He was taping me on his phone while I was interviewing him with my phone.
His name is Benjamin Cumbo, Jr., a man with a dream, in a city of dreams, Washington, D.C.
“I didn’t get a chance to play high school ball,” Cumbo said Saturday morning. “I wasn’t good enough. Got cut from P.G. (Prince George’s) Community College. But I just believed in myself, and said I could play pro. I always held my own with you guys; I just couldn’t make it. And one day, playing down at Barry Farms (in D.C.), somebody saw me. Next thing you know, I’m at a Division I Juco, and it started my pro career.”
Cumbo was in his native DMV over the weekend with more than 100 other ballers who were at the open tryout for the Capital City Go-Go, the expansion team that will begin play this fall as the Washington Wizards’ G League affiliate and the 27th overall, as the NBA and G League inch ever closer to the one-to-one affiliation that has been a longtime goal. (Only the Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans and Denver Nuggets lack their own G League teams.)
Several franchises have figured out how to align their G League affiliates with their own vision, successfully developing their young players into key members of the parent club’s rotations. Washington saw that first-hand in the playoffs last spring, when the Toronto Raptors’ bench -- filled with Draft picks that got meaningful minutes with Raptors 905 in 2016 and ‘17 -- overwhelmed the Wizards at key moments.
But the open tryout is a staple everywhere around the G League, the ultimate updated Walter Mitty story: pay a one-time fee -- $150 here -- and you’ll get your shot. By rule, a G League team can only invite a maximum four players from these open tryouts to training camp.
So the Wizards’ staff, including President and General Manager Ernie Grunfeld and Senior Vice President of Basketball Operations Tommy Sheppard, joined the Go-Go staff, including first-year coach Jarell Christian, to have a look at the prospects, some of whom were there at 7 a.m. Saturday morning when the doors opened.
Workouts went on both on the main court, and on each of the two practice courts in the back. Behind the courts lay the family lounge -- replete with barber chairs, among the amenities most every NBA team now has in its practice facilities, the facilities themselves now part of the recruiting pitch for prospective free agents.
Indeed, the entire building, off Alabama Avenue in Southeast D.C., is a bet on a longshot. It is a part of the city that has, for so long, been left isolated, frankly, by the rest of us who live in town. It’s still a big deal when a grocery store opens in this part of town; there’s currently just the one in all of Ward 8, where the arena is located -- a Giant Foods about a mile down the road. But the run has always been good here -- mostly notably at the aforementioned Barry Farms, a now near-empty housing development which has the usual problems of a near-empty housing development, but has also served as the home of the Goodman League, the summer basketball tournament that has displayed just about every player of significance, college and pro, that ever laced up in the DMV.
Cumbo, Jr., grew up just over the D.C. line in Landover, Md. But he reps the city. And anything new rising up in Southeast gets noticed. The Go-Go, named after the iconic rhythmic sound that is quintessential D.C., can potentially provide connective tissue between a rich pro franchise and a community seeking believers in it.
(I get that the arena itself will ultimately be named for whatever corporate sponsor pays the most money. And, that’s fine. But the court has to be -- has to be -- called Chuck Brown Court, in honor of the late Godfather of Go-Go -- whose “Bustin’ Loose” is the city’s unofficial anthem. There’s word a statue of Chuck will be outside the arena, and that’s cool. The floor should still be his.)
“For one, I believe, it gives hope to the youth that don’t have that guidance that some people have,” Cumbo, Jr., said. “It gives opportunity for those that can’t afford that plane ticket to go to other tryouts in other states. It brings the NBA even closer to the youth, even older ones that’s still trying to make it. It’s like a glimmer of hope. Those who work out every day, three, four times a day, not working a job. But they believe, they believe, they believe.”
For now, let’s suspend the cynical notion that a new building often is less about the building than about the land surrounding it. And that NBA arenas are often constructed these days as part of real estate deals, not to satisfy the needs of season ticket holders. And that the site of the former St. Elizabeth’s mental hospital where the arena sits is one of the last undeveloped parcels of land this big remaining in the city.
At its peak, “St. E’s,” as it was known in D.C., housed more than 7,000 patients, but by the beginning of the 21st century, almost all of its remaining patients had been sent elsewhere. (One of the last patients at St. Elizabeth’s was John Hinckley, found not guilty by reason of insanity in the attempted assassination of President Reagan in 1981. He was released in 2016.)
The Department of Homeland Security planned to put a massive footprint on St. E’s west campus, but the project has run into significant delays and cost overruns. The “St. Elizabeth’s East Entertainment and Sports Arena” is on the other side of the campus. The arena seats more than 4,000 people and will be the basketball operations home of all of owner Ted Leonsis’ teams -- the Wizards, the Mystics and the Go-Go. The Wizards will still play downtown, along with the Stanley Cup-champion Washington Capitals, at Capital One Arena, but they will practice in Southeast starting with training camp in a couple of weeks. The Mystics and Go-Go will play and practice here.
Putting the building in one of the least-served parts of the city could be, as D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser says, “bigger than basketball” -- if the building serves as an economic engine for this part of town as Capital One has done for downtown, and if Ward 8/Southeast residents get a solid chunk of the better-paying, more permanent jobs associated with the arena. But it’s a slippery slope. Gentrification has marched through D.C. as it has so many cities and so many who used to live here no longer can afford to do so.
But, a dream is a powerful thing -- even when the city is footing most of the bill for this $69 million building.
This open tryout, like so many like it around the G League, wasn’t really all that open. The Wizards already have their two players signed to two-way contracts for next season -- guard Jordan McRae and forward Devin Robinson -- and the Go-Go already has signed its Exhibit 10 players, including former 76ers and Knicks guard Chasson Randle.
