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Hoop Dreams: A Tryout with the Delaware 87ers

The Delaware 87ers open tryout is the perfect place for dreamers to try to find a spot in the professional basketball world.

When Delaware 87ers general manager Brandon Williams described the team's open tryout as an opportunity for the "dreamers", I knew that this event was my calling. Every rabid basketball fan grows up fantasizing about having the chance to play the sport professionally, joining an exclusive fraternity of elite athletes. But with most great dreams, reality eventually creeps into the picture, and over time I became self-aware about how bad I am at basketball.

Despite a decent understanding of the game, I’ve never been able to relay that information from my brain to my extremities. My jump shot is broken beyond repair, and my ball handling is rather elementary. Those issues forced me to brand myself as the hustle guy who scraps down low for rebounds, but the natural limitations of being 5’ 11", 145 lbs. with no legitimate skill has essentially rendered me useless on the court.

So when I entered Temple University’s Pearson-McGonigle Hall for the 87ers’ second of two open tryouts, I was resigned to the fact that this was the day the door would officially shut on my hoop dreams. But as I looked around at the 70-plus other participants eagerly awaiting their moment to impress Sevens’ coaches and executives, I realized these guys were desperately fighting to keep that same door ajar for just one more day.

The players were broken up into 10 different teams, with each team playing two different five-on-five scrimmages. After both games were completed, your tryout was over, which meant little time to impress Delaware’s decision makers. Play like crap in game one, and there’s a good chance you wouldn’t have any eyes on you for game two.

The 87ers brass attempted to split the teams up based off of talent level, with the best players competing against each other on the main court in the middle of the gym. Naturally, I was placed on one of the least skillful teams slated to compete on the on the far end of the facility. It was painfully obvious to me that the guys competing on this court had little shot of making the team, but two of my teammates for the day, Marc Alvarez and Chad Newell, were focused on chasing the dream.

Alvarez, whose playing experience had been limited to pickup games with friends, was going to have his work cut out for him if he wanted to make the team. He stood at just 5’ 5", and in pre-game warmups I noticed how much that really affected his game. Each pass looked like it was thrown with every ounce of strength he could muster. His jump shot form looked more like a one-armed prayer.

"I think I have a chance," Marc told me. "I love the game, and I’m always training, so I just want to keep getting better."

He attended the 87ers tryout in Philadelphia last year, and made the trek up to New York a couple weeks ago in hopes of making the roster for the Brooklyn Nets new D-League affiliate, the Long Island Nets. All D-League teams charge a fee to try out for the team (the 87ers was $150 if you pre-registered, $200 if you walked up), and if you attend them as many times as Marc has, that cost can really add up.

"It’s worth the money," said Alvarez, who works as a part-time dish washer at a deli in Oaklyn, New Jersey. "To me, it’s priceless — being able to play basketball and give myself a chance to play in the league."

On the other hand, Newell seemed to have some actual skill. He grew up in Snohomish, Washington, and faced off against former Sixers guard Tony Wroten in high school. Wroten was a year below Newell.

"That guy was bad," Newell recalled, mentioning Wroten as the best player he’s ever faced. "He’s six inches taller than I am, but he can do everything I can on the court, and jump 20 inches higher than I can."

After high school, Newell claimed to have spent two years playing at the University of Idaho but the internet provided no record of his time there. He tore his ACL during his sophomore year, and the debilitating knee injury destroyed whatever bounce he had.

"I usually just shoot threes now," he admitted.

He eventually landed at the University of Mary, a D-II school in Bismarck, North Dakota. Their website indicated he played just 14 minutes of action over the course of two years, and knocked down a three-pointer in his only shooting attempt.

Newell managed to secure a professional contract in Peru after college, and he played for two different teams in the country’s capital of Lima while also working a full-time job in a gym.

"Basketball has brought me everything in my life," Newell said. "It didn’t only bring me an education, but it’s brought me my future wife, Andrea."

Andrea, a native of Peru, met Chad in a club in Lima. The two got engaged not too long after, and moved to Baltimore, where Andrea’s aunt lives. She helped him learn basic Spanish, and Chad is attempting to help her with English.

"She’s been to every tryout with me," Newell said of his wife to be. "She went to a few of my games in Lima, and she obviously hopes I can keep playing.

"But if I don’t keep playing...." Newell started, his voice trailing off momentarily.

"I’m sure we’ll be fine."

Our first scrimmage began, and Chad was in the starting five, with Marc and myself manning the second unit. We jumped out to a quick 21-5 lead thanks to the strong play of our smooth shooting point guard, who was quickly grabbed by one of the Sevens representatives and sent to a more competitive court.

Once our coach decided to swap out the first team for our less talented second unit is when everything fell apart. Turnovers became more commonplace than shots taken, and the other team was getting way too many fast break opportunities.

Halftime approached quicker than anticipated, and when I looked up at the scoreboard, it was 21-20. The other team went on a 15-0 run to close the first half. I’ll take a portion of the blame for that.

The second half went a little bit better, especially for Chad, who was finally starting to knock down outside shots. Marc, unfortunately, was struggling rather hard.

At one point, he brought the ball up the floor and unconsciously launched a a three-pointer with a hand in his face that clanked off the back of the rim, leading another one of our teammates to yell out "FUCK!" as he writhed in anger.

Sitting on the bench, I turned to my coach for the day, Allen Pritchett, and asked him if this was the end of the line for most guys wanting to go pro.

"This isn’t where basketball dreams go to die," he said. "But there’s some really bad basketball out here."

A few minutes later, Pritchett had to run onto the floor and physically escort Marc off after he was oblivious to the fact he was being subbed out.

We’d go on to lose that game.

