Players chase their dreams of career in professional basketball
Four players drive to NBA's developmental league chronicled
Wednesday, November 9, 2011
Alex Hartman blared a four-letter word that had mothers covering their children’s ears from clear across campus.
The Vancouver Volcanoes veteran was ticked that the chest pass he threw sailed out of bounds without so much as grazing a fingertip.
Normally, this sort of miscue results in nothing more than an eye-roll or a, “My bad.” Problem is, these were far from normal circumstances.
Like dozens of other hoopers who showed up at Cascade College in Portland last month, Hartman was taking part in an open tryout for the Idaho Stampede, the Portland Trail Blazers’ NBA Development League affiliate. Basically, 70 some-odd dreamers threw down $175 apiece in hopes of impressing Idaho’s coaches and earning an invite to training camp.
And while surely the elite players could afford an occasional bad pass or clanked jumper, the margin for error — given the limited exposure — was Marcus Camby-thin.
“The unfortunate thing is that, no matter how good these guys are, they can have a bad day,” said Stampede assistant coach Joel Abelson, who was familiar with several of the players before the tryout began. “The thing is, you can also have a great day — and we’re totally fooled.”
Four stories of hope
Some folks will spend $3,000 to drive an IndyCar for 30 laps. Others will drop $4,000 for a week in a fantasy spring training camp. But when you’re handing over $175 to spend seven hours in a liberal arts college gym — you likely have a dream that’s on the run.
My plan upon walking into the workout was to pick four guys, track them throughout the audition and get their reaction to the results three weeks later. It couldn’t be at random, of course. Self-delusion runs as rampant at an NBDL tryout as it does on “American Idol.” But once I weeded out players who lacked certain high-level skills such as, say, the ability to catch, I chose my quartet: Shawn Henderson of Seattle; Morris Anderson of Federal Way; Ben Voogd of Eugene, Ore.; and Hartman of Beaverton, Ore.
The Stampede held tryouts in four different cities — Denver, Portland, Salt Lake City and Boise — and head coach Randy Livingston said he was planning on inviting 5-7 players to camp.
So the chances of one of my four darts hitting a bull’s-eye were slim — not unlike the thread by which most of these guys’ hopes were hanging.
Henderson drove to Portland from Seattle the night before with his mother, Nicole Harris. Had he continued for another 1,000 miles, he could have joined his girlfriend and infant daughter in Los Angeles. The 23-year-old guard has remained in the Pacific Northwest to pursue his long-term basketball goals, surrounding himself with peers who push him in a way he feels they wouldn’t in Southern California.
In the offseason, the 6-foot-4 Henderson plays pickup ball with NBA players Terrence Williams and Nate Robinson, asserting that you can’t tell the difference between him and the pros when he takes the floor. He added that Robinson told him he is skilled enough to make a D-League squad, but that doing so will require blood, sweat and...
“He has definitely shed a couple of tears when he’s called me,” said Henderson’s girlfriend, Barbara Goodwin. “He tells me all the time how much he misses us, especially his daughter. He’s always wanting to know every detail about her.”
Henderson was by no means the only man at Cascade who had been sacrificing family time for gym time. Morris Anderson, 24, has also been walking the line between love and basketball.
For the past six years, he and his wife, Jessica, have been raising their daughter, Jordan. She was not named after the country.
Anderson played for two years at Western Washington in Bellingham while his two favorite girls lived 100 miles away. Lately, the 6-foot-3 point guard has been working a warehouse job in Federal Way before hitting the court with his buddies each night.
Last year, he tried out for the Stampede in Tigard and Boise but fell short. And seeing how he and Jessica agree that Jordan deserves more attention at this stage of her life, Anderson considered this opportunity his final half-court heave.
“I feel like this is my last go-round,” said Anderson before the tyrout, adding that he also played for the Bellingham Slam of the International Basketball League. “But I mean, I’m still trying to get to my dream, and I think I have a really good chance.”
Pat Conroy wrote in “Lords of Discipline” that the appeal of sport lay not in one’s ability to rise above his peers, but in seeing potential pay its maximum dividends. With that in mind, one can presume Ben Voogd’s perspective on the tryout differed from most with whom he shared the court.
Not only did the 25-year-old receive an invite to Stampede training camp last year, he was the final player cut — surviving for a week and a half before getting the ax on team-picture day.
