As I pull up to the parking lot of the Lakers and Sparks practice facility in El Segundo, I finally allow myself to face the question I was avoiding all throughout my commute: Why am I trying out for the Los Angeles Sparks male scout team?
Part of me acknowledges that it would be cool to try and check Sparks star Candace Parker. Another part of me realizes that I just really, really like basketball. But as I stare out of my windshield at the giant gym that awaits me, I come to the conclusion that I’m here simply to find out why everyone else is here. Who willingly signs up for a chance to get emasculated by WNBA players on a weekly basis?
I grab my gym bag and head towards the entrance for my answer.
I nervously check in at the front desk where I’m issued a jersey by Sparks personnel. I take it as a good sign that I get my high school jersey number (maybe the only thing Corey Maggette and I have in common), change out of my Clippers sweatshirt (worn on accident, honest), and head towards the court to warmup. It suddenly hits me that I am surrounded by purple and gold. Banners. Logos. The colors are everywhere. The butterflies in my stomach are no longer solely responsible for the feeling of nausea that overwhelms me.
I saunter out to a basket and shag down a rebound, where I get my first surprise of the evening. The ball is…small. It’s a women’s ball. That makes sense. I take a few dribbles, and I feel like a walrus batting around a beach ball. I immediately try to palm the ball and succeed. Cool. I cruise around the court for a second like that, wondering if this is what Dr. J felt like at all times. As my mind conjures up images of Dr. J leaping through the air, I temporarily flirt with the idea of dunking. I look around the gym, and I realize that I am among many other competitors, all of whom aren’t talking to each other. I decide it best not to Sprite commercial myself in front of everyone. Instead, I shoot a warmup shot that rockets off the backboard at a million miles per hour. This is going to take some getting used to.
I start to get the hang of things, but as I back out to the 3-point line another surprise awaits me: It’s not there. The court is setup for the Lakers still, so the 3-point line is at NBA range, a good few feet behind me. I chuckle and backup to the purple line at the top of the key. I squint to see the rim and immediately feel like Billy shooting for the Sudan. I try to imagine Kobe routinely nailing pullup 3s a few feet back from where I’m standing…with a men’s ball no less! I shoot a few NBA 3s, and when I hit my first one I glance around as if someone should reward me with half a million dollars for making such an outlandish shot.
We get called to mid-court by the coach, and I’m the only player who jogs there. I am the basketball equivalent of a teacher’s pet. Sparks assistant coach Steve Smith gives us the rundown of how the tryout will work and then hands us over to the Sparks physical trainer.
We do some running and a lot of full court stretching exercises to work up a sweat. It doesn’t feel strenuous until I reach down to touch my toes and notice the pool of sweat collecting on the floor around me. We’ve just started and I’m already sweating more than Patrick Ewing at the foul line. Not a good sign. Once we’re finished with our stretching, I overhear another player grumble, “I feel like I played a full game already.” Samesies.
Coach Smith starts off the 35 of us in attendance with some basic full court weave drills. Many of the players fail spectacularly, throwing passes off shins and bumping into each other. Collectively, we are a sorry sack of players. When Coach Smith has us execute a five man weave that turns into a three-on-two fast break drill, all hell breaks loose. A group composed of a few casual basketball players absolutely butchers the drill, and coach Smith has them repeat it again and again until they get it right. On about the fifth try, the rest of us on the baseline are actively cheering for the group to succeed, shouting encouragement and clapping for them .I am not sure what compels us to want to see them succeed, since they’re the competition technically, but we cheer nonetheless.
On my first fast break drill, I throw an around the back pass that earns me some “oohs”, but I cringe after I do it. Coaches hate that crap. I glance over at coach Smith, and I get the vibe that he would make me do pushups right then and there if I were one of his “real” players.
The drill finally ends, which is a good thing because I’m not sure the judges at the scorer’s table could handle much more laughter. Coach Smith calls us to the sidelines. Uh oh. I know what this is. We’re running 17’s.
If you’re not familiar with 17’s, consider yourself lucky. 17’s are a conditioning drill where a sideline to sideline sprint counts as one, and the goal is to get to 17 of those done under a specified amount of time. At around 9 I’m cursing myself for eating too much In and Out. At 12 I start to slow down considerably. At 15 I almost keel over and die on the court. We all finish the drill, some much faster than others, and we’re granted our first break.
At this point I’m breathing harder than I have in a long time. Apparently it’s noticeable, as one of my fellow competitors is concerned for my general well being and asks me if I’m okay.
“Hufffff…AHHHH….Huffff,” I answer. He raises an eyebrow at me, so I give him a thumbs up before finding a spot on the bleachers. Just as I sit, coach Smith calls us back to the court. He is an evil man. I do not jog to center court this time around.
As I gasp for air, I watch our first five on five action start to unfold. I look around for my future teammates. There’s a shorter man with a Los Angeles Lakers tattoo blazoned across his bicep standing next to me. Think there’s anyone with a Clippers tattoo who will run with me? Probably not here, probably not anywhere. There’s a young man on the other side of me ironically complaining to an older man about his hip flexor. He’s not gonna do. Finally I give up and decide that I’m too exhausted to actively recruit my five to run with, so I just group up with the people next to me. Coach Smith has us in the Phoenix Mercury’s 3-2 zone, and I plead with my teammates to get their hands up. Active hands! Coaches dig active hands. When we switch to man-to-man later in the drill, I hedge on a screen in a manner that would make Anderson Varejao jealous. I am tired, but there’s life in me yet.
At least for a little while, anyway. Coach Smith is relentless and puts us through more conditioning drills. Full court sprints on an NBA sized court. Suicides. One tryout attendee loses his lunch. Some of the older guys trying out struggle to keep up. We are a diverse crowd, with players aging from 19 to 50, but we are all collectively bonded by our misery through running. I find myself cheering for a complete stranger who is running with me, telling him to dig and keep going. I have no idea why I do this, but all of the sudden I start to feel like I’m part of a team. A wildly dysfunctional, out of shape team, but a team nonetheless. At that point I decide that’s probably why we’re all here — we all want to be a part of something, whether we admit it or not.
In the last action of the night, I draw the biggest man on the court in the post. I’m 6-foot 3, but he’s head and shoulders taller than I am. Like a bigger version of Craig Smith, if you will. Think about that for a second. He’s bigger than a freaking NBA player nicknamed “Rhino.” I try to deny the entry pass to this giant, but it’s useless. After the lob pass sails over my head, I go to challenge the big man’s layup at the rim. My face hits his elbow, my hand hits his wrist, and he plows through me as if I’m not even there. Two points. I am officially a beaten man.
After a final set of suicides, coach Smith thankfully puts us out of our misery. After Smith and the Sparks general manager are done thanking us for our effort, the monster I hacked just minutes earlier takes me under his arm and lets out a hearty laugh before smiling and posing with me for the group photo. I am glad that he holds no ill will towards me, because then I’d have much bigger problems than just being out of shape. I am glad there will be no more running. I am glad that I was temporarily part of something, fleeting as it may have been. I am glad that I tried out for the Sparks men’s practice team.
Best of luck to the Los Angeles Sparks this season — even if they don’t find a spot for this foul-prone, out of shape Clipper blogger.