February 9, 2013

Scratching The Underbelly

In April of last year, I read an article in the Washington Post about Cartier Martin, whom the Wizards had just signed to a 10-day contract out of the National Basketball Development League (otherwise known as the NBDL or the D-League). It was the fifth 10-day contract of Cartier's career and the third with the Wizards, so it had become sort of an annual tradition for him, one which I am sure he would have traded for a guaranteed NBA contract (something he received from the Wizards this past summer). In reading that article, I was surprised to learn that the maximum salary for a season in the NBDL was only $25,000 (the minimum is $13,000!). That's not much at all, especially for a job which most people think of as a high paying gig with a rockstar lifestyle. A 10-day contract in the NBA could easily exceed a season's pay so getting signed to one is understandably a big deal for someone playing in the D-League.

That same week, I found a  Sports Illustrated piece about Antoine Walker, the former three time NBA All-Star who spent his glory years with the Boston Celtics before winning an NBA championship with the Miami Heat. Walker made more than $110 million as a player in the NBA but had blown it all on failed deals, an extravagant lifestyle and gambling, much of the latter with former Wizard Michael Jordan (okay, so Jordan played a bit with the Chicago Bulls, too). Walker was attempting a comeback in the D-League with the Idaho Stampede and SI was there to see it. I was struck by the kind of lifestyle that players in the D-League have: Walker was living in a two bedroom apartment (with a roommate) paid for by the Stampede just hoping for a call up to the NBA. One that, as it turned out, never happened.

Those two articles got me thinking about the journey that some guys take to get to the NBA. Sure, most get drafted, sign guaranteed contracts and either make it for a little while or a long while, earning more money than most average Americans will ever see in their lives, while living a storybook lifestyle. But there are plenty of others who don't take that path. So I started digging.

Last summer, I read Paul Shirley's book Can I Keep My Jersey?, his account of his life as a basketball journeyman spending time overseas, in the Continental Basketball Association (CBA) and for a brief while in the NBA. I followed that up with Carson Cunningham's excellent book Underbelly Hoops, which detailed his last year in the CBA trying to fulfill his own dreams of playing in the NBA. Both books convinced me that I needed to take a journey during a Wizards road trip to take in some D-League ball to see at least the public side of what some guys go through on their way to find their own hoop dreams.

The NBDL was founded in 2001 as sort of a minor league system for the NBA after the NBA offered to purchase the CBA from Isiah Thomas, who at that time owned the entire league. Thomas was asking for more than the NBA was willing to pay so the league went its own way and founded the NBDL. While the NBDL serves as a place to develop younger players on NBA rosters and as a pool of late season call-ups, the league is not a minor league in the same sense as hockey or baseball minor leagues. While some franchises are owned by NBA teams, others are not and may feature younger players from multiple NBA teams at any one time or may feature none at all.

The NBDL is quite honestly the quickest route to the NBA for someone without an NBA contract. Most players in the D-League could earn more playing in Europe or China but signing a contract abroad limits options: you have to play out the contract overseas so playing in the NBA, which is the world's premiere league, is just not an option until your contract expires. For some guys, it's a calculated risk; they deliberately earn less money now hoping for a call up to the big league. For some, it works; for others, it doesn't. Some guys have made it big using this strategy, the most recent notable D-League alumnus probably being Jeremy Lin, who signed a three year, $25 million deal with the Houston Rockets this past off season.

The D-League started with eight franchises, all located in the southeast in such places as Mobile, AL and Roanoke, VA, an area of the country probably not full on crazy with NBA fever. But the league over time has become national, moving out of the southeast entirely, adding expansion franchises and picking up a few teams from the then-failing and now-defunct CBA to today number 16 franchises in three divisions. Almost all of the teams are in what I would consider tier two cities. Although there is a franchise in Los Angeles, other cities are less familiar: Erie or Boise or Des Moines or Bakersfield, places you wouldn't naturally gravitate towards either for NBA entertainment or vacation. But with a little break in the Wizards home schedule after last night's 89-74 thumping of  the Brooklyn Nets and a 14-35 record, that's just what I am doing over the next few days as I take my own journey through the D-League, Texas style.

I've been all over this country since my family moved here in 1979 but while I've taken three trips to Texas, I've never really explored the Lone Star State. I visited Houston way back in high school to check out Rice University; spent a few days in Dallas for a conference in the late '90s with a day before in Fort Worth; and took a quick overnight business trip to San Antonio where I was able to see, but not enter, the Alamo. But I've never really set out to see Texas. I've driven a car there once, from the San Antonio airport to a meeting and back and so have never seen what I imagine is a vast sort of desert-y wasteland (I'm thinking Big Tuna from David Lynch's Wild At Heart). And so this for me is an exploration of an area of the country I have never really traveled in addition to getting a glimpse of what life in the D-League might be like.

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