Last weekend TrueHoop friend, recent professional player in Israel, and former Harvard-teammate-of-Jeremy Lin Drew Housman tried out for the D-League's Bakersfield Jam. Here, in his words, is how that went.
As I pulled up to the Dignity Health Center, home of the Bakersfield Jam of the NBA Developmental League, my chest tightened up. I saw a large group of sleepy looking basketball players waiting in a registration line, and all of a sudden I was reliving some terrible memories from AAU basketball “All-Star” camps.
The problem with these camps is that they were not for All-Stars at all. The truly elite went off to Nike Camp, or the Adidas sponsored ABCD Camp. These players competed against each other in beautiful, air-conditioned gymnasiums. Lining the sidelines were the likes of Tom Izzo and Roy Williams. The players stayed in plush hotel rooms and were given seemingly endless supplies of camp branded gear.
I was not invited to those exclusive events. I had to grind out my summers attending local camps that still had the audacity to use names like the “SoCal Superstar Showcase Camp.” The irony was that any real superstars wouldn’t be caught dead within 10 miles of this camp, but that was apparently lost on the naming committee.
While I had some good times, I mostly look back on these “Showcase” camps and feel disgusted by the whole process. They are like the diploma mills of basketball exposure events. The camps cost 500 dollars, not counting travel and food. You are lured in by the promise that you will be seen by major coaches from all over the country, and the next thing you know you are playing in the auxiliary gym of a run down community college in front of a single assistant coach from Middle-Northern Idaho Tech.
It was rare that players ever got to “showcase” anything other than a willingness to pay fantastic sums of money for the very small chance to be seen by very small schools.
For me, even more troublesome than the dearth of real opportunities was the hit my confidence would take as these camps wore on, because I always played terribly.
Part of the problem was my general meekness, but the biggest obstacle was that most of the attendees treated these games like they were a type of basketball standardized test. Hear me out. If you the leave a question blank on the ACT you receive the same penalty as if you missed the question, meaning there is no penalty for guessing. In fact, you would be silly not to guess. Most of the players at these showcase camps applied that same logic to playing in camp games. They thought the only way to get noticed was to score, and there didn’t seem to be immediate negative repercussions for taking contested 22 footers, so why not let it fly?
Seeing as those AAU camps were the closest thing to a tryout type experience, and I had fared so poorly under those circumstances, I was nervous about what this Bakersfield tryout would entail. I was especially antsy because this tryout was open to anyone with 150 dollars and a dream. That seems like a recipe for having a lot of desperate wannabees in attendance.
A more cynical person might start to think that D-League teams see these open tryouts as quick and easy fundraising, and that they aren't really looking for players. After all, this was the Jam's 4th tryout. There were roughly 90 paying attendees, so if the other tryouts had equal amounts of players that comes out to over 50 grand pocketed by the team. I am quite certain that they could fill out a training camp roster without scouting 360 random players over a 6 week period. Is there a chance they could find a diamond in the rough that they never would have known about without holding tryouts? Sure. Is it likely? No way. Has it ever happened? I doubt it.
Once I had taken a deep breath and completed the registration process, I received a number 28 jersey with “Smith” on the back, and strolled over to the benches to acclimate myself. This allowed me to observe the masses of people shooting around, and there were already some indicators that this was going to be an interesting event.
A person’s shooting technique can’t tell you everything about them as a player, but sometimes it comes pretty close. When you see someone raise the ball over their head, splay out their knees, extend both elbows, and then hurl the ball 3 feet over the rim, it’s a pretty safe bet they are wasting their time by trying out for a professional basketball team. No amount of hustle can make up for that eyesore of a jump shot.
There were a surprising number of people that you could instantly tell were in over their heads. For some it was their hideous shooting form, for others it was being the height of Chris Paul but the weight of a post-playing career, pre-Weight Watchers Charles Barkley. I can say with confidence that many of the people in attendance had the same chance of making the team as I had of becoming a head programmer at Google by simply walking into the office and asking for the job.
But who am I to judge?
Eventually everyone was checked in, and the participants were told to sit down at half court. The head coach of the Jam came out and gave a brief talk. He broke down the structure of the camp, letting us know in clipped, terse phrases that we were guaranteed only two games, with 20 minutes of playing time each game. Those deemed to be the top 20 players would be called back the next day for further evaluation.