(A refresher: two-way players can bounce back between the G League and the NBA all season. But if the player is with the NBA team for 45 or more days, the player must either be sent down the G League team for the rest of the season or have his G League contract converted into a minimum NBA contract. Exhibit 10 players are players signed to G League contracts, which pay a minimum of $35,000 a year. But Exhibit 10 players can get bonuses from their G League teams for as much as an additional $50,000. The bonuses are in place to help keep players from bolting overseas for more lucrative deals. Exhibit 10 players can be invited to the parent club’s training camp, but even if they’re cut from the NBA team, they still get their $50,000 bonus if they stay on their G League team for at least 60 days.)
But a dream is a powerful thing. Especially if it only costs a buck fifty to fulfill.
“Like I said to them when I addressed them, Jonathon Simmons was in the exact same situation as they were,” said the Go-Go’s first-year General Manager, Pops Mensah-Bonsu.
He was referring to the now near-mythic tale of Simmons borrowing the $150 from his mother in 2013 to attend the Austin Toros’ workout. Simmons parlayed that into a two-year stint in Austin with the Spurs’ G League team, followed by a two-year guaranteed deal with the Spurs, followed by a three-year, $20 million deal with the Orlando Magic in free agency last summer.
Cumbo still believes. He grew up in P.G. County, had some pickup runs, he says, with Kevin Durant, Ty Lawson and Quinn Cook. He’s played in the Premier Basketball League and the newest incarnation of the American Basketball Association -- think high school gyms, not Julius Erving and George Gervin. Now, he’s a basketball skills trainer who wants to use this experience to better prepare his clients for the rigors of competing at the highest levels.
“They saw I could pass, they saw I was vocal, they saw I could lead a team,” he said. “They wanted to see if I could score off the pick, score off the screen, so I just showed them a little of that. Of course, some little fouls here and there and they didn’t call it. But it wasn’t too bad.”
We believe in fairy tales. We believe we’re going to win the Lottery. We believe in the plucky underdog. But there’s a reason almost all the tickets given out at the pari-mutuel window wind up on the race track floor.
“There’s some things in life called reality,” Christian said.
“I know in some other tryouts, there has been the guy who showed up who was born in the ‘50s, and he had his Chuck Taylors on, and he was trying to just have one more go at it,” Christian said. “And I think those players kind of weed themselves (out) naturally. And I think by the end of it, if you’re a realistic person, you kind of know what’s going from here.”
We held our first ever “Open Tryout” yesterday and the day was an overall success!— Pops Mensah-Bonsu (@Pops) September 16, 2018
The talent from the DMV really showed and the players competed at a high level. We are excited to provide an opportunity for players to live out their dreams. 🙏🏿 https://t.co/hcK5yRR9Cz
Mensah-Bonsu was himself an NBA nomad, playing for five teams in four years before calling it quits as a player, but beginning his own rise up another ladder. After working for the National Basketball Players Association for a couple of years, he applied for the Go-Go job. He’d played locally at George Washington University and was frequently at Capital One Arena for union business, anyway.
He understood that, in a cruel turn disguised as a job requirement, he was now the one who would be snuffing out 99 percent of the dreams that were in full flower in the Go-Go’s new arena.
“I think one of the reasons I did decide to retire early and get on this side of the game is that I’ve been in similar situations,” he said. “I’ve been cut from multiple NBA teams, and I’ve been in situations where I thought I was good enough to make it. I was told, one way or another, that it wasn’t meant to be. And those situations were painful. I told myself if I ever had the opportunity to be in a situation like this, to do this job with integrity, and always do this job to the point where I’m honest, really, to the human side of things. And help guys out in that regard. Every single guy out here has a dream. Nobody’s out here to waste their money to come out here to play pickup.”
The majority of players playing Saturday were legit guys who’d already played in the G League during the past couple of years, or played on scholarship. There was all-MAAC selection Austin Tilghman from Monmouth, and former Fairleigh Dickinson guard Darian Anderson, who’d missed most of last season for the Knights with a foot injury. There were guys who’d played the last couple of summers in The Basketball Tournament, and guys who’ve been overseas hooping for a minute.
There was, also, an afternoon, invitation-only tryout for players who didn’t need to audition in the morning, which was slated to include players like former Lakers second-rounder Derrick Caracter and ex-Georgetown guard Austin Freeman.
And there was Orion Palmer, a lanky wing from Riverside, Calif. He was one of two hearing impaired players who tried out Saturday. He played locally for two years at Gallaudet University, a celebrated school for the deaf, averaging 13.3 points and 6.9 rebounds as a senior in 2014. But he’s not ready to hang up the uni. He coaches at youth camps in Arizona and California while continuing to chase the dream.
Among the things a deaf person who still want to hoop needs to do is to find an interpreter on the fly. Fortunately, Palmer was able to quickly a freelance ALS interpreter, Mia Engle. And though Engle said she knew next to nothing about basketball, she was able to translate “floppy” and “pick-and-pop” with no difficulty.
“I love basketball so much,” Palmer said through Engle. “It’s so much fun. And it’s really my passion. Basketball is a unique sport, and it’s a perfect fit for me -- and also for a deaf person, as a player.”
On the floor, Palmer needed no translator. The language of basketball doesn’t have an accent, or colloquialisms. The rhythm of the game speaks to those who play it, and who want to keep doing so.
They don’t care about the odds, or the numbers, or the reality that 99 percent of them will get nothing more out of their day on what should be Chuck Brown Court than a t-shirt.
The dream is a powerful thing.
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