A Journey to the NBDL Tryouts: Part 2

My legs burn. Lungs dragging in the tepid air in this gym. I only have 5 seconds to catch my breath before sprinting back down to the opposite end of the court. No time to rest, just go…and deal with the breathing later. This is exactly where I want to be–in the moment.

We are running a drill meant to test defense for the fastbreak and to see who is in game shape. Three guys do the 3-man weave down the court and make the layup on the other end. As the 3-man weave starts, three other guys near the sideline sprint from the same baseline where the weave starts to the other baseline, touch the line, and start playing defense against the 3-man weave guys. The three original 3-man weave guys now play offense and bring the ball back down the court trying to score. The coach is right, this drill separates the men from the boys. After you sprint down and play defense on the way back, you have a small rest while another group goes, and then you’re up again. It’s the 5th sprint down, and I’m exhausted. You’re in shape, you can do this. Go, sprint, defense.

This past June, I went to the NBDL’s open tryout at Basketball City. Of the 200+ guys there, I was definitely in the bottom 10th percentile in terms of skill. Players were bigger, faster, and some brought their agents with them. I told myself: go out, play your game, and in the end know you tried your best and you walk away with a great experience. I left the gym feeling exactly that, no regrets. All the training I did the two months prior culminated into two 40-minute games in front of a smattering of coaches and scouts. I would be lying to myself if I didn’t think about how I wish I hustled more on a given play, or made a cut during another play, or made the extra pass to an open man. These types of regrets always flood my mind after any game, but I knew I had pushed myself as hard as I could that day, and the rest is out of my hands.

The following week, I went back to work, feeling relieved that I could lead a normal life again. No more working out every day, eating healthy, and staying in on the weekends. I had also been planning a drastic career change, so there were simply a lot of “life” things to sort out. Back to reality, I told myself, as I got into work the following Monday morning with a little spring in my step.

In the middle of September, I get a voicemail from the Director of Basketball Operations at the Sioux Falls Skyforce. I listened to his voicemail, and initially thought the message wasn’t even for me and was a mis-dialed number. The director said that some scouts from the Skyforce were at the NYC tryouts in June, and put my name on a list of guards they would like to see again at one of their upcoming tryouts. I then got an e-mail from this guy confirming the voicemail.

They liked my guard play? This can’t be right. 

I was skeptical. The first few weeks after the NYC tryout, I received various e-mails from other D-League teams asking me to tryout again, but I could tell that these teams were just spamming all the players who didn’t receive an actual contract from the NYC tryout. We were simply put on various BCC lists as ways to generate a little extra revenue for the teams. This time it was different. It’s late afternoon at work, and I lean back at my desk which I will be leaving in a month’s time. This message is indeed for me, and still can’t believe that I made an impression–albeit a small one–on some random scouts.

That night, I realized that this was an opportunity that I had not earned or worked for, I simply got lucky. Perhaps it was that one drive where I got around my defender, or that one steal in the open court–where the scout happened to be looking and saw something he liked. Nonetheless, it was an opportunity, and I’d be a fool to not follow through. Someone is showing an interest in me, and that’s it. The next day, I called the director back, and ask for more details. He says the current Skyforce team is short on guards for the upcoming season, and I was put on a small list that they wanted to see tryout again if I was still serious about playing ball. After all their tryouts are over, they will pick a handful of players to join the team at training camp later in the year.

The Skyforce has tryouts in Minneapolis, Philly, Miami, Orlando, and Sioux Falls. The only location close to NYC is Philly, and the tryout’s on October 6th. I look at the calendar. Three weeks. Three weeks to shut out everything in my life again except training and hard work. I was just getting used to living like a normal human being, and initially shuttered at the idea of being disciplined again about my diet and workouts. Nonetheless, I was eager to get back into game shape again, and hopefully be even better prepared the 2nd time around.