The coach then emphasized how important he thought it was that we all came away from this experience having learned something about our games. He said that the Jam really cared about making each of us better players.
Color me unimpressed. No one was buying that. We were there for the opportunity to catch the eye of the coaching staff, and the Jam was ostensibly there to mine talent. End of story. But I suppose if you charge 90 people a lot of money it's polite to at least go through the charade of pretending you give two hoots about them.
The coach also made the dubious claim that the D-League was the “second best league in the world." Spain might have something to say about that.
After the talk we were broken up into our teams. My name was announced, and I shuffled over to my coaches, exchanging wary glances and unenthusiastic handshakes with my new teammates. It’s a strange situation, because you want to be cool with your teammates, but in the back of your mind you are going over all the different ways they can screw up your opportunity.
"I saw that guy in the Jordans warming up, he can’t shoot at all, goodbye assist numbers. Great, all three of those guys are my height, guess I'll have to battle them for point guard responsibilities. I think I played pickup once with that guy in the green shorts. He is getting his shots up. He wouldn’t pass a life vest to his drowning mother."
We finished our greetings and got briefed by our coaches, who worked at a local high school, about the game plan. They said we should spread the floor and then do whatever we wanted. I know that you can’t expect much in the way of real sets in this situation, but hearing that it was basically every man for himself sent AAU-related shivers down my spine.
After 20 minutes of warming up, it was time for our first game. To my chagrin, all my worst basketball tendencies were put on full display. I was too tentative, which is the ultimate sin in tryout scenarios. I was also horribly off the mark with my jumper.
I made a few good plays, but my two 3-point attempts were abominations that totally belied the hundreds of hours I have practiced shooting this summer. If you saw those shots in a vacuum you would assume I had either not trained in three years or that I suffered bouts of temporary blindness.
That is a funny thing about sports. There is a strong correlation between the practice time you put in and succeeding in games, but it is far from perfect. I call this “The Cassady Effect.”
I played AAU with a guy named Cassady. He was a practice savant. He would drain 3s, deftly spin through traffic for layups, and blow by people off the dribble. He worked hard on his game, and it showed in his play. Except when it really mattered.
No one ever really knew why, but when the real jerseys were put on, he froze up. He seemed like a completely different player during games. So shy, so hesitant. I always felt bad for his tendency to falter under the spotlight, and I would rejoice that I never saw huge drop offs between my practice and game performances.
After that first game, I felt Cassady’s pain. I had put in so much work, and for what? To have two assists and three rebounds? I was questioning why I even bothered to show up.
Thankfully, there was a second game, and the turnaround was dramatic. I ran tons of pick-and-rolls, and I was getting wherever I wanted on the court. I scored, assisted and stole in bunches. I still didn’t make an outside shot, but overall I felt like the best guard on the court.
My coaches were superfluous with their praise, and told me that they would be shocked if I didn’t get called back the next day. In retrospect I wish they had tempered their expectations a little bit, but at the time I felt like the man. It was like high school again. The refs were telling me I was awesome, other players were giving me props, and even an assistant coach of the Jam told me I played well.
Ultimately, none of that mattered. I don’t know if my first game was so bad as to not be overlooked, or if there were four other point guards they were bringing back the next day who were just flat out better than me, but for whatever reason I was not asked to return.
The way that happened was brutal. The coach told us at the beginning that they don’t have the man power to contact every player, so if you were wanted back they would contact you by 9 p.m. If you didn’t get a call that meant your services were no longer required in Bakersfield.
I stared at my phone from 7-9 p.m like a lonely teenager expecting to get asked to the dance. 9 p.m. passed, and I thought, “Maybe they didn’t have my phone number! Maybe they will email.” Wishful thinking. It was not meant to be.
My first instinct was to be bitter and resentful, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I realize my imagination spun out of control due to one solid game against mediocre competition. I still think that I deserved to at least be brought back for day two, but after that second game I let my mind wander too far. I was already jumping ahead to what round the Jam would likely draft me in, and what new computer I would buy with my signing bonus. (Just kidding, I am pretty sure D-Leaguers get paid in Campbells Soup and lottery tickets.)
For all I know the team doesn’t even need any guards. The whole ordeal was a shot in the dark, so I just need to use it as a learning experience. And considering most of my jumpers looked like shots in the dark themselves, I really can’t be that self righteous about the whole thing.