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Raptors 905 Open Tryout – Controlling Nerves

We won’t know who managed their nerves well enough for some time still.

New Raptors 905 Head Coach Jama Mahlalela at the team's open tryout (courtesy: Andrew Damelin)

“How you guys doin’? What’s up man? I’m Myck. Pleasure.”

Myck Kabongo introduces himself to the tiny throng of media members at the Raptors 905 open tryout at the University of Toronto-Mississauga. A McDonald’s All-American in 2011, Kabongo had a tumultuous stint at the University of Texas, where he was suspended 23 games for alleged inappropriate contact with an agent. After his sophomore year he declared for the NBA draft, only to go unselected. Since then, he’s spent time in the (then) D-League, and played professionally in Italy, Spain and France. It’s natural to attribute Kabongo’s incident at Texas as the main reason for not making the NBA, but he isn’t having it.

“It was never set in stone for me to be in the NBA,” the soft-spoken guard says after the morning portion of the tryout.

“I just know what I can control – that’s my hard work, and bringing it every day, that’s the kind of mentality I have. If (it’s) gonna happen, it’s gonna happen, if it’s meant to be.”

But the chance to join not only the professional ranks, but a franchise that has proven it can develop NBA talent weighed on the 26-year old, who is running out of shots to realize his NBA dream.

“I was nervous. Of course. You wanna go good. You wanna impress,” Kabongo admits. “I’m pretty sure everyone in this gym will say they were a little nervous. If they didn’t they’re lying. Because it’s a great opportunity. It’s a chance of a lifetime, right? You’re a step away from the NBA. It’s pretty nerve-wracking, but at the same time once you do finally get here the nerves go away for me. It’s just the waking up process to get here. I skipped breakfast, so now I’m a little hungry. The nerves can catch with anybody.”

Myck Kabongo, foreground, gets set for a 1 on 1 drill at the Raptors 905 open tryout (photo courtesy: Andrew Damelin)

While Kabongo is on the upper tier of the talent pool, Saturday’s tryout is filled with strong candidates. Several players have professional experience, while others dominate their men’s leagues. Only a few sore thumbs stick out; Carlo Coliacovo, former Leafs defenceman, for one. He found out about the tryout while interviewing new 905 Head Coach Jama Mahlalela on his radio show and decided to show up. Otherwise the competition is fierce.

David Makamba, a smooth ball-handling two-guard who’s spent two seasons playing professionally in Spain, gives a nervous laugh when asked about getting set for the tryout.

“(The) nerves hit me this morning,” Makamba says.  “I woke up around 5am to prepare myself. A big event like this – I know it’s an opportunity. Knowing it’s a big league, the nerves will kick in. When I came and prepped myself I felt nice. Felt confident. Now I feel like I can control my nerves.”

Makamba controlled the anxiety nicely in the 4 on 4 portion of the morning, taking every chance he could to take his man off the dribble and finishing strong at the rim.

“I gave a quick stare hoping someone saw me, peep what I just did,” Makamba says with a smile. “It’s all about focusing. I’m sure someone’s gonna see me. Just gotta stay confident about that.”

Makamba’s background is Congolese. He’s quick to mention his admiration for Serge Ibaka, Dikembe Mutombo, and Emanual Mudiay – all born in the Congo. Despite the long odds of making the NBA, Makamba knows how unlikely it was for his predecessors to make it, which helps him stay inspired to keep working.

“I wasn’t too nervous because I have a son at home. I’m happy,” says Mirza Milak in the sweetest response of the day. Milak, who played for Mohawk College, is a mover for 2 Men and a Truck. He’s never played professionally, but has the confidence of an established star.

“I know my skills are very high and I can play with the best,” Milak says, adding that he’s always been the number one option on his men’s league teams. He played against the likes of Cory Joseph in high school, and would drop the day job for a chance to play pro ball.

“Basketball is my life after my son and my wife. It’s what I love most,” Milak says. “I’d love to live a life playing basketball, or even teaching the game. Anything to do with the game would be a dream come true and heaven for me.”

With about 80 people in a cramped gym you might expect some talent to slip through the cracks. But Coach Mahlalela is methodical about the selection process. The first filter will be the players’ performance in 5 on 5, which will comprise the entire second half of the tryout session. The first half of the day consisted of various shooting drills, 4 on 4, 3 on 3, and a spirited 1 on 1 tournament, but apparently none of that is terribly significant to Mahlalela.

“You can do a million drills for 20 hours in a row, but it doesn’t really tell you ‘are you a basketball player’,” says Mahlalela, who spent three seasons as a player development coach under Dwane Casey’s Raptors (he spent two more as a regular assistant.)

“Whenever you need to find talent you gotta let them play 5 on 5 and replicate what the actual game is. In those moments you start to see the nuances and the skill the players would have in a 5 on 5 scenario.”

By day’s end, Mahlalela and his staff will whittle the group down to about 20, a list which will be confidential until training camp.  Then further workouts will be conducted, along with extensive background checks of each player. The staff will look at what they’ve done for the last 5 years, and their previous coaches will be contacted to get a better sense of who they’re dealing with. After that, another round of tryouts will be held, whilch will pare the group down again. Then it’s on to individual workouts with the 905 coaches as well as with the present 905 roster. After the draft on October 20, Mahlalela will scramble to put together his roster before opening night on November 3.

On that day, we’ll find out who managed their nerves enough to land a job as a professional basketball player.

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