By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
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By Charles Lam
Photo by Jack GouldIt's a beautiful Saturday, and you'd have to be an idiot to be sitting in Long Beach State's dank West Gymnasium. An idiot or a relative or a scout or a guy looking for a job.
As it stands, there are about 40 people inside the gym, 16 of whom are basketball players trying out for the Fila Summer Pro League (SPL). The SPL, which opens Friday and runs through Aug. 1 in the Long Beach State Pyramid, is one of the country's top summer basketball leagues. Its marquee draw is its NBA entries, teams made up of high-profile rookies—Kobe Bryant made his debut on a Lakers team in the SPL three years ago—bench players, guys coming back from injuries, and free agents attempting to latch on with an NBA franchise.
But there are other teams, teams that go by the names of Headliners and Fast Breakers and Enterprises, all of them made up of guys trying to latch on with a team. Any team.
"You know, ultimately, the NBA is everyone's dream," says Kevin Byrne, one of the hopefuls. "But that probably isn't going to happen right now. So you're looking to make a team to get some exposure and make some contacts overseas. Trying out here amounts to a job interview."
There was a time when the only place a guy could hope to play internationally was Italy or Spain. But with basketball's explosion in popularity around the world, Larry Creger, who runs the SPL camp, says a player "can play just about anywhere and earn really good money. Anywhere from $30,000 to six figures."
In all, about 60 players have paid to go through the four-day camp. Anyone can sign up:there are no height, weight and/or talent requirements. That's obvious watching Saturday's action. Some guys play in what appear to be running shoes; several have, well, big guts; and at least one appears to have never shot a basketball before in his life.
"I think one of the best things the league does is make clear to some guys that they were never meant to play pro basketball and that they should get on with their lives," Creger says.
But some players have the polish of a college product. Byrne, who played high school ball at Estancia High in Costa Mesa, just finished at the University of Idaho, where he started at center. He's 6-foot-10 and 240 pounds, which will get him noticed in a supermarket but doesn't necessarily turn a basketball head.
"The fact he's big can be an advantage, but it's not going to guarantee he makes a team," says Ryan Schmidt, who is coaching Byrne's team. About 20 percent of those trying out will be assigned to SPL teams, in large part based on how they play in camp games. "This camp is all about seeing who can play."
Byrne had ripped up in a game the night before, going off for 23 points. But things aren't going as smoothly today. Matched against 7-foot Alonzo Johnson, a guy who played at LSU before transferring to California Christian College in Fresno, a guy who says, "I get up to play big guys," Byrne struggles to find a rhythm. Johnson and Byrne tussle throughout. Elbows are thrown. At one point, Johnson flops before Byrne and draws an offensive foul. Moments later, Johnson takes a fistful of Byrne's jersey and is called for a foul. He feigns shock, then winks at Byrne. So it goes for most participants. The competition is intense, sometimes brutal, but always with recognition of shared circumstances.
"You have to be that way," Johnson says. "It has to be a religious thing. I'm not kidding. The minute you think you're beat, you're beat, because somebody else hungrier than you will take your place. Everyone knows that here."
Byrne scores in double figures but is less than thrilled with his performance. Eager to play to his strength, speed and mobility, he felt locked up. Stuffing his gear in a small nylon backpack, he says: "I'm not too happy. I don't think I played very fluid."
If the SPL turns him down, he does have something to fall back on. He and his brother have talked about starting a transport service for troubled youths. "Basically, it's an escort service, just not one with hookers," he said. "But I'm really not ready to give up on basketball."
The next day, Byrne gets the word. He'll be placed on an SPL team this summer. There are no guarantees, and he won't be paid for his time.
"It's a shot," he says. "That's all you can hope for."