Fantasy camp unites hoop heads

LAS VEGAS -- There's nothing better for a magician, I would imagine, than the testimonial that comes after a successful trick when the person who witnessed the magic act is so impressed he immediately summons a friend over to see it, too.

Back in the mid '90s, an up-and-coming David Blaine visited the Dallas Cowboys after a practice one day and had Emmitt Smith pulling in Daryl "Moose" Johnston to see the same mind-blowing trick that Blaine performed for him. (It's a clip that lives on thanks to YouTube and has the added entertainment value of Smith's outfit that has him looking like the third member of the Andy Samberg-Justin Timberlake fictional R&B group from their digital short series on "Saturday Night Live").

The same type of scene played out at the XS Nightclub at Wynn Las Vegas recently, when a magician had Kevin Durant so enraptured that the normally low-key league MVP excitedly beckoned James Harden and Bradley Beal to come see.

Somebody else was there to take it all in, too: Jeff Feinberg, a 46-year-old investor from Los Angeles.

"I walked up wondering what this crowd was about and obviously excited to get an opportunity to interact with Kevin Durant and then this house magician for the Wynn hotel says, 'Does anyone have a dollar? I want to make sure that it's an objective dollar and not biased. I have some incredible magic to perform on it,'" Feinberg said. "So, I reach into my pocket, I provide him a dollar. He gives it to Kevin Durant and says, 'Inspect this. Make sure it's legitimate.' Which he did. He asked me if I knew him, which I didn't. And next thing I know, he asks Kevin for his birthday and proceeds to change the serial number [on the dollar] to his birthday through a quick run through with his thumb and then is able to change the serial letter from an L to a K. Kevin was like, 'Oh, s---. Check this guy out!'"

How did Feinberg find himself part of the act? Well, while the USA Basketball men's national team was training in Vegas, he was there playing in the second annual USA Basketball Fantasy Camp.

That's right. The red, white and blue, in Vegas at the same time as the red-faced from exhaustion, (mostly) white and bruised. The camp, which started in the summer of 2013 with close to 50 campers, had more than 70 participants in their mid-30s to mid-60s this year. According to USA Basketball chairman and managing director Jerry Colangelo, in two short years it has already become the largest camp of its kind, beating out the enrollment of fantasy camps at Duke, Syracuse, Kentucky, Kansas, Marquette and the University of Miami to become the premier destination for weekend warriors who have the love of the game and the financial means to plop down the $8,500 entry fee for the four-day getaway. (The proceeds go to running USA Basketball and supporting youth basketball development in the U.S.)

For Feinberg, the novelty of lending a dollar to Durant -- someone who has already earned close to $70 million from his basketball salary alone and who is being rumored to fetch a new $30 million annual shoe deal -- was one thing, but being a part of that moment with one of the greatest scorers in NBA history was something he'll remember forever.

"It was an incredible experience," Feinberg said. "I was amazed at how big-time Olympic athletes that are so exposed to everything were like little boys. Joyful and disbelief and calling their buddies over. ... It was really cool."

The basketball

The campers come for the chance to interact with figureheads from the sport and get hooked up with the authentic gear the real Team USA guys get. (USA Basketball equipment manager Ellis Dawson told me the practice jerseys the fantasy campers received -- with their last names screen printed on them -- were nicer than the ones he ordered for the real program's practices that week because there were so many players between the National and Select teams.) But most important, they are there for the basketball.

Which is why I was there.

After reading about my friend Mike Waters, who played in Jim Boeheim's fantasy camp at Syracuse a couple of summers ago and wrote about the experience for the Post Standard, and then receiving an email about the USA camp a couple of months ago, I pitched both my editors and the powers that be with USA Basketball about going the same route as Waters and doing the whole embedded journalist thing at their camp.

There's no rule that says you have to play the sport you cover for your work to be compelling, but I'd like to think it helps. I can't speak for other sports, but there are a decent amount of reporters covering the NBA who play basketball on a regular basis. From my experience, Chris Ballard of Sports Illustrated and Chris Broussard from ESPN The Magazine are two of the guys whose game on the court actually matches their success in the field.

I'd put myself somewhere in the middle. I worked hard just to be a bench player in high school, followed up as a manager for the varsity team at Syracuse (we won it all in my sophomore year) and had the highlight of my playing career come during my junior year of college, when I went abroad and played for the University of Limerick in Ireland. The competition level was about on par with Division III back in the States, but I was on the team and in the playing rotation, so it was certainly enough for me.

