Stephan Bennett will soon enter the real world. He has been out of college for two years, and he has since journeyed around professional basketball’s international outposts with little success. While he played in French gymnasiums hidden in barns, most of his friends grew into adults, investing in 401(k)s and having children. Bennett believes it may be time to join them. Just not until he chases his dream this final time.
On a humid Saturday afternoon, Bennett stretches his 6-foot-10 body on a curb, waiting for a confused Uber driver trying to navigate the one-way streets and gravel road to the newly constructed St. Elizabeths East Entertainment and Sports Arena. Bennett has just competed for hours at the Capital City Go-Go’s local tryout for the slim chance to earn an invitation to the upcoming training camp of the Washington Wizards' G League team.
“This was like the deadline for me, though," Bennett, 25, said. “I decided this was the last straw for me. If I make it, then I’ll keep going. If I don’t, then I’m done.”
As Bennett took his last shot, he wasn’t alone. In all, 93 players showed up for the one, maybe two, available invitations to the Go-Go’s training camp. Registration began at 7 a.m., and by then, a line had already begun to form.
“It was great to see some guys at the door waiting when everybody showed up,” General Manager Pops Mensah-Bonsu said.
Some showed up wearing their résumés — several players exchanged the apparel from their Division I alma maters for a blue and white reversible Go-Go practice jersey — while others wore the results of too many years off the court. One participant, who was going bald, couldn’t hide his paunch underneath a sized-XXL jersey as he dropped beads of sweat during five-on-five play.
“You can tell some guys are a little bit out of shape,” said Go-Go Coach Jarell Christian, who, wearing a Wizards shooting shirt and Nike shorts, looked fit enough to get on the court himself if only he shed his smartwatch and black wedding band.
But Christian, like the other Go-Go staffers and coaches, only observed the action. Mensah-Bonsu, who worked as an NBA scout for three years, watched while holding two sheets of paper that listed the players' names and uniform numbers. Whenever he saw someone tick off the qualities he is looking for, he circled that player’s number. By 11 a.m., Mensah-Bonsu had 21 circles on his papers.
The portly player’s number wasn’t circled, but he paid his $150 entry fee just like everybody else. A small price to keep dreaming.
“No matter where you’ve played, no matter how long it’s been since you’ve played," Christian said, “today’s a great opportunity for everybody.”
That held true, especially, for 29-year-old Orion Palmer, and the message of basketball equality he came to share.
Palmer, who is deaf, brought a freelance interpreter named Mia Engle to the workout. While Palmer played a pick-and-pop game that he cultivated at Gallaudet University, Engle stood on the sidelines and conveyed communication from his teammates or coaches through sign language.
“It’s high-level competition. I really wanted to show that a deaf person, including me — any deaf person — could play basketball," Palmer said through Engle. “It’s really not a hassle to have a deaf person on the team. And so I wanted them to see that, to kind of create that space.”
While Palmer was on a mission for the deaf community, 5-foot-11 Daniel Day wanted to spread the gospel of the underdog.
Before Day and friend Maurice Whitehurst left their car and walked into the gym, they said a prayer. Day, a recent Maryland graduate, never played in college. Ankle injuries from high school wrecked his playing career, and he spent his college years as a scout player on the Terrapins women’s team and a performance trainer assistant with the men’s team. Still, Day showed up in Southeast Washington on Saturday before heading to Silver Spring for bible study for a higher calling.
“It just builds a greater testimony. . . . I like the underdog role," Day said. “Regardless of your physical circumstances, injuries, people telling you what you can’t do — that’s why I do it. Not for myself but to make God bigger.”
Day still had some time before heading to bible study, so after the workout he sat outside eating one of the sandwiches that staffers handed out as players exited the building. Bennett was there, too, patiently trying to navigate his Uber driver to his location. But Bennett knows his destination.
Bennett played high school basketball in Gary, Ind., college ball in Pittsburgh and Houston and spent parts of last season in France and even China. But he hasn’t played in the top international leagues and after considering his situation following a bout with the flu, life as a basketball vagabond may be coming to a close.
Though he flew in from Denver solely for this workout, on Friday morning on his way to the airport, Bennett had a phone interview for a job. When he returns to Denver, Bennett plans to sit down with the perspective employers. He has a degree in organizational leadership and is working toward his master’s degree. He still loves the game — so much that he will still borrow money from his mom for a plane ticket and an AirBnB in Northeast Washington, just so he can continue pursuing basketball. But there’s life after the dream.
“I feel like there’s definitely something out there for me other than basketball,” Bennett said. “This isn’t the end for me, I don’t think. If basketball’s done, it’s okay.”