Tag Archives: basketball

The Lonely Life of a Pro Basketball Player

There are only fifteen spots available on an NBA roster, so for the thousands of college players who wrap up their amateur status each year, that opening — coveted since picking up a basketball as a child — is a slim one.

For most who still follow that burning desire to make a living out of their various basketball skill sets, that means carving an existence overseas, a prospect that, while much more glamorous than in past years, is still a tough life. Yes, Skype and FaceTime have made communication with family members back home easier, but that’s dependent on finding a working (and consistent) WiFi connection. Depending on where you play, language barriers abound, and though the money is better than what the G League (formerly the D League) pays, it’s a never-ending hustle.

Talk with any player who has spent significant time overseas, and the path is a tiring one, which is why this New York Times’ examination of the life and death of Jackson Vroman by David Waldstein is all the more tragic. Vroman had all the tools to eke out a role stateside in the NBA, but an injury permanently derailed his chances to stick in the league. While he was in high demand, playing in six different countries over an eight-year span, the grind grew. Waldstein, who intended to write a piece about Vroman during his playing days, spoke with those close to the forward, who was found dead at the bottom of a friend’s pool in 2015 after ingesting a cocktail of ketamine, GHB and cocaine:

The Toronto encounter would also lead me to to Jackson’s father, Brett, a former center at U.C.L.A. and the one person whose life, in some ways, was just like his son’s. And I would also get to know Brett’s second wife, Pari Habashi, a therapist who loved, nurtured and fretted over Jackson until the day he died.

In April 2015, the three of them attended the 40th anniversary of John Wooden’s last championship team at U.C.L.A., one that Brett played on. Jackson was gaunt, not in playing shape and seemingly overcome with emotions and a growing spirituality. He went to where his stepmom sat, got down on his knees and hugged her.

“I remember he was just tired,” Habashi said. “I knew there was something different then. But he was so loving. He was hanging on Brett and hanging on me and saying, ‘I love you so much.’”

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The Silent Prayer That Derailed Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf’s NBA Career

Despite starting 57 games, throwing 72 touchdowns, and rushing for an additional thirteen TDs, it is likely that Colin Kaepernick will not play in the NFL this upcoming season. The quarterback, who opted out of his contract with the San Francisco 49ers this past spring in the hopes of signing with another team, has been blackballed from the league, a side effect of kneeling during the national anthem last year. Kaepernick became a polarizing figure in the resurgence of athlete activism, and as such, he might have taken his last snap in the NFL.

Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf has been in Kaepernick’s position, as he explains in an interview with The Undefeated. Twenty years ago, the guard was one of the NBA’s most electric players, a 6-foot-1 do-it-all scorer who quickly filled up a stat sheet with lightning-quick drives to the rim and perimeter jumpers.

But after eight years and nearly 9,000 points, he was gone. Abdul-Rauf converted to Islam just after he became a pro, and midway through the 1996 season he began a campaign of sitting during the national anthem. As he explained to the New York Times, “I just hope that this can be something that will cause people to look into issues more…It has made me realize more how, whether you want to use the word hypocritical or backwards, sometimes we are.”

Following a one-game suspension by the NBA which cost him $32,000, Abdul-Rauf and the league reached a compromise—the guard was allowed to stand and pray with his head bowed during the anthem. But he was soon traded after the season, and would spend just two more years in the NBA before bouncing around several teams overseas. Perhaps Abdul-Rauf was just ahead of his time; the NBA was still dominated by hulking frontcourts that slogged through an offensive possessions, it wasn’t a league styled for Abdul-Rauf’s talents. Combined with his outspoken beliefs, and what seemed to many to be a radical and dangerous worldview, Abdul-Rauf couldn’t even get a try-out with another team once his contract with the Sacramento Kings expired in 1998.

It’s been two decades since Abdul-Rauf faded from the public eye, but with the arrival of the Big3, a three-on-three basketball league launched this summer for aging ex-NBA superstars (e.g. Allen Iverson, Rashadd Lewis), Abdul-Rauf, who suits up for the 3-Headed Monsters, has been rewarded with another platform to speak his mind. “To try to influence people to be socially, racially and politically conscious opposite of what the mainstream wants us to think is unacceptable,” he told the Undefeated. “Athletes are looked at and viewed with much more importance than teachers and professors by far by the youth.”

