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Thursday, December 6, 2007
You Couldn't Even Make a USBL Team


I know, I know, you're good. When your jumper is on, the points can come in bunches. Look out for you in the open court. And don't even get me started about the crafty defense you have in store for bigger, more athletic defenders.

But the fact is, 99.99% of people who play basketball do not play it a level that approaches professional in any way, shape, or form. 

Mercifully, that's a point that is not hammered home too often. (Rich fans may be able to buy their way into space, but they can't buy their way into NBA games, which is a good thing, because Dwight Howard might accidentally break one of them in half.)

How do I know this to be true? Consider the case of Thomas Beller. He's a writer, but not just a writer. He's also nearly 6-6, and someone who holds his own on the blacktop of New York City. Compared to just about anybody you know, he can play.

So when his local USBL team had open tryouts a few years ago, Beller showed up half expecting to make the team.

Beller has serious writing chops, and used them writing about his tryout, in his book "How to Be a Man."

Just for fun, here's author Philip Lopate on that book:

These quite marvelous and darkly hilarious personal essays derive their power from a shameless honesty, often about the most shameful moments, which suddenly reveal a luminous upside in the author's comic retelling. Together they give us a privileged view of how curiously attenuated and winding, for many a young American male, is the long march to maturity.

And, for a simpler view, here's TrueHoop friend Donnell Alexander, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Beller can write his butt off.

So, how did the tryout go? John Starks was there, coaching. Jeff Van Gundy made a cameo. Remember teen phenom Lenny Cooke (now in the CBA)? He was there, trying out, as was Stephon Marbury's brother Zach. 

Courtesy of Thomas Beller, below are those seven pages of his book:

Originally published in Thomas Beller's book "How to Be a Man" and reprinted here with the author's permission.

The Tryout
I sat in the car in the parking lot before the tryout. My sneakers were on the seat next to me. The parking lot was crowded and more cars were pulling in. The try-out was being held on a college campus whose name often appeared in the newspaper. The New York Knicks had their practices here. Here was the place were those gruff transactions between a player and journalist took place, the results of which were sprinkled through the next day's paper like little nuggets of gold.

The college, SUNY Purchase, is not distinguished for its basketball program. It is just a place with a basketball court but it is where the Knicks practice and so everyone pulling up in their cars wasn't arriving at just any basketball facility but at the place where the professional basketball players they read about in newspapers pull up in their cars, music blasting.

The Westchester Wildfire, a newly formed franchise of the United States Basketball League, was holding open try-outs. Cars pulled up and guys got out and in the end there were about eighty people in the gym warming up, in spite of the $150 dollar fee. The gym was filled big guys, medium size guys, guys with jump shots, guys with muscles, white guys, black guys, flan guys, everyone loosening their bodies and playing that little mantra in their heads, a personalized version of, "I know I can I know I can I know I can."


A lot of these guys had played for top flight universities. They had seen the big time. But a fair number were playground all-stars for whom the try out was a kind of one day basketball fantasy camp, an opportunity to run up and down in the same gym where the Knicks practice. I kept glancing around to see the star attraction of the day, John Starks, New York Knick who the Westchester Wildfire have named as their first head coach. Starks kept a low profile during the morning session, haunting the sidelines briefly and then appearing upstairs at a booth overlooking the gym. At one point another familiar face from years past appeared next to him up there--Jeff van Gundy, former coach of the Knicks, his eyes less dark than usual, his hair - that incredibly catastrophe of implants - subdued on his head.

I glimpsed Starks for just a moment, grey shirt and shorts, his white socks pulled up neatly to cover his ankles, smiling while someone patted him on the shoulder. Then a whistle was blown, the terse shriek that is the basketball equivalent of a judge pounding his gavel, and the try-out began.


There is an almost masochistic thrill in witnessing the undeniable fact of your physical inadequacy. Maybe that was why I was there, to be reminded of my place in the athletic cosmos. But I was also there because like all the other dreamers who was not a division one player - and that was a lot of us - I was secretly convinced that I could perform a little magic. We all have different tricks but they ended with the same result-the ball goes in the hole.

We began drills. We ran up and down the court passing the ball back and forth. The dreamers had to keep up with players who can run twice as fast, jump twice as high... and who themselves can not keep up with the very best players on the floor, who could run twice as fast, jump twice as high... and who themselves were longshots to make the team, whose best players were longshots to make an NBA team, whose lowest rungs were occupied by players who moved at only half the speed of the top flight players we read about in the newspaper and see on television.

Right away we were split into three groups. The serious contenders, immediately recognizable by height, demeanor, and reputation, were in one group. Everyone else composed the other two. We did running drills, passing drills, three man weaves, fast break drills. Everyone strained and pushed themselves to their limit. To try as hard as you can is an interesting thing; interesting to do the trying and interesting to see other people try. As hard as I could was too slow, too close to the ground. I watched a guy, not too much taller than six feet, race down the floor and then take off just inside the foul line, sending a crashing dunk through the hoop with two hands. As hard as he could was impressive. Surely this guy will make the team, I thought.

He didn't.

The last thing we did was break into small groups to play three on three, and it was here, finally, that I got to do the tricks. Every time I scored or blocked a shot I thought, "Did anyone see that?" But I knew it was too late. One guy who I played against was rail thin, light skinned, with a spray of freckles across his face. He wore a white headband and his hair was cut like Kobe Bryant. I posted him up and felt his heart beating. His chest literally thumped against my back. I'd never felt that before. Why was his heart beating like that?

Perhaps it was sheer physical effort and adrenaline, but I think it was panic. All of us in our group had failed to distinguish ourselves. We had seen what the competition was like. It was clear we were outclassed. Some illusion had been shattered. It was not a great loss, the sting wasn't too bad, but the moment did require a fleeting acknowledgment that we had allowed ourselves to hope, to dream a little.

