The scouts wore blasé expressions even as they cataloged every pick, roll and box-out. The home team's coyote mascot momentarily got stuck in the rim while climbing down from the backboard, before delicately extricating himself. The 5,300 seats were mainly empty, the videos shown on the scoreboard looked as if they'd been produced at a cable-access studio, and the music thumped as gratingly and monotonously as in, well, an NBA arena.
Welcome to the D-League Showcase, a four-day event held last week at Qwest Arena in downtown Boise, Idaho, that gave 141 minor leaguers a chance to make their cases for promotion. Each of the 14 NBA Development League's teams played two regular-season games -- with matchups staged one after another, starting as early as 11 a.m. and concluding after nine each night -- in one location, as more than 60 NBA executives and scouts sought a fill-in in case of an injury or trade. (In the D-League's 6 1/2 years, 68 players have received NBA contracts, including 10 this season.) Think of the Showcase as American Idol for role players. For as much as the scouts were interested in prolific scorers and rebounders, they also coveted players who could fill a specific defensive need or make the extra pass. More than anything, they were looking for reliability.
The Showcase performances, like Idol auditions, were largely uneven. Which is no surprise given that every player in the D-League is there for a reason: Some are too small or too slow for their position; others have flaws in their character or holes in their game. Nine draft picks were on assignment from their NBA clubs, and two had their moments. JamesOn Curry, a 6' 3" guard selected by the Chicago Bulls out of Oklahoma State in the second round of the 2007 draft, erupted for 34 points in the Iowa Energy's opener -- but two nights later he was held to six, and his team lost both games. Shannon Brown, an '06 first-rounder from Michigan State, delivered a pair of impressive performances for the Rio Grande Valley (Texas) Vipers, scoring a combined 63 points in his two games, and was almost immediately recalled by the Cleveland Cavaliers. But scouts were quick to point out that his jump shot remained inconsistent, a red flag for a 6' 4" shooting guard.
Most of the prospects, however, were free agents who could be signed by anyone -- like point guard Mike Taylor of the hometown Idaho Stampede. A week short of his 22nd birthday, he practically leaped over the shoulder of a defender in an opening win over Rio Grande Valley on Jan. 15. Yet that's not what had NBA scouts talking; instead they were perplexed to see that the roster listed Taylor as having played at UCLA. "I know everybody from UCLA," said one Eastern Conference executive, "and I don't remember any Mike Taylor."
After helping Idaho to a win over the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Mad Ants last Thursday, Taylor was asked about the discrepancy. "I don't know how they came up with UCLA," he said. "I'm from Iowa State."
"Actually, it helps you," a reporter told him. "They're all out there talking about you, trying to figure out who you are."
The showcase offered a range of players with disparate backgrounds -- journeymen desperate for another chance in the NBA and youngsters waiting for a spot in their parent club's rotation; those who had failed to live up to expectations and others who had never endured such burdens. The roster of the Stampede alone had a little of everything. Center Lance Allred, 26, played two years at Utah and two at Weber State, then divided a season among four European teams. Shooting guard Roberto Bergersen is a 32-year-old Boise State alum who after a six-year career overseas returned to live year-round in the city with his wife and three young boys. Forward Brent Petway, 22, played four years at Michigan but didn't develop much beyond his dunking ability. Puerto Rico native Ricky Sanchez, a 20-year-old forward, was an '05 second-round pick by the Portland Trail Blazers out of the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla; he is now property of the Philadelphia 76ers, the third NBA team to hold his rights.
Center Mouhamed Sene, 21, was assigned to the Stampede on Dec. 26 by the Seattle SuperSonics, who after taking him with the No. 10 pick in the 2006 draft had realized little return for his two-year, $3.3 million contract. (Sene played 28 games as a rookie and only nine this season before being assigned.) Thanks in part to NBA commissioner David Stern's 2005 agreement with the players' association that seldom-used rookies and sophomores like Sene could be dispatched to minor league affiliates, D-League attendance and sponsorships have increased significantly. But few prospects needed as much refining as Sene, a long-armed 7-footer from Senegal who had been selected after blocking nine shots at the Nike Hoop Summit 11 weeks before the draft.
Because of the Sonics' huge financial investment, Sene was -- by D-League terms, at least -- a man of wealth and privilege for whom doors were opened and opportunities created. Seattle director of pro player personnel Bill Branch attended Sene's practices in Boise, met with him after games and urged Idaho coach Bryan Gates to increase Sene's playing time in order to make the parent club happy. Sene's minutes went from 21 on Jan. 15 to 28 last Thursday to 32 in a post-Showcase game last Saturday in which he poured in a career-high 26 points.
The Stampede's other NBA assignee was 6' 10" rookie power forward Josh McRoberts, 20, who is earning a more reasonable $427,163 as a second-round pick, from Duke, of the Trail Blazers. In his first Showcase game -- he was sent down by Portland only four days earlier -- McRoberts missed all six of his shots, scowled at Gates while receiving extra instruction and committed five turnovers, including a reckless, one-handed jai alai heave while Idaho was squandering a 16-point lead. "Just make a good pass, boy!" scolded Petway as McRoberts took a seat during a timeout.
But when Stampede point guard Randy Livingston missed a runner in the final seconds of the game, guess who tipped the loose ball to himself for his 12th rebound, which helped clinch the 93-89 victory? As McRoberts sat down during another timeout, Livingston said just loud enough for everyone to hear, "Josh! Good rebound."