Voogd was the backup point guard on LSU’s Final Four team in 2006, but transferred to Oregon two years later and then to Northwest Christian University in Eugene a year after that. Now, he is an assistant coach at New Hope Christian College in Eugene — stoked about his future, so long as it doesn’t involve regretting the past.
“If I don’t make it, I’m done. I don’t want to be 30 and still trying to do this. I’d like to start a career,” said Voogd, who has played pro ball in China and the Netherlands. “But I gotta go for it now when I’m 25.”
If Voogd’s travels impress you, then clearly you have not met Alex Hartman. If this whole basketball thing doesn’t work out, the 26-year-old can fall into a career as a “Lonely Planet” writer.
After earning NAIA All-America honors at Concordia University in Portland, Hartman’s hooping destinations have included Germany, Romania, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and Canada. The 6-foot-7 forward also worked out with the Blazers in 2008 and 2010, won an IBL championship with the Volcanoes in July, and coaches youth basketball clinics when he is not working his sales job at the Nike Employee Store.
During the tryout’s lunch break, the recently-engaged Hartman told me that missing the cut would not be a major disappointment. I believed him zero percent.
Not after he emphasized how big of a year he has had and how much extra work he’s been putting in lately. Not after he noted how a D-League paycheck would pale in comparison to an overseas job. Not after he mentioned how “Kobe was killing it at 26,” and how this “could be a stepping stone for me.”
No, a guy as classy as Hartman only booms expletives when it matters. And I believed that if the Stampede extended him an invite, his next four-letter word would be, “Yeah!!!”
The long odds
"NCAA regulations allow us to dress just 60 for home games, which means at least 35 scholarship players are going to be watching the games from the stands. So if any of you has any fantasies about running out of that stadium tunnel with your gold helmet shining in the sun, you best leave them right here."
-A Notre Dame assistant coach, before walk-on tryouts in Rudy.
Remember what this was. This was not an audition to make Idaho’s roster. It was not a launching pad to the NBA’s doorstep. It was a tryout in which one, maybe two players would earn the right to try and claw their way onto the final spot of a professional JV team.
Assuming the trial at Cascade went superbly, and the 10 days of training camp impeccably, then it is possible that someone from this lot would become a practice player on a team of aspiring practice players — a scrub among hopeful scrubs.
Or maybe ... they would become Ira Newble.
Undrafted after four years at the University Miami, Newble took part in a Stampede open tryout in 1998 and wriggled his way onto the squad. Three years later, the San Antonio Spurs called him up for the first year of an eight-season, 380-game NBA career that pitted him alongside Tim Duncan, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant.
Despite lacking a shred of evidence to prove it, I can assure you that the world has yet to produce a child who has fantasized about hitting a buzzer-beater in the D-League playoffs. Everybody at Cascade last month still dreamed of donning one of 30 jerseys in the world’s most prestigious basketball organization.
But like with any infiltration, such access requires a plan.
“You approach this differently,” said Henderson, who averaged 8.9 points and 2.8 assists at the University of Idaho last year. “Do you want to score? Yeah. But at the same time, everybody’s looking to score. There’s gotta be somebody who makes that statement on defense, or who can make that extra pass.”
Nobody was rooting for Henderson to discover that narrow entryway to training camp more than his mom. Harris gave birth to Shawn when she was 15 and can’t stress enough the role basketball played in molding her son.
Barring him from the court was the one threat she could rely on to prevent misbehavior or indifference toward schoolwork, and yet, when he would cause mischief, her punishments never included a long-term hoops hiatus “because basketball was what was keeping him from getting into real trouble.”
Sitting on a folding chair courtside during the tryout, Harris noted that she has been watching Shawn play for 18 years and would burst out crying if he made it to camp. Perhaps that’s why she was so frustrated by the fact that, in the first scrimmage of the day, Henderson was about as noticeable as a raindrop in Seattle.
He did not demand the ball. He was not looking to create. And toward the end of the run, he passed up an open jumper before chucking the ball out of bounds.
“Ahhh!” Henderson screamed, knowing being selfish was the right call on that play. “I can’t be nice like that.”
Attempting to illustrate the importance of erasing a bad performance from his memory, Shawn told me that “you gotta have Alzheimer’s out here.” Probably the right mentality, because when I asked Coach Abelson for a review of Henderson’s first run, he bluntly responded, “I hope he plays better the next game.”
Morris Anderson, it turns out, has quite a bit in common with Henderson — and it goes beyond the two each trying to raise a little girl. Anderson, too, struggles with being passive when the moment calls for aggressive, and his primary objective at Cascade was to attack like Manny freakin’ Pacquiao.
