Charged Up

Oct 9, 2017

 

Putting amateur basketball skills to the test at minor league Canton Charge tryouts

 

 

Words by Henry Palattella | Photos by Devon Keller

 

A noise my ears have welcomed for as long as I can remember sends me into panic. Boom, boom, boom — the dribbling of a basketball, a sound that typically excites me. It transports me to shooting hoops in my driveway or gathering courtside with friends to enjoy a game.

Now, however, the bang of ball meeting court has taken on a new meaning. I’m left in fear as a hulking 6-foot-plus man charges in my direction, bouncing the ball ahead of him. It’s a sobering scenario that immediately reminds me just how out of my league I really am.

He closes in on me and time stops. Everybody’s attention is on me as they wait to feast their collective eyes on a catastrophic embarrassment.

How did I get myself into this position? I step up to the three-point line and await the pass. He gets closer and …

____

It all started last fall when I was working on a story about Chris Evans, a former Kent State basketball star playing for the Canton Charge, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ minor league affiliate. After taking in a Charge home game, I found out Evans made the team from a local tryout.

The tryout, which was open to anyone who was a year removed from high school, costs $100, but presents you with an opportunity to earn an invitation to the Charge’s training camp.

That promise brought 75 people of different ages and backgrounds to the Canton McKinley High School fieldhouse on the morning of Sept. 23 for the tryout.

Some had previously played basketball professionally overseas or for other minor league teams. This couldn’t be said for the whole group, however, as some looked to be there for fun, or maybe just to prove to themselves they still had a little bit of game left.

Everyone at the tryout at least looked like they had played basketball at some point beyond middle school. Everyone except for me. I was the last man of the bench in both seventh and eighth grade, and elected to play soccer and run track in high school. I’m an avid fan, but sadly my physical talents don’t match my unparalleled enjoyment for the sport.

But that didn’t stop me from being in the middle of everyone else there. I’m a 20-year-old college student who lacks the fundamentals to keep up with most guys on the Kent State Recreation and Wellness Center courts, let alone players who have played Division I basketball.

The disparity in skill and experience would soon be on full display.

____

The Charge serve as the G-League affiliate for the Cavs, meaning any player on their roster has the opportunity to be called up to play at the professional NBA level. I could see it in my head walking into the tryout: me rocking the wine and gold, throwing up alley-oops to LeBron James while the crowd chants my name.

That daydream is fresh in my mind when I arrive. I turn in my forms at the main table, put my belongings on the bleachers and immediately scope out the competition. A few early arrivals had already taken to the court to shoot hoops, but for the most part the fieldhouse is quiet.

All of the seating in the gym is above the court, reminiscent of the Roman Colosseum. I think of that analogy as I change. My shorts and jersey are my armor. The 28.7 by 15.2-meter court is the lion I need to defeat.

Ian Kreider, my roommate who had come to watch and take notes, roused me back to reality. He asks me if I am going to go through with it, and for a brief moment the idea of walking out sounds attractive. I could pack up, drive back to Kent, park on my couch and watch football on TV as opposed to running the risk of public embarrassment.

For some reason, I chose the embarrassment.


When I get to half court to start warming up, I realize my jersey is different than everyone else’s. My number is three, which is cool since I get to live my dream of wearing a jersey with a single digit. My excitement dwindles when I notice almost everyone else on the court has jerseys that read, “CHARGE BASKETBALL” with the Adidas logo across the front. Mine only has a small Charge logo on it. If all the other jerseys were varsity, mine would be JV.

I put my jersey differences aside and take my place near the hoop. We wait for a loose ball to rebound, not unlike sharks swarming a boat for food. Luckily, I manage to get a rebound, so I do what anyone would do and dribble out to the three-point line and put up a shot. And miss.

My ego checked, I grab another loose ball and take another shot. Nothing but net. I follow up with another make, and then another. But before I think too much about what my nickname will be in the pros, I’m deflated by an airball.

When the dust settles and the whistle blows to call us to center court, my confidence is somewhere in the middle. I made some shots, but had some bad misses sandwiched in there, too. Coach Nate Reinking thanks us all for coming, stressing we each play our own individual game and, if we did, a set of eyes would find us.

My game will surely get me noticed, just probably not in the right way.

Warmups begin — the easiest part of the day for me. We are told to line up on the baseline in order of height. I move toward the end of the line and find a spot I thought reflected my height, but someone nudges me, telling me to move further down.

Turns out at 5 feet 9 inches, I am the 11th shortest person at the tryout.

The first drill we run is a weave drill where we must total five passes before someone takes a shot. Everyone else there could probably do the weave drill in their sleep, but not me. The last time I did that, Owl City had a hit song and HD-TV wasn’t a thing. I jog my memory and run the drill well, save for one minor blip where a guy cut me, screwing everything up and causing the drill to restart.

“What the (obscenity) happened?” one guy asks to no one in particular. Good question, man.