I still try to play two to three times a week as my knees have gotten creakier and my game has become more and more dependent on spot-up shooting. There is a score of writers whose work I read on a regular basis who can play -- Grantland's Jonathan Abrams, NBC Sports' Brett Pollakoff, Comcast SportsNet Northwest's Chris Haynes, Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix, the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson, espnW's Kate Fagan, NBA.com's John Schuhmann among them -- and I like to think their perspective covering the league is enhanced because of it.

You have an understanding of the rock-and-a-hard-place existence of big men who constantly have to help and recover on pick-and-rolls. You know which sneakers feel good to play in and which ones just look good. You get a feeling for just how much spacing actually has an impact on an offense. You come to appreciate moves and countermoves and runs and rhythm and maybe even have been in the zone a few times to help you describe it when you are writing about a guy like Kobe Bryant or LeBron James when they're in that mode.

You have a deeper connection of what it means to have a teammate come back to you when you're open after you missed your last couple of shots. You can relate to the rancor that selfish play causes because you've had a team or two submarined by a chucker before. You can pick up on intangibles that go into a group's success or lack thereof and properly weigh how much of an effect a particular player's locker room peccadilloes are having on the team's big-picture direction. Then again, I've never played pickup with Lee Jenkins or Marc Stein or Adrian Wojnarowski, and I don't think it's hampering their coverage one bit. But enough about that. When it became official I would be attending the camp to do the story, I sent Waters a note thanking him for the inspiration.

"You'll have a great time," he wrote back. "In my experience, the best stories came from the campers themselves."

The campers

Waters was absolutely right. The campers were incredible.

There was everyone from Fox News White House correspondent Ed Henry, to poker legend Johnny Chan, to former Florida State football player Jesus "Zeus" Hernandez, to former college basketball players Walter Brown (Boston University, 1997-99) and John Rice (Yale, 1984-88), to the fathers of two NBA All-Stars in Charles Paul (Chris' dad) and Dred Irving (Kyrie's dad).

There were lawyers, doctors and CEOs. Real estate developers and titans of industry. One camper is known for having the most extensive basketball memorabilia collection in the world outside of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, with Wilt Chamberlain's original Harlem Globetrotters jersey and the first jersey Michael Jordan ever wore in a preseason game for the Chicago Bulls counted among his belongings. There was Al Palagonia, the owner of the chartered airplane company Apollo Jets, who slyly told Arizona coach Sean Miller after he was drafted to Villanova coach Jay Wright's team for the week: "You know if you would have picked me and we would have won, you could have got a free flight next year."

There was John Pucci, at 65 the oldest guy in camp, who handed out his Wynn business card to all the guys the first day. The card simply refers to him as PUCCI and has his title as the vice president of player development. Being new to the camp, I asked him if this was some kind of cutesy touch of his to legitimize his role for the week. He enlightened me, telling me he actually works for the casino and the players his card was referring to were gamblers. "Player development coaches in basketball try to increase their guys from five points to 20 points," Pucci said. "I try to get my guys to go from $5 to $20."

"They come from all over the country and from varying backgrounds," said Matt Chacksfield, one of the guys at ProCamps who oversees many of the most popular fantasy camps around the country. "Guys like Ric Elias (CEO of Red Ventures in Charlotte, North Carolina), who was on seat 1A on the plane that went down in Hudson River years ago, comes to every fantasy camp he can make it to. Stuart Brown (horse veterinarian from Lexington, Kentucky) has done our 'coaching package' at various camps for three years now. Stuart's wife passed a few weeks before our USAB camp last year, and he was able to find some sense of peace in the team fellowship and camaraderie that came with coaching alongside Coach Cal. He has truly been an inspiration to me."

My first couple of years of college, I refereed fraternity intramural basketball games as a work-study job. There was a lot of privilege and a lot of ego and it was pretty miserable. With that in mind, I was a little wary of who I would encounter at the fantasy camp. Turns out there was nothing to be worried about. For all of the success the campers had outside the gym, these were my people. These were hoop heads.

"They're basketball junkies, absolutely," said Alan Stein, the camp's athletic trainer. Stein knows the type, having worked with Durant back when he was at Montrose Christian School and continuing to work with one of the best prep programs in the country at DeMatha Catholic High School. "Those are the people that I love being around, the people that love the game."

