Sports

D-League Dreams

All roads lead to Toros training camp

Jamar Smith drives the baseline in the Austin Toros' 111-96 loss to the Fort Worth Flyers on Saturday night.
Jamar Smith drives the baseline in the Austin Toros' 111-96 loss to the Fort Worth Flyers on Saturday night. (Photo By John Anderson)

This past weekend marked the opening of the National Basketball Association Development League's 2006-2007 season, the league's sixth and the second for Austin representatives the Toros.

The NBDL, or D-League, is the NBA's minor league, a system of 12 teams (all affiliated with different NBA squads) where potential NBA players who weren't drafted or who were drafted but not signed or who were drafted and signed but need a little extra work can improve their skills under the watchful eye of professional coaches and play for NBA scouts, all with the aim of one day making it to the big stage.

Last week I had the privilege of sitting in on Toros training camp, 12 grueling days of drills, plays, and scrimmages designed to separate the wheat from the chaff and dwindle the team's existing roster of 16 down to 10 before the start of the D-League season. Under the watchful eye and soft-spoken management of head coach Dennis Johnson – an NBA legend who helped lead two different teams to league championships during his time as a player – and his assistant, Dale Osbourne, these 16 players fought, scrapped, and ran with one another for two weeks in an attempt to get themselves one step closer to their dream of playing in the NBA.

Here are a few of my modest observations from those long, hard days at camp.


Day One: Learning the "Poughkeepsie"

Dennis Johnson has had enough. For the last 15 minutes, he's been watching his team run the "Poughkeepsie" play, and so far, he's unimpressed. He walked them through it earlier, making everyone's role clear, but at full speed, the wheels are starting to come off. The passes from the point guard should be crisper, hitting teammates right as they come around a screen; the picks should be stronger, allowing the small forward a chance to free himself from the nagging presence of his defender. None of this is happening, however.

Basketball plays are like grandfather clocks: a delicate balance of springs, gears, and motors whose movements are dependent on the movements of each surrounding piece. If one element is off-line or out of sync, the timing of the whole is thrown off, and you're either left with a basketball team that can't score a basket or a clock that tells you it's 5:30 when it's actually 8:15, meaning you're late for work.

The problem, Johnson realizes, is that his players aren't talking to one another: Each player is acting like an individual, rather than a cog in a great wheel.

He blows his whistle. "You gotta talk out there," he says, rising from the bench and walking out onto the parquet. "Off the court, you don't have to talk to anybody if you don't want to. But on the court you have to build trust and communicate with each other. You gotta call their names, tell them where you are." Small problem there. Most of these guys have never met before, or just met earlier that day. They can't call out their teammates' names because they don't know their teammates' names. Realizing this, Johnson calls for the simplest drill they'll run all day.

"Introduce yourselves," he says.

And now 16 guys are shaking hands and exchanging names, like they're at a church social. Or what I imagine a church social would be like. Introductions and pleasantries behind them, Johnson's team gets back to drilling, though this time the gym echoes with the sound of players calling to one another as they tighten up the play.

For Johnson, a truly great basketball player is one who mentally sees the game unfolding, who slows it down, as they say, and controls every aspect of it – not just someone who can run fast or jump high. The best players are the ones who have a couple dozen set plays stored in their heads and know just what their role and the role of their teammates are in every one and who can improvise within those plays when the situation demands it. That's why Johnson starts teaching from his book of plays on the first day of training camp: He wants to see which players have the mental capacity to learn the plays, understand their subtleties, and execute them to perfection – in the shortest time possible.

Take, for example the "Poughkeepsie" play (not its real name, but I don't want to give away any team secrets here; not before I get my season press pass, anyway): The point guard brings the ball up the court while the shooting guard and the small forward cross paths underneath the basket, racing behind the center and the power forward, hopefully crossing close enough to throw their defenders crashing into each other. The shooting guard then comes back up near the top of the three-point line, where a pass from the point guard is waiting for him. Hopefully all that crossing under the basket shook the shooting guard's defender off him for a moment, giving him enough room to make a pass to one of the two big men, who are waiting patiently near the basket. The shooting guard then runs right past the big man with the ball, with any luck shaking off his defender once again while confusing the big man's defender, leaving said big man to either turn and shoot, run toward the basket for an easy layup, pass to the escaping shooting guard, or pass to one of the other three players on his team, who, ideally, will have rotated away from the ball and found themselves wide open following the mass confusion of the defending team. Two points.