In hopes of watching actual basketball players face off in a competitive game, I wandered over to the main court. After talking to a couple other players in attendance, there was some notable buzz surrounding one of the point guards whose game and looks resembled that of Stephon Marbury. The ball stayed glued to his hand, and he showed a certain quickness and bounce off the dribble like the former NBA pro. Couple that with his lean frame and shaven bald head, and he really could’ve been mistaken for "Starbury" himself.

At the end of his game, I approached him to ask, "Hey man, anyone ever tell you you look like Stephon Marbury?"

"Oh yeah?" he responded, an uneasy smile engulfing his face. "I’m his brother."

Moses Zachary Marbury is the youngest of five brothers, the heir to a family that’s considered basketball royalty in the New York area. His oldest brother Eric played at Georgia with Dominique Wilkins. Donnie led the Southwest Conference in scoring in 1986 while playing at Texas A&M. Norman earned a scholarship to play at Tennessee but never qualified academically. Stephon, of course, was the crown jewel of the family.

Stephon played 13 years in the NBA and made $151 million in salary before moving overseas to play in China, where he essentially became a demigod. He won three CBA titles, made six All-Star games, had a theatrical play created about his exploits, and a museum devoted entirely to him put in the country’s capital of Beijing. His career path may have taken an unexpected, winding path, but Stephon Marbury is undoubtedly an international basketball icon. Still, Moses feels like his older brother made a lot of mistakes along the way.

"He’s a great person, but he just made a lot of decisions that weren’t key, as far as branding yourself, business wise, the NBA, and basketball period," Moses said. "We have a good relationship — love each other — and for the most part we all make mistakes in life. We just try to get through the mistakes and not make the mistakes again."

Certainly, Stephon was not perfect. During his time in New York, he feuded with Knicks head coach Larry Brown rather publicly, and after getting him fired, battled with new coach Isiah Thomas just as viciously. Marbury spent a couple months playing for the Boston Celtics once the Knicks bought out his contract, but his NBA career effectively came to an end after a strange episode online which included live streaming himself crying and eating Vasoline. While Stephon would eventually land on his feet in China, Moses watched as his older brother’s antics affected his own career.

"I’m a part of a brand and a family so I kind of took the fallback being the younger brother and all the things that happened in the media," Moses said. "I kind of got punished for it."

Formerly known as just Zach, Marbury played two years at Rhode Island before declaring for the NBA draft. He went undrafted, and the closest he ever got to the NBA was a stint with the New York Knicks summer league team in 2004, Stephon’s first year with the organization. Since then, Zach has spent time playing in Venezuela and Puerto Rico, hoping for any opportunity to emerge from the nadir of the Marbury hierarchy.

"I feel like if I wasn’t in his shadow, a lot more opportunities would’ve came my way," Marbury admitted. "At the end of the day, you don’t dwell on the past, you worry about the future."

Marbury name dropped former NBA pros like "big brother" Kevin Garnett, Chauncey Billups, and Allen Iverson as "true friends off the court" who told him to continue pursuing his pro career. He decided to try out for the 87ers after being inspired by the story of Jonathon Simmons, who attended a similar open tryout with the D-League’s Austin Toros before working his way up to the San Antonio Spurs roster. On the court, other tryout attendees immediately noticed the link between Moses and Stephon.

"The whole camp was saying, ‘Wow, you play really good, just like [Stephon].’ But I said, ‘I don’t make the money like him,’" Moses mentioned while trying to crack another painstaking smile.

"They didn’t give me the money, but I still got the skills just like him."

I returned to the bench leading up to our second game, and noticed Chad was starting to get a bit antsy. Our former teammate who was selected to play on a more competitive court had just thrown down a mean, poster worthy dunk, and Chad became fixated on watching him play. He knew his time to impress was slipping away.

After embarrassing ourselves in game one, we knew that this was our last chance to leave the tryout with at least a little dignity. The team got off to a hot start, led by none other than Chad.

He knocked down a couple of long threes, then hit a tough running floater despite being hacked. We went into halftime up 18-8, but Chad was hungry for more.

"I gotta hit two more threes, at least," Chad stressed, hoping that would be enough to divert some eyes from the center court.

It was apparent how much the prospect of making the 87ers meant to him. Being on the team would mean being able to stay stateside, and more importantly, continue to allow him to chase his dream, despite how crazy it might be.

Every time he touched the ball, I tried to set a pick for him, hoping that the small amount of space I created would be enough for him to launch a three. He would eventually reward me for efforts, taking a break from shooting to fire a no-look pass into my chest which I deposited for two of my eight total points on the day.

With time ticking down, Chad became a lot less subtle about his intentions to get up as many shots as possible. Originally calling for screens by tapping his head, he eventually resorted to repeatedly hollering "I NEED A PICK!" every time down the floor.

Chad would knock down a couple more threes, and my two breakaway layups with one minute remaining would help seal the victory for our team. There was a certain sense of pride amongst our squad for achieving some success in a professional setting, but the only thing that mattered was if Delaware’s decision makers were watching, and their attention was elsewhere. For Chad and Marc, their hopes of playing in the D-League were certainly going to be a dream deferred.

There’s something admirable about continuing to chase a dream despite reality telling you that it’s likely not attainable. Marc and Chad probably won’t ever have the opportunity to suit up for a D-League team. Moses will likely never be able to escape the wide cast shadow of his successful older brother. Yet the beauty of pursing a dream is not necessarily reaching the destination, but the journey getting there. Basketball led Chad to his future wife in a foreign land, allowed Moses to carry on the family name, and helped Marc to continue to live out a childhood fantasy.

Playing pro basketball at a high level may not be in the cards for any of them, but opportunities like Delaware’s open tryout shows them it is within their grasp. The door may have shut on them this year, but the pursuit of their dream will certainly keep them knocking in the future.

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