I didn’t lift and condition as much, since I felt pretty confident about my strength and stamina,  so I focused more on gameplay. I had just gotten a membership at NYU Coles where I could play pickup whenever I wanted, and started doing two-a-days as long as I could balance it with work which was winding down. I do light lifting in the morning, and then get in as many runs as I could in the afternoon when all the college kids got out of class and went to the gym. Following the director’s message, I focused on developing my guard skills, even though I rarely play this position on the court. I treated every pickup game I played, no matter how serious the other players took it, as doing that extra set on the bench, or sprinting those final 100 meters on the westside highway even though your body is completely drained. I wanted to play the game as hard as I could and with as much passion as I could put forth.

The night of October 5th felt eerily similar to a few months back, except I would be in Philly instead of NYC. I bought some groceries, made myself a simple lunch, packed my gear, and headed to the Greyhound at Penn Station. As the bus waded through the night, I started to contemplate what I was doing and where I was going. So many times in life, I feel like we just do things without really thinking through the consequences or the rationale behind what drives us. Why was I on this bus? Why was I spending a night in Philly at my friend’s place? Why is my body ache and sore all the time? All these questions started popping up as I had some time to reflect on what I put my body through the last few weeks.

I woke up the morning of the tryout not having gotten a lot of sleep since I crashed on my friend’s couch and my friend’s roommate came home around 4:30 in the morning and blasted Avicii in his room. I was cold, tired, and hungry. I found a local diner and loaded up on carbs before walking over to the gym. I thought about quitting. Those same doubts that overcame me before the NY tryout crept their way into my subconscious, and it became a fight-or-flight situation. As the imminence of an event you’ve been preparing for–whether it’s a piano recital or a date with that girl you met last week–gets closer, you are faced with what is real and what is not. I’ve trained, focused on gameplay, and already attended one tryout. These are the experiences I know are real and can rely upon when I enter this gym of 60+ star athletes. I think of this quote from ‘Coach Carter’ (which I have not seen) when I know I’m spent mentally and physically, but still have this inkling that I can do more and that it’s for a bigger purpose:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.”

The doubts I have about my abilities don’t drive my actions. It’s the wavering faith in my true potential that scares me; since there are few times in my life when I’ve truly become vulnerable and laid everything on the line. Does it all really come down to a couple sprints, drills, and games?

What about the unreal? The things you daydream about while you’re at your desk? Those surreal moments at work when time pauses and you ask yourself, why is it that I am doing what I am doing? Getting the voicemail from the director allowed me to dream, if only for a couple minutes, about playing pro ball. If all the preparation leads up to the abandonment of what’s real, to this daydreaming of unrealized potential, I think the experience was completely worth it and I’d do it all over again. The other side of the argument is why even tryout if you already know that your chance of success is 0.00001%? It is an extremely rational and logical argument, but a very fatalistic way to approach opportunities in life. There were 60 of us cramped into this tiny gym on the 8th floor of the Sporting Club at Bellevue. Seeing the look of determination and anxiousness on everyone’s faces made me say to myself: I’m alright. We all came here because of a coach, a scout, or some other contact. We all were able to drop everything in our lives because of the dreams the tryout created for us and the opportunity to work closer to that dream.

Playing basketball has always been an irrational experience for me in terms of the injuries and time investment. That morning, being shoulder to shoulder with some of the most talented players I’ve ever played with, further reconciled why I continue to play this game. We can’t pinpoint why the game has brought us here, but we do know one thing: we are all alright.


A journey to the NBDL tryouts

On June 16th, I participated in the D-League’s open tryouts at Basketball City in NYC.

The D-League holds national tryouts every year, drawing hundreds of ballers in LA, Chicago, Houston, and NYC. At the end of all four tryouts, the D-League offers 12-15 contracts to the top players from the tryouts to participate in the NBDL draft this coming November. Needless to say, the competition is pretty tough, ranging from players with high school experience to those who have played professionally overseas.

