The white BMW X3 raced up I-95, blaring Jadakiss and revving at 110 mph. The clock in the luxury car’s center console was ticking; the Minnesota Timberwolves and New York Knicks tipped in less than two hours at Madison Square Garden.
Roughly 75 minutes earlier, Sean Kilpatrick smiled for the Delaware 87ers’ 2014-15 team picture. The camera’s flash still stung his eyes when head coach Kevin Young broke the news: Minnesota had called Kilpatrick up from the D-League for a 10-day contract, requiring the Cincinnati product to reach the Big Apple by game time. Without Kilpatrick, the Wolves would have failed to dress the league-mandated minimum of eight players in uniform.
The pressures that consume a 10-day NBA contract are well-documented, but the stresses of the week-and-a-half audition begin immediately after the initial call. Players like Kilpatrick must frequently convene with their new team amid a road trip, and journeying to an NBA arena from small-city Delaware or Sioux Falls, S.D. can lead to panic-inducing itineraries. Oftentimes, proximity and travel logistics determine which player a team signs for a 10-day trial.
His dream in hand, Kilpatrick instantly hurried back to his team-provided housing inside Newark’s Valley Stream apartment complex. Jordan McRae, current Cavaliers guard and Kilpatrick’s former Delaware roommate of two years, instinctively grabbed a duffle bag out of the closet and tossed it onto Kilpatrick’s bed. Best friends haphazardly began stuffing 10 days of clothing and a lifetime of hoop dreams.
Kilpatrick’s mind raced as fast as his wheels up I-95. “I had a little giddy up on the highway,” Kilpatrick, now a starter for the Brooklyn Nets, remembered. “I kept telling myself, if I get pulled over by the cops, I’m gonna tell ‘em the reason why.” He sped north unscathed, likely covering the 134 miles between the Bob Carpenter Center and The Garden in record time. Traffic only slowed Kilpatrick once he approached Times Square.
When he finally arrived at Pennsylvania Plaza, Kilpatrick literally parked his car on 31st Street, tossed his keys to an MSG security guard and bolted for the Wolves’ locker room. “I just jumped right into the layup line,” he said. Kevin Garnett growled preparatory advice. Kevin Martin whispered “just play your game,” in Kilpatrick’s ear. He would play 10 minutes that evening, attempting one field goal and grabbing a rebound.
“They’re on a crash course,” Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson said of the 10-day whirlwind. “It’s not easy.”
One year later, Scott Nichols’s phone vibrated with a text message simply reading, “Where’s James?” The New Orleans Pelicans had seven players ruled out for the remainder of the 2015-16 season due to injury and needed Nichols’s client James Ennis in San Antonio for a date with the Spurs the following night. That Mar. 29 evening, Ennis was settling into bed at a Sioux Falls hotel when he received the fateful call.
He had just scored 21 points in the Iowa Energy’s D-League road loss to the Skyforce, but the Pelicans purchased a seat on a 6:07 a.m. flight connecting through Denver. Oversleeping or a flight delay would have quelled Ennis’s 10-day contract all together. His NBA redemption, having fizzled out of the Miami Heat organization, hung in the balance.
He landed in the Alamo around 4 p.m. that afternoon, carrying a bag packed only for the Energy’s one-game visit to South Dakota. Ennis’s family, also residing in Des Moines, overnighted a box of clothes to New Orleans, where the Pelicans would face the Denver Nuggets one day later. He joined his new team at the AT&T Center and improbably posted 13 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists. “Usually you can only get a guy up to speed on four or five sets before the game,” said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey.
Sometimes geographical luck strikes. In January 2015, when the Knicks called Langston Galloway up from their D-League affiliate in Westchester, N.Y., a cushy drive in a comped black car and a relaxing business class Acela train to D.C. delivered him to the basketball promised land. Tim Frazier, however, spent his private ride in turmoil.
The Philadelphia 76ers were in dire need of a point guard one month after the Knicks scooped up Galloway, the injury bug devouring the team’s employed ball handlers. With Frazier starring just two hours north of Boston for the Celtics’ D-League-affiliate Maine Red Claws in Portland, he was a natural fit to join the Sixers for their visit to TD Garden on Feb. 6.
Frazier answered Philly’s call the night prior and learned of his private, luxury sedan scheduled for the following morning. He drove over to the Red Claws’ headquarters inside the Portland Exposition Building, only to find the facility’s locked doors wouldn’t budge. Frazier’s sneaker collection remained barred, as every Red Claws employee with key access had already migrated south to attend Frazier’s NBA debut.
Having spent training camp with Boston that season, Frazier remembered he and Celtics guard Avery Bradley wore the same sized shoes. So he borrowed a pair from his ex-teammate, playing his first NBA regular season minutes in a retro pair of red, black and gray adidas Kobes. Originally released in 2000, back when Frazier was in middle school, the KOBEs are constructed like cinder blocks, designed to look like the Audi TT Roadster. They're clunky, the antithesis of the flywire, light-weight technology that has swept across the basketball shoe game. “They were heavy, but they were Kobes, so it’s all good,” Frazier said. Bulky sneakers be damned, he dished 11 assists to just two turnovers in 35 minutes off the bench.
Signing a 10-day contract can be the start of realizing your NBA dream; Kilpatrick, Ennis and Frazier all signed multi-year contracts this off–season. “S---, you’ll do anything. A bus, train, anything to go out there and showcase your talent,” Frazier said. But can you stomach the turbulent ride?