John Denton's Erie BayHawks Tryout Experience

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By John Denton
Sept. 14, 2014

ORLANDO -- Even with the knifing pain in my left hamstring, the three-alarm fire in my lungs and fatigue level of a marathon runner – nothing was going to rob me of the sheer, unadulterated joy of seeing my jump shot rip through the nets on Sunday morning.

I was talked into participating in the Open Tryouts for the Orlando Magic’s Developmental League team, the Erie BayHawks, and if nothing else I lived to tell about it. Considering I was the only player there with gray in my goatee and on the wrong side of 40, I considered that a major success. (FYI, I am writing this OrlandoMagic.com story with two bags of frozen peas wrapped around my aching hammy.)

As it turns out, I wasn’t one of the 20 players kept following the first round of cuts on Sunday morning at Orlando’s Barnett Park gymnasium. Maybe, just maybe, the Magic’s Director of Pro Scouting/Bayhawks GM Harold Ellis didn’t see that nifty 12-foot jump shot that I hit during one of the two scrimmage sessions that I, ummmm, endured.

``I had an early scouting report on you and I thought you were a stretch-four, but now I think you are more of a (center),’’ Ellis said, clearly making reference to my lack of speed and leaping ability. ``I’ve got to give you credit for the jump shot and the nice cross-court pass that you made. And on the sprints, I had to bump you up to a `six’ (rating) because you weren’t the first guy to throw up. At least you beat out that guy.’’

Or maybe new BayHawks coach Bill Peterson didn’t get a chance to see my two-point, one-rebound, one-assist and one-turnover performance – all career highs by the way. ``You busted that jumper like a pro,’’ Coach P raved.

OK, so they saw the one shot that I drilled from the baseline even though I was just behind the backboard and had a 6-foot-8 guy charging at me who looked like he belonged on the Tampa Bay Bucs defensive line. Remarkably, the coaches, scouts and staff with the BayHawks didn’t think I was worthy of an invite to the team’s D-League training camp. They must have heard that I’m a big wimp when it comes to cold weather and I actually prefer living in Orlando as opposed to lovely Erie, Pa.

The Open Tryouts attracted a crowd of 80 former high school, college and European pro players willing to pay the $150 entry fee and live the hoop dream for three hours. Players, including yours truly, were put through stretching exercises, sprint work, shooting drills, 4-on-4 and 5-on-5 games and an instructional session where five offensive sets were taught.

Some of the players, such as 7-foot-2 center Cleon Penn, 6-9 power forward Keith DeWitt and former Florida State standout Luke Loucks, were special invites to the camp, played well and could ultimately make it to Erie for training camp.

And then there were delusional dreamers like myself, the other guy who set off the fire alarm when he tried going through an unauthorized exit to vomit and the 5-foot-6 point guard who would have trouble making the local YMCA team. I don’t need to tell you that the last guy was wearing New York Knicks shorts.

In addition to harboring the dream of possibly playing professionally, they were all there on Sunday for one common reason: The love of the game. And anyone who has ever fought for a rebound, sprinted up and down the court or drilled a shot in someone’s face can respect the passion that players have for the game of basketball.
``There is a great level of admiration for how hard some of these guys are working. With a lot of these guys they knew coming in it was a long shot of making the team, but they came anyway and worked hard,’’ said Loucks, a Clearwater native who played at FSU from 2008-12 and has since played professionally in Latvia, Cyprus and Belgium. ``There were some really good players out here and I was proud to be a part of it.’’

The players also got a fiery introduction from Peterson, whose passion for basketball and teaching the game comes through his every word. Peterson, a pro and college coach for more than 30 years, has worked in player development with the likes of Dirk Nowitzki and he’s overjoyed with the opportunity to work with the Magic and BayHawks players in Erie.

Peterson opened Sunday’s session by telling the players that they would be graded on three criteria: He wanted them to compete and play with passion; he wanted them to be able to think on their feet and adapt; and he wanted to see players who were willing learners who had a desire to improve.

``I love the passion shown today. Everybody has a dream and for these guys this was an opportunity to step toward that dream,’’ Peterson said. ``Not all of them will make it, but just having the opportunity is huge. A lot of people don’t ever get the opportunity to make it, but this is really important to a lot of these guys.’’

PERFECT EXAMPLE

For those on the courts Sunday living the dream of getting a shot at playing professional, they needed look no further than Ellis, who is heading into his third season with the Magic as the Director of Pro Scouting.

Ellis, a 1992 graduate of Morehouse College, made a USBL roster out of a tryout camp similar to the one on Sunday n Orlando. While playing in the NBDL, Ellis caught the eye of scouts and he was invited to compete in a NBA mini-camp for the Los Angeles Clippers. After getting cut from a squad in training camp in 1994, Ellis eventually made it to the NBA on a full-time basis and spent three seasons with the Denver Nuggets and Clippers.