And if we were all gym rats, Colangelo was our Pied Piper.

"You're here because you have a passion for the game," Colangelo told us during a private reception during the second night of the camp. "A passion for the game of basketball, the greatest game ever invented, in my opinion."

Mind you, Colangelo is a 74-year-old man who grew up on the mean streets of Chicago, and here he was waxing poetic about the game.

"When I was 7, someone handed me a basketball and I smelled it," Colangelo said. "The smell of that leather was the beginning of a love affair that's lasted my entire lifetime. That's never changed. It's the same smell.

"I have a very strong feeling about this game that's been so good to all of us in this room."

Was it over the top? To the wrong audience, maybe. But this was a group of guys whose days revolve around trying to fit in a pickup game and many of whom look forward to playing in not only one, but several fantasy basketball camps every summer.

"One of you said, 'I've been to 16 camps and my wife said, when are you going to stop? When is this going to be over?'" Colangelo shared. "I said, 'Tell your wife, it's going to be over when you can't play anymore.' Because that will come. That day will come. So take advantage of every opportunity that you have."

Basketball is a young man's game. There's a half-court lunchtime pickup game that has been going on for years in Burbank, Calif., that I play in sometimes with guys who range from their teens to well into their 50s. One of the players, known in the gym simply as "Norwood," is in his early 60s. While he'll rarely play more than two games in a row these days and isn't good for much else on the court than telling jokes and canning an open midrange jumper, just the fact that he's still playing makes him the envy of many who play in the game. We know we can't be the 20-year-old kid anymore who comes in and lights us up with hops through the roof, but we can aspire to be like Norwood and get every last game out of our body before we hang it up.

That sense of getting in as much hoops as you can before your expiration date is up permeated throughout the fantasy camp.

"I'm just glad to be here with some older guys that are actually playing because it's hard to find older guys," said Charles Paul, 53, who has the same intense focus as his son, softened by the slightest of twinkles when you look into his eyes. "The guys I used to play with, they all play golf. They've been playing golf the last 15 years. So it's been hard for me to keep playing ball."

The 'circuit' guys

Colangelo told his story about the guy with 16 fantasy camps under his belt, but that's nothing compared to Ken Bergstol's 35.

"I've done two Yankee fantasy camps and I've done 33 basketball fantasy camps," Bergstol said.

It all started for him back in 1999 at Michael Jordan's Senior Flight School. Jordan's camp is really the granddaddy of them all when it comes to the fantasy basketball camp scene. Mike Krzyzewski, for instance, was a coach at Jordan's camp in Vegas before he started his own K Academy that he has been running for the last dozen years in Durham, North Carolina.

Bergstol holds the distinction of beating MJ by a score of 3-1 in a game of one-on-one at his camp and can recall the win with painstaking detail down to every shot he made, every shot Jordan missed and every word that was exchanged.

"I don't care what you do, I am not letting you win," Bergstol said Jordan told him before swiping the ball out of his hands; Bergstol got it back and hit a step-back jumper for the victory.

"It didn't matter what I did the rest of the camp," said Bergstol, who returned to Jordan's camp a couple of years later and got one of the most ruthless competitors in the history of the sport to autograph a photo of Bergstol hitting the game-winning shot against him. "Even if I didn't score another point, I was satisfied."

Jordan stopped running his fantasy camp for adults a few years ago. Now he has only a kids camp every summer. But Bergstol is one of about 30 guys, according to Kevin Foley of Position Sports -- the company that runs and markets the USAB fantasy camp as well as the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame fantasy camp -- who continues to play in several basketball fantasy camps every summer. Foley calls Bergstol and others like him the "circuit guys."

Rick Schnall, 44, is a major law firm partner from Purchase, New York, and another one of the circuit guys.

Schnall, who estimates he has participated in about 20 fantasy camps and won "six or seven championships" along the way, suffered a shin injury during the first day of the USA Basketball experience. It was so bad he had to wear a boot around the gym and he estimated that he would be able to play at only about "30 percent" if he tried to give it a go.

Even though he came all that way for the camp and paid the near-five-figure entry fee to be there, Schnall wasn't about to push too hard through the injury. "I love to play," Schnall said. "So I'm bummed about it, but it's not worth it to make myself worse so I can't play in my normal runs. I play four days a week of basketball, or whatever, so to not be able to do that would be miserable."

