On Saturday night, CBS aired a documentary by Ted Skillman called Summer Dreams (viewable here), which follows the plight of several NBA players of varying prestige, a coach, and a female referee all trying to make their way in the league. Chronicled in the piece are Dallas Mavericks point guard Shane Larkin, former Oklahoma forward Romero Osby, former Southern Miss guard Dwayne Davis, referee prospect Lauren Holtkamp, and D-League coach Joel Abelson, as well as the Philadelphia 76ers' own Michael Carter-Williams.
The narrative arc of the documentary follows each person from draft day through Summer League with a little bit of an epilogue for each of the six. The stars of it are undoubtedly Osby and Davis, and some of the stories work better than others, but each person's experience gives some insight into the daunting challenge that is the NBA.
Osby's story is probably fairly typical for a lot of college basketball players; plucked out of poverty and sent to college on talent with dreams of reaching the NBA to provide a life, that otherwise may not be attainable, for himself and his family. Osby doesn't have the distinction of being a blue chip prospect for the NBA, and you feel the angst of it as he's shown watching the 2013 draft with his family. It grows with each pick that's announced in which his name isn't called. Osby is finally selected 51st overall by the Orlando Magic, which guarantees him nothing but an opportunity (2nd Round contracts are unguaranteed).
Osby goes to the Orlando Summer League and has a monster first game attracting the attention of an Italian scout from Virtus Roma, and earning him high praise from Kevin Durant on Twitter. But he struggles over his next few games, before bookending his Summer League with another quality performance. It's not stated explicitly that Virtus Roma offered Osby a "six figure contract," but his agent informs him of a European club that has made that offer. The situation shows how dangerous dreaming too big can be for fringe NBA players. Osby could take the money and secure the immediate future of his family, but probably would be giving up his best shot of catching on in the NBA. He could also hang around for Magic training camp on an unguaranteed contract, and risk the offer going elsewhere, or getting injured, before he gets paid. Osby ultimately opts to stick around with the Magic, gets cut at the end of training camp, and spends the '13-'14 season with the Maine Red Claws before being released due to a torn labrum. His professional basketball future is now somewhat in jeopardy.
Davis' story is nothing short of incredible. A Philadelphia kid from the projects, Davis' mother died when he was a teenager leaving him homeless and living between shelters and the family's car, while fending for himself. Davis went through three colleges in three years before finding his way to Southern Miss and excelling in his lone season there. Davis spends draft night working out with his best friend and learns from his agent later on that while he won't be drafted, the Golden State Warriors want to bring him to Summer League.
Davis carries himself as a very thoughtful person, breaking down early in the film when discussing the death of his mom and the terrible things he had to do to survive. One of the film's most poignant moments is when Davis goes to a homeless shelter in the Las Vegas community during Summer League and gives a talk to the residents about never giving up on their dreams despite where they're currently at in life.
On the court, Davis rides the bench for the first four games of Summer League and only in the fourth quarter of the final game does he get a chance to see action. He explodes in a performance, which in conjunction with his college career, lands him an opportunity with Murcia in Spain where he quickly becomes a cult favorite due to his style (in particular his James Harden-esque beard). The film epilogue notes that Davis vows to return to Summer League this year to try and earn a spot in the NBA. Interestingly enough, Davis did work out for the Sixers last summer.
For Shane Larkin, it's apparent that it's tough being an athletic kid in the shadow of a Hall of Fame father (Barry Larkin), and the documentary seeks to explore Shane's attempts to break out of that, but his portion is ultimately derailed due to an ankle injury which requires two screws placed in his foot, and knocks him out of Summer League. As a result, most of Larkin's story arc deals with his recovery, the pinnacle of which is a heart to heart between him and his father where they discuss his comeback and his hesitancy to dunk. Larkin seems to explain in not so many words that he just wants to get through it (it being getting his feet wet in the NBA), before he feels like himself again, and much of his time is spent worrying about his future due to the injury. The highlight of his part, though, is Rick Carlisle eavesdropping on Larkin's speakerphone conversation with his girlfriend at Mavs training camp, which leads to Carlisle having a very awkward conversation with her while Larkin dies laughing in his locker.
