Close to 100 degrees outside, hundreds of young men crowded the registration desk -- measuring anywhere from 6-foot-4 to 6-10. The nearby elevator was barely reachable.
When I finally reached my room -- thankfully and conveniently perched on the second floor -- I was startled upon opening the door. My roommate, Cliff, was asleep, and our first encounter didn't exactly get off to the best start.
"Sorry to wake you, man," I said. "What up man, I'm Jordan."
The "scene" was the national tryout for the NBA D-League this past June, and I was there to not only cover the event, but also play. Let the fun begin.
After a couple of hours of getting to know our roommates and weekend living quarters, the group of 200 NBA hopefuls bused the short five-minute trip to the magnificent, seven-court "Hoop Magic" basketball facility in Chantilly, Va. Upon our arrival, we waited quietly for 45 minutes while the coaches and staff met in a backroom.
About 20 minutes in, a kid sitting nearby grabbed a basketball and launched just about the ugliest air ball anybody had ever seen. The gym erupted with laughter.
"They think it's real, but I know it's fake," said one onlooker. "You could have at least hit the rim."
The culprit was amused, trying to coax his roommate into a $20 bet that he could make a 3-pointer.
"Let me see your dub," he says. Unfortunately though, the bet was never made.
Finally, we were broken into teams, where for the next hour or so we ran through our offensive sets and got a feel for the talent pool. My coach was Kevin Whitted, a three-year NBA vet who also played in some of Europe's top leagues.
Whitted, now an assistant coach for the Springfield Armor, was not unlike everybody here, in that he holds the ultimate goal of reaching the NBA.
"I'm trying to prepare you for the (pros)," he said. "I want to give you structure while also giving you freedom."
It's evident, though, that our NBA-level sets would be challenging to master in such a short time. Confused by the intricacy, most of the guys were consistently out of position. The only one who truly seemed to have a grasp was Courtney Hill, a diminutive but gifted point guard out of Tarleton State University in Texas. Throughout the camp he would prove to be our best player.
Back at the hotel, my roommate Cliff Samuel -- a talented off-guard from Queens, N.Y. -- reiterated how difficult this weekend was going to be. I agreed -- but not really. After all, playing four games in two days really isn't that tough. On the AAU circuit, we often played three or four games per day. But Cliff and I agreed that playing three of four good games was more than acceptable, and that leaving a lasting impression on Sunday was crucial for our chances to get a call back.
Around 10:30 p.m., we ended our conversation and went to bed; tomorrow was sure to be a big day.
Jordan and Cliff get acclimated in their hotel room.
With an 8 a.m. game looming, I set my alarm for 6:15 a.m., which would give me enough time to grab a quick breakfast and get to the gym by 7 a.m. as coach asked. Sound asleep, I was abruptly woken by an alarm which felt as powerful as a freight train; 30 seconds go by, and it was still loud as ever. Then, Cliff and I realize this wasn't an alarm clock -- it was the fire alarm. I glanced at the clock.
Apparently, somebody was smoking in their room and set it off.
I opened the door to find the entire hallway filled with 40 or 50 exhausted souls, looking as miserable as you'll ever find a bunch of 20-somethings. When the alarm finally did stop around 6 a.m., sleeping was no longer an option. I couldn't help but laugh to myself and accept the situation for what it was.
The first game we played was a mix of everything; turnovers, air balls, insane dunks, and the occasional trash-talking. Our team played poorly, and despite a second-half comeback, we fell short. The brand of ball was heavily slanted towards selfishness. Nobody had any real idea how to run our offense, which left a poor first impression for the scouts in attendance. I barely played, only getting off one shot. Frustrated, I didn't have time to think about it. It's now time to get back to work and start some interviews.
Anthony Goldwire, a former nine-year NBA veteran, was first. While not particularly excited when I approached him, he opened up on camera and turned in a decent interview. I snagged a few others as well, namely Chris Alpert, the director of basketball operations and player personnel for D-League as well as Brad Jones, who is now the head coach of the Austin Toros, an affiliate of the San Antonio Spurs.
In game two, I was surprised when Coach Whitted called my name early. Immediately upon entering the game, Hill found me on the wing and I drilled a deep corner three-pointer that pulled us within two.
"Good shot, white boy," a teammate screamed from the other side of the court.
"Now," I thought to myself, "I've arrived."
Despite another loss, I played well the rest of the game, and felt good about my prospects entering Sunday's play.
Following the game, I got some great interviews from D-League Elite guys who were waiting to jump on center court (these are the 29 best guys in the D-League who didn't get called up to the NBA last season). Former Notre Dame stars Kyle McAlarney and Ryan Ayers provided for a nice segment, as did Bennett Davis, who just two years ago was discovered at this very camp in Georgia.
Jordan interviews two D-League stars itching for the NBA.
With the rest of the day off, I was thrilled to head back to the room and watch the World Cup game between USA vs. England. With Cliff asleep -- this would become an entertaining theme throughout the weekend -- I was perfectly content watching the 15-year-old, 20-inch TV from my bed. But when Clint Dempsey scored his gift-of-a-lifetime goal on English keeper Robert Green, I erupted. Needless to say, Cliff wasn't amused, as he'd now been woken up three times in less than 24 hours, twice by me.