I arrived at Basketball City around 8AM for registration, and there was already a long line for players to enter the gym (registration started at 7:30AM). After I registered, I picked up the “official” NBDL shorts and jersey. The recommended size for someone my height was 3XL, while the shorter players got XL. After storing my stuff in the locker room, I sat around the courts with the other players while more people walked in and registered.

I had an hour to kill before the day’s events began. Most of the ballers that walked in were black, some white, no Asian. Some players were stretching, some were talking on the phone, and some even brought their agents. You could tell for for the players with agents, this was their life, their calling. There were also a lot of guys who looked like they haven’t worked out in years. Some were super short, skinny, and generally didn’t look that strong. But hey, I’ve made my mistakes of judging a book by its cover when it comes to ballers, so I didn’t want to assume anything.

9AM finally rolls around, and they tell us to sit in straight lines on one court according to our team. Everyone is assigned a team and a coach for the day (typically a coach from one of the NBDL teams). You play in 2 full-court games with your team for the day, and that is essentially the tryout. We sat down in our lines, and John Starks comes up to speak about his experience bagging groceries to dunking on one of the greatest players in NBA history. The head coach of the Erie Bayhawks, Jay Arriaga, then spoke more about the opportunities the D-League brings for NBA hopefuls, of course referencing Jeremy Lin a few times during his speech.

It’s 10AM, and my first game wasn’t until 1PM. I had a chance to watch other teams play, and it was eye-opening to see the level of competition at the tryout. My team was composed mostly of players who had high school experience and some college experience. All the guys on our team, including the ones we played, sort of knew that we were on a scrub team. We were just some random guys who signed up to play for fun, with the 0.0001% chance that we would have a really awesome tryout and maybe get noticed.

Even though we didn’t have top D-1 players on our team, we played hard and I noticed team camaraderie develop. Before our first game at 1, I had a chance to talk to some of the guys on our team, and I was humbled by how far some of them traveled to make it to the tryout by 7:30 that morning. One guy, a 21-year old forward, took a bus from Charlotte and was hoping to get noticed. Another guy around my age, took a 3AM bus from Philly and looked like he literally woke up with his braids somewhat undone. Another 30-something guy who was clearly the oldest one on our team, gathered us around and gave us a pep talk on how we need to stick together even though we are all technically competing with each other.

Just from talking to some of these other guys, and hearing other conversations, made me feel like I belonged. We were all uncertain about how we would perform, what our futures were, and who would be watching us. In the locker room, I overheard one guy basically sum up the dilemma at the tryouts.

“The coaches, they all tell you to not be selfish and move the ball around to find the open player. They tell you play as a team, and not show off your individual talent. If you want to get noticed…at some point you have to show off your individual talent or else you simply won’t stand out. It’s a Catch 22.”

In the game, the 30-something guy definitely was the standout on our team, and he kept on encouraging all of us to play harder and more aggressive. Even though I was playing with 9 other completely random guys, we all kept on playing as a team and it was truly about winning the game instead of showcasing the sweet crossovers you worked on all last week. When I took the ball to the basket and got fouled or got some and-ones, I would get high fives and short phrases of encouragement like “good shit” or “way to get big Al.” It felt like when you were a kid, and got accepted into that crowd of cool kids because you did something worthy of making you a part of their group. There were times when I was not playing my hardest, and the 30-something got in my face and told me to play harder defense. I listened.

It became instantly clear to me that all of us, regardless of our backgrounds, were at Basketball City that day for reasons much larger than trying out for the D-League. At least I was.

About 2 months before the tryout, I was sitting at my desk gchatting with a friend, and he sends me the link for the D-League tryout saying something along the lines of “here’s your chance.” I didn’t think much about it at first, since I figured there are so many talented players across the country that are more skilled, have more experience, and are just physically better at the game than me. I quickly read through the details about the tryout, and how only 15 contracts are given to players across the entire nation, and closed the link.

