Semi-Pros and Cons
Last summer, I took part in the D-League's fantasy Hall of Fame experience thing. Here's what happened. I kept in touch with Wayne Washington, one of the guys I met there. Wayne's in a situation that this blog—or any, for that matter—rarely consider: trying to break into professional basketball, without the benefit of McDonald's hype or D1 exposure. Wayne kept a running journal this winter; here are some excerpts. Also, check out this recent interview he did with Bounce.
"Let me see your hands"
There's nothing like having the gym all to yourself. Tonight I decided to do some ball-handling drills and really tighten up some things: same time dribble, alternating dribble, in and out, front to back. This really builds up the muscles in your forearms and fingers. As I'm doing this an older gentlemen and high-school aged kid start shooting around. I pay them no mind really.
I continue to work on my handle, doing crossover moves in place. I look over now; the old man is trying to teach this kid the ins and outs of a pick and 'roll. To borrow a line from Barkley, Stockton and Malone are turning over in their graves.
When I’m done, I start walking toward the water fountain. The older guy stops me, asking if I can set the pick for them as part of his lesson. Then, as he's teaching the kid, he starts giving me advice. I try not to seem cocky—I do know how to run and defend a simple pick and roll—so I show respect and nod in agreement with him. From the looks of it, he's a big-time Kentucky Wildcats fan, decked out in blue UK shooting shirt and shorts.
Out of nowhere, he asks what position I play; point guard, I answer. He nods, goes back to the pick and roll instruction, and then asks me where I play. I explain that I just finished my college career, and am playing with a local pro team. He pauses, looking me up and down, as if he were searching for this so-called ball player I claim to be. Then he blurts out "let me see your hands!", while reaching out to show me his. "They don't look too big", he says. He questions my height, "Are you over six feet?", and before I can answer, blurts out. "Can you dunk?" I take two steps and flush one. The high school kid is impressed but the old man stood there, still sizing me up.
He breaks the awkward silence to ask me my name. Funny, I got asked to show my hands before he bothered to get my name. When I tell him, his eyes light up: "Wayne Washington … that’s a good name!” I guess I should thank my Dad for that one.
Out of nowhere, he asks if I've heard of Tubby Smith. In my head, I’m starting to get annoyed, but I stay polite, smile, and answer, “of course". “Well, that’s my brother", he responds, followed by stories of childhood battles on the playground. While this is going on, he challenges me to a best out of ten free throw contest. He complains that a lot of young players shoot with there elbow out; he’s been telling Tayshaun this for years.
Some more guys show up, and we play some four on four. Mr. Smith embarrasses these kids—30 years younger than him—with some up and under moves and well-timed pump fakes. I was playing to impress Mr. Smith, and my team wins both games.
Afterwards, I catch up with him in the locker room to talk more about my situation, and how I’m trying to move up in the world of basketball. He gives me his card, and tells me he'll see what he can to help me, since this sport is often about who you know.
As he walks out the door, I say to myself, "Hey Tubby, send your brother some Minnesota gear already".
Don't Get Hurt
I’ve been playing with the Washington Greenhawks of ABCL. The team took some time off for the holidays. You can work out and do drills but the urge to play is always there.
When I play pick-up these days, my number one rule is "Don’t get hurt." I can't afford to miss any practice or game time … literally.
For me now, it’s totally different to play with normal people. Yes, I said “normal people.”
nor-mal per-son- n. One who has never played basketball at a high level and only understands the simple concepts of the game. See “weekend warrior”.
The cons of playing with normals folks far outweigh the pros. Really, the only pros are getting a decent run and working on some new things. Then there’s the cons. I could get hurt and cost myself money and opportunity, just to play in a pointless pick-up game. That's why I rarely go all out full-speed—these guys have nothing to lose and will throw their body around. Imagine going up for a dunk and 5'6 chubby guy who can't even touch the net coming across the lane to challenge you. He has no shot at contesting the dunk and all 200 pounds of him is going to knock your legs from under you. Then you're free falling and trying to figure out how to land now so you can live to play another day. So I’ll rely on three-pointers and pull-ups, and only drive when I really need a bucket. Too many Bruce Bowen and Bill Laimbeer type of guys out there.
Getting back to practice should be fun this week. We have a big game next weekend in Woodbridge, VA. It’s an away game, but the opposing team actually plays in a gym closer to my house. I only have to drive fifteen minutes to get there, instead of the usual one-hour drive, and my family will be there. So it’s sort of a home game for me, at least.
"How much you get paid?"
With this being my first experience with semi-pro basketball, there’s a lot for me to learn about the culture. Most people can only relate to a high school/college atmosphere or the NBA they see on television. This world is a little different.
First off, the talent level on our team is pretty high. I know there are other semi-pro teams out there that have "roster fillers" on their bench. Not the Greenhawks. The big names are Baby Shaq from the AND1 mixtape tour and NCAA champion and former Terp Byron Mouton. But we have talent across the board. Most guys have made money playing ball before, whether it was overseas, other leagues, or even streetball.
People use the phrase "It's a business” all the time, but you never think about what it really means. I don't play for a team; I play for an organization, and it's built from the top down. Team owners have the power because they put up the money. This isn't like high school or college, where the coach is the head honcho. Our coach handles all the on-court affairs, but he still has to answer to someone. Coach Falando is a players coach who knows where we're coming from. Our GM Adam is the bridge between the team and the owner. Coach might tell us one thing but the next day, things have changed because of a new message from up top that reaches us through Adam. It really is a business, not a game.
