ed Wilson, the undisputed endurance champ, was still leaving dust snacks for hapless defenders; Roman Perez, a slighter but equally crafty point guard, set the table with deft dishes for the Yellows; while Gregory Plummer, a chiseled, super-athletic 6-foot-5 shooting guard, displayed an enviable all-around game similar to that of his Orange running mate’s.

Around 3:00 p.m., Larranaga and McDonald gathered the group around for a final debriefing. He thanked us and wished us well, before naming off the top 12 players slated to square off on the main court for one last audition. Even though I’d long since come to grips with the outcome, it still felt strange not hearing my name; ever since I first picked up a Spalding at seven years old, I’d never been cut from a team. Though the sting was quick, I couldn’t help but think of the 15 or so players who -- on a better day, when maybe a few more running floaters or fall-away jumpers would’ve fallen -- could just as easily have been picked made the final game. To see them was to see genuine disappointment, and it was impossible not to feel for them.

My fellow castoffs and I quietly gathered our bags from the shallow main corridor. Many left quickly, their discernable frowns and furled brows small mirrors for what must’ve been an inner rage. For many, next weekend would bring a fresh tryout; another chance at a shot at the top; another $150 roll of the dice. Me? I just wanted to not use my legs, and eat something greasy and awful.

I didn’t even bother changing my clothes for the near five hour drive home. My wife and I made one last stop at the Bagel Express, where I ordered the largest chicken sandwich imaginable -- with fries -- inhaling it in a Gatorade sludge in less than 10 blocks heading north on 1st Avenue towards the FDR. By the time we hit I-95, I was already nodding off in the passenger seat. My wife -- photographer, videographer, coach in so many things -- had only one piece of advice.

“You should take your shoes off, let your feet get some air,” she implored.

“Umm, won’t that smell really bad?”

“I don’t mind. Your feet don’t smell that bad.”

It’s the little victories.

Follow Jim Cavan on Twitter at @JPCavan.