NBA Draft Combine Brings out the Stars


By Paul M. Banks

When the NBA Draft Combine comes to Chicago, the Second City resembles Beverly Hills for a couple days. Strolling through the Westin Hotel on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, where the Draft Combine’s media activities are held, I encountered basketball’s heaviest hitters. The entire Chicago Bulls front office, Pistons GM Joe Dumars, NBA coaches Mike D’Antoni, Mike Dunleavy, legendary talk show host Larry King (twice) and former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda; and that was just the first hour.

During the actual interview sessions, a draft combine reporter gets up close and personal with every former college basketball star soon to be drafted in a couple weeks. Each player gets his own table in the conference room and journalists rotate like speed-daters to obtain quality face time with everyone. Conversation is much more in-depth than post-game press conferences. It’s about the big picture here- no time to waste on the boringly banal queries from newspaper beat writers.jerel

On top of the media grilling, NBA prospects face tougher inquisitions from the teams themselves. Arizona’s Chase Budinger (projected 23rd) said he faced a psychological aptitude type test from the Bulls. He had to arrange blocks to match a picture they presented. NBA teams want to know if players are single, married, have kids. Multiple players had to reveal if they had a “friend with benefits.” It’s like Torquemada and your Prom date’s father rolled into one. 

The NBA amalgamates feedback from the league’s scouts and personnel, deciding which 50-60 prospects are gauging the most interest. The most elite prospects are then invited to run drills, 3 man weaves and workout (this part is closed to the media). They also take more measurements than a Playboy playmate; each player’s wingspan, vertical reach, height and weight (with and without shoes) become public knowledge. This male version of a beauty pageant can be stressful, but also fun.

Former Marquette guard Jerel McNeal projected 42nd overall in NBA Mock Draft,  “It’s been real intense, it’s been like a circus since I got down here, but it’s also been real fun so far. To be around such a great group of players and unbelievable talent, to be fortunate enough to be in this situation, you can’t help but feel excited and glad about what’s coming in the future,” said McNeal.

Syracuse’s Jonny Flynn, projected 10th in this year’s draft spoke about how the combine brings together former AAU, McDonald’s All-American and Summer league teammates. “It’s cool, it’s like a big family reunion everybody reminiscing on the stories we had from summer camps, at the USA team and things like that. We’re all in competition on the court, but off the court it’s a family feeling, we just kick back, chill and talk about the good old days,” Flynn said.

There’s only one thing certain about this draft: Oklahoma’s Blake Griffin is going to the L.A. Clippers at #1. The brightest lights and greatest amount of cameras were naturally on him. And the future franchise player seems ready to become the next media darling. “I don’t mind the media…I hope I’m ready for it. I think I’m ready for it” Griffin said before answering a question about how he’ll soon see his personal privacy disappear. bgriffin2

“You just got to know that people are watching you and you got to be a positive role model and not put yourself in bad situations,” Griffin stated.

I asked Griffin what his favorite aspect of this process has been so far. “Some of the restaurants have been pretty good. That’s a big part of my life. But getting to meet people, different players and taking perspective and getting advice from them has been great,” he responded.

The Second City is famous for its food. The next day I saw him in the restaurant downstairs and asked him about his overall favorite restaurant here. He said he’s a big fan of Ditka’s, prompting another reporter nearby to endorse the joint’s steaks. Griffin then said he’s not eating much red meat right now, so I mentioned their Salmon and Tuna steaks. The future Clipper approved Ditka’s seafood. So this is life in transition to the next level, where everything’s meatier and portions of everything are much bigger. So is the number of people watching you.   

European Professional Basketball—Class Is In Session

By Brandon Robinson

Ring, Ring, Ring! Do you remember that final bell ringing on Friday around 3:00pm in high school? That day was usually the day when you and some of your buddies would go to the park and play basketball. Maybe you were the one who “took the competition to school.”

Taking people to school is something that prep school products Jeremy Tyler and Brandon Jennings have been doing during their middle and high school careers. Brandon Jennings, a talented point guard, from Los Angeles, played his high school basketball career at Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Virginia. Jennings, whose game resembles Kenny Anderson and Allen Iverson, was slated to attend the University of Arizona as a freshman this season.