When a person like Kaepernick or anybody else comes and stands out against anything that is contrary to what image they want you to have as an athlete, then they will make an example of you because they want to discourage other athletes from doing the same thing.

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The Fading Relevance of the NBA Draft

LeBron James first took his talents to South Beach seven years ago, teaming with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade to form one of the first ‘super teams’ of the 21st century. During that same time span, the Heat won two titles, thoroughly justifying James’ decision to spurn a Cleveland Cavaliers franchise that was still very much in the midst of self-discovery and instead join a team with the best odds of becoming an NBA champion.

The move did not go unnoticed by other NBA franchises. Since James left Cleveland, the Larry O’Brien trophy has gone to three other teams that have similarly followed the Heat’s lead, including the Golden State Warriors, who this past summer signed Kevin Durant and promptly trounced the James-led Cavaliers. (Following his four years with the Heat, James famously came home and led the Eastern Conference squad to three straight NBA finals.) And we aren’t even including the Boston Celtics, who formed arguably the original super team with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen a decade ago. Forgotten amidst the formation of these power teams is the influence the NBA draft used to have when it came to building title teams.

A quick primer on the draft: The league’s worst teams are allotted the top fifteen slots in each NBA Draft, with the express purpose of landing one of the best players to provide the necessary boost to compete in upcoming seasons. From Larry Bird to Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing to Vince Carter, and even LeBron, the draft was integral to the construction of a playoff-caliber squad.

But based the draft which took place last weekend at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, the event felt more spectacle than instrumental. There is a trend of teams attempting to clear enough salary cap space to sign enough top players to contend against the Cavaliers or the Warriors, the league’s two top teams. The Los Angeles Lakers, a team that has drafted the second pick for the past three years, dumped its 2015 pick (D’Angelo Russell) for the chance to land Paul George of the Indiana Pacers (who will likely be traded this offseason), while the Minnesota Timberwolves unloaded draft picks and Zach LaVine, one of the NBA’s most athletic players, for Jimmy Butler and a chance to challenge in the Western Conference next season.

Neither of these teams will actually contend in 2018—the finals, barring any unforeseen injuries, will still pit the Warriors versus the Cavaliers. But there is a contend-now mentality that seems to have overtaken the NBA, and as such, the proliferation of teams that believe the only way to win isn’t through development of draft picks but by hoping to craft the next super team-cum-dynasty. Might Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers join the San Antonio Spurs? Could Gordon Hayward reunite with Brad Stevens, his college coach at Butler, in Boston? Which soon-to-be contender will be able to pry Kristaps Porzingis from the Big Apple?

The Oklahoma City Thunder was the last franchise that attempted to build its team from the ground up—Serge Ibaka, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Durant were all first round picks, and as the team molded around the triumvirate of superstars (with Ibaka as the rim running, glass crashing big every contender requires), the Thunder seemed destined for NBA supremacy. But then Harden and Ibaka were traded, Durant left on his own accord, and just Westbrook, who was recently named the NBA MVP, remains. The Thunder’s experiment was a lesson for other NBA squads—building a contender the old-fashioned way takes a patience that few are willing to endure, and the future of the NBA is bound to be controlled by those teams that can convince enough superstars to join its ranks.

ESPN’s Zach Lowe recently touched on Minnesota’s moves on draft night and the swirling trends of building a championship-worthy squad:

This is almost refreshingly normal: A rebuilding team hits multiple lotteries, sees it can’t (or shouldn’t) pay all its young studs, and flips a couple of them into something helpful. Almost every dilemma like this highlights how abnormal Golden State is — how much draft skill, good fortune, and once-in-league-history timing luck the Warriors needed to collect four of the league’s 15 best players. That doesn’t happen, ever.

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Peanut Butter and Jelly: The NBA’s Secret Addiction

At ESPN, Baxter Holmes reports on how the lowly peanut butter and jelly sandwich fueled the 2007-08 Boston Celtics to an NBA title, becoming the sweet and salty stuff of superstitious sport legend that has spread like an addiction across the league.

