Getting to the NBA is not easy. Of the millions of kids playing basketball around the world today, only a very small percentage will make it to the Association. Along the way, there will be highs and lows, ups and downs.
As they prepare for the 2007-08 season, 30 current players reflect back on their journey to the NBA and some of the things they went through to fulfill their dream of playing basketball for a living.
Any one give you basketball advice that you thought was particularly compelling?
AJ: I think because I played in North Carolina, coach Smith always gave the best advice. He knew I wanted to be a professional athlete but he was like the most important thing is being a great human being also, trying to be a better human being than a basketball player. If I do those things, he guaranteed I'd be a special NBA player. His whole philosophy was being to break out off the court. Dealing with the talent and being able to take care of yourself on the court.
The best advice I received was to continue to work on your craft, no matter how good you think you are there is always room for improvement. Every year you pretty much have to add something to your game. For me it was just working on the things I did well and improve on a lot of my weaknesses also.
Finish this sentence: "Growing up the basketball court was my..."
AJ: My sanctuary. After school, if it was rainy, no matter what ... basketball was my sanctuary, my life, it's what I enjoy doing. It's what I had to do, I wasn't happy unless I was playing the game of basketball. I think growing up basketball was my sanctuary.
What would you have done to play on a basketball playground even if it was just to shoot around?
AJ: It's kinda hard to say now because I have a family but growing up my life depended on playing basketball. If I couldn't play basketball, there was no way I could survive. It was my life, it was something I enjoyed doing and something I had to do. So I would put my life on the line as far as playing a game of basketball.
Did you have a basketball hero as a kid and why that person?
AJ: I really tried to emulate everything that Scottie Pippen did. He was an all-around basketball player, playing defense. He was able to bring the ball up the court. He was able to shoot the ball, he was able to post up. Some of the things he did I really emulated and I wanted to be like.
What was your favorite childhood basketball memory?
AJ: It would probably have to be AAU. It was the first opportunity I ever had to call myself a champion. We won the 17-and-under and 19-and-under championship. Nothing like that has ever occurred. You know watching the Jordan Bulls and Magic Lakers, you always wanted to have that feeling of winning a championship and hoisting that trophy and cutting down the nets. That was the first opportunity that I had to experience that. When I got to college, I got to experience that more playing in ACC tournaments and got to the finals. But definitely AAU was a special experience for me.
What advice would you give to someone who aspires to play in the NBA?
AJ: The most important advice is to always follow your dreams and always believe. During my journey, there were a lot of people who tried to throw obstacles and prevent me from accomplishing my goals. So the most important thing is to really believe and trust in yourself that you have the talent and what it takes not only to be an NBA player, but a successful NBA player at that.
How old were you when you received your first basketball and what did it feel like to have your very own?
AJ: I can't recall the age but I know it was very young. For me, I was one of those cats who went to sleep with a basketball, in the house bouncing the basketball. From my understanding, it was from the time I started walking and I am kind of doing the same thing to my son. It is one of those things that as long as I can remember, I always had a basketball.
When did you realize you had serious game?
AJ: I would say probably my first year in high school. My high school coach thought that I had the potential and he told me he hadn't seen anyone play like that since Dominique Wilkins. To hear him say that meant a lot to me and I actually believed that I had what it takes to be in the NBA. So I would say my first open gym game for my high school coach was the first opportunity that I really believed I had the talent to make it to the NBA.
Did it ever strike you in the middle of a game in front of a packed house, "Man, I can't believe I'm here"?
AJ: All the time, just starting training camp and realizing that there are a lot of guys who want to make the team but don't know if they are going to make it. Of course, throughout the season when different scenarios come up when you hit a game winner or you do something important that puts your team in a situation to win I always feel like I have done something special. Of course, in the playoffs that is when it is ultimate because everyone is playing and contending for a championship.
If you hit some big shots or you do something important for your team, it is always a great feeling because it is magnified ten times. AJ: I sit back and recollect every time I am out there on the court. I am just grateful to have this opportunity because there are a lot of people who don't get this opportunity to do something that I am doing, and who would love to be in my place. For me, to do something that I love and enjoy doing and just have fun doing is something special. Every time I am out there on the court there are just different memories that come up time after time as far as having this opportunity to do something that I love to do.
How proud is your family that you made it to the NBA?
AJ: Very proud. My family has been there from day one. My dad has come to all of my practices and games and things like that. At first it was hard for mom to watch, but now she is like a coach almost. But I think that is the greatest feeling because they were with me when I set out to take the journey as far as making it to the NBA. They were with me through the hard times and the great times. For them to see me, their son ten years in the league and him doing something he loves to do or their brother doing something special, they can hold their head up high. That is the best feeling any basketball player or son or brother can ever have, as far as doing things like that for their family and friends.