Unfortunately, last summer, numerous red flags were raised in Jennings SAT’s scores: too low to become a student-athlete at the University of Arizona. “He was a big time recruit. Arizona could have used him, says Ian Eagle, sportscaster for CBS, in a recent phone interview. “Perhaps if Jennings was there Lute would still be there,” he continued.

Jennings was in a dilemma. You see, he could not just enter the NBA after graduating his senior year of high school, either. The NBA’s collective bargaining agreement states that in order for a player to be drafted, he must be a year removed from his senior class. Brandon was only a few months removed from his high school class. What would he do?

“Brandon had no choice because of the circumstances that happened,” says Jamar Nutter, an international basketball player who played professionally with the Bakken Bears from Denmark in the first league Danish League and the S D Portland Gmund in Germany Pro B League.

Jennings consulted with Sonny Vaccaro, a long time sports marketing executive with Nike, Adidas, and Reebok. Sonny’s insight and expertise has helped guide the careers of Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and Kobe Bryant. “Sonny is the engine behind all this, he is set in getting rid of the age requirement in the NBA,” says ESPN senior writer Chris Broussard, in a recent phone interview. “He does not think it’s fair, and nobody is going to Europe at least without Sonny,” he added.

“Well, it’s very obvious; this is sort of the beginning,” said columnist Jemele Hill, in a phone interview from her office in Orlando. “This situation is forcing people to be creative, people will always find a way to get around it,” she said. “The bottom line is that the NBA and basketball is a worldwide game now,” added Hill

Jennings is currently on the roster of Virtus Roma, a team in Italy. During his time “abroad,” he has had a tough transition, but it seems it will be all worth it. “I think a kid going to Europe will be more prepared than going to college for a year. Playing in Europe professionally is more difficult than playing division one basketball,” said Broussard.

In a recent phone interview at his home in California, Sonny Vacarro expressed similar sentiment: “He went to Rome and practiced with older and stronger people four to five hours every day,” he said. “It makes you a better professional. He’s not playing against kids, he’s playing against grown men,” Vaccarro added.

Recently, Jeremy Tyler, a 17-year-old high school junior, committed to the University of Louisville for the recruiting class of 2010. A couple of weeks ago, however, he decided to forego his senior year of high school and move to Europe to play basketball and develop his game. There are many mixed feelings about this decision. It is the common belief amongst basketball purists that a kid his age should be worried about the prom, rather than playing professional basketball.

“The same people who say that are the same people I’d like to ask about their feelings about how they feel about the country sending kids to Iraq,” says Vaccaro. “Does the kid who fires a gun need to be prepared? He wasn’t prepared to shoot a gun,” he continued.

By no means is anyone advocating firing a gun. God bless those who serve our country in Iraq. Perhaps there is such a thing as a right place, and right time. “The situation has to fit well,” says Bomani Jones, an on-air sports personality for WRBZ and WDNC in Raleigh, NC. “Tyler has an uncle and dad in his support system able to check in on him while he’s overseas,” he continued. “For a lot of these kids, they may only have one parent in the household, so they are on their own; the kid has a good support system to help him succeed,” added Jones.

Perhaps we could even label the European training a “basketball study abroad program.” According to the University of Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas, “Academic study and travel outside the U.S. is referred to as “Study Abroad.” Additionally, the student might be a part of a four-year international program with the intent to complete a degree at the international university.

“I think it’s a good thing,” says Jamar Nutter.” Players overseas come over here to play, so why not. Education is the evolution of your mind. The test of education is in oneself, says Vaccaro. “I’m a living testament to doing something that I was not prepared for,” he added.

One thing is certainly clear. This idea is becoming more and more popular. “You will see at least one player a year go to Europe, because a). Get some money, b). Get experience, and c). It keeps your name out there and remains part of the mix for scouts,” says Ian Eagle.

One thing is for certain, whether an athlete is dominating on the playground or at the prep school someone will be taken to school. Class is in session gentlemen!