Chasing the pro basketball dream

Sixty young men paid $150 apiece last weekend to audition for a modestly paying job that might not be available to any of them.

This phenomenon spoke less to high unemployment in a harsh economy than to the lure of the occupation itself: professional basketball player.

The Utah Flash of the NBA Development League, a team operated jointly by the Hawks and the Utah Jazz, conducted an open tryout at Clayton State that drew aspirants from all over Georgia and neighboring states, judging from the varied license plates in the parking lot.

Not many are called to the D-League and far fewer are chosen for promotion to the NBA.

So, for the great majority, it was an expensive day to play cross-court five-on-five for four hours under the watchful eyes of Flash officials.

"We're really a league of opportunity," said Flash coach Kevin Young. "Atlanta is such a hotbed for basketball, we want to make sure we look at every guy. There are some that come out of nowhere to make our league."

The Flash have unearthed four eventual signees at past tryouts, all in Utah. (This was the second in metro Atlanta.) Young evoked the name of one during his pre-practice pep talk to the group, noting that the player paced the D-League in steals and earned a look-see, though not a contract, from the New Jersey Nets.

Under "college" on their applications, most players listed "none" or institutions unfamiliar to the casual basketball fan.

An exception was guard Brandis Raley-Ross, who averaged 10 points per game last season as a senior at South Carolina.

"Just looking for exposure," said Raley-Ross, rubbing a shoulder he had banged moments earlier. "I'm looking for the best opportunity, whether it's Europe or here."

Native Atlantan Herman Favors has been there, done that -- repeatedly. The onetime Georgia State point guard spent the past four seasons hop-scotching countries, playing in each.

"Holland, Sweden, France, Venezuela," said Favors, who schooled at Pace Academy.

Favors would gladly put away his dog-eared passport for a while, having played stateside in Texas with another pro minor league and attended a New York Knicks camp. But he will follow his muse, no matter where it takes him.

"This is the life that I choose," he said. "I love it."

Favors was one of a few legitimate candidates hoping to help teams overcome their fear of height -- that is, lack of height. He is 5-foot-9, wee for his profession, though he towered over another quicksilver prospect.

"Hopefully, I can show people what a true point guard is," said the 5-6 DeAndre Bray, out of Jacksonville State by way of Mays High. "Size doesn't matter. I always have to convince people."

Unpersuasive last season in his first year out of college, Bray coached at a private school. He would rather be guided by the tweet of a whistle, not blowing into one.

"I love this game so much," he said, "that I just don't want to leave it."

Others packed more reasonable goals along with their sweats and sneakers into duffel bags.

Lee Yu, a Georgia Tech graduate six years ago, recently switched careers from IT consultant to youth basketball development. A native of Taiwan, Yu is applying his technology acumen to the new business.

"I'm here to try and make sure what I'm showing [to clients] works," said Yu, 32, who did not play at Tech.

Charles Winstead held several distinctions among the participants -- oldest (37), tallest (6-11) and least experienced. He last was chosen for an organized team as a high school freshman.

"This is my girlfriend's birthday present," said Winstead, a UPS worker more attuned to rugby, having played in the prestigious Life College program. "I play a little at the Y. She said I ought to try."

So he did, wearing running shoes and carrying a prominent midsection.

Winstead was realistic about his chances to trade the UPS brown uniform for the black, red and silver of the Utah Flash.

"This is kinda like picking up a lottery ticket," he acknowledged.

Young noticed as many as nine players exhibiting sufficient ability and effort to be recommended to the league, which determines whom to sign.

He expects to submit for consideration a combined five names from the Atlanta tryout and another in Utah next month.

"A very productive day," said Young, 28, a basketball-playing alum of Sprayberry and Clayton State. "It's amazing, the athleticism that you find in this city."

Launched in 2001, the D-League salaries reportedly top out at around $25,000, which makes money less of a motivator than converting what began as a playground activity into a play-for-pay scenario with "NBA" in its name.

For most of these guys, the $150 fee was a down payment on a dream.