Most of the players were cut before lunch, including me. Dream over.


The remaining players came back for an afternoon session, and I stuck around to watch. There was a good deal of talent on the floor. Zach Marbury, Stephon's younger brother was there, as was Brian Reese from North Carolina, Kitwana Rymer from U Mass, and Lenny Cook, the high school player who declared for the recent NBA draft and then failed to get drafted.

Cook was then in the strange
limbo of leagues like the USBL, where sub-NBA players operate on a barnstorming circuit, hoping to develop their skills, attract attention, and move up to the NBA.

Hoping, in other words, for the spectacular moth to butterfly transformation experienced by John Starks.

After playing at Oklahoma State, Starks played briefly in the CBA, the World basketball league, and at one point was bagging groceries in Tulsa before making it to the Golden State Warriors and then the Knicks, where, in spite of his Oklahoma accent, he embodied a hyperactive energy and enthusiasm that went beyond the Knicks franchise and seemed to speak to the whole city, at least for a little while.

When a TV crew stood in front of Cook during the warm-ups and posed the question, "Lenny, do you still think you have a shot at the NBA?" his answer was inaudible. But I'd like to think it was: "Most definitely."

This phrase - "most definitely" - was for a period of time the touchstone of everything John Starks said. He used it as the preface to every statement, the beginning of every answer. It was a linguistic crutch and philosophy of life rolled into one. It was the essence of Starks. At some point someone must have told him to drop it, and apparently he had some speech coaching somewhere along the line.

When Starks spoke at the mid day press conference he was smooth, composed, and articulate. He sat besides the team's owner, Gary Leiberman. Lieberman is a former Bear Stearns banker and how a hedge fund manager. He is a small man with delicate nail bitten hands whose eyes are rimmed with pink. He is a banker and there is something about him that suggests that this whole enterprise, owning this minor league basketball team, is an attempt to let go of a prudence that is deeply ingrained in his soul. The prudence of a skinny kid who got beat up a lot and went on to make a lot of money as a money guy.

Starks sat there. Prudence is not the word that one associates with John Starks. He was subdued and chose he words carefully. He said how happy he was to be here, where he spent so many years with the Knicks. He was relaxed in blue shorts and a grey Westchester Wildfire Polo shirt, and looked remarkably unchanged from his days in New York, His round almost baby-ish forehead was as smooth as ever, the pensive eyes were familiar, as was the puckish, bashful, mischievous smile. He spoke about how playing for Pat Riley and Jeff van Gundy has taught him a lot about what it takes to win. When asked about the talent he had seen so far he said, "It's too early to tell right now. You can get a sense of a players athletic ability and you can see their offense, but you can't really see how well they're going to play defense until you see them in a full court game."

Sports journalism is probably the most overfunded activity in the world. So much effort in connection with such meager rewards! These little nuggets one hopes to get from players. It's like asking the magician how he does it.

With Van Gundy in the house one almost expected to see Patrick Ewing stride in. Starks said he hoped his former team mates would put in appearances. "There's a host of players and former coaches who will come by, and I welcome that, because I learn too."

Asked if he would consider suiting up he said, "I wont pull a Michael Jordan," and smiled.

Leiberman, the team owner, roamed the sidelines of the afternoon session and explained the secret method he used for acquiring Starks' as a coach. "I was watching the Ewing retirement ceremony and I saw John interviewed. He said he wanted to coach, so I called him up."

The afternoon work out was intense. There were running drills and then four on four fast break drills. Jerold Macrae of Northwestern, and Greg Stevenson of Richmond, were stand outs, both of them throwing down gigantic dunks in traffic. Craig Austin, from Columbia, and last year's Ivy league player of the year, had a calm, distant, almost zenned out expression the whole time. He has a wandering eye, which is an odd attribute for a guy whose game revolved around a jump shot.

Zack Marbury looked more like his brother Stephon than Stephon himself-- the round head, the terse, almost militant hand gestures, directing traffic, the faintly fascistic air of a martinet. But he does not have his brother's game. During warm ups, he wore a sweat suit and sneakers that gleamed with newness. There was a swagger to him. But on the court a certain timidity appeared, as though he was ashamed, slightly, that his talents didn't live up to the older brother who was giving him the money for the new clothes.

Then there was the long faced, ominous, and extremely skinny seven foot two inch Terry Sellers, in his late twenties, out of Compton, now residing in New Jersey. His thin legs were nicked and scratched. One of the coaches, asked why Sellers didn't have a higher basketball profile, said, "The streets got him," and shook his head sadly. I had a vision of him literally falling into a whole.

In an empty hallway near the lockers I bumped into Lenny Cook, 6 foot 5 but just eighteen, having an emotional conversation with a small man in a grey suit carrying a briefcase.

"I'll give you $200 hundred dollars out of every week's paycheck!" said Cook.

"Listen I can't help you," said the man.

"I'll give you two hundred dollars out of my paycheck every week, I swear!"

Oh God, I thought, what? Loan Shark? I got a glimpse of the small man's brittle died black hair: he had loan shark hair.

"I'll give you three hundred dollars every week! Please!" His voice rang with emotion, the emotion of a kid.

"Hey, listen," said the man, who was very small. "I'm already in Two Thousand dollars so far for your travel, your hotel, I can't do anymore!"

The man could have been an agent or an owner, it was unclear.

I walked away. It was a random snippet that made the distance between the promise of the NBA and the reality of getting there seem very large. Seeing Starks roaming the sidelines of his old practice facility and knowing what he had accomplished - he was an All-star, he dunked on Jordan! - was a pure example of Most Definitelyness.

In a way the whole tryout was John Starks impersonation day. Everyone wanted to be like John.