NCAA Division I Sports
NCAA Division I Sports
The NBA hopeful didn't think his dream career would involve eight teams in a year
By Eli Saslow | ESPN The Magazine
Originally published: May 14, 2014
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's May 26 Transactions Issue
THE LAST ROAD trip of the season is an eight-hour bus ride through the night on an aging charter. Vander Blue sinks into the worn upholstery and tries to sleep. At his feet sits a small duffel bag stuffed with the few belongings he has left: an Xbox, stereo headphones, three pairs of luxury sneakers and a few changes of clothes. At some point during the blur of the past nine months, he had grown tired of lugging a large suitcase from one city to another, from one efficiency apartment to the next. “Easier to move light and then buy a new wardrobe,” he had decided, and by now he has left behind clothes at Goodwill drops across the country, marking the long trail of his rookie year.
He has played 49 games in 27 cities; for 10 head coaches on eight different teams; in four professional leagues on three continents. “Helter-skelter crazy” is how he describes the year, and lately his mind has become scattered too.
On this April evening, Blue looks out the window of the bus and tries to determine his location. San Antonio? McAllen? Somewhere in Texas; that much he knows. He is a top guard prospect for the Idaho Stampede in the NBA Development League, but he wears socks from a stint with the Boston Celtics and a T-shirt from the Israeli Super League. He tries to remember which team he is playing against next. In what arena? And what is the name of his teammate sitting near the front of the bus, the backup center he has been referring to as Big Lanky?
Blue played four games with the Houston Rockets in the NBA summer league. “I've probably had like 200 teammates this year,” he says. “It gets hard keeping track.”
In moments like this one on the bus, Blue feels as if he is always in transit – always on the way somewhere but never quite arriving. He was almost an NBA regular, but not quite. He is almost getting paid what he calls “silly money” but still being lectured by his mother for spending $600 on sneakers. He is almost a top-tier professional, but he still occasionally answers to the nickname Kid.
The beginning of his career has unfolded in an endless string of transactions – not in blockbuster deals but in agate small print, the place where most professional careers quietly live, then die. Acquired and released. Acquired and released. He spent nine days on the Boston Celtics, then a day and a half on the Maine Red Claws; a month as a Philadelphia 76er, then a week as a Delaware 87er.
“I'm pretty good at keeping optimistic,” he says. “But I'm just so damn tired.”
The Stampede's bus finally pulls into a budget hotel on the outskirts of Dallas, and Blue checks into a room he has been assigned to share with a teammate. They are both hungry, so Blue volunteers to order a pizza. He calls to place the order and gives the clerk his credit card number.
“Sorry,” the clerk says. “That card was denied.”
“Again?” Blue says. The credit card company had blocked his account for suspicious activity at least half a dozen times in the past year; his moves are so incessant that the company often believes his card has been stolen. He had been declined when trying to buy dinner for a date at an Applebee's in Delaware. He had been declined again while buying shoes at a mall in Israel.
“Hello,” he says, when a representative from the credit card company finally answers. “You all blocked my card again.”
THIS IS HOW Blue imagined buying a pizza would work after he turned pro a year ago: A financial adviser would give him a credit card with no restrictions and no limit. An assistant would order his pizzas, custom-made from his favorite place in Wisconsin. A delivery guy would knock on the door of his hotel suite – 32nd floor, sweeping city views – and set down the pizzas next to an open bottle of Champagne. “Got to go chase that money” is what Blue told his family when he declared for the NBA draft. What he didn't know then was exactly how long that chase could last.
He had led Marquette to the Elite Eight as a junior, making the game-winning shot against Davidson in the team's opening game of the NCAA tournament, then scoring 29 points in a win over Butler. He went pro against his mother's advice and worked out for a dozen NBA teams, most of which couldn't decide whether to play him as a point guard or a shooting guard. He thought he would be drafted late in the first round or early in the second, but instead he went undrafted.
His mother, Rita, refused to respond to his text messages for two days, furious that he had left school without a degree. Blue was her youngest son, the baby of three, and they had never gone a day without talking. She had raised him as a single mother, and she had been to hundreds of his basketball games during the past decade.
“I need your help figuring this stuff out,” he wrote to her on their last day of silence.
“It's a business, and the wolves are descending,” she wrote back, and they made a deal to navigate his professional career together.
She scheduled meetings with his agent to discuss his options and called each team's payroll department so she would know how much money he was being paid, and when. His career started well, with a partial guarantee with the Philadelphia 76ers that amounted to more money than Rita earned in a typical year. Then he made $3,000 per month playing in the D-League, plus a $40 per diem on the road; then $30,000 for a 10-day contract in the NBA; then a salary in Israel that shifted with shekel-to-dollar conversion rates. “I'm basically needing to become a full-time accountant,” Rita says.
She watched him play on YouTube or foreign websites and called him the moment each game ended. “Hang in there,” she said again and again as he moved from his fourth NBA team to his second D-League team, because she knew from experience that a career required patience. She had worked a paper route, studied cosmetology and become a social worker, then rose to become the director of member engagement for the Girl Scouts. But she also believed in details, so she started monitoring her son's bank account early in the year and offering him spending advice, whether he wanted it or not.
“You can't spend $5,000 at the club just because you met some girl,” she once told him.