But as the Garnett-Paul Pierce-Ray Allen Celtics steamrolled to a 66-win season and an NBA title, the secret to their success, so cleverly disguised between two pieces of white bread, was eventually leaked.

At the time, Doo notes, the Celtics not only didn’t provide lavish pregame spreads, they didn’t offer much food at all. But he soon found himself slapping together 20 PB&J’s about three hours before every tip-off, the finished products placed in bags and labeled with Sharpie in a secret code: “S” for strawberry, “G” for grape, “C” for crunchy. Of vital import: Garnett was an “S” man, and woe unto he who did not deliver him two S’s before every game. “If Kevin didn’t get his routine down, he’d be pissed,” Doo says. “Even if he didn’t eat them, he needed them to be there.”

The Trail Blazers offer 20 crustless, halved PB&J’s pregame — 10 of them toasted, a mandate ever since an opposing arena prepared them as such and Blazers guard Damian Lillard approved. They’re composed of organic fixings, save for white bread, which Portland’s assistant performance coach Ben Kenyon notes is a high-glycemic carb that easily digests to provide a quick energy jolt. Typically, all 20 vanish well before tip-off; sometimes the Blazers double their order.

The Rockets make sure the PB&J is available in their kitchen at all times, in all varieties — white and wheat bread, toasted, untoasted, Smucker’s strawberry and grape, Jif creamy and chunky — and offer 12 to 15 sandwiches pregame, with PB&J reinforcements provided at halftime and on postgame flights.

The Bucks might boast the NBA’s most elaborate PB&J operation: a pregame buffet featuring smooth, crunchy and almond butters, an assortment of jellies (raspberry, strawberry, grape, blueberry, apricot), three breads from a local bakery (white, wheat and gluten-free) and Nutella. The team scarfs 20 to 30 PB&J’s per game and travels with the ingredients, which rookies prepare on the plane and in visiting locker rooms.

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Mixing Business and Family in the LA Lakers Empire

LA lakers jersey, number 24

Janie Buss said she thinks her older brothers are looking to cash out. Together, the six Buss children inherited 66 percent of the Lakers via four trusts established by Dr. Buss and his first wife, JoAnn. According to court documents, the trusts state that four of the six Buss children would have to agree to a sale of their interests in the Lakers. That’s further complicated, because a percentage of the Buss family shares are in JoAnn’s name and cannot be sold until her death.

“The way the trust is set up, it’s last man standing,” Janie says. “If I die tomorrow, my kids benefit a little bit but they don’t get everything I’m entitled to. As we all go down, it’s all going to end up in Joey and Jesse’s hands because they’re the youngest.”

She says she understands why Johnny, age 60 with two young kids, would want to cash out and leave more to his own children. She’s had the same thought. But ultimately, she wants to follow her father’s wishes because, “I am living life better than I ever thought I could live, and it’s all because of my dad’s hard work.”

At ESPNRamona Shelburne tells the complex family drama between the LA Lakers’s president and other stakeholders, which include her siblings. The business dealings off the court are an American story about power, money, and the disciplined stamina necessary to run a successful business.

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Northwestern Is Poised to Compete in March Madness for the First Time in History

It’s become one of the most well-known sports trivia questions: Name the five college basketball programs that existed in 1938 (when the NCAA tournament was first held) to have never danced in March Madness. By this Sunday, though, that number will likely drop to four. Northwestern, the only high-major school of the group (which includes William & Mary, St. Francis NY, Army, and The Citadel), currently has a 21-10 record, and is coming off the greatest win in the team’s history: tied with Michigan in the final seconds of a Big Ten game last week, Dererk Pardon snagged a full-court desperation pass right under the basket and laid the ball in, giving the Wildcats the win and essentially punching its ticket to the NCAA tournament (though Northwestern lost on Sunday to Purdue, the team is currently a 9-seed in Joe Lunardi’s ESPN Bracketology). Read more…

Taking the Long View on Sports Reporting: Our College Pick

It’s been almost a month since the UConn Huskies won both NCAA basketball titles, but the pangs of withdrawal are evident on certain basketball-crazed campuses around the country. Without a good game, we turn instead to a good story. Cal Poly beat Texas Southern to secure a spot in the tournament and lost in the first round to Wichita State. It was Cal Poly’s first appearance in the NCAA Tournament, much thanks to forward Chris Eversley. In his profile of Eversley, writer J.J. Jenkins laces a narrative between the unlikely journey of the team and the personal triumph of one player. This is not a particularly unusual angle for a Cinderella sports story. But as a longtime sportswriter for Cal Poly’s Mustang News, Jenkins can write with the deep familiarity that comes with covering a team over time.

