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'Some Guys Never Have a Shot': Inside the Life of an NBA D-Leaguer

The difference in talent between a D-League superstar and an NBA bench player is marginal. But the journey is almost impossible to make.
Photo by Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Exposition Building in Portland, Maine stands less than two miles away from the downtown waterfront. The building is 100 years old, and is the second oldest arena in continuous operation in the United States. The Beach Boys and James Brown have played The Expo; Presidents John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama have spoken here. Today, it's the home of the Maine Red Claws, the NBA Development League's Boston Celtics affiliate.


The Expo is only 105 miles north of the Celtics' home arena, the TD Garden. Not so far, but also as far as can be. Talent-wise, the difference between a D-League star and a NBA bench player is paper thin. But the the leap from small time to big time, from fast food to filet mignon, is nearly impossible to make, even if you are an athlete who can casually jump 40 inches up into the air.

There's a sign on a wall in The Expo opposite the Red Claws bench that reads, "The Road to Boston Begins in Maine." This is both false and true. For some players, the road to Boston begins in Boston. For others, the journey does begin in the D-League. The destination, if you reach it, can be lucrative and rewarding, but the road itself is lonely, perilous, and unforgiving. And sometimes it isn't fair.

"There are only 15 spots on every team," says Bill Peterson, who coaches the Erie BayHawks. "What people don't understand is that you're competing against everyone in the world who wants to play [in the NBA]."

Peterson has coached some of the best basketball players on the planet. As a graduate assistant at Louisiana Tech, he coached Karl Malone; in Dallas from 1998-2000, he helped develop a pair of young players named Dirk Nowitski and Steve Nash. Peterson was an assistant head coach at Colorado State for seven seasons before taking a similar role with the Milwaukee Bucks from 2007-13. He's witnessed the ascents of players who made it and the descents of players who did not.


"There's a handful of guys on every team that are here for a reason," says Scott Morrison, who is in his second season coaching the Maine Red Claws. "Some don't meet the prototypical size and athleticism. Some guys could probably work a little harder at improving some skills. And other guys have to work on their understanding of the game. Some guys never have a shot at making the league."

Hassan Whiteside has made the leap from D-Leaguer to NBA regular. Photo by Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

For the ones who do, the difference has more to do with performance and hard work than pedigree. Robert Covington began the year with the Grand Rapids Drive, but was called up before playing a game in the D-League this season. He's making a salary of $1 million dollars and averaging 13.2 ppg in Philadelphia; Elijah Millsap began the season as a member of the Bakersfield Jam and is now playing 20 minutes a night in Utah; Hassan Whiteside, averaging 10.1 ppg and 8.9 rpg for Miami, started the season with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. None of them came from a top D1 program. Covington played college ball at Tennessee State, Millsap at the University of Alabama Birmingham, and Whiteside at Marshall.

But for every Hassan Whiteside who has seemingly reached the promised land for good, there is a Chris Babb: undrafted out of Iowa State, and despite a couple of 10-day contracts with the Celtics last season, unable to stick on an NBA roster thus far.


In every game of basketball, regardless of scale, there is a best player on the court. For the Maine Red Claws, that person is Babb. The offense revolves around the 6'5" shooting guard. He touches the ball on almost every possession, he leads the team in points and minutes played. When the team needs a basket, they look to him; when the team needs a stop, the former All Big-12 Defensive Team forward will guard the opposition's best player.

Even to the untrained eye, Babb is clearly in charge on the court. He possesses the intangibles of a pro. He cheers his teammates on from the bench, he runs to help them off the floor.


"My role on this team is to be more of a shot taker and have more of a scoring role whereas in the league, last year with the Celtics, my role was more at the defensive end," says Babb, who earned nearly $30,000 from each of his 10-day contracts with the Celtics last season. "One of the main differences is every night you're playing against the best players in the world. Down here, some teams will have a couple players who are NBA caliber, but the main thing is that there's never a night off defensively in the NBA."