Next, we break into four individual groups designed to test our skill sets. I didn’t see any stations involving 2000s sports trivia, so once again, I knew it would be a struggle for me.

The first drill we do is the pick and roll, where we set a pick for a teammate, then pop out to take a shot after a pass. I’m in the other line, however, in which someone dribbles past the pick. I take two dribbles to get past the guy setting the pick, one more dribble, then rise up for a jumper at the free throw line. Swish. Just like in the backyard.

I step into the other line to the sound of claps and encouragement from my teammates. Could I actually have a chance?

Now it’s my turn to set a pick. I run out to the free-throw line, post up, hands-on-crotch in typical pick fashion, and move into the block looking for my shot. But then a whistle blows. “Set a real pick, son,” the coach tells me.

I run out and aggressively put my hands on my crotch. It feels odd, but I don’t hear a whistle so it must’ve been an improvement on my last attempt. I complete the drill by going out for my shot, which was a miss. A bad miss.

OK, I definitely do not have a chance. What a difference one minute makes.  

After that, we do two groups catered to the worst part of my game: dribbling and post moves. I haven’t worked on my dribbling moves at any point in my life, so it’s a rough five minutes. I find more of the same in the next drill of post moves, where the majority of my shots end up in the hand of Charge assistant coach Melvin Ely, the 6-foot-10-inch stand-in defender we played against, rather than the basket.

The fourth and final drill we do is a shooting drill. No matter how inconsistent my jumper is, I’ve always loved shooting threes, so the thought of having a drill built around deep shooting has me all but salivating.

I miss my first shot from the corner, but knock down the second. And let me tell you, that feeling is one of the greatest of my life. So what my first shot was such a bad miss it almost hit the coach in the face? I hit a corner three. I ran back to the next line smiling.

I miss my next six shots before the drill ends, but my smile doesn’t fade.

After the drills, we split into two groups for a “three-on-two, two-on-one drill.” Three people go on offense against two defenders and have to put up a shot. The two defenders then go back on offense, with one person trailing back to play defense.

I ran it with one of the first units to do it, and knocked down a jumper fading from the right baseline, eliciting a reaction from coach Reinking. “We’ve got a shooter on our hands I see,” he says from the baseline. I crack a smile, head to midcourt and prepare to take on the three players on offense with my fellow defender — my fellow defender who isn’t there.

My partner misunderstood the drill and instead went to the other end of the court. I’m standing by myself.

Here I am, three freight trains of athleticism coming straight at me, the happy sound of dribbling tarnished with this new terrifying context. I move up to the three-point line anticipating a pass from the guy bringing the ball down the court. The pass doesn’t come. He’s going to try and dunk it. Over me.

I move out of the way, narrowly avoiding being dunked on. My last-second escape earns some laughs from spectators, but I can only imagine their reactions would be much more animated had he put me on a poster.

The final portion of the tryout is a series of small, five-minute five-on-five games. My team plays two games, and my stat line reflects the talent gap: zero for two shooting, four rebounds and one turnover.

After the games, coach Reinking calls us to the middle, congratulating us for making it to the end of the tryout. He lets us know they’ll have a game with the top talent after the second group went and to stick around in case our number is called.

After that, I go over to my belongings and decompress. I check my phone and let my family and friends know I survived. I talk to Ian, joking with him about the tryout before going over and talking to Sean Wyatt and Michael Clark, two of the Charge’s staff members who helped me organize my Charge stories in the past. They compliment me on my endurance and after that, I finally get to breathe.

Watching the tryout as an observer is the first time I am able to grasp the magnitude of the moment. I watch people throw up some bad misses, but I also see a guy split the lane and throw down a dunk. It seems for every average Joe, there is someone who’s playing their ass off with hopes of earning a shot.

Overall, the performances there are mixed. Some probably drove home happy, pleased with the performance they had, while others likely had a tougher trip back to their lives. For some, not making the cut maybe means another stint playing overseas, where the money is good, but the fans turn on you quickly. Maybe it means going to another team’s tryout. Or maybe it means something more drastic, like the end of a career.

Let’s just say I’m still waiting for my call.

Three days later, I decide to head to the Rec on campus to see if I absorbed anyone else’s talent during the tryout. I manage to play a couple games with varying degrees of difficulty. I knock down some shots I am supposed to miss and miss some shots I am supposed to make, but still, I hold my own. I work on some dribble moves that I saw people do at the tryout and practice one of the post moves coach Ely taught me.

I’ll probably never play among the level of talent I played with during the tryout or in front of a professional coach again. For me, basketball is a hobby, something I play to stay in shape and have fun. But for some, basketball is a career or a dream they choose to spend their life pursuing — even if it means spending a Saturday morning in a high school gym trying to impress a minor league team.

For three hours, it was my dream, too.

Ian Kreider, a sports reporter at The Kent Stater, contributed to this story.

For more on Henry’s experience at the tryouts, pick up the upcoming issue of The Burr Magazine, on stands this November.