Eversley’s Ascent

J.J. Jenkins | Mustang News | April 2, 2014 | 18 minutes (4,389 words)

Why Owning an NBA Team is Like Having a House on the Best Beach in the World

Last year the Milwaukee Bucks were purchased by two hedge-fund billionaires for $550 million. In a piece for Grantland, Bill Simmons tried to nail down what exactly drives the super rich to acquire NBA teams, a purchase that—at least by the numbers—is often a pretty lousy investment.

Simmons concluded that for many owners, exclusivity and prestige outweigh straight number crunching: “You can’t rationally assess the ‘value’ of anything when ego is involved. What’s the value of sitting courtside as everyone watches YOUR team?” Apparently over a half a billion dollars, even for a losing, small-market team. After all, according to Simmons, “plenty of rich people can buy a plane or an island, but only 30 of them can say they own an NBA franchise.” It’s about supply and demand. As long as the supply in question remains incredibly limited, the super rich will remain drawn to what Simmons billed as “the world’s most exclusive club.” Here’s how he broke it down:

If you pretend the NBA is an exclusive beach on Turks and Caicos, it makes more sense. Let’s say it’s the single best beach in the world, and it can only hold 30 houses. Let’s say some of the houses are bigger and prettier than others, only all of them have the same gorgeous ocean view. And let’s say all 30 owners feel strongly that their investments will keep improving, barring a collapsed stock market or an unforeseen weather catastrophe, of course. Does it really matter if you bought one of the ugliest houses on that beach? Don’t you just want to crack the 30? You can always knock the house down and build a better one … right?

That’s the National Basketball Association in 2014. Who wants to be on the hottest beach? What will you pay? How bad do you want it? Get one of those 30 houses and you can invite your friends down for the weekend, show them around, make them drinks and eventually head out to your deck. And you can look out and watch the sun slowly setting, and you can hear the water splash, and you can hear your friends tell you, “I love the view, it’s spectacular.” Because right now, it is.

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How A Black High School Basketball Coach Transformed A White, Mennonite Town: A Longreads Guest Pick By Chris Mahr

Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen, a college sports website and athlete database.

“Talk to any young sportswriter today and odds are that their introduction to both Sports Illustrated’s long-form journalism and renowned writer Gary Smith are one in the same: ‘Higher Education.’ Smith’s March 2001 masterpiece tells the tale of Perry Reese Jr., a black Catholic basketball coach at Hiland High in the predominantly Mennonite town of Berlin, Ohio. A man whose force-of-nature personality on and off the court transformed a town ‘whose beliefs had barely budged in 200 years’ and forced his players and neighbors to rethink their long-held tenets on race, religion and life.”

Higher Education

Gary Smith | Sports Illustrated | March 2001 | 35 minutes (8,619 words)

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Longreads Best of 2013: Favorite New Writer Discovery

Above: Thomas “TJ” Webster Jr.

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Ross Andersen is a Senior Editor at Aeon Magazine. He has written extensively about science and philosophy for several publications, including The Atlantic and The Economist.

“Flinder Boyd’s piece about an aspirational streetballer and his cross-country trip to New York’s legendary Rucker Park had me from the very first word. The story is about basketball, a minor obsession of mine, but it’s also about poverty and the kinds of dreams it nurtures. Boyd gives us an unflinching portrait of his subject, an underskilled, overconfident young ballplayer from Sacramento without ever stripping him of his dignity as a human being. I read it twice, straight through.”

20 Minutes At Rucker Park

Flinder Boyd | SB Nation | October 2013 | 31 minutes (7,805 words)

More stories from Boyd in the Longreads Archive

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