Many of the other circuit guys play several times a week back home, too. The camps just offer that same oasis of the court they get in their local pickup games over an extended period of time.

"I put a tremendous amount of time into my work," Bergstol said. "I'm a real estate developer, so I'm my own boss. Which gives me the freedom to do this. But being in the field I'm in, it's a stressful field. The economy hasn't been the greatest in the last six, seven years, but coming to these camps, you don't think about it. You don't have a chance to think about those things."

Does he ever think about how much money he has spent when you add up all the entry fees for those 35 camps?

"It may be expensive, but I don't look at the expense," Bergstol said. "I look at the experience."

The staff

In addition to Miller and Wright, the rest of the coaches who worked the camp included big names such as Kentucky's John Calipari, Georgetown's John Thompson III, Gonzaga's Mark Few, Washington's Lorenzo Romar, Grand Canyon University's Dan Majerle and UNLV's Dave Rice. As fun as it was having the collective experience of those coaches around and as entertaining as it was seeing them get into the games like they were in the middle of a battle with a conference foe in late February, the real stars of the week were the camp director, P.J. Carlesimo, and the camp co-commissioners, Jay Bilas and Bill Raftery. It was a laugh a minute with those three, right from the very start at the welcome meeting, when they began ribbing one another and the campers about anything they could think of.

While thumbing through the welcome packet, which includes a brief bio of every player complete with a headshot, Bilas turned around in his chair as soon as he got a glance of Schnall's photo. "Hitting them with the come-hither look, Rick," Bilas said as he comically pulled his glasses down the bridge of his nose and gestured at Schnall.

Later, when Bergstol's photo -- which had to be at least 20 years old and featured him with a big, flowing head of hair -- was projected on the monitor as the teams were being revealed, Bilas and Carlesimo tag-teamed him.

"F---ing unacceptable!" Bilas shouted across the room, stifling a laugh.

"That's a fine," Carlesimo said. "That's a black-chip fine and that's a horses--- picture."

During that same meeting, Carlesimo spotted me in the back of the room wearing a Syracuse basketball T-shirt, rather than one of the half-dozen USA Basketball shirts that we received upon check-in.

"Dave, can you stand up?" he said as he called me out in front of the crowd. "Don't ever wear B.S. like that again."

Carlesimo, Bilas and Raftery saved their best insults for one another.

"Last year we had one commish," Carlesimo said as he introduced Bilas to the crowd. "That didn't work out because he didn't do s---. We tried to find someone who could do less. I thought it was impossible, but after an exhaustive search, we found Bill Raftery."

They all took turns.

"The casino has asked me to make an announcement on behalf of the sports book: The over/under on F-bombs by P.J. Carlesimo this week is 718½," Bilas said during a reception on the second night of camp. "If you had the under, you lost ... at noon today."

In true roast fashion, Bilas then pointed his aim at his old ESPN broadcast partner. "Raftery is known by his peers as a triple-threat," Bilas said. "At any time, he could have a heart attack, a stroke or s--- himself."

Raftery chose to be self-deprecating when he took aim at Carlesimo.

"I used to coach at Seton Hall prior to P.J. and I did so poorly, he actually looked very good," Raftery said with perfect timing.

The constant stream of one-liners coming out of those three set the tone for the camp's code of conduct.

"If you can't be self-deprecating at this thing and sort of check your ego at the door, you don't belong here," Bilas told me. "That's the whole purpose."

The games

After getting assigned our random jersey number (I got No. 36, which is a tough one to relate to, but I made the connection to former Syracuse player Etan Thomas, who wore it, and Philly guy Rasheed Wallace, who wore it, too), we had a couple of open scrimmages so coaches could evaluate us before drafting teams.

I angled with Wright to try to get him to draft me (when I was in college, I worked as a counselor at his basketball camp at Villanova for three straight summers), but Miller snatched me up before that could happen. We were Team Barcelona. (The eight teams were named after Olympiads in which the U.S. fared well in basketball, so there was also London, Beijing, etc.)

