Toros Tryouts: Day One, Part Two

Halfway through the first day of Toros open tryouts last weekend, I had a long conversation with a man named David Thompson. A retired electrician originally from Jamaica, Thompson had made the long trip down from his home in the Bronx with his son Devin, a lanky forward who was on the floor killing himself running drills while his father and I chatted amiably on the sidelines. When we met, Thompson was holding his son’s “Iceman” George Gervin jacket, proof that there’s still love for the old school among today’s young players.

Despite being a black Jamaican from the Bronx, David Thompson couldn’t have reminded me more of my father if he had studied him for an acting class. Almost as soon as we shook hands, he was telling me about the itinerary of his trip from New York to Texas, talking about the best and most efficient driving routes from Austin to Houston (even going so far as to trace an impromptu map on the gym door), asking about my work habits and plans, and quizzing me – to no avail – about local topography and industry.

“What’s the primary energy export in Austin?” he wanted to know.

“Heat?” I ventured. He smiled, but I’m sure he was disappointed that I didn’t know the right answer. Sorry, pop.

During a break in the action on the court I met his son Devin. He was tall, lean, and extremely athletic; maybe one of the most athletic guys at the tryout. He, like his father, was an extremely generous and agreeable guy, happy enough to tolerate the incessant questions of a journalist right in the middle of his quest for a spot on an NBA minor-league team.

By the time the 25-year-old Devin made it to Austin he had been around the world playing basketball. He had spent a year in the Swedish professional league (where he went 36/24 during one game), had played in Nike camps in China (which sound a lot worse than they are), and had logged time with the Harlem Magic Masters (“Enjoy the Magic of Basketball Again”) and streetball team the City Slammers, which he describes as “And 1, only real basketball.”

So why would he leave the Swedish league, where he was obviously a big dog on the court, where he could live a comfortable continental lifestyle with generous Swedish women, where he probably had a decent amount of fame and a few Euros is his pocket? Where he was getting paid to play basketball?

“I couldn’t get to the NBA from Sweden,” he said. “My only goal is to get to the NBA, and if that means I have to go to all these different tryouts all over the place then that’s what I’ll do.”

We sat there on the sidelines together talking about basketball, the abundant yet differing virtues of New York and Texas, and the perils of a nine-to-five job, talking like we were friends from way back. I liked him right away and felt my journalistic objectivity sounding a retreat: I wanted Devin to get that training-camp spot.

I asked him what one could do to distinguish oneself in a situation like this: nearly a hundred guys vying for four spots? Three coaches? One day to make good? It seemed insurmountable. “I’ll do two things while I’m here,” he said. “Keep my eyes on their waist so I don’t fall for their fakes. And play until I pass out. That’s all I can do.” A simple and practical philosophy. There was a sense of perspective and equanimity about Devin at 25 that I can only dream about at 30. Here he was, at an NBDL tryout, trying to find the doorway that will lead him to his own private promised land, and he was sitting on the bleachers talking to me like we were just two friends chatting on a park bench, like he wasn’t in a dogfight with 95 other guys chasing the same dream.

At about 5 o’clock, Toros coach Dennis Johnson gathered all of his aspirants in the middle of the court and explained that the time had come for first cuts. The 90 or so players currently in attendance would be reduced to about 25, he said, before that number was cut down again on Sunday down to four. With a quiet avuncularity he let them know that for 75% of them the end of the day would mean the end of this particular run at their NBA dreams. The players shook their heads, and the room grew pregnant with internalized anxiety.

That feeling didn’t last long, however; after Johnson and his two local assistants, coaches Collier and Knight, had retreated into the back room to discuss the relative virtue of the guillotine versus the axe, most of the players grabbed a ball and resumed shooting or dribbling or dunking, like nothing had changed. I watched amazed. I figured I’d be seeing 100 guys chewing their nails. Then I realized: This is what they do. They’re basketball players. Regardless of the circumstances, regardless of the heavy tension in the room, regardless of the fact that there were three men in a small room nearby currently deciding their fates, these men, come rain or come shine, will keep playing basketball. Like they always have.

Devin Thompson called out for a dunk contest, and a small group of players gathered around one of the baskets. Thompson, known as a dunker, showed up everybody with an arsenal of 360 tomahawks, reverse moves, and high-flying alley-oops. He had played well all day, particularly on defense, but it was here, in the domain of the slam dunk, that Thompson (whose nickname with the City Slammers is “Mr. Biz”) shined brightest. Even the other guys on the court had to step back and give him his due: He might not make it to the NBA, but there was no doubt the man could ball.

A whistle blew and once again the players gathered around coach Johnson at center court. Coach grabbed a sheet of paper and began reciting numbers – not names, numbers. Nothing sentimental here: You are the number on the back of your jersey, either blue or white, nothing more. Make the cut or don’t, but there’ll be no names here today. “10 blue, 34 blue, 30 white, 43 white.” On down the line, until 30 numbers had been called. Just like that. Either you made it or you didn’t. Either you lived to see another day or ... sorry, we can’t use you.

There must be nothing quite as devastating as not hearing your number called, than knowing that your dream of making it into the NBA - the dream that’s haunted you and motivated you for years, that’s probably kept you in a mild reverie since you were barely big enough to hold a ball - has been deferred. I looked around the room at the sunken, stone faces staring out at nothing and at the guys who had packed their bags and were leaving the gym like it was on fire, and I congratulated myself on not allowing myself to dream about anything ever.

48 white – Devin Thompson. My guy’s number was called. He would live to fight another day. He would head back to his hotel with his father, David, and spend a sleepless night with visions of the NBA Finals dancing in his head. Then he’d be back at the Delco Center the next day at 9am, ready to go again. Once more into the breach.

Coming soon - the last day of Toros tryouts, wherein we learn the fates of the 30 fortunate ones and the identities of the last four standing …

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More Tryouts
Toros Tryouts: Day Two
Toros Tryouts: Day Two

Josh Rosenblatt, Nov. 4, 2006

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