It’s 9 a.m. and the prospects gathered at Holy Angels Academy are issued a stern warning by Tawan Slaughter. The tryout for the Los Angeles Summer Pro League will not only be a test of basketball skills but also physical conditioning.
Slaughter, the president/owner of the fledgling Buffalo 716ers, wasn’t kidding. After running three man-weaves 17s, where players run from sideline to sideline 17 times, and defensive-slide suicides, Raheem Clements says to no one in particular, “My legs are dead.”
“Man,” says another, “this [expletive] ain’t no joke.”
Indeed, there’s a price to pursue dreams. The combine started with 25 participants and ended with 17. In July, Slaughter is taking the top 13 players from Saturday’s tryout to play in the SPL, a proving ground over the years for more than 800 current and former NBA players. Magic Johnson is listed as an alum, as are Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki. Within 48 hours, the players will receive an email whether they make the team or not.
Many of the players are from outside the area, including Devon Phillip from the Caribbean. Amir Billups, who attended Starpoint and played at Fredonia, has an uncle, Vory (who went to St. Bonaventure but couldn’t play due to medical reasons) and lists Clippers guard Chauncey Billups as his cousin.
In L.A., players will compete in front of scouts from the NBA and D-League as well as international scouts. According to the SPL website, 18 players secured pro contracts last summer. Players paid $150 to tryout Saturday and have to pay their way for a two-week stay in L.A. It’s a nominal investment, said Slaughter, for those trying to continue their basketball careers.
“You have to evaluate it, is $1,000 worth it? It’s up to you.” she said. “You’re going to have the scouts there to see you at every level. You make the investment, you put in the hard work, you’ll get the reward.”
Players like Clements, a smooth shooter and scorer, are hungry for the chance.
“If basketball is your dream, and you want to take your game to the next level, then it’s worth it,” said Clements, who lived in Buffalo until he was 16 but played high school hoops in Florida. “It’s an opportunity to play against ex-NBA players and that’s something that you can put on your resume.”
This isn’t Clements first rodeo on the combine circuit. He’s been to tryouts with as many as 200 participants where players are “running around with their heads cut off.”
“They just throw the ball out there and everybody just plays,” he said. “But the 716ers really did their thing here. You can be seen here because of the small size.”
Saturday’s tryout was streamed live on the team’s website and feeds could be found on Twitter and Facebook. Slaughter said several scouts watched the broadcast on the off chance they could uncover some talent.
It was slim pickings at first but there were two guys wearing jeans who are draining jumpers and easily converting 360 dunks. No one seems to know why they aren’t trying out.
During one drill, the ball slipped from Clements’ hands like a wet bar of soap. “Didn’t feel right,” he said.
Clements mother, sitting on the sidelines, didn’t want to hear it.
“If it’s not right, make it right,” she said, pointing her finger for emphasis. “Stop talking about it.”
Slaughter sets up a chair beyond the right three-point arc for shooting drills for the perimeter players.
“OK,” she says, “let’s shoot some threes.”
After the group misfires on 8 of 10 attempts, Slaughter moves the chair to the left wing.
“OK,” she says, “let’s make some threes.”
The talent starts to emerge during the scrimmage, especially from the 32-year-old Phillip, who looks the part of Iron Man and has shoulders that stretch from here to his native Grenada.
“It’s nice here, they have a wood floor,” Phillip said about the Holy Angels facility. “Back home it’s concrete and hot sun.”
In 2004, he wanted to play college basketball in the U.S. until Hurricane Ivan destroyed his home. It took Phillip another eight years to land a visa to come to the states.
“I’m lucky to be alive,” he said. “It was very devastating. It was 160 miles per hour.”
Players bounce off the muscular Phillip and every rebound belongs to him. Shots are redirected into the stands. Finally, Devyn Erwin, a 6-foot-8 big man from Albany, had enough and gave Phillip some love, American style, with an elbow into his right shoulder.
“Don’t kill me boy!” Phillip yelled before flicking off the pain.
It’s a good chance Phillip will receive a “yes” from Slaughter. After the game, Phillip walks by Slaughter and says he’ll sleep with his fingers crossed and she tells him he played well.
“Hopefully,” Phillip says, “I’ll see you soon.”