“Huffman, you gotta shoot. Damnnit, man — just shoot.”
Stephon Marbury glanced at him. “He ain’t gettin’ no shot off coach.”
As I passed the ball, I shook my head “yes” to assistant coach Mike D’Antoni’s ‘Seven Seconds or Less’ coaching and confirmed I heard his words, but I didn’t really feel it. I felt like these guys all scowled when I shot. Like each time I dribbled more than once, they winced, they clapped their hands and asked for the ball back. I felt like the new guy at the pick-up game that no one trusted. And I realized the closer to the season we got, the more these NBA players wanted to show what they could do.
When you get paid millions of dollars, you expect certain things, like the goddamn ball.
Ironically, I didn’t expect the ball anymore and had done more in my college career than most of them. I had become Kent State’s all-time leading scorer. Led our team to an Elite Eight NCAA tournament. Played in three NCAA tournaments and won two MAC (Mid-American Conference) Tournament MVPs. I had scored 45 points in a German Bundesliga game. I had played in one of the highest leagues in Europe and finished as a top five scorer as a rookie.
But none of my past work felt validated here, and maybe that’s the lesson of failing this NBA try-out taught me: you have to demand recognition for your life’s work, even if you don’t think you do.
But none of that mattered to me when you are on the free agent goon squad. And I think Mike D’Antoni understood that, which is why he told me to shoot and be aggressive. He had been around the world trying to get back to the NBA just like I had as young player. He understood how hard it was for a white guy to play in the most competitive league in the world.
“If you don’t shoot off the screen no one has to help. Be a threat.”
It was our last practice before the Phoenix Suns first preseason game, and my game had deteriorated since the first day of training camp a month ago. My confidence was crippled by the lack of teamwork, self-confidence, and support of 15 men all trying to push each other to be their best.
This wasn’t college.
There was no family culture here. There was no place to grow and become friends with a teammate and gain confidence through teamwork. And I felt alone, on an island, breaking down, from the inside out.
I felt anxious parking my rental car next to the players’ row of luxury sports cars inside Key West Arena — a Porsche, a Maserati GT, a Hummer, a Cadillac Escalade. As I got out of my Rav4, a Hispanic kid with tattoos on his forearms ran up to me.
“Hello,” I said back.
“You need anything?”
“Yes sir, you. Do you play for the Suns?”
“Yeah, I hope so.” I stopped. “What’s your name?”
“Ricky. I do stuff for the guys. Wash their car. Clean it. Do stuff, you know, whatever they need.”
“Nice. How long you been working with the Suns?”
“Been here forever man.”
I reached out my hand.
“Cool, man. Nice to meet you, Ricky. I’m Trevor. And my Rav4 and I are good. We don’t need anything.”
I smiled and we shook hands awkwardly. It was almost like he wanted something from me. A tip perhaps.
“Do you want me take your keys? Clean anything?”
“No, I’m good, man. This Rav4 is clean as a whistle right now — so, quick question, how do I get to the locker room?”
He pointed to the double doors straight ahead of me.
“Go straight, turn right, follow it to the end. You’ll hear them.”
“Cool. Thanks, man.”
“Yup, no prob. Good luck.”
I said thanks and started anxiously walking towards the opportunity of a lifetime.
Basketball was my life, even if I didn’t look like a basketball player.
Obviously, I wasn’t a superstar. I looked down at my Rastafarian flip-flops, tan, baggy, cargo shorts and Star Wars shirt that read “May the Force Be With You.” I wondered if I was wearing the right clothes for my first NBA vets’ camp, but knowing your role when you have $200 in your bank account isn’t hard when you’re surrounded by mega-rich NBA superstars.
“Just do your job,” I kept telling myself.
I was hungry to prove something, but I knew in NBA life, you get overlooked until you continue to demand not to be.
And that means you have to get to their level mentally first. See, NBA players all have or act like they have one thing, even if they don’t: confidence.
In Latin, the word confidence comes from the root word confidere, to have faith in yourself, to presume you are good enough. But no one talked about their lack of confidence, or depression of losing star status on campus or the anxiety a pro athlete deals with on a day-to-day basis.
I had been fighting anxiety since I walked onto Kent State and tried out before I got a scholarship. I felt anxiety since the days I was a kid and my dad yelled at me to play harder.
Anxiety was just part of my life.
So I knew what it felt like to be a long shot. In fact, most of my Kent State teammates were misfits, the unwanted kids that fell through the cracks of college recruiting.
I had a month to make the Suns roster, to survive until the last cut, and to do this, I’d had to find my confidence and show Jerry Colangelo, Frank Johnson, and Mike D’Antoni I was good enough.
And my Rav4 sitting there didn’t really inspire “Baller of the Year” vibes. And if you’ve never been in an NBA team’s parking garage, let me tell you something: These dudes drive the nicest shit, ever.
On one side of my red Rav4 was a navy 2004 GT Maserati convertible coupe. Next to that, some sort of grey Mercedes AMG coupe, probably the one with the doors that opened sideways like The Batmobile. I left my rental inside the row of badass cars, these shiny sparkling beacons of luxury, and smiled as I made my way to the Sun’s locker room.