It's important to remember that, relatively speaking, the 200 or so players in the D-League have very few aspects of their game that need development. They are in phenomenal shape. They hit most of their uncontested jump shots. The aspects of their game that need improvement are mostly nuanced, some almost beyond understanding, and some intangible, like effort or maturity.

They are better at their jobs than we are at our own. Yet they occupy some ledge of perpetual almost-ness. The road to Boston is layered by clouds of uncertainty. Getting to the summit is both in and out of the control of the player.

One of the challenges of making the NBA is simply enduring the day to day uncertainty of what tomorrow will bring, and the physical and mental strain of life as a professional but minor league athlete. Waiting by the phone on a call that may not come is painful. Most of the appropriate analogies come from baseball. In Knocking on Heaven's Door, a book about baseball's minor leagues, author Marty Dobrow called it the "anguish of almost."


"You see [how hard it is] in some of the guys who get a 10 day contract," says Morrison. "They make more on their 10-day contract than they do for a full year [in the D-League]. On one hand it's a pretty big jump and you'd think guys would be real hungry and never take a minute off. But at the same time it's such a grind that, the average human being, you can't be pushing that hard for that long. You have to be extremely mentally tough and focused."

The NBA is the ultimate goal for every D-League player. The one he has envisioned since shooting solitary hoops as a kid at the park or in the driveway. The lifespan of an NBA career is fickle. Some guys hack it, some guys don't. But the financial rewards are there. The average salary in the NBA is $5.15 million; in the D-League, guys range from $13,000 to $25,000. Still, Babb, like most players, insists it's not about the money.

"Chasing money isn't my goal at this point," he says. "If that was the case, I would have just gone overseas this year. I've been chasing this goal. It's my lifelong dream. I feel like I had a piece of it this year and I was cut a little bit short. I feel like it was right there at my fingertips. I came back this year to give it another shot. Hopefully it pays off."

It's human instinct to believe more is better, especially when it comes to sports. Shoot more, rebound more, block more shots, and that will equate to an NBA deal.


The Portland Expo. Photo via Wiki Commons.

"You see some of the stats and you wonder why these guys aren't getting called up," says Morrison. "But the NBA already has a lot of guys who can do that already and they're looking for those niche players that can fill a role or not hurt them defensively, be team guys on offense, and more importantly, be okay with being on the bench and providing your energy and contributing that way."

"If I'm an NBA scout coming down to watch these guys, I'm looking for someone who stays after practice, who works on his body, who is tough and aggressive," said Peterson. "But more than that, I'd want these guys to put pressure on the guys ahead of them. It's dog eat dog. If you're really competitive and you push the guy ahead of you, there's nothing like competition to bring out the best in someone. I can scream and holler at someone all I want, I can teach him, I can talk and watch tape, but if they know someone behind them might take their spot, they gotta do something about it."


In the grand scheme of things, the sporting world is supposedly a meritocracy. The harder you work, the better you are at your job, the greater the spoils. But on the undefined margins of professional sports, merit is loosely defined. The players at the end of the bench in the NBA could be the same guys at center court for opening tip-off in the D-League and vice versa. There are some guys who've been both.

Babb was a member of the Eastern Conference D-League All-Star Team. He's among the best basketball players on the planet, but he is also subject to the whims of coaches, scouts, and executives. He's a pawn in a knight's body, having played for the Phoenix Suns Summer League team, for the Red Claws, and for the Celtics. He's been waived, he's been recalled to Maine. He's signed a multi-year contract and 10-day contracts. He's made the 100 mile drive between Portland and Boston (and back) many times now. He's slept in a few different hotel rooms just miles from the gyms he aspires to play in.

"The D-League will either make you or break you," says Babb, icing his knees after a 24 point, six assist, and five rebound game against Erie. "It's tough. Everything about it is just a grind. Either you can make excuses or you can turn a burden into a chip. Do what you want with it. I'd rather use it as a tool."