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The Long Shot: NBA hopefuls try to prove themselves in the D-League

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By Carlo Rotella
Sunday, March 21, 2010

On YouTube, Deron Washington is forever dunking. Wearing the maroon and burnt orange of Virginia Tech, accompanied by a hip-hop soundtrack or just crowd noise and the calls of excited announcers, he outraces everyone in the open court, or slips through the defense to meet a sweet pass, or slashes past his man off the dribble. Taking a couple of long strides and perhaps a two-footed hop, he rises up with improbable speed and power, canted forward in midair, to cram the ball through the basket so forcefully that his arm appears to go in up to the elbow. In one much-viewed clip from an Atlantic Coast Conference showdown in 2007, he hurdles Duke University's Greg Paulus on two fast breaks -- laying up the ball both times, rather than slamming it, because his baggy shorts keep snagging on Paul-us's head.

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College players can get by on dunks and three-pointers, but in the pros they must diversify their arsenals. One morning in December, on the court in the Tulsa Convention Center, where the Tulsa 66ers of the NBA Development League practice and play their home games, Washington and the team's other guards and forwards were working on midrange offense. Each in turn faked left, dribbled to his right around the team's coach, Nate Tibbetts, and pulled up for a jump shot. The shooter went back to where he'd started and got in line and, when it was his turn to face Tibbetts again, went through the same sequence. After several repetitions, Tibbetts switched the group to a new variation, and then another, and another.

The 66ers had back-to-back games coming up against the Reno Bighorns, but this scene of instruction was in some ways the true point of the D-League's existence: getting better, perfecting your craft in the hope of moving up. You play hard and well to catch the attention of an NBA team, and if you get the call, you pack your bags and leave your minor league team behind without a second thought. D-League players wait for that break, and work toward it, in a distinctive in-between state. They're as close as a professional basketball player can get to the NBA without being in it, but they still have a long way to go to realize their dream.

***

The 66ers were young men, most in their mid-20s, but basketball had already taken many of them across the world. They had played on professional teams in Spain, France, Italy, Belgium, Poland, Greece and Turkey. Latavious Williams was the exception: Only 19, the first player ever to enter the D-League directly from high school, he had passed up the chance to make money as a pro in China, opting instead for a nominal D-League salary and the most likely route to the NBA.

Washington had played for Hapoel Holon, a top-tier team in Israel, where, he said, "they're, like, robots. They listen to the coach and do it, and a lot of the time that's not a bad thing." The American style is faster and more free-flowing, he said; the Israeli style, like the European, stresses fundamentals. "A lot of Americans are going overseas and picking that up now." Every stop on globetrotting ballplayers' itineraries can teach them something about being a professional.

They had discovered, for instance, that the unquestioning support they grew used to in high school and college -- blind rah-rah fervor of the kind on display during this month's NCAA tournaments -- swiftly gives way to the expectation that, as a pro, you must produce or else. The money can be good overseas, but it creates its own stresses and demands. "You have to learn your role in the system," said Mustafa Shakur, Tulsa's point guard and best all-around player. "You have to learn to be professional and not pout. Over there I had to learn to think the game out."

Zabian Dowdell, a former teammate of Deron Washington's from Virginia Tech who had just joined the 66ers, added: "If the team wins and you did what you were supposed to do, they're fine with that, even if, like, you only scored two points. But if you lost ..." well, there are always other talented Americans where you came from.

One such traveling shooter-for-hire is Chris Moore, a forward who has been all over the world since he played his last game for Virginia Union University in 2005. "I've been in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, South America," he said. "I played in Lebanon right after the war with Israel. I got there a week after the bombing stopped." He was drafted last year by a D-League team, the Los Angeles D-Fenders, but they cut him in training camp. Samples from his Twitter feed from last fall tell the story: "very long hard practice this morning ... got a knee to the groin twice ... practice again tonight ... guys out here competing ... hateration has officially started." His stint in the league having lasted only a few short days, he looked abroad again for his next opportunity to impress somebody, to play his way toward the NBA. For Moore, just getting back into the D-League would be a major step in the right direction.

The pro game teaches these former amateur stars consequences as well as efficacy, and it constantly reminds them that their astonishing talent might not be enough to get them to the top. And, compared with the National Football League (with about 1,700 total roster spots at any given moment) or Major League Baseball (750), there isn't much room in the NBA (450). The diaspora of American college players spreading throughout the NBA's professional hinterlands -- from the D-League to the highly competitive elite leagues such as those in Spain or Italy to the fringes in Egypt, Korea or Venezuela -- includes a lot of guys who once believed, and even perhaps still do believe against the mounting evidence of experience, that they belong among the very best.

***

A lean 6-foot-7 and 215 pounds, extensively tattooed, with long arms and precarious-looking narrow shanks, Washington seems perfectly designed to play on the wing in the high-speed airborne style of the NBA. The son of a professional athlete (his father, Lionel, played cornerback in the NFL for 15 years) and a gym teacher, he also played baseball and football as a kid in Louisiana. Getting serious about basketball as he grew into a beanpole, he left home during high school to play at Notre Dame Academy in Green Bay, Wis., and then at National Christian Academy in Fort Washington, where his teammates included Kevin Durant, who went on to stardom in college and the NBA.


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