Later that evening, I went down to the lobby curious to see what the general sentiment and feeling was among the guys. Most conversations revolved around three things: girls, basketball and shoes. Many were perturbed by a lack of playing time or their relationship with their coach.
"This is bulls**t," one guy says, as others echoed his feelings.
All night, hordes of 6-7, 20-year-olds walked to the nearby Subway or Wendy's for dinner on the highway path. It must have been strange for locals seeing all these huge kids flocking from the same hotel.
With a good night's rest and a slight dose of oversleeping, I met my cameraman at 7:15 a.m. so he could film me getting on the bus to the gym. I must admit it was a little odd seeing some of the faces of the other guys as we filmed throughout the weekend. Some just gave me weird looks, while others couldn't help but ask what we were doing. One kid, a J.R. Smith clone coincidentally named Gary Smith, came up to me randomly and said, "OK, I'm ready."
Like most of the camp attendees, Smith has invested all of his hopes and dreams into basketball. Failing to make it as a pro isn't an option. The conclusion of the tryout transitions into more basketball, more workouts, more tireless hours clawing for their shot.
"(After this) it's back to work," he says.
For these guys, basketball is more than a game. It is way of life. The kids here are serious about the game. The constant joking aside, this is the career path they have chosen. Even if it means playing in front of 100 people in small towns traveling by bus and making $20,000 a year, this is the life they desire.
With this in mind, Sunday's festivities seemed to illuminate more to me. Our court ringed with scouts and coaches; they paced the sideline carefully jotting down notes. I was thrilled to get the start.
At one point I get caught up in a switch and find myself guarding a 6-9 beast on the block. "Mouse!" he yells. "Mouse!"
"Come on, now," I respond. Fortunately, he took it in stride, and I was able to deny him the ball for what seemed to be the longest defensive set of my life.
In a closely fought affair, I played my best game of the entire camp, calmly keeping us afloat with a barrage of 3-pointers and pull-ups, while playing the majority of the game. Afterward, Whitted agreed to hop on camera and do a quick interview. When I ask him half-jokingly about my chances of making the D-League, I was ecstatic over his response.
"I think you'll be all right. I think you need to give it a shot," he told me.
Jordan gets the chance to show off his bevy of skills on the hardwood.
Later in our final game, I was rewarded for my good play, earning a second consecutive start. In pregame warm-ups, I couldn't help but notice the opposing coach, Darvin "Green Eggs and Ham," on the sidelines. Ham -- famous for his insane leaping ability and glass shattering dunk in the 1996 NCAA tournament -- was happy to be recognized.
"Darvin Ham," I yell as I go through layup lines.
"What's up, baby?!" he says.
In an absolute grind of a fourth game, this turned out be the fiercest 40 minutes of the tryout. The high-spirited affair featured superior athletes and tremendous speed. Both teams pushed the tempo, bodies flew, and admittedly, I was a little tired. It was as if everyone knew this was their last chance to shine. This was it.
Again, I played well, connecting on back-to-back threes late, including a bomb off the dribble in transition to pull us within six.
"I didn't know you had that," one guy said.
After a vital bucket late in the game, an opposing player was greeted by a huge high five from Ham as he ran down the court. Perhaps the most vocal and enthused coach I'd seen, it wasn't hard to understand the significance of this "tryout" for the coaches as well.
At the end of the game, as the two teams shook hands, Ham gave me a little hug and says, "Way to shoot the ball, boy."
I don't care how embarrassing it seemed; that may very well have been the highlight of my weekend.
During the two days in Chantilly, one thing became apparent. Everyone here -- the coaches, the referees, the scouts the players -- they're all in the same boat. Everyone is vying for their spot. And while the NBA is the dream, the D-League, as Alpert so appropriately noted, "is a league of opportunity."
At our opening meeting, you could see and feel hopes rise when Alpert mentioned how "one out of every four players (in the NBA this year) was a former D-League player."
With that in mind, you knew why the tensions in the last game were elevated. Following the game, guys couldn't help but wonder if they did enough, if they showed enough talent, if they had enough grit. When the final whistle blew, it all became a waiting game.
We listened intently as coach Whitted told us to expect to wait a week or two for a call-back, 200 guys all left wondering the same thing ...
"Did I make it? Am I next?"
For me personally, I was fortunate enough to get a call-back from the Idaho Stampede in Boise, Idaho. While I received a couple of e-mails from the Dakota Wizards and the International Basketball League, the phone call was the most promising.
In search of a two-guard who can spread the floor, the Stampede seemed like the best fit. With that in mind, our journey through the D-League ranks continue as FanHouse TV and I traveled to Boise on October 16 for the second stage of tryouts before the upcoming D-League Draft in November.
For the 160 or so who didn't get the call back, this was a setback. You can count on one hand how many will be on a D-League roster next season, but you can also count on the fact that all these guys will continue their pursuit of the ultimate dream. That's all they know, and it's fine by them, because basketball is life.
They wouldn't have it any other way.