What Am I Talking About?
If you want to see Limbo on Earth, the NBA G-League is where you should look. Don’t be confused though; as minor league athletes we are not waiting for prayers from our loved ones to deliver us to the top of our sport; we’re working for our own deliverance. I work for mine on tennis courts around the world, while these guys work for theirs in Arenas around North America.
The G-League is Dante’s first circle of Hell- full of good players born at the wrong time. This Limbo is filled with drudgery and monotony; practices that seem to blend together and days that seem to take forever add up to weeks you can’t remember; but there is also hope and enthusiasm because we know we’re one big break away from the pinnacle of our sport. Sometimes it takes years to catch that break, and sometimes that break never comes; that’s a reality we all know and accept. You can’t play pro sports if you can’t accept that possibility.
Three weeks ago, I went down to the Westchester County Center, to watch the Westchester Knicks take on the Grand Rapid Drive; both are affiliates of the NBA teams in Detroit and New York. The G-League is like Triple-A Baseball; the players are a part of the professional franchise, but chances are high they’ll never reach the big leagues. I was only there to do a podcast with one of the Drive players after the game. How weird- go to a game, leave thinking about purgatory.
As soon as I walked into the arena I noticed the strangest difference between an NBA game and a G-League game, the concession stands. I thought all concession stands were created equal, but the ones at the Westchester County Center were clearly subpar. Coors Light and hotdogs or buffalo chicken strips, that’s all it had to offer. And soda. Ok, they also had candy. A piece of me loved that even the concession stands weren’t NBA quality. Maybe the concession stands are the only things in the G-League not trying to make the NBA. There was a dispiriting nod to a VIP area that seemed like a joke to even have, and what’s more, it might have been the worst section in the house.
From my balcony seat I started watching the players warm up, all with their own ball, all doing their own thing. There was no coach on the court directing them, there were no layup lines; big guys were doing post moves while guards got shots up over imaginary defenders. Everyone was wearing some different combination of team gear. A couple guys were talking; a couple guys had headphones in. The court could have been full of guys shooting around at the YMCA waiting to run fives. Players seemed blasé, as if this weren’t another night with their life on the line.
Every night has the potential to change their lives. I can’t believe we’re not celebrating these guys. This is a whole different form of entertainment than the NBA; this game, and these players, will connect with you. If you’ve ever built something up in your mind only to be disappointed by the time it comes true, the atmosphere surrounding these guys is one you know well. To think that these guys are a couple good games away from the NBA, and this is all they get is cringeworthy.
The intimacy of the arena made it possible for me to hear everything the refs, coaches, and players were saying to each other, including the time one ref said, “Grand Rapids, this is your last warning.” I won’t write down the colorful phrases I heard come from the players.
The arena’s ushers couldn’t have cared less which seat I was assigned; I shouldn’t have even bothered buying a ticket. There was no jumbotron showing replays or highlights, the music jolted out of what sounded like blown car speakers, and between me and the other 97 people in attendance, the atmosphere was underwhelming if you weren’t there for basketball. Like a dry wedding, it had all the makings of a good time, but something was missing. For a sports fan, though, it was paradise; the land of no distractions.
In theory, everyone involved in this game- players, coaches, referees and trainers- are hoping to be called up to the NBA. The way heaven keeps Christians on Earth motivated, the thought of reaching the NBA keeps these guys on their own righteous path.
During my interview with Knicks Guard, Buay Tuach, he explained to me that players are trying to get to the NBA one of two ways; either by scoring an ungodly number of points every night and standing out, or by being a great role player who could easily fit into any NBA team’s system. As I watched the game, I could tell that Trey Burke, Point Guard for the Knicks, was trying to stand out. With the ball in his hands, the functional Knicks offense stopped and the Trey Burke show began. This season, in Westchester, he’s been averaging 26 points per game, and shooting nearly 50% from the field. It’s tough to argue with production like that. But Buay Tuach has chosen a different route to the NBA; he’s chosen to spend his limited game time trying to run the offense the coach wants. Tuach thinks his path to the NBA is by fitting in, rather than standing out; to be proficient in all areas of the game, rather than excelling in one. It seems the safer of the two paths to take, and, definitely, the one to which teammates will respond more positively.
These guys will either be delivered unto the NBA, or done away with forever; only 33% of G-Leaguers ever make it to the NBA. Every taped ankle, Charlie Horse, jammed thumb and cramped bus ride is recompense for the sins of one’s college playing days. Days when they should have been more focused on basketball, or at least should have had a stronger belief in themselves. Guys either repent for poor showings in years previous and double time it to make the NBA, or they’re out for good.
Still, as tough as their situation is, a tennis player, would kill to have coaches and trainers to help him along. Isn’t it funny how we always want ‘more’, and if we can’t have ‘more’ we may even settle for just ‘something else’. These guys wish they had better coaches, I wish I had coaches, and some players just wish they had a shot. Learning to focus on what you have, and not to covet thy neighbors goods are why we think sports teach us life lessons. For Trey Burke, former 9th overall draft pick in 2013, his time in the G-League is part of his basketball career the same way his time in the NBA is. Burke enjoyed a fantastic rookie year with the Utah Jazz, but has since been on a multi-year odyssey in search of redemption and salvation.
To be a coach at this level is to be a person who helps make other’s dreams come true. While there are enough people already who don’t believe dreams can ever turn into realities, creating some who do is of utmost importance. In my experience, coaches will change the lives of every player they meet in one way or another. Of course, not every player gets to the NBA, but the important thing is for coaches to try and spur athletes on.
Unlike any other level of coaching, this tier has a palpable sense of urgency that reverberates around the arena. Good high school players will go D1, inevitably they’ll land somewhere and grow their game. Good D1 players will go to the NBA, sure. But after college, there are no guarantees for “good” college players; time is essentially up for them to grow their game. After college, if a player does want to grow his game, he’ll have to play in a foreign country on a salary that’s hard to feed a family with. It is quite literally now or never for everyone on a G-League roster, and as a coach, they’re all looking at you for deliverance to the NBA.
Right now, three weeks since I went to the game, I just saw that Trey Burke got called up and signed onto the New York Knicks. Buay Tuach, Burke’s backup, remains in Westchester trying to fit himself into the system. Maybe redemption is possible. What if we fanned our own sparks of hope instead of snuffing them out. In his first games with the Knicks, Burke has played well, and proven himself worthy of deliverance to the NBA. Burke got the call up because the Knicks need help putting points on the board, which is exactly what he has been specializing in while with Westchester. It will be interesting to see whether Burke tries to dominate Madison Square Garden as he did the Westchester County Center.
Is it now Burke’s turn to buy into the system? Now Burke may get to know himself in a whole new way; he’s been to the Promised Land, and he’s been exiled: but who is he now? As an athlete, I’ve heard sermons from coaches around the world about how every game can teach you something about life; all the clichés. But if those coaches are right, Trey Burke may have found himself a permanent home in the NBA through all he’s learned. If there’s any player in the to watch, in any sport, right now, it’s Trey Burke. Every night you know you’re watching a man with his dreams, as well as his career, on the line.