All his life, people have told him to shoot more — even as he averaged 14.7 points a game his senior year at Western Washington while leading the team in assists. So during that first scrimmage, with his dream on life support, Morris was going to fire away until tendinitis flared up in his wrist.
In a 20-minute game, he went 1 for 2.
“I don’t know what happened,” Anderson said stoically.
Interestingly enough, Anderson’s main regret was getting stuck on the low side of a screen while guarding a pick-and-roll. In other words, it appeared that he now saw defense as his ticket to camp.
And at that point, that was the smart move — because as soon as Voogd took the floor, it was clear who the best offensive player in the gym was.
Guard him one-on-one and he’d get any shot he pleased. Throw a help defender his way and he would punish you with passing.
Voogd was vocal, Voogd was poised, and using magic that could headline Caesar’s — Voogd got his teammates to run sets in a pickup game.
Even so, Ben saw nothing as a given at this audition, and the fact that he had the biggest entourage in the building supported that mindset. Cheering for Voogd along the Cascade sideline were New Hope Christian head coach Mark Holmes and several of Holmes’ family members — all knowing what an outstanding coach Ben is, and all hoping like hell that he wouldn’t be in Eugene when New Hope’s season begins.
“For me, it’s always been that someone has to give him a shot,” Holmes said. “His ultimate goal is to play in the league. This is his last chance.”
Alex Hartman, believe it or not, almost bypassed this final chance. He is a firm believer in playing the game correctly, but some of the scrimmages at Cascade looked about as fundamentally sound as the intramural losers bracket.
Fortunately, Hartman was placed in the “A” game alongside the best players in the building — and while he didn’t shine like Voogd, he played like the lead guitarist who never misses a note.
Alex knew exactly which screens to flair off of and which ones to curl around. He was in the right spots on defense and took the right shots on offense. For four years, basketball has served as Hartman’s primary source of income. Appropriate, then, that there was no one on the floor who looked more professional.
“I like Alex a lot,” said Abelson after that first scrimmage, later adding that he was the one who persuaded Hartman to try out. “I have a soft spot for Alex personally. He’s a good player. He works hard, and he’s a great kid. ... It would be interesting to have him at camp.”
Sorry. Not trying to go all Seacrest in withholding the results, but there is one more matter to address. While Voogd and Hartman each seemed to state his case in the first of two scrimmages, Henderson and Anderson failed to meet the burden of proof.
Both were guilty of timidity and self-concsciousness, but if you saw the look Henderson exchanged with his mother, it was clear that recidivism wouldn’t be an issue.
“Sometimes he over-thinks things. I think he needs to commit to it and just do it,” Harris said. “He’s not going to make all of his shots, but I never want him to doubt himself.”
In game No. 2, the doubt evaporated like a puddle in the Sahara. Shawn came out shooting as though he had a quota.
An 18-foot pull-up here, a 3-pointer off a pick there — floaters, fadeaways, finger rolls ... basically, a Swiss army knife of skills to ingrain in the coaches’ memory banks.
Don’t get the wrong idea. Henderson was by no means perfect. But he demonstrated a marketable asset for an aspiring D-League role player — a capacity to make his opponent work.
Anderson, bless his heart, did not.
A year earlier, Morris felt jilted when the Stampede denied him an invite. He thought his tryout was exceptional and expected a coach to at least tell him where he had to improve. But this time, just as Abelson foreshadowed, Anderson simply had a bad day.
His jumpers were wayward, his command of the offense so-so, and when he missed a wide-open dunk toward the tail end of the scrimmage, you were just begging for the game clock to flash 0:00.
“I thought I could have done better,” said Anderson, forever gracious. “I was a lot more aggressive, but I just kind of put it in my head that the coach had his eye on me. Last year, I hit all my shots. This year, it wasn’t as good.”
After that second run, Abelson gathered everyone around him, collected their jerseys, exhorted that they stay in shape, and said the coaches would make a decision after the Boise tryout.
Voogd was deservedly content with his showing. Hartman was equally satisfied, and while he asserted that he was not apprehensive about the results, his attitude changed considerably when I called him a couple weeks later (more on that in a second).
As for Henderson? Well, he’d be a lot tougher to get ahold of. Knowing his anxiety levels would skyrocket the longer he went without a call from the Stampede, Shawn came up with a solution.
“I’m keeping my phone on silent,” he said.
Henderson’s phone was more than just silent — it had gone dark. Texts went unreturned, and six calls over two days were all sent straight to voicemail.