Mom Rita stopped speaking to Blue after he left school, but she's now helping him to manage his finances.
“Who spends $600 on sneakers?” she asked another day. “Haven't you ever heard of K-Swiss?”
One purchase frustrated her most of all. Midway through the season, he started to complain about feeling lonely on the road, unanchored. “I need a companion,” he said. He went to a breeder and picked out a German shepherd puppy, the cutest of the litter, and doted on her all afternoon. Then, 22 hours later, his agent called. Could he make it to Delaware by tip-off? “What do I do with the dog?” he asked, even though he already knew the answer. He returned the animal and cried as he drove to the airport for yet another flight, in a year that had become a scattershot collection of memories and places.
Memphis was his 21st birthday. Delaware was three roommates in a cold apartment. Philadelphia was his first hotel suite. Israel was the large cheese pizza he ordered every day because he didn't know what else to eat. Blue had never been out of the country for more than a few days, and he mostly stayed in the apartment he shared with the team's other American players playing Xbox. After eight lonely weeks abroad, he decided to switch to a new agent, who promised to find him a job closer to home.
Boston was a phone call, late in the morning of Jan. 22, with news that he had been offered a 10-day contract to play for the Celtics. Less than an hour later, a black town car was waiting outside his apartment in Delaware; the man behind the wheel wore a tuxedo and referred to him only as Mr. Blue. A few hours later, he was jogging onto the court in front of 15,000 fans to guard John Wall. He took four shots in five games and was not re-signed.
Idaho was the 60-inch flat-screen TV he purchased at Best Buy on a buyback guarantee because, by his eighth team, he had learned some tricks to living a peripatetic life. You could either buy a cheap TV in each city and somehow resell it, or you could blow it out, spend thousands on the nicest set in the store and return it for a full refund a few weeks later.
“I'm a victim of the system, but I can still work the system,” he says. “I know I'm going to be giving that TV back.”
AND DALLAS – Dallas is the end. “I'm ready for a break,” he says as he arrives at the arena three hours early for the last game of the D-League season. His legs are sore. His neck is stiff. He has heard rookies in the NBA complain to one another about the wear of a professional season, discussing all the ways in which team trainers, physicians and masseurs try to coax them through 82 games. The Stampede have only one part-time trainer, but Blue has yet to miss a workout. His only complaint is the unusually unforgiving hardwood floor on which the team sometimes practices at the local Boys & Girls Club.
But on this night, his concerns are mostly mental. The Final Four is about to tip off a few miles away, and the proximity makes him wonder what might have happened if he had stayed in college for his senior year. Maybe he could have taken Marquette to the Final Four. Maybe he would have been playing in front of a record crowd of 79,444, watching his draft stock rise. “Basketball Bonanza in Dallas,” read a headline in the newspaper that had been dropped outside of his hotel room that morning, and he had never felt more anonymous.
His teammates are hoping for what they called the spillover effect. The Final Four has brought the basketball elite to Dallas – thousands of coaches, hundreds of NBA scouts – and maybe a few would find their way to an arena next to a shopping mall outside Frisco, Texas. And sure enough, during warm-ups, Blue spots a courtside table of scouts wearing NBA sweatsuits. They are huddled around something, taking notes, and Blue dribbles over to get a closer look. At the center of the table he sees a TV, and he sees that the scouts are watching Florida play Connecticut on that TV.
Even once the game starts, everyone's attention seems to be turned away from the court. There is a rock-climbing wall and a clown juggling tennis rackets. There is a children's basketball game, and every few minutes their ball flies toward the professional court. Rap music blasts over the stereo system, and none of the players can hear the Stampede's head coach.
His teammates sulk and take wild shots, but Blue stands up on the bench, waves at his mom in the stands and tries to break-dance to the music. “You have two choices in the D-League, because the D mostly stands for depression,” he says. “You can wake up angry, which is what most guys do. You can obsess over your stats and feel like you're getting cheated. Or you can have fun and try to make the best of it. That's me.”
He has been told by scouts that he possesses all of the athleticism and ability to sustain an NBA career but none of the consistency. His defense is too erratic and his jump shot too streaky. Still, he believes his nine-month tour of the basketball world has made him a better player – humbled by the NBA talent level, toughened by Israel's bruising inside play and improved in his transition game by the frenetic pace of the D-League, in which defense of any kind is a rarity.
In Dallas, he comes off the bench to score a game-high 34 points in a comeback bid that falls short. The NBA scouts leave before his jumper starts falling. Afterward, he remains on the court in his jersey with the rest of the players as part of a 30-minute autograph session. A line forms behind the mascot and the cheerleaders, but Blue mostly stands alone under the basket, looking at his cellphone.
“Part of being a professional is putting up with stuff,” he says. “It's amazing the stuff we put up with.”
Shortly after the game, his phone rings. It's his agent, who has seen the box score and wants to talk about the next transaction in a year when there have already been too many transactions to remember.
“Thirty-four points!” the agent says. “You're hot.”
The Cleveland Cavaliers want a private workout. The Indiana Pacers are looking at him for their summer league team. There are good possibilities in Europe and China.
“Where do you want to go?” the agent asks, but by now Blue understands that in the life of a borderline pro there is only one answer.
“Anywhere,” he says.
Over nine months, Blue has never been on one roster for more than 12 straight games.
Houston Rockets 07.07.13
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