Two nights later, NBA TV strapped a microphone to Livingston's belly and aired his comments during Idaho's second game. He received a bit of media instruction before the tip-off from former Milwaukee Bucks coach Terry Stotts, the D-League's new coaches consultant. "You've got to come over and have a conversation with the coach, because you're the coach on the floor," Stotts said. "You've got to have a conversation with a young player, because then you're mentoring. You've got to talk to the officials. And you've got to swear some. Those are all the things you have to do."
Livingston is the best player in the D-League, its reigning MVP. At 32 he earns the maximum of $26,600, but he isn't fazed by the low pay. For one thing, he has spent parts of each of the previous 11 seasons in the NBA; though he had played in just 220 regular-season and playoff games, his various appearances had added up to a lucrative living. "If you get called up to the NBA for two 10-day contracts," points out an NBA scout, "that's $150,000 right there."
But Livingston has more than 10-day contracts on his mind. He has heard that the Boston Celtics are in need of a backup point guard, and he wants to receive consideration if the job were ever posted. "I know Gary Payton and Travis Best are a couple of veteran guys who have thrown their names in the mix," says the 6'?4" Livingston. "But I really believe that I could help that team. I have a great relationship with Danny Ainge -- I played for him in Phoenix. I'm big enough to guard Chauncey [Billups, the Detroit Pistons' All-Star point guard]. I'm playoff-tested: I've played in a conference finals, I've played in four playoff series. [Signing with the Celtics is] kind of my dream, but I haven't told a lot of people that."
Livingston has another reason for sticking around: to get his bachelor's degree. He left LSU after three seasons in 1996 without a diploma, and D-League players can take classes online free of charge through the University of Phoenix. He is majoring in mass communications with a minor in political science, and he hopes to coach college basketball, perhaps as early as next season.
But Livingston will find it difficult to stop playing while he remains so effective. Through Sunday he was averaging 16.2 points and a league-high 11.1 assists in 40.4 minutes and had led the Stampede to a 17-5 record, the best in the league. Most impressive is his enthusiasm despite misfortune that might have made others feel cheated: When Livingston arrived in Baton Rouge in 1993 he was viewed as a peer to Jason Kidd, a rare blend of instinct, intelligence and slashing athletic talent. But two major knee injuries limited him to 31 games at LSU, and now here he was a dozen years later in Boise.
"If I wasn't getting hurt and I was a superstar at the next level, I don't know if I would have been as humble and appreciative of a lot of things," he says. "Maybe I wouldn't care about helping the young guys out. Maybe I wouldn't care about the game as much because I had so much athletic ability. Looking back on it, I just know in my heart I would have been one of the best guards to ever play. But off the court? I don't know."
In the locker room before the Stampede took the floor for its opening game of the Showcase, Gates addressed the tension felt by every player but Sene, McRoberts and perhaps Livingston. The rest knew that dozens of NBA talent evaluators were in the stands and that one big outing might change their careers. "You guys have worked so hard for one of these moments," the coach said. "All these guys are watching because you've earned the right for them to watch you play."
The speech was meant particularly for Allred, the 6' 11", 250-pound center who had come a long way just to reach this point. An illness at birth cost Allred 75% of his hearing, and he was raised in polygamist communities in Montana and Utah before his parents left the Allred Group, which was founded by Lance's grandfather Rulon Allred, who was assassinated by rival polygamists in 1977. "It's amazing if you sit in a polygamist home long enough and just watch from the kitchen table," Lance says. "You see the several wives or sister wives, you see all the manipulating and politicking going on, and it's just fascinating. They'll team up and say, 'We've got to get our husband to do this, let's all stick together.' But then one of them goes away, and then another one goes away and another -- and then when the husband comes back in the room and they're all away but one, she will sell them all down the river to the husband to get what she wants.
"But it's nothing I want any part of. Because marriage with one person, that's hard enough. Imagine being married to seven people?"
Allred, who is single, did not play organized basketball until he was 14, and he had to learn how to read defenders and others' body language to compensate for what he couldn't hear on the court. (He removes his $5,000 hearing aids before games because crowd noise -- even in the sparsely populated D-League arenas -- renders them ineffective.) In the fall of 2006 he barely made the Stampede roster but then took advantage of late-season openings and played well enough over the last three weeks to enter training camp last fall as Idaho's starting center, with a salary of $24,000. He was averaging a solid 18.8 points and 10.6 rebounds entering the Showcase yet had been able to sleep only three hours on the eve of the Stampede's first game, so consumed was he by this rare opportunity to prove that he was capable of playing in the NBA. An obsessive-compulsive personality who tends to demand perfection of himself, he lay on his back near Idaho's bench before the introductions with his knees bent high like twin pyramids, his thumbs wedged in between his teeth. This is my energy, he told himself. All I can do is worry about what I can control and not the stuff that's beyond my control.
Three minutes into the game he took a pass from his roommate, forward Cory Violette, and spun in a short turnaround jumper. "Hitting your first shot, that's always crucial," he said afterward. He tipped in another basket, sank another short jumper and then squared up from 16 feet, launching a jump shot with a two-handed style reminiscent of grainy films from the 1960s. The ball settled softly into the net like a cat snuggling into a blanket.
Rebound and run, Allred kept reminding himself. Rebound and run and keep it simple. He finished the opening quarter with 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting and six rebounds. His final numbers were just as impressive: a team-high 24 points (9 of 11 from the field) and 12 rebounds in 25 minutes of Idaho's win. Because first impressions are so crucial, it was exactly the performance he would have asked for.
Afterward and through the rest of the week, Allred and his agent, John Greig, received congratulations and assurances that a callup to the NBA would be forthcoming. And so they waited. As of Sunday they were still waiting -- as was every other player who had been in Boise except for Shannon Brown.