Had he become a recluse?
Was he suddenly depressed?
Actually, he took a job with a Finnish team two weeks before the open tryout results were released.
I tried calling Shawn in late October to inform him that the Stampede were not inviting him to camp. Henderson, however, had hopped on a plane to Helsinki in mid-October to ink a six-month deal with his new club.
By email, he said the opportunity in Finland was one he could not pass up, and that if he attends a national D-League tryout next year, “I’ll get picked EASY.”
As far as the separation from his family goes ...
“I feel like when the time is right, the right move will be made,” Henderson said. “Right now, I am still establishing myself/getting my foot in the door, but I can honestly say things are going real good.”
Goodwin, his girlfriend, remains supportive, although the 10-hour time difference severely hinders the already limited access she has to Shawn. Even so, her hopes for a fairy-tale future echo that of her child’s father.
“I feel so weird. But he said this is for the better,” Goodwin said. “I have been here this long. I’m going to stick with him.”
Only one year separates Henderson and Morris Anderson, but their approaches toward the game now sit galaxies apart.
Not so surprisingly, Anderson was denied an invitation to camp, but the dismissal may have permanently altered his role in his family’s life.
For years, Morris’ wife, Jessica, would lug their daughter, Jordan, to games in Bellingham while Anderson stoked his hoop dream’s fire. But these days, it looks as though Dad will be the one in the seats — perhaps with a video camera — watching Jordan’s dance recitals.
“I’m at the point now where I need to be more of a man, where I need to provide, where I need to be there,” Anderson said. “As far as trying to make it real big, I’m done. I mean, you always think that you could have done more, but I’m satisfied. And I’m still gonna keep playing. Me and my buddies, we’ll still be playing in tournaments here and there.”
After the tryout, the official Alex Hartman stance was that an invitation to Stampede camp would just be icing on the cake. But as the weeks passed, he realized just how scrumptious icing was.
While the lockout may not affect the D-League’s schedule, it does create a unique opportunity for NBDL players in that they will be called up en masse once play resumes due to a need for bodies. And given Hartman’s ever-growing confidence, that potential exposure elevated his hopes to the penthouse.
“You know, I am kind of hoping on this now. I really do hope this works out for me. This has been the year where I’ve played the best,” Hartman said two weeks ago. “I want the lockout to end. I want my opportunity to show the league that I’m capable.”
Plus, Hartman is one of the good guys — a man who always greets you with a smile, who consistently praises his teammates, and whose dedication to youth and the community seems genuine.
If there is a movie-script character from this group, it’s him.
Unfortunately, Hollywood is 1,000 miles south.
A flurry of players from last year’s Stampede roster decided to rejoin the team the day before the deadline. Four of them played Hartman’s position. In short, Alex did not receive an invitation.
Hartman’s initial reaction was that no matter who the four players were, he was “probably better than them.” But the tone of my last conversation with him was not one of spite or dejection, but rather acceptance.
“It’s OK. It’s all right. If it all ended today, I couldn’t complain. I have gotten to play in different countries every year. I played on the Canadian national team. I’ve won MVPs and scoring titles, and I’m just 26. It’s been an awesome experience,” Hartman said. “I’m still going to work on basketball, but I think now it becomes the No. 2 priority.”
Ben Voogd also was on the cusp of demoting hoops — well, at least playing hoops — on his priority totem pole. He made it clear that if Idaho did not invite him to camp, his focus would turn exclusively to coaching.
He was not invited.
No, Voogd was so good, that the Stampede got him a contract with the D-League and told him there was an excellent chance they would select him in the NBDL draft.
The news reinvigorated Ben’s optimism toward his playing future. He said that while he initially viewed being cut last year as “a sign that I look at other options,” this opportunity had him “really excited.” The New Hope Christian magazine even interviewed him for a feature story.
Then draft day came last Thursday — and no team called Voogd’s name.
A slew of players Idaho expected other teams to pick kept slipping down the draft board, so the Stampede selected them at Ben’s expense. Monday, Voogd spoke with Abelson and discovered he wouldn’t be going to camp either.
“It’s a little disappointing because I was kind of planning on heading over there,” Voogd said. “But I’m still the same guy I was yesterday. I’m content.”
Then, whether he was aware of it or not, Voogd spoke for more than just himself.
“Now, I’m ready for the next chapter of my life.”
Matt Calkins can be contacted at 360-735-4528 or firstname.lastname@example.org