“That will at least make them laugh,” I thought.
The first guy I met was Shawn Marion. He’s only worth a hot $132 million.
“Hey, man,” he said nonchalantly, his head moving to the side like a giraffe. I stood there waiting for a few awkward seconds.
“I’m Trevor. I’ll be your new teammate for vets’ camp.”
“Cool, man. Welcome.”
I was standing there mesmerized. Shawn Marion, aka “The Matrix,” was taller than you thought. His ass was at my chest. His arms were as long and thick as boa constrictors. His hairline ran back from his forehead in a V-shape and his sharp nose pointed down like an eagle’s beak.
“God, my dude, how tall are you?” I thought.
Before my staring got awkward, Shawn turned away to his black, cherry maple locker and pulled his Phoenix Suns practice jersey over his head. It hung over his mesh purple and white shorts like a long beach towel draped out to dry.
You might be wondering, “Why are you talking and staring at Shawn Marion like you’re friends with him, and why are you with the Phoenix Suns and more importantly, why are you parking a Rav4 next to his Hummer?”
Yeah, those are good questions.
First of all, I don’t know whose Hummer it was.
Second, I’ve been a six-foot-one-inch, underdog point guard my whole life, so just let me enjoy the fact I had this second chance to make the NBA.
Third, I was oblivious to being a short, white point guard, and what that meant unless your name ended in -ovic (pronounced “ovichhh”). Being a white, American point guard doesn’t help you stay or make it in the NBA.
I kept walking and there was a piece of athletic tape atop a locker that read, “HUFFMAN.”
I stopped and glanced around at the guys already there.
“What’s up, fellas?” I asked quietly, looking for any amount of eye contact.
Leandro Barbosa glanced at me and smiled. I saw Casey Jacobsen, a rookie from Stanford, give me a nod to out of the corner of my eye as he was taking off a fancy, polo shirt and tapered slacks. Stephon Marbury was in the corner, sitting with a stern scowl, bumping his head up and down with his oversized headphones on, taking off a diamond bracelet and a massive, rose gold Rolex. A’mare Stoudemire was talking to Gugs (Tom Gugliotta) about his night out. Tom was spitting into a plastic cup every few seconds.
Was that chew?
I felt out of place standing there, but it was, after all, my first day with my name on an NBA locker. I sat down and looked at my flip-flops, realizing the humor in the situation. I had saved $45,000 from my first year overseas and bought a piece of land in my hometown of Petoskey, and these guys were dropping loot like Pirates of the Caribbean. I loved my flip-flops. “Should I let them go?” I asked myself.
There was Bob Marley’s yellow, green, and red face smiling on the leather strap near my big toe. I’d worn these to the Caribbean in eighth grade and never lost them. I looked up and watched the players start shuffling in. The tension was rising, no matter how hard I tried to deny it, I was nervous and I wondered, sitting there, if these guys were truly happy — with all their money, their fame, their luxury — playing the game that had given me so much.
Right then, I realized there were only few things I needed in life to be happy: my basketball, my basketball shoes and a pair of these badass NBA socks. I put the socks on and shivered. These NBA socks are the most comfortable socks ever made.
Stephon Marbury (Starbury), yeah, he was going to be a problem for me. His quads looked like steroid space shuttles, but I looked forward to trying to stop him. I looked forward to competing against some of the best players in the world. It’s what I had dreamt of doing since I was a kid. I wanted to show them why I was — wait, is that Penny Hardaway?
Shit, that is Penny.
“What’s up, man?” he asked, walking past me nonchalantly, grinning widely. “I’m Penny. Welcome.”
He stuck out his palm and gave me some dap, and a snap, and as I tried to talk, my tongue got stuck in the roof of my mouth. Instead of words, I made clucking sounds like a dying duck.
“Clack. Clack. I, uh. Nice to — clack.”
Instead of talking, I smiled and gave him two thumbs up, then looked away, horrified. The Hardaway Nike commercials flashed through my mind of Little Penny talking shit with Chris Rock’s voice making grown men cry.
This is cool. This is so cool.
I sat back down and ran my fingers along the edge of my mesh black and purple practice jersey. My spine tingled with goosebumps. David Griffin, the Sun’s top scout came around the corner.
“Huff, you need shoes?”
“I get shoes?”
“Yeah, you get shoes if you need them. We have loads of Steph’s shoes. What size are you?”
“Are you serious?” I thought. “I’m size 12.”
“Follow me,” he said. “I’ll introduce you to our equipment manager.”
I smiled walking through the rows and rows of Nikes, Reeboks, and Adidas.
“Take what you want.”
“Yep, all yours man.”
The next day, I got cut after my first preseason game against Jason Kidd and the New Jersey Nets. Fortunately, I left with three pairs of brand new size 12 “Starburys” (thanks Starbury) and the memory of Mike D’Antoni telling me to seize the moment and take more risks in my game.
I found out later, this goes for life as well.
I’ll never forget the experience, learning from my failures, and am grateful it happened. In the end, our failures don’t have to define us and I’ll never let it define me.