Our team ended up being pretty mediocre, but we got a real coaching effort from Miller. He put in two basic offensive sets: "flow" (involving the two wings crossing with each other along the baseline) and "flat" (involving one of the big men coming up to set a high screen for the point guard to run pick-and-roll). Later in the week he added "ice cream," which was an isolation play from the top of the key for our best player, Brown, with the rest of us spaced out on the floor ready to catch-and-shoot if he didn't score or get to the foul line. On defense, we switched between man-to-man and a 2-3 zone, with Miller letting us know from the sidelines when he wanted a change. And we also put in a couple of baseline out-of-bounds plays that actually led to an open layup or two.

We even got a taste of the culture Miller instills at Arizona.

"At Arizona we end our huddles by saying, 'All in!' because that means we are giving everything we have for one another," Miller said.

"They say that in Vegas, too, coach," one of my teammates interjected.

We all laughed before turning to Chan, who was also on our team, to give the joke final approval. The 10-time World Series of Poker champion broke into a big grin, nodded his head and shrugged as if to say, "I know all about going all-in." We went 1-2 in the "regular season" and lost our single-elimination playoff game to Wright's team by six, but the results didn't matter as much as the fact that we came together as a team as the week went on, learned one another's tendencies and figured out a way to get everyone involved. (Brown didn't play in the playoff game because of a pulled hamstring and I was rendered ineffective because of an 8:30 a.m. tipoff time following a late night in Vegas, coupled with the fact that Wright was sending double-teams my way all game because I was coming off a game in which I hit five 3s.)

Wright's team went on to lose to Thompson's team in the championship -- a little summer Villanova-Georgetown battle -- and Rice (who played against Thompson in college when he was at Yale and Thompson was at Princeton) was the MVP.

"I know it's sweeter for John," Rice said. "That's one of the reasons we wanted to win it, because to beat Jay who he is competing against all the time -- not just on the court, but for players, too, they're recruiting against each other -- so, it gave us a little extra motivation."

The USA experience

What really distinguished this camp from the others out there was the access and tie-in to USA Basketball.

Just like Feinberg being in on the trick with Durant, there were plenty of moments like that all week. From members of the Select Team -- Doug McDermott, Harrison Barnes and Marcus Smart -- sitting in on the open scrimmage portion and interacting with campers, to the fantasy group being invited behind the scenes to see an entire practice for the national team, the camp made you feel like an insider.

"Once you become part of USAB in any capacity, you are now part of the family," Colangelo said during his speech on the second night of camp.

You got that same feel from being around the coaches. Calipari said he was there because "anything Jerry asks me to do, I'll do." Which, we learned that night, included scheduling Kentucky to play Majerle's relatively obscure Grand Canyon University next season at Colangelo's request. (Colangelo is also on the board at GCU and helped Majerle get the job.)

You got to see Derrick Rose play his first competitive basketball in months. You got to witness Durant, Harden and Paul George play one-on-one-on-one long after practice in intense games of "King of the Hill" that showed why they are considered to be some of the most gifted players in the world. You got to hear Colangelo sounding both confident and shaky about the World Cup ahead.

"We will end up, if we're both successful in getting to the final game, we'll play Spain," Colangelo said. "On their court, their ball, their building, their fans and this is maybe their last hurrah because of the age of some of their best players. But somehow, some way, we're coming back with the gold because that's the only thing we think about, and we get our players to think nothing but that. So it's not a matter of if, it's how we're going to do it, and I'm very confident that we are going to get the job done. But it's going to be a big challenge."

This was a couple of days before George broke his leg during Team USA's intrasquad scrimmage to cap their week in Vegas. And it was about a week before Durant pulled out of contention for the tournament, citing fatigue.

All of the fantasy campers were in attendance for the scrimmage at the Thomas & Mack Center the night of George's gruesome injury, with Rice and Thompson's team being recognized on the court in between the third and fourth quarters.

Mike Krzyzewski called off the rest of the scrimmage once George was carted away in a stretcher. All of us campers made our way out of the arena and onto a bus back to the Wynn. Some of the campers weren't even aware of the extent of the injury -- they didn't show a replay on the videoboard -- until we boarded the bus and cell phones started being passed around showing George's leg snapping to pieces on a loop.

Here we were, 70 guys in our 30s through 60s, and we made it through a week of hoops pretty much unscathed save for a pull here and a strain there. And there was George, 24, just hitting the prime of his basketball career and now facing a long year of recovery: not only having to push himself through excruciating rehab, but also not being able to play the game he loves all that time.

It was a quiet ride the rest of the way back, with basketball mortality on our minds.