Ellis told Sunday’s campers that if he could make it to the NBA through a tryout camp that they could do the same thing. He said he was blown away by the response to Sunday’s camp and he appreciated the energy brought to the workout.

``This is some people’s dream to try out for the NBDL and possibly even the NBA. A lot of these guys are journeymen, but they are still here because they have that dream and they love the game,’’ Ellis said. ``We had guys come from Washington state and Jamaica coming here just for a tryout. That’s the love and passion for this sport that some guys have. We just to try and develop guys who we think have a shot. But the level of intensity here is amazing. Guys took this really serious like they want this to be their livelihood and I think it’s awesome to see.’’

MY MOMENT OF GLORY

``Awesome,’’ was probably not a word that came to mind when Magic Assistant GM Matt Lloyd, Magic Basketball Operations Manager/BayHawks GM George Rodman, Director of Basketball Administration Michael Arcieri and Ellis saw me go through the drills and scrimmage sessions.

A quick scouting report on me: I’m 6-foot-5, but I don’t block shots; I’m a wide body, but I don’t rebound anything that doesn’t land in my lap; and I love to shoot, but you might struggle getting the Oviedo phone book under my sneakers when I rise for a jump shot. Even calling it a jump shot is a misnomer.

As fate would have it, I drilled my first two 3-pointers during a shooting drill. Then, right as Lloyd walked into the gym, I air-balled a try from the wing as we were installing our ``Floppy side’’ offensive set. ``He’s cut,’’ Matt cracked to fellow Magic staffer, Dan Savage.

As fate would have it, Part II: About two seconds into our sprint work, I felt a burning sensation hit my left hamstring. I looked around to see if there was a sniper in the gym that had shot me, but unfortunately it was my brittle leg muscle barking instead. Rude, don’t you think, that no one told me there would be sprinting on this test.

From there, I wised up, strategically skipped the agility work and, you know, running stuff and jumped in for the half-court drills. My goal of not getting hurt was out the window, so now I was simply in full-on survival mode.

In my two 6-minute scrimmage sessions, I was matched up against a couple of 6-foot-7 power forwards. I didn’t get many rebounds – OK, I did stagger into one board – but they didn’t get many either. Maybe it was because I was hanging all over them, but I somehow survived.

My first shot attempt came on a delayed fastbreak when a teammate spotted me wheezing up the wing. My 3-point shot hit the front of the rim (whew!!!) and it may or may not have come after I travelled while setting my feet properly for the heave.

Seconds later, I seized my opportunity when the ball came to me in my absolute sweet spot – the left baseline. I can’t defend, jump, rebound or beat a tortoise off the dribble, but I can still hit that corner jump shot. I’m convinced that I could still fall out of bed and make 40 percent of those open 3s from the corner – as long as I didn’t have to, you know, run the court, rebound or actually guard someone. (By the way, I’m hoping that Magic GM Rob Hennigan and head coach Jacque Vaughn are reading this so I can get a 10-day contract later in the season).

While running our ``drag’’ offensive set, I cut to the basket and then floated to a spot on the baseline about 12 feet from the rim. Not because that was the play design, but because I’m allergic to paint and/or contact in basketball these days. The drive-and-kick pass went slightly through my hands, but I corralled it and set myself. Really, it was as if I was playing with blinders on. All I saw was the rim – and that 290-pound dude responsible for guarding me headed my way.

I was slightly behind the backboard when I caught the pass, so my shot had to be perfectly on line. When the attempt left my hands, I was already happy because I knew it was in. (Shooters know, trust me. Kidding!!!) And the moment was only made sweeter when some of the Magic staffers sitting nearby cheered for my made jump shot.

It was, in a few rods, a dream come true. I knew that I wasn’t going to make the team – and would have mercifully declined even if I did – but calmly drilling that one shot made my season – and the start of Magic training camp is still more than two weeks away.

I’ve covered and written about professional basketball for 16 years, so I have a very good idea of just how great the athletes are in the NBA. And I’ve certainly played my share of pick-up ball and rec-league games to know that basketball players love the game they play more than any other in any other sport.

That passion and love for basketball was the prevailing emotion on Sunday. It was apparent in the pros hoping to get a shot with the Magic’s D-League team. It was apparent with the small-college players who were overlooked and passed over. And it was apparent to an old-timer like me who can’t play a lick, but still loves the game of basketball and has that passion coursing through my veins.

I didn’t make the BayHawks, but I’ll always have that shot from the left baseline. And for someone who lives for basketball, the sheer, unadulterated joy of seeing that jump shot rip through the nets will live on in my psyche for years to come.

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