Got that? Well, me neither. I had to write down the play in my notebook and watch it unfold at least a dozen times before it began to make sense. The players at Toros training camp were shown it maybe twice before they had to start running it. Granted, these guys are professionals, but they're also learning the play from one of their heroes in an unfamiliar gym in an unfamiliar city at a high-stakes tryout where everyone on the floor is fighting to learn the same play faster and better than everyone else. Plus it's 10:30am, a time when any reasonable man would still be at home in bed.

Which is exactly the kind of situation coach Johnson wants to engender. "That's why you put plays in early on," he says, "to see who can grasp them, see who grabs a hold of your offense. And to see who's lost out there." Great players, regardless of the severity of the circumstances, can learn and recall a "Poughkeepsie" (and its several variations), an "Austin" (ditto), and a "Horns" (see above) and be ready to run them all during a high-speed scrimmage midway through the first day of training camp.

And those are the players Dennis Johnson is out here looking for.


Every year, a small group of D-League executives pools its collective basketball knowledge, scouting reports, and agent sales pitches and chooses 120 to 130 of the best-known prospects in the country who either didn't make it in the NBA Draft or didn't go to play overseas and then puts those names into the league's Draft Pool. Each team then chooses 10 players out of the draft and takes those players with them to training camp. Along with four returning players from the previous season and two "allocated players" (whom we'll get to in a minute), these 10 guys make up the potential roster names for each team.

Which makes the presence of Jonathan Burris at Toros training camp all the more impressive. Burris, a 23-year-old forward from Ann Arbor, Mich., made his way to this year's roster through the most circuitous yet democratic of all routes: the open tryout. According to league regulations, every NBDL team is required to take one player from open tryouts to training camp. Back in October, 100 unknown aspirants gathered at the Delco Activity Center in East Austin to try their luck with the Toros and to see if their skills could stand up under the scrutiny of an NBA legend and afford them the opportunity to move one step closer to their dream. All for the low, low price of $175.

Coach Dennis Johnson draws up a play in the huddle.
Coach Dennis Johnson draws up a play in the huddle. (Photo By John Anderson)

At the end of that weekend, the last man standing was Burris, a lanky swingman out of little-known University of Mary in North Dakota, whose quest for the NBA had taken him to three different colleges and to a new home in Dallas before landing him here in Austin. "I told my agent to focus on getting me to the NBA, rather than looking overseas," he says, "either through the NBDL or by getting me a tryout with an NBA team. Then I read about the tryout and decided this was my shot."

Now he's here, a Cinderella story, going up against some of the best players in the country and fighting for a spot on a professional roster. "Basketball is always basketball," he says. "This is just a higher level. Now I have to perform with more speed, more strength. In college, you get a good core of guys; maybe one or two guys are exceptional. But here everyone's good; everyone can play. There's no weak link at all out there."

On the other end of the D-League spectrum is Jamar Smith, a serious, soft-spoken 26-year-old forward who was one of the stars of last year's team. Along with 2005-2006 league MVP Marcus Fizer (who's since gone to play in Spain) and Andre Emmett (currently in Lithuania), Smith led the Toros to a .500 record in their first season and for his efforts was invited to take part in San Antonio Spurs training camp before the start of this year's NBA season. In San Antonio, Smith averaged three points a night, playing limited minutes, and impressed coach Gregg Popovich. Unfortunately, there were six guys fighting for one spot, and the Spurs were flush with forwards, so Smith was released. Though he's back in Austin, his thoughts are never far from the NBA.

"I'm just going to grind it out here," he says, "and hopefully I'll get back up to the NBA. Coach Johnson is a great coach, and he believes in me. I talked to him while I was in San Antonio, and he couldn't even see me getting cut. So coming back here, I know he's gonna put me in a position where I can get called back up."


Day Four: Media Day

I hate media day. For the past four days I've been the only representative of the fourth estate at this damn camp, pulling myself out of bed at ungodly hours to watch people I don't even know run up and down a basketball court, all out of a deep and abiding love for the game and a dedication to the highest journalistic principles. Now all of a sudden, the gym is crowded with a bunch of Johnny-come-latelies with their fancy cameras and microphones and their so-called "years of professional reporting experience," and they're trying to take my story from me. I should physically remove them all from the gym or try to sabotage their interviews somehow. My mind bubbles with sinister possibilities.

In the end, though, I decide the best course of action is to mope quietly in the bleachers until they leave. I call this "taking the high ground."

