During the LeBron James “Heatles” years, I lived ten blocks from American Airlines Arena. I could see the arena, Biscayne Bay, and a whole lot of Miami from my balcony. The night LeBron announced “The Decision,” people yelled and screamed and honked their car horns as if the Heat had won the championship.
I was playing basketball full-time in this era. This was before D-League (now G-League) teams started having individual tryouts in cities. I was 28 when LBJ signed in Miami and knew my clock was ticking. If I was going to get a shot at the NBA, I needed to do something drastic.
So I started a petition.
You can see it here. It’s closed, but the almost 4,000 signatures are still visible. It didn’t work, but trying that was infinitely better than meekly replying thanks to YouTube commentators who were insistent that I should be in the League.
Since I wasn’t in the NBA, I did have my view of AAA, and I had some well-known neighbors. Joel Anthony (little-used 6’9” Heat player) was a neighbor. I still have never heard Joel talk. Mario Chalmers lived there: I met his dad once. A rapper named Jae Millz lived there; he was signed to Lil Wayne’s YMCMB label at a time when being signed to YMCMB was like playing for the New York Yankees.
Oh, and I was playing ball, too.
Around the time I’d first moved into that building, I met a guy who ran his own training facility for athletes and for regular people. His background was in football though, from what he told me, so I didn’t think twice about him; he’d given me his card but I never called.
This trainer had a partner, though, who was more basketball-based. He’s worked in the NBA himself, actually, before starting his own training business. He lived in the building too (this was a happening building back then), but I’d never seen him — well, at least I didn’t think I had.
By random happenstance, someone I knew met the football guy, who this time mentioned that he trained NBA players (something he hadn’t told me). The person I knew mentioned me. Numbers got exchanged and we connected. Long story short, I ended up at the University of Miami’s gym playing pickup with several NBA players. The organizer of said pickup games — my basketball trainer neighbor — is now an assistant coach for the Houston Rockets.
Below is a rundown of some players I faced that week, ad players I faced at other times, who have NBA experience. Consider this a conclusive list, as I don’t play ball anymore, so I won’t be having any new interactions. But I may remember some players who I hadn’t thought of and add them to this post. There are also a few whose names and faces I can’t remember as I write this; I’dd add them later.
Jarrett Jack. I put Jack first because he was the nicest and most helpful active NBA player I ever shared a court with. He’d pull me aside between games and tell me to stay aggressive, and to keep my head up even when I made mistakes or had been scored on multiple times. Jack’s every pass was always on time, and the guy never missed an open jumpshot. He played how you’d expect a guy in his position to play; he was good, but not a superstar — he couldn’t afford mistakes or laziness. Just an all-around on-point player is the best way I can describe him.
Anthony Parker. He’s second on the list because he was the most dominant in the time I shared a court with him. I played with Anthony in 2007, the summer after his return to the NBA with the Toronto Raptors. The following season would be his best in the NBA, where he started all 82 games and averaged a career high in points.
Parker was the only NBA players in the gym on this day in Tampa, and he showed it: Dunking, shooting threes, making all kinds of fadeaways and such. I don’t remember him missing a shot that day, and he made it look easy. He was what you’d expect an NBA starter playing with non-NBA players to be. Also, like Jack, a really nice guy with no ego.
Jannero Pargo. Pargo could pass for a normal-looking Black guy walking the streets. 6 feet-ish and maybe 180 pounds, he fat from being physically imposing. But damn, the mofo can GO in pickup games.
In a gym full of NBA players, some career-long starters and some with max contracts and endorsement deals, I saw and experienced Jannero Pargo absolutely dominate games. Crossovers, pinpoint passes, pull-up jumpers, fearless drives to the rack — all, like Jack, seemingly without missing a shot or throwing a single off-target pass.
Unlike Jarrett Jack, though, Jannero Pargo wasn’t a nice guy. He wasn’t a jerk or mean — he shook my hand and introduced himself when we first met, and invited me to get some shots up before the games began — but the guy had a mean streak, and edge to him that allowed him to kill shit the way he did. I admire that mean streak.
I played one full day on a team with both Jack and Pargo. It was my best scoring day, as all I had to do was run the floor and get open and the ball was there— Every. Time. Every pass was on-point and on-time.
Cuttino Mobley. This trio came to Finley, my neighborhood playground, when I was 15 years old. I guess they’d heard this was a spot to get some good runs in. They were right: Finley’s courts were popping in summer evenings in the late 90s.
What I remember: Williams dazzling with his handle and quickness. Mobley’s length and athleticism overwhelming everyone (he left-handed dunked — hard — on “Spider,” the best shot blocking big man at the park). Lawson dominating the paint, being that he was 6’10” and the everynight “big men” at Finley were closer to 6’5”. All three were just bigger, stronger and longer than everyone else. And better. Much better.
The park was packed that night, fans lined up around the court, probably the most crowded I’d ever seen Finley for pickup runs. No cameras, no phones.
Morris Peterson. Another guy who was helpful and took the time to talk to me in a gym full of NBA guy who all knew each other and I knew no one. Mo Pete offered me constant advice on positioning and being ready to shoot when receiving passes. He’d played with Alvin Williams in Toronto and liked hearing the sort of Williams coming to Finley.
Joe Johnson. The most talented player in gym full of NBA talent. Bigger and stronger than he looked on TV. Effortless leaper and shooter. Never seemed to have to try too hard to dominate. Scored easily from anywhere.
And I never once heard him speak.