When people find out I play, they ask me one question."How much do you get paid?" In the words of the Fresh Prince "Mind ya business just mind ya business." (You gotta do the neck thing, too). Why don't people understand it's a rude question to ask? In no other profession would someone feel like this was acceptable. I usually respond that "it's not millions". It's not enough to live off without another source of income, but it is money in exchange for basketball. There’s a lot of guys who play in this kind of league for free, so I really can’t complain.
We’re always thinking about roles on a basketball team, but when it’s your job, it’s about responsibilities, and accepting where you stand. This is where being a professional comes into play. Right now I'm a back-up. I understand my role. Am I satisfied? Hell no! But I don't let it affect my performance. Also, I don't let my pride keep me from admitting the guys who play in front of me are very talented in there own right. A lot of guys have too much pride to accept their reality and it hurts them in the long run.
Practice is for building team chemistry and preparing for games. Players have to improve conditioning and skills on their own time for the most part. We only have the time to practice three times a week, and hopefully, everybody can make these. Since I have time, I've been working out in the mornings. The extra shooting, ball-handling drills, and conditioning pays off.
The reason for playing on this level is to show the world what you got. It’s all about getting good game tapes to market yourself and getting exposure. On the 1st day of training camp they told us "you ain't gonna get rich off the Greenhawks". Looking at my gas tank and bank account, they definitely didn't lie.
New Year, New Game
I played in the Potomac High School gym back in high school. It's kind of depressing to have made it to a pro level and then find yourself at a local high school, getting changed in a classroom. But putting on the uniform always brings a sense of pride and accomplishment, and being part of a team is a great feeling no matter how old you are. Just knowing that people are going to pay money to see you perform is amazing.
Potomac has the jerseys of the 1000 point scorers painted on the wall. I know most of these names and quickly reflect on each of their careers and where they might be playing tonight. Some great talent on that wall.
While we warm up so does the Bomb Squad. Ah yes, the Bomb Squad! The appropriately named dance team for the Beltway Bombers. They’re working on their routine while some up-tempo dance song is blasting. Let’s just say nobody was 100% focused on the game at this point. After we spend half the national anthem trying to locate the flag, it’s gametime. When the PA person begins our introductions, she blatantly reads the names really quickly and in a monotone that sounds like Boomhauer from King of the Hill. The verbal slap in the face gets us fired up.
As the game starts off I swear there was about 12 travel calls in the first 5 mins. It could've been the players’ happy feet, a dusty floor, or maybe a ref’s quick whistle. I've never seen anything like it before. Sitting on the bench we had a great view of the Bomb Squad. They were lined up across the baseline under the basket closest to us. I don't know if that was intentional but its good strategy because just about everybody had a double take moment followed by a "damn" or something.
The game is pretty even after the first half. They went ahead, then we caught up and grabbed some momentum. Our instructions at halftime were no different than before: Play harder than the other team.
The second half was similar. We did a good job boxing out and limiting their opportunities. Mid-way through the third quarter, I'm wondering when I'm going to get in. The fourth quarter rolls around and we’ve taken some control of the game. Baby Shaq did some damage on the block and got some tough buckets for us. We held on to the lead and pulled out the first win of the season.
The final buzzer went off and as I’m was walking off the court, I see my family coming down from the stands. All I could do was shrug my shoulders and say "I don't know". I was genuinely happy that we won, but I wish I’d been given the chance to get out there. I just have to wait my turn. It’s a long season and if the Greenhawks didn't think I could play I wouldn't be there.
"Can you sign my hand?"
Today we played the Beltway Bombers again, this time at home. We play our home games at Coolidge High School, and it’s by far the largest gym in our league. That's not necessarily a good thing because you need people to fill it. I was concerned we wouldn't have a good turnout, but people slowly trickled in after tip off. For some reason the gym was cold as hell, so I had to keep my hands in a towel just to attempt to stay warm.
The visiting Bombers only had 8 players dressed for the game while we were at full strength. We got off to a good start and took control of the game. Once again the refs were borderline terrible but that's pretty much expected.
Not starting will have you playing the waiting game. That means every time the coach gets up or looks down in your direction you hope your number is called. Tonight my opportunity came in the second quarter. Coach told me to check in with 4:00 remaining in the half.
Coming into a game off the bench is always difficult. One part of you wants to make a play but I've always been told to be patient and work your way into the game. Sadly, sometimes you don't enough time on the court to do that. In my four minutes of play, I had one assist and went 0-2 from the field. I had two good looks from the college three but I was off the mark. We didn't get any defensive stops while I was out there, so I didn't get a chance to push the ball in transition.
I've always found it weird that PA announcers don't get corrected when they mispronounce names. The whole game Byron Mouton was called Bye-Ron and I was thinking if it's bothering me then Bye-Ron must have a problem. Late in the fourth we got lazy, and the Bombers cut the lead to three. We missed some FT's and they hit a big three to tie up the game. We went into OT and put them away quickly.
Since this was our first home game, we were told to stay on the court after the game and sign autographs. For some reason I felt like it was some kind of joke on me. Who really wants my autograph? While I was hanging around talking to our assistant coach, a group of kids did come up to me and I signed two t-shirts and a hand.
Yes, a hand.