Referee prospect Lauren Holtkamp also has a little bit of an underdeveloped story. The film does a good job establishing the magnitude of what she's trying to accomplish (become the third female referee in NBA history), and the visuals alone show how difficult it could be for a female voice of authority in a male sport (to the NBA's credit, there's no footage or audio of anyone giving her a hard time; a fact that may actually somewhat contradict the premise and show that her goal is much more feasible than some may think), but her portion is largely constructed of clips from her Summer League games. She earns an invite to work training camp games, but not a full time gig. However, she maintains her status as a prospective referee with the NBA heading into next Summer League.
Abelson's story, on the surface, isn't a particularly enlightening one either; he's a D-League coach working the Summer League in the hopes of a landing a job after he was fired from the Sioux Falls Sky Force after a 25-25 season. He earns a spot as an assistant coach on the D-League Select team, which ultimately helps land him a job coaching the Reno Big Horns in the D-League this season.
Abelson's arc, however, offers one of the most insightful, and genuinely terrifying moments in the documentary: an interview with Portland Trail Blazers GM Neil Olshey. Olshey projects power on a level last seen from a late 90s era Vince McMahon, and he eviscerates Abelson's vague corporate speak and 'I want to be the next Spoelstra' attitude by cutting all the bullshit and flat out asking Abelson what he can do for Olshey's organization. Abelson attempts to talk around it and Olshey tells him in no uncertain terms that Abelson needs to figure out what he can do for a NBA organization, what his philosophy is, and what specifically he can bring to a locker room, because the world is littered with pretty good coaches. He renders Abelson completely speechless during the interview, and Abelson is really only able to thank Olshey for the beating he's just been given. Abelson concedes afterwards it's probably the worst interview he's ever had in his life.
When we're first introduced to Michael Carter-Williams in the film, the most apparent thing is that he's just a young kid. The introductory scene takes place at MCW's family house, with his step-father waking him up after he's overslept. MCW is next seen playing some video games. The most striking thing about it is how this mild-mannered, easy going kid is about to be thrown into the meat-grinder that is the NBA.
MCW's story, him being the only person in the documentary who has a level of certainty about his future (he's going to be in the NBA on guaranteed money), deals more with the transition of a highly sought after prospect to NBA life. It's this idea that allows his relationship with his mom/business manager, Amanda Carter-Zegarowski, to take center stage. Carter-Zegarowski is extremely protective and extremely active in MCW's life, which to some could appear bordering on overbearing, but ultimately works to his benefit during a very difficult period. She provides steady guidance and a stable situation that allows MCW to concentrate solely on basketball and adapting to NBA life.
The most notable thing about MCW's transition is what's not there. Absent from MCW's life are hangers-on, Iverson-esque posse types, shady business managers, random girls, and all the pitfalls that come with a young kid who's about to come into a lot of money. In their place is a mom who played and coached basketball and (lightly) prods him about his shooting technique after a poor Summer League performance, and helps pick out a modest place for him to live in Philadelphia.
MCW doesn't say much in the documentary. You get the feeling every time he's on camera there's a certain sense of awe and being overwhelmed that he's carrying around with him at this point -- something that clearly evaporated between the time this was shot and his 10/30/13 debut against the Miami Heat. And so the story really develops into the story of Carter-Zegarowski and whether it's best for her son for her to "just be his mom" or continue to be an active role in the management of his future. She alludes to sitting down with MCW at one point and offering to step back and just be the mom, but MCW rejects that notion, appearing to recognize the need for a stabilizing influence. A segment in his story involves Carter-Zegarowski sitting down with other NBA moms to feel out whether their influence on the careers of their kids was a help or hindrance. It seems to be a question she is constantly thinking about throughout the film.
Ultimately, MCW has an up and down Summer League on the court, but the larger, lasting impression the viewer is left with is that there's very little off the court that can deter his success. He is about as prepared an individual as there can be for the culture shock that is NBA basketball.
All told, Summer Dreams isn't a perfect documentary. They chose three subjects, three of them were highly interesting (Osby, Davis, Carter-Williams), three of them didn't quite work (Larkin, Holtkamp, Abelson), but all six did provide insight into the long-odds for borderline players, the difficult transition for even surefire NBA players, and the deep commitment of both time and work ethic involved in landing non-player jobs.