‘Did I just get a concussion?’
In a battle for a rebound someone pops me in the face with an inadvertent forearm. Hard. My eyes water. I stagger away from the floor, wanting to sit out the rest of the 4-on-4 portion of the Raptors 905 open tryout. But everyone dismissively tells me to keep playing.
Today’s audition is professionally organized chaos. With 98 people crammed into a gym with two courts and six baskets, the drills are impossible to complete without impinging on other teams’ space. Plus the din of court squeaks and balls bouncing off the hardwood renders hearing the coaches’ instructions near impossible. The resulting confusion adds another layer of tension for those trying to live out their dreams as professional ballers.
I am not one of those dreamers, which makes my participation in the open tryout something of a moral quagmire (especially since I didn’t pay the $225 fee). I justify my presence by the fact I have to endure an escalating series of public humiliations. At 10am, after gathering at centre court for Head Coach Jama Mahlalela’s opening remarks, we’re divided into groups of 16, and assigned a hoop. We spend about five minutes at each basket doing various drills.
The first is simple enough – catch a pass in the corner, rip through, drive baseline, and finish a layup. But the second exercise exposes me. The action is to dribble around a screen at the top of the key, Euro-step inside the elbow, and shoot a floater. The issue? I’ve never practiced a Euro step, or a floater. The proceeding two drills are shooting NBA-length three pointers, which, if you didn’t know, are far. As a 6’5 forward whose range has never extended beyond Charles Oakley’s 18-foot sweet spot, the facade of me being a legit G League hopeful has been completely torn down within the first half hour. By this point my fellow competitors have gone from sizing me up, and being reticent to offer high fives as I go to the back of each line, to boisterously cheering on my earnest attempts to complete basic basketball tasks. The implication is clear – I’m no longer a threat.
But as the morning wears on it becomes clear (to me, at least) that spotting raw talent may not be the best way to evaluate the potential of the participants.
“Basketball is my life. (But) it’s not a life or death situation,” Jamaal Carter says un-ironically. Carter played for Division II Roberts Wesleyan followed by a stint of semi-pro ball in his hometown of Buffalo. Unfortunately for him, I’m on his 4-on-4 team, and conceding that board means we have to sit off for a few possessions and lose precious time to impress the 905 coaches and front office.
Jordan Poydras is a 6’5 guard with a feathery touch around the hoop, a springy vertical, and a double-figure scoring resume from his time at Utah Valley State. He’s another unlucky teammate of mine in the 4-on-4 session. In the spring months leading up to this tryout, Poydras wakes up to train at 5am, heads to work for his full time job, trains on his lunch break, finishes his 9-5, then trains in the evenings.
“If you love it and you want to make it your life you do whatever it takes,” Poydras says. “I know it’s not ideal, but I had to make money.” Poydras’s ridiculous train/work balance continues until July, at which point he attends Summer League, then quits his job to focus entirely on G League tryout season.
Unlike Carter, who cuts a stoic demeanor, Poydras appears stressed in the 4-on-4. The game involves five teams of four playing under one basket. If you score, or if you get a stop, you stay on the court. Our team has failed to get stops on multiple occasions, and Poydras is nervous he’s not getting noticed. On one possession I actually set a solid screen for him, he attracts a double team, delivers a perfect pass for me as I roll to the hoop, and I pass out to Carter for a three, which rims out. As we head off court Poydras chastises me for not going up. He needs me to make the right play, and I’ve let him down. But when we return to the court, Poydras goes to work with a series of sweet moves, keeping us on the court with a couple baskets. A few minutes later, the 905 coaches pull Poydras over to the other side of the gym, where a small group of legitimate candidates are emerging. I breathe a sigh of relief that my presence hasn’t cost a great player his chance.
“(I was) too excited for this tryout,” laments Jalen Johnson, my other 4-on-4 teammate. Johnson has been flying in from the States for this tryout since 2016. “I was very confident before I got here. And then when I walked in I just got really nervous for some reason, I don’t know why. But as I started playing the butterflies just went away.”
Sure, Carter, Poydras and Johnson share the common thread of exceptional talent. But, more pertinent, they are desperate, and not just in the intangible sense. They, along with a few other participants, have paid thousands of dollars to train and travel across the continent to find a G League gig.
“You try to come in and not have nerves, but you have to be the best out of 98, trying to be the top 3 out of 98 people. There’s obviously going to be nerves,” Poydras confesseses. “(You) just try to come in and fall back on the work you’ve put in. That’s what I tried to do.
“These opportunities,” Poydras pauses, reflecting. “…they charge you to be here – I just want to show what I can do. I’m paying for it so I really want to show exactly what I can do.”
“I wasn’t too nervous, but whenever you do anything of substance, you’re always going to have some nerves,” the soft-spoken and philosophical Carter says. “But I always say that – you’re not always going to be 100% calm – you’re gonna have to do things afraid. I’m just comfortable with that.”
“Every day you just want to try and get better. Just like with anything you want to do in your life. You can have a family, you want to try to improve your family’s situation. If you want to make as much as money as possible you want to try get better every single day. So when I say it’s my life I just try to get better every single day. I pay attention to the small details as far as putting in the effort, as well as trying to just improve, honestly.”
It’s convenient to boil an open tryout down to selecting the players with the most talent. But Mahlalela, General Manager Chad Sanders and the rest of the staff would seem to do better by taking the players this opportunity would mean the most to. If you’re willing to pay to try out, and in some cases, to forgo a significant salary overseas just for the chance to play for an NBA team’s minor league affiliate, you probably deserve a look. Remember the G League, and by extension, these open tryouts, aren’t meant to be searches for the next NBA superstar (though some have arisen, like Pascal Siakam and Rudy Gobert). They’re meant to find a key contributor or two that can compliment a team.
“It’s not always the best scorer, the person who looks the flashiest on the court,” Sanders says. “We’re looking to fill out a training camp roster. We need to fill certain positions to build around what we already have. You’re not just going to find the best two or five players to throw on the court at any time. You gotta fill everyone’s purpose and everyone’s role. Try to make the team work together the best way possible.”
Of course talent matters, and there was plenty at this tryout. But those that get training camp invites ought to have an equal mix of skill and passion if they’re going to be successful at the next level. Those at the tryout need look no further than the NBA-champion Raptors to see how a well-constructed team can rise to the highest spot in the sport.
By noon the morning session has wrapped, and I’ve proved about all I’m capable of (“We need to work on your ‘athletic finishing’,” Mahlalela tells me). I make my exit, forgoing the opportunity to play three more hours in the afternoon involving 5-on-5 scrimmages. While the legit triers-out play on, I opt for some ice cream then a three hour nap. After all, who am I to stand in the way of their dreams.