Most of the reporters and cameramen are here to talk to Kris Clack and Brad Buckman, two former University of Texas stars and Austin natives who have come to the Toros as "allocated players." Before training camp, each D-League team is assigned two players with strong local ties who will hopefully help win new fans to the league in whatever city the team is representing.

Buckman, out of Westlake High School, graduated from UT last year, after a successful career that included trips to the NCAA's Sweet 16, Elite Eight, and Final Four. After graduation, Buckman went to Greece, where he signed a contract with Olympia Larissa. Then, in a truly odd turn of events, the 6-foot-8-inch power forward was suspended from the league for two years after traces of the doctor-prescribed attention-deficit-disorder drug Adderall were found in his system during a routine drug test. Two years seems a harsh penalty for so ridiculous an infraction, but the Greeks, apparently, are stern masters when it comes to basketball. So now the prodigal son has returned, gunning for the NBA.

Clack will tell Buckman he's doing the right thing, that Europe is no place for a young player looking to make his way to the NBA. Clack, a UT hero and a former second-round draft pick of the Boston Celtics, spent the last five years playing in Italy and believes that, despite the higher pay scale across the Atlantic, success in Europe doesn't necessarily translate into opportunities here in the states. "If you want to get seen and get a shot," he says, "there's no better place than the NBDL. There are NBA scouts at D-League games all the time. In Europe, the only scouts that come to games are looking at European players."

Which is why Clack, a former McDonald's All-American at Anderson High School, is back in Austin. After five years of wandering from team to team in the promotional desert of European basketball, a call from the D-League to play with his hometown team was like manna to the Israelites. "It would mean a lot to me to play in Austin," he says. "It'll show the people who know me and the people who look up to me around Austin that I'm a person who continues to fight and continues to try to do something with his life."

At 29 – an age when most professional basketball players are either peaking or beginning their long descent – Clack is far and away the oldest guy at training camp, running the court with guys five, six, seven years his junior. "To be able to run up and down and compete with these guys at my age shows me that I'm still able to play basketball at a high level," he says. "So why not play, if my body is well and my mind is right? I might as well try now while I'm still semiyoung."

There are, however, physical limitations and necessary adaptations that come with advanced age. Watching him during scrimmages, I notice that Clack isn't the strongest or the quickest player on the court. Instead he has to think his way to baskets, using the array of clever jab steps, pump fakes, and crossover moves he's accumulated over his years as a professional to get over on his more athletically able, younger, but less experienced opponents. "I can't jump as high as these guys anymore," he admits. "These days, I have to outsmart people." I remember the first thing Clack ever said to me, before we had even met. I was sitting in the stands watching drills on the second day of camp, and he came limping over, an enormous ice pack wrapped around his knee. Sitting down with a groan, he turned to me and laughed. "Old age," he said. I laughed too, until I remembered that Clack is a year younger than I am. So much for my late-blooming basketball career.


Day Five: Lights Out

As the days have rolled by, the mood around the gym has gotten considerably more serious, the air thicker. It spreads even to the usually laid-back Johnson, who has grown less and less patient with mistakes in execution and lapses in judgment as camp has gone on. About 30 minutes into practice, while players are deep into a scrimmage, trying unsuccessfully to remember all the subtleties of their set plays, the lights over half the court start to flicker and die. Probably a short somewhere, but a frustrated Johnson sees it as a sign. "You all are playing so bad," he says, "the lights went out." I get the sense he's only half-joking.

Before they're students and before they're potential future Toros, these players are born competitors: men who hate – above all else – to lose. And as the scrimmages roll on and as one team gets closer to the seven points required for a victory, the desire to impress the coaches and earn a spot on the roster gets superseded by the far more primal instinct to win, an instinct all 16 of these guys have cultivated their entire lives. You can't simply shut off this instinct just because you're in training camp. So as the scores get tighter, the scrimmages become less professional and more playground.

B.J. Elder, the Toros' second-round draft pick out of Georgia Tech, shows off an array of spectacular dunks; Toros veteran Anthony Fuqua and sixth-round draft pick Rod Benson slam into each other below the basket, wrestling for every rebound; rookie point guard Brock Gillespie grabs loose balls and throws full-court passes to teammates streaming up-court on a fast break. Suddenly players are arguing over possession, over the score, over fouls, over perceived failures in execution and placement.

We've got a game here! Set plays and drills be damned; we've got a game!