I couldn’t sleep that night. The question I kept on asking myself was: what am I so scared of? Embarrassment? Being told I have no game? Getting dunked on? These were all doubts and fears that I fabricated for myself to assuage my conscience that I made the right choice by not signing up. Perhaps this is not about basketball anymore. It never was. It’s about the times when you are faced with a challenge, and you decide to run or fight. I was confronted with a challenge, and that morning I chose to settle with my stable 9-5, nice dinners with friends, and occasionally playing basketball to get some cardio in.

The next morning, I went to work and opened the link for the tryout and read through the fine print once more. This time, it didn’t sound like a challenge anymore, but rather an opportunity. An opportunity to play with the top talent in NYC, and become a part of a group of players who have pipe dreams of playing basketball as a career. My friend provided me some humorous encouragement by saying that the Jeremy Lin craze could actually help me stand out from the other players, at least from an racial perspective. With that, I signed up.

I pushed everything aside, and started to daydream about what it would be like to be called up to the draft, and actually play for a living. If I got paid $35K a year to play professionally, I would leave my job in a heartbeat. This was fun for about 10 minutes, but the reality of the situation is that I’m just a recreational basketball player who is a little taller and skinnier than the average guard but plays a PF/C position. I decided that the only goals for this tryout would be to play as hard as I can and leave everything on the court. No regrets. In order to get there, I wanted to get in the best shape that I could, eat the healthiest as I could, and play as much ball as I could before the tryout.

Thus began my 2 month journey where I rarely went out, and focused completely on training. It was tough at first, but much like everything else in life, your actions slowly develop into habits. At work, I would research different agility drills to try out later at the gym. I read leg and core strengthening workouts and ate greens and lean proteins. I worked out 6 out of 7 days a week. It was probably overkill, but I knew it needed to be done. At night, I slept like a baby, giving my body a chance to recover before the next day. I think I ran harder and lifted more than I ever have in my life.

During this one leg workout, I felt my knee give out and felt a little pain, and for a second doubted all the work I was putting into this. After a few minutes, I realized you can put your body through some pretty intense stress, as long as you tell your mind to just go. My knee was fine, and I finished the workout dripping in sweat but satisfied with finishing the day. The toughest workouts were Wednesday nights, since I started taking a class at NYU that runs from 6:30-9:30. After a full day of work and then class, the last thing you want to do is go to the gym and put in the time. Nonetheless, I somehow would find myself at the Grand Central NYSC every Wednesday night getting kicked out around 11 as they closed the gym.

The night before the tryout, I bought some groceries and made myself a to-go lunch for the next day since they wouldn’t be providing any food at the tryout. I packed away my marinated chicken and steamed vegetables in some tupperware and started packing my gym bag with the usual: shoes, athletic socks, ankle brace, drinks, snacks, extra t-shirts. I was alone in the apartment, and I felt a calm settle before me, like when the sky clears on a rainy day and you can smell the dew on blades of grass. I wouldn’t describe it as an epiphany, but more of an affirmation that I have done the best I could with the time and energy available to me the last 2 months. I looked in the mirror that night and realized I am in the best shape of my life, and ready to put everything on the line the next day.

The saying goes, it’s always about the journey, not the destination. After our last game, I went back to the locker room and just sat. I exchanged some handshakes with the other guys on my team. It has been a long time since I prepared for something with as much dedication and perseverance as these tryouts. The last time was probably in high school, when I was studying for all those AP tests senior year. You work and work, and then the day comes where you tell yourself: “I just need to let it go.” We should all live for moments like these, when you are given an opportunity to overcome your own self-doubts about your abilities.

I packed away all the gear they gave us and put on the shorts and t-shirt I wore coming into the tryouts that morning. I put on my AF1s and headed back onto the courts again at Basketball City, and have never felt more satisfied with the work I put into something and the experience I received from playing with guys just like me. I walked out of the gym into the late afternoon sun, put on my headphones, and never looked back.