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.

Up against Goliath

Last week I played in a league game where our opponent was vastly superior to our team. Ok, to be fair, it was one or two guys on the team that were really good, and the rest of the guys were kind of just cleaning up their shit (getting loose balls, rebounds, hustle plays). We knew about their star two players before the game, and were trying to figure out how we could match up against them, when deep down I knew they were gonna rain buckets on us. Being one of the taller guys on the team, I was left guarding their PF/C and actually wanted to guard their main PG (who did all the scoring). Alas, my contributions defensively were box out down low and make sure their bigs didn’t eat our lunch.

When you know you’re already outmatched before the game, it totally dampens your mentality during the game. I used to think this way in the past, throwing in the towel before the ball was even tipped to start the first quarter. In the last year or so, I just shut out this belief and think as if both teams are on a level playing field, and that the other team is just as nervous about the match up as you are.

During the game, their point guard rained 5 or 6 three-pointers on us, had at least 8 assists for layups, and ran the fast break like it was the 100m dash. I learned a few things about my game as they took a 20-point lead going into the last 5 minutes of the game:

  • Regular moves become harder – When I’m up against good competition, I tend to scrutinize my moves a lot more. Making sure I don’t turn the ball over, making good passes, and driving to the hole. As we all know, basketball is a simple game of feel and instincts, and playing this way where you’re analyzing you’re every move is no good.
  • The backcourt is all about speed – Thinking back to all the tough teams I’ve played against, one of the biggest contributors to the loss is not having a solid backcourt, and this manifests itself through the speed of the guards. Then there’s a full-court press and the guards are having trouble bringing the ball past half court and turning the ball over leading to fast breaks, it’s one of the worst feelings when you’re already down court completely detached from the play.
  • Clutch shots – Juxtaposed with my first point, stiffer competition does breed more risk on my part, and I take shots and make moves I wouldn’t otherwise risk taking in a game I think is evenly matched. I guess when the odds are stacked against me, I think of it as taking a raise in poker or betting on games–the more you lay down, the higher expected return.

With 5 minutes left in the game, with the result pretty much decided, I sometimes asked myself why even bother running hard or trying to make a play? It would be so much easier to let the seconds tick by.

I crave these games. I need these games. These types of games, at ANY level, bring things out of you that you would never expect. You either show up to the challenge, or run away and accept the loss as if it were predestined from the beginning of the season. I love showing up and making a run in the last 5 minutes, where we won’t win but cut the lead down to 10, and keep Goliath on his toes.

We made a run.

Improving your game in the mismatch

We had a league game earlier this week against a team that beat us earlier in the season. The team pretty much revolved around 2 players: one guy had sick handles and could finish off the drive, the other guy had a soft touch around the rim and was killing us down low. The two guys contributed to more than 75% of their team’s points. The other guys on the team would simply set up picks for these two guys or pass them the ball whenever they got in trouble.

I had the chance to guard both of the guys on defense, and at 6’4″ I was clearly slower than the guard (5’9″) and the forward (6’0″). I knew it was going to be a pain in the ass to guard them, but after being in the game a minute or two, this is what I found out:

  • I hustled a shit ton more. No one likes being beat, and when I play against quicker guards/forwards I lower my stance, get a wider base, and am just more into the game. I simply over-compensate for the fact that I know I would get beat in a foot race, and it forces me to play faster and be more attentive.
  • I become more aware of passing lanes. Since guards are usually distributing the ball more, I use my peripheral vision more to see where all the players are moving and it has resulted in steals and easy rebounds since I get a general idea of where the ball is going and when the shot is going off. If you think about the average guard and how he passes, there are some pretty consistent patterns to how the passes are made and who they go to. Once you pick up on those patterns (lob passes to post players, quick cross court passes to cutting players, wrap around passes when you’re up against your man), you almost feel like you’re playing outside the game watching all the players move around like in a chess match.
  • Fighting hard through screens. Players still set screens on me like I’m a little guard, but one of their forwards tried to set a blindside screen and I knocked him on his ass fighting through the screen. While this isn’t really what basketball is about, it is fun to be able to just knock someone over and never seeing them set a screen on you again. Granted, this has caused some fights in the past but it’s a lesson for all those guards out there, never set a screen on a big man.

Over the last year, I have developed more guard/forward skills and getting away from playing the PF/C position all the time. Making this switch mentally has opened up a whole new game for me in terms of ball handling, passing, and playmaking. I actually enjoy playing guards because I see how I get broken down on defense, and this is exactly the type of experience I need to break down other players in the open court when I have the ball.

No more turnovers

A couple weeks ago, I played in a double header. I had one game at 1:30, and another one at 3, both on the upper west side. Sundays are always tough days to play because after going out Saturday night, the last thing you wanna do is physical activity the next day. Nevertheless, once I lace up the shoes and throw on the jersey, I kind of forget about the lack of sleep and it’s on.

The first game our team got blown out, I mean it was sad. They were pretty fast and we were not making our shots, and I think we ended up losing by 30+ points. The most demoralizing thing to your opponent (which one of my teammates pointed out) is making shots, and boy did they. It felt like everyone was making 3s, and I stopped boxing out since I knew they just had it. The 2nd most demoralizing aspect of the game: turnovers. It’s one of those things you can’t teach, aside from the simple repetition of “take care of the ball.” The second game I had 6-8 turnovers, leading the entire team. After this debacle of a doubleheader, the sobering subway ride home and lonely walk up the  narrow hallways of my apartment building led me to a few epiphanies about committing turnovers during a game.

  • Indecisiveness. I believe this is a characteristic of basketball in general since you’re constantly making quick decisions, but indecisiveness can lead you to not pass the ball with confidence and ultimately results in a high probability of a turnover.  The most common mindset I find myself in is when I get passed the ball, and I don’t know what to do with it and end up looking for a teammate to bail me out in a sense. Once I got the ball, however, the play was already over. My mind wasn’t there, and I’m already looking to pass the rock. Where to pass? Who to pass to? These questions should not be running through your mind, but they ran through my mind during both of these games and led me to turnover after turnover.
  • Holding the ball firmly. One of my teammates talked about this after our loss at the second game, and it made so much sense to me that I had to write it down. You’ve got muscle, you’ve got hands, hold onto that ball like you’re fucking life depended on it. Get into the 3-point stance and hold the ball with elbows stretched out. The firm grip gives you a sense of confidence and aggression will lead you to pass more effectively and commit less turnovers.
  • See ball see man. This usually applies to defense in keeping an eye on both the ball and your man, but it applies to when you have the ball as well. Many times I have the ball, and think my teammate is in a position to receive a pass, but he’s still battling for position or isn’t looking  himself. I’m not a true point guard but this is one of those lessons I am struggling with the most since I don’t normally have that bird’s-eye-view of the court from the PG’s perspective. You have the ball, you know where you are taking it, but the last final step before the pass is made is seeing your teammate who you are passing to. I’m not saying it’s like locking eyes and nodding to make sure he’s ready, but there’s an awareness that needs to be perceived, and it might just be a relationship between the two guys to know each other’s game.