Mario Chalmers. The funny thing about playing alongside or against Chalmers is, there was nothing impressive or imposing about his game. He’s not fast. Not athletic. Not muscular. Handle wasn’t dazzling. He doesn’t look like a how-are-we-gonna-stop-this-guy? player — and he wasn’t. He didn’t score much; didn’t make many plays on either end of the floor. But the guy’s been in the NBA for nearly 10 years, and never as a benchwarmer. And he has a couple championship rings.
He just seemed to be in the right places at the right times. You could say that about his style of play, and of his career. To me, both are a skill.
Chris Bosh. He came to the gym only once. That day, there were only a handful of NBA players and no one Bosh’s size to match up against. It seemed to me Bosh had looked at the players involved and decided to work on his facilitating skill for the day. He barely took any shots, instead directing traffic and running the offense from the high post and top of the key, making passes and leading vocally.
I had once asked a trainer named Scott Savor — he’s the one who brought me to the game where I played with Anthony Parker (he was Parker’s trainer) — about that very situation: How can I benefit from a pickup game featuring players who just aren’t as good as me and cannot individually challenge me? Scott said, those are the games where you work on passing, leading and setting up teammates.
That’s exactly what Bosh did the one day I played with him.
Serge Ibaka. Like Bosh, I played with Serge only once, and the situation was similar: No bigs in the gym to match his size or skill. Unlike Bosh, Serge must have never heard Scott’s sage advice.
Ibaka played to dominate, looking to attack and score every time he got the ball. He dominated gameplay. Who knows, maybe his summer plan was to become a more effective and reliable scorer. If so, that day was a success.
Kyrie Irving. This was the summer before Kyrie’s NBA debut, during the lockout. The quickness and handles were there already; so was the aggressive attacking mindset. His talent was obvious from the moment he touched the ball, and every moment after that. Kyrie would see a mismatch and immediately attack it, no one ever had to encourage him to do so. I didn’t guard him much; as he was getting ready for the league he was guarded almost exclusively by veteran NBA point guards (Pargo, Jack, Chalmers). He got me with a hands-up move once and I had to foul him on purpose to prevent a layup.
Marco Belinelli. We never interacted in the 2-3 days sharing a court, but he was exactly what you’ve seen on TV: a constantly-moving shooter. Didn’t talk much. Blended into the scenery of the game.
Antoine Walker. Walker came to the gym one day right around the time that his money woes became a big story and right after his ex-girl began starring in Basketball Wives. While I’m 100% Antoine had no idea who I was, he came and dapped me up. He was also making a bid to get back into the NBA at the time, via the D-League. Minus his quickness and athleticism, though, Antoine couldn’t create his own shot against young legs. That’s the only thing I remembered about him.
James Posey. Posey played 12 years in the League; I mostly remember him though, as a defensive stopper-type for the 06 Heat and 08 Celtics (both title teams) and now sitting behind the bench for the Cavs as an assistant. In our pickup games he was basically that same make-the-right-play veteran, randomly blocking a shot or making a steal and not shooting much of at all. He was vocal though, and always in position.
James Harden. I played only one game with Harden; I sprained an ankle the day he’d come to the gym. He was still with OKC at the time, but already commanding double teams in pickup games. We were teammates, and the guy guarding me was the one bringing the double. Though I was wide open for a three, I could tell James didn’t really want to pass it to me. He finally did — I missed.
His game was what we all know him for now: Slow-slow-fast-fast, never seeming to be hurried or rushed, always controlling the tempo of the game. He knew he could score and make plays whenever he wanted to. And he basically did.
Tim Hardaway Jr. He was still in college couple times I played against him. His game was pretty much what it is now — 3pt shooting, straight line drives. Guy always plays hard and wasn’t afraid to get physical.
Tim Hardaway Sr. He was old and very much retired by the time i played against Senior. No UTEP 2-Step crossovers or acrobatic finishes; Tim mostly shot threes and used his body to create space against young legs.
Jason Williams (White Chocolate). Was in his late 30s probably when I faced him; though he still had a good amount of his ball handling prowess and some quickness, he used it mostly to create space for bring the ball upcourt and shooting threes. An active talker.
Carlos Arroyo. Arroyo played in local Miami leagues a lot, even while still an active pro. Not very athletic or super quick (at least he wasn’t by then), Carlos had his ball handling — which often to me looked like he was carrying the ball, but it was never called. I had athleticism on him and had some success guarding him, though he never tried to go at me too much. His style was more getting teammates involved with passing than trying to score.
Nazr Mohammed. I only remember playing against him once. Being as big and (seemingly) slow as he is, I tried to get off a quick floater over him along the baseline, which he blocked out of bounds. Jarrett Jack reminded/informed me that shooting over “them ‘footers” would require a much higher arc.
Solomon Jones. A wiry and athletic 6’10”, I spent a week playing against him and came off to me as a guy who didn’t really like basketball, but played because, well, what else is a 6’10” guy gonna do with his life? I never had a conversation with him, so this is purely my perspective. He just seemed to be there just to be there, not because he was excited about basketball. I wonder what I would do if I was his height but didn’t really love the game. Tough spot to be in.
Andray Blatche. Similar to Jones above, but with 50% more talent, 0% more drive or want-to. He played basketball because he was big and good at it and could get paid to do it. Unlike Jones, Blatche had enough talent to be the best player in the gym, but performance-wise, he was just OK, not memorable.
Jeremy Pargo. I spent a lot of time guarding this guy over a couple days. Not knowing who I was, I think he saw a need to go at the “nobody” guy in the gym, and one game he scored 4 or 5 out of 7 points on me. I got back at him the next day, though. Last I heard he was doing really well for himself overseas.
Juwan Howard. The elder statesman veteran player. Similar to Posey, Howard was scoring a lot or trying to make plays, just playing his position and being in the right places at all the right times.