Coach Johnson, it turns out, is less impressed than I am. These scrimmages exist for a reason – to show him who's learned the plays he's taught and who can execute them – and he could care less about fast-break points and blocked shots, about fancy dribbling and fancier dunks. He's looking for precision and basketball IQ; he's looking for guys who listen and learn. Every time he feels the game is getting out of hand, he blows the whistle and walks his pupils, again, through his plays until they get them right. Only then does he let the game continue.

Unfortunately, when you've got 16 players on the court and only 10 roster spots, some guys are going to have to go. That's just the sad truth of it. And when Johnson and assistant coach Dale Osbourne start calling people's names at the end of practice, and those guys start making the long walk past their campmates and toward the door to talk to the coaches, everybody knows what's happening, though no one acknowledges it. Four will be let go today. Two more will get cut on the last day of camp, seven days from now. So when those first four names are called, there's no celebration for anyone. Because everyone in the gym knows that if they don't keep playing hard and listening, they might well be facing the firing squad next.

Jonathan Burris
Jonathan Burris (Photo By John Anderson)

Walt Waters, a bruising 260-pound forward out of Cleveland State, is called out by coach Osbourne first. I watch him walk out of the gym, looking for some sign of resignation in his eyes. Turning back to my notebook, I catch the middle of a heated conversation between affable forward Tedric Hill, who played at a community college in Florida, and point guard Melvin Scott, who went to the NCAA Sweet 16 with North Carolina. Distracting themselves from the tension in the room, they engage each other in a disagreement about the relative regional affiliations of their respective universities.

"Man, North Carolina ain't the South," argues Hill. "Just listen to the name: North Carolina. How can something 'North' be in the South?"

"Of course North Carolina's in the South," counters Scott.

"I guess they didn't teach you geography at UNC," says Hill. "The South is Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and maybe – maybe – Texas."

Waters comes back into the gymnasium looking defeated. He takes a seat on a faraway bleacher and stares off at nothing. Coach Osbourne calls out for Dustin Brown, a small forward out of Loyola Marymount, who stands up and drags himself toward the door.

"No," Scott continues. "The South is Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. Everything you're talking about is the Dirty South." Some of the other players laugh at Scott's hip-hop distinction.

Hill is fired up now. "Maryland ain't the South," he bellows. "Only below the Mason-Dixon Line is the South. And the Mason-Dixon Line starts at Tennessee."

Scott shakes his head. "The Mason-Dixon Line is right above Maryland, not Tennessee."

Brown walks back into the gym looking disconsolate. Next, Ty Thomas' name is called. Thomas, a forward who played with Concordia after leaving North Texas, betrays no emotion as he walks out to face the guillotine. Brown, however, can't hide his disappointment. He's already packing up his gym bag quietly. The whole business is starting to become too much for me to take.

Hill and Scott, however, are oblivious. They've got an argument going. Scott turns to me for corroboration.

"Isn't Maryland below the Mason-Dixon Line?" he asks.

I absent myself from empathy for a moment and assure him that Maryland is, in fact, below the Mason-Dixon Line. Scott smiles and turns back to Hill. "See? And he's a highly educated man." Looks like I've fooled someone else.

Hill shakes his head and tosses a ball up toward the nearest basket, unconvinced but resigned.

The last name called – breaking my heart – is Jonathan Burris, the hero of the open tryouts, who had come out of nowhere to earn himself a shot at the NBA dream. I had tried over the past days to show a little journalistic objectivity with Burris, but damned if I hadn't come to like the guy; and the fact that he had gotten here by outrunning, outshooting, and out-hustling almost 100 other players back in October endeared him to me and made me feel like I was being cut along with him. It occurs to me I may have no idea what "journalistic objectivity" means.

For Walt Waters, Dustin Brown, and Ty Thomas, their futures most likely lie back in the D-League Players Pool, where they'll wait hopefully to hear from another D-League team looking to fill their roster. For Jonathan Burris, it could mean anything: going overseas, other tryouts, waiting until next season. But for all these guys, the NBA dream has been deferred.

For the lucky 12, tomorrow will simply be another day of work: day six of training camp, with six more days to follow.

Halfway to glory. end story


For more Chronicle sports coverage see our sports blog at austinchronicle.com/sports.


The Toros host the Anaheim Arsenal this Friday (7:30pm) and Saturday (7pm) at the Austin Convention Center, 500 E. Cesar Chavez. Tickets available at Waterloo Records, RunTex, or from the Toros at www.nba.com/dleague/austin.

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