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The Anatomy of a D-League Call Up January 18, 2010

Posted by dczarum in Uncategorized.
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In a tiny office, in a non-descript high school just outside of Boise, Idaho, stand half a dozen or so unusually tall men. Individually, they are basketball players with dreams of playing in the NBA. Collectively, they are teammates on the NBA Developmental League’s Idaho Stampede basketball team. The players, some of whose names have NBA relevancy (journeyman Anthony Tolliver, Coby Karl, and rookie Patty Mills, to name three), have been called to a meeting by Stampede coach Robert MacKinnon. The quiet, nervous energy in the room suggests that the players aren’t quite sure why they are there. As they anxiously wait, in walks a short, white man with thinning hair and a bushy moustache who MacKinnon introduces as David Friedman, assistant coach for the Utah Jazz, one of the NBA teams affiliated with the Stampede. Friedman is an incredibly unassuming man who bears an eerie resemblance to Artie Fufkin (Polymer Records), both in appearance and demeanor. It’s hard to imagine that Friedman is going to make a life altering impact on one of these players’ lives, but that’s exactly what transpires. “The Utah Jazz, have the intent to sign Sundiata Gaines to a 10-day contract”, Friedman announces. Any feelings of nervousness are erased immediately, as a collective sigh of relief fills the room. Gaines, a guard from the University of Georgia, unleashes a grin wider than a Buick. “We’ve got you on a 5:45 flight to Salt Lake City”, Friedman tells him. “We have a game tomorrow”. Never one to pass up an opportunity to rile up the troops, MacKinnon raises his voice, and in pitch-perfect CoachSpeak proclaims to his players that “this is what this league is all about, right!? Now Sundiata gets his opportunity. And Sundiata, when you go up (to the NBA), please don’t come back”.

Please don’t come back. That sentence, in essence, tells you everything you need to know about the Developmental League. Established in 2001 in the hopes of becoming a fan-driven league that doubles as a breeding ground for young players, the NBDL has instead become a resting place for former college stars who couldn’t make it in the NBA (Nick Fazekas, James White), guys with extremely cool names (Rusty LaRue, Von Wafer, Latavious Williams), and other basketball vagabonds (Rafer Alston, Jamario Moon). A combination of players selfishly showcasing their own talents in lieu of winning games, and a collection of truly dismal team nicknames (Bakersfield Jam and Iowa Energy? Seriously?) has hurt the league’s popularity, but it has seen some success as a minor league of sorts. Some former D-Leaguer’s like the Rockets’ Chuck Hayes and the Warriors’ Kelenna Azubuike have become established NBA players, but most NBDL stories are of the rags-to-riches- to-rags variety.

Three NBA games, seventeen minutes of on-court experience, and just one official practice later, Sundiata Gaines is playing during the dying minutes of an extremely close home game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. EnergySolutions Arena is packed with overly excited Mormons (I hate to generalize, but I defy you to find me one non-Mormon Jazz fan. Like Captain Crunch and Santa, they don’t exist.), witnessing Lebron unleashing his arsenal of power moves and irrational fadeaway threes. Despite Lebron’s 20 points in the 4th quarter, the Jazz have the ball, down 2 points, with 5.6 seconds left. A failed play finds the ball in the hands of Sundiata Gaines, who, as the buzzer sounds, shoots a three with a hand in his face. Swish. Jazz win! Gaines, sporting that same Buick grin, stands in the middle of the court, engulfed by teammates. The next morning, the Jazz sign Gaines to a second 10-day contract extending his NBA life, albeit just barely. If history is any indication, Gaines is more likely to find himself back in the D-League as opposed to lasting with the Jazz, but for one night, at least, Gaines is the hero- the one who defeated the king. If the D-League never realizes its goals of becoming a globally popular, fan-driven minor basketball league, its failures won’t lie in providing these kinds of moments. Gaines’ buzzer-beater may be the biggest moment of his career or merely the first in a series of great moments. Regardless of how it turns out, this is what the D-League is about.