I love basketball, whether playing or watching. I played it from grade school to high school, and I averaged a whopping 1.7 points a game during my senior year.
My basketball prime came at the University of Northern Iowa when I played a lot of pickup basketball, I won the C-League basketball championship, and I was a practice player for the Panthers women’s basketball team. After college, I did not play basketball again until three years ago when I started to play once or twice a month.
During this time, I became a fan of the Iowa Wolves, the Minnesota Timberwolves G League affiliate. When I found out they were holding a tryout, it was time to put my love of basketball on display for my favorite team. I knew I had no chance at making the team. It takes my 30-year-old body a couple of days to recover after playing a couple of hours of pickup.
However, thanks to the Iowa Wolves management, I was given a chance to try out. The tryouts were held in a gym located at a random industrial park in the Des Moines metro and I figured I would be the first person there since I was there only 10 minutes after the doors opened, but I was wrong. The line was out the door and 25-30 men ended up trying out, many of whom had traveled from across the United States based on their vehicle license plates.
The gym smelled like sweat and the sound of shoe squeaks rang through the air, as we battled it out for the three potential spots on the team. Again, I’m not the best player but a few of the people who tried out were not even at my skill level…. that’s not good. That said, there were only two guys I thought I could beat one on one. Everyone else looked younger, faster, more athletic, and stronger than me. I regretted my decision to consume a few beers the night before at Des Moines’ Oktoberfest while also enjoying the Royal Mile’s delicious Bourbon Burger.
The Iowa Wolves staff gave me the jersey No. 23 which greats like LeBron James and Michael Jordan have worn. This was also my jersey number in high school. The stars were aligning. Before the start of the tryout, I shot a few shots, and most importantly, I stretched—a lot. My main goal, as I told the Wolves trainers, was not to get hurt.
Head Coach Jeff Newton then blew his whistle and gathered all the nervous and excited players before giving a quick pep talk and dividing us into three groups by our jersey numbers.
Now was the time to shine.
The first drill was a finishing drill where everyone laid it up at the hoop and each time through the rotation added a move to the drive like a spin, crossover, or misdirection. I was great at using my right hand in the drill, but with my left hand not so much. While other players made it look seamless, I struggled.
After five minutes, whistles were blown and we moved to the next drill. Music played, people yelled, and the coordinated chaos made the tryout harder. Unfortunately, this next drill required more use of my left hand as I dribbled two differently aired-up balls through an agility ladder before performing crossovers and other moves through cones. Throughout this drill, I thought about my grade and high school coaches preaching to dribble better with my left hand and all I did was get better at playing the “NBA 2K” basketball games.
At this point, other men were high-fiving and loudly encouraging each other to show their team-first attitude, and I could not. Due to my previous night of beers and a burger, I was in survival mode.
The last drill was defensive closeouts. As I closed out on a ghost shoot situated at five points around the three-point line, I felt competent. Switching to defensive sliding along the baseline showed my lack of good coordination as I never felt comfortable in this drill.
After this drill ended, we were given a water break. I was so tired. I thought I would have more gas in my tank at this point, but it read empty. As the younger athletes grabbed a quick drink and were ready to go, I plotted how to change the clock to give me an extra 10 minutes of rest.
We then moved on to one-on-one, two-on-two, and three-on-three scrimmages. In my four one-on-one games, I went against another player who was taller, stronger, and more athletic. I went zero for four as I turned the ball over once, badly missed a fadeaway, and got my shot blocked twice.
In three on three, I was the odd one out. I let the “real” athletes compete as I came in as a sub. During this time, I did not get my shot blocked which made it a success.
Two on two was my best showing of the day. Blessed to be teamed with No. 21, who was a big, strong, athletic, post-type of player, we dominated the court as we played strong defense and made our shots on offense to stay on the court. Well, No. 21 made most of the shots, but I made my only shot of the day.
Then came another break where I realized this was one of the first times in my life when my mind and body were not aligned. My head felt the same vigor as my 21-year-old self, but my hamstrings screamed, “Quit!”
The next set of drills moved closer to live scrimmaging where I started at the wave drill where with each shot, more players were added to the game, starting from two on one to ending in five on five. When I got a wide-open three opportunity, it felt like the Red Sea had parted. The release felt great, the ball was perfectly in line with the hoop, I was finally helping my team, and then it fell short. I air-balled.
During these last set of drills, I realized the speed of the game during tryouts versus my pickup games was entirely different; I played at Toyota Camry speed while everyone else played at Lamborghini Huracan speed.
Fatigue set in hard during the next drill of four on four. I guarded players smaller than me to save myself embarrassment as I did not quite understand the drill. As we were competing against others, we had to switch our reversible jerseys and due to all my sweat, it felt like a cold shower. For the next drill of simulated five-on-five with plays, the coordinated chaos, the fatigue, and my timidness to not look like a fool was in full force as I stayed on the far side to avoid seriously guarding or shooting the ball. Probably not what the coaches were looking for.
The final whistle was blown marking the end of the drills. It was time for cuts. Those making it through got to play in the scrimmage. My internal optimism was abundant. Despite my lack of offensive skills, I felt I did well on defense. I also showed off my lunch-pail player skills like grabbing rebounds and setting screens. While I was exhausted and realized these other players were better and built differently, it did not deter me. It was now the decisive moment.
Coach Newton, in ascending order, read the jersey numbers for those who made it past the cuts. He got closer to the 20s, and he read, “19, 20, 21, 24.”
My head sank. The tryout was over, and I was sad until the scrimmage began. All the players who made it past the cuts were much better than me. As my adrenaline wore off during the scrimmage, my lower back started to hurt. I also knew when I got home, I was not moving for a long time.
After the scrimmage ended, I spoke with Coach Newton, who has seen many talented basketball players across his career, to get his honest, accurate assessment. He initially did not want to tell me, but after my insistence, he told me in the nicest possible way that I was terrible.
He said, “Lacked athleticism, speed, inconsistent shooter, and not very good with the basketball in his hands making plays or even his dribbling itself.” A couple of other coaches told me I was a great teammate and had great floor awareness. I will take that as a win.
The silver lining and the biggest takeaway is Coach Newton said I was not the worst player at the tryout. That is going on my resume.
At the end of this experience, I realized that I, a devoted season ticket holder and part-time pickup basketball player, have no shot at making the G League. Things would be different if I was highly skilled and athletic, but I possess neither of those traits. My future in basketball will take place in the friendly confines of random gyms as I play pickup.
Thank you to the Iowa Wolves management and staff for allowing me to have this experience. I will be forever grateful and fondly look upon this memory. The G League belongs to the pros, and I look forward to cheering them on from the stands with a White Claw in one hand and a hot dog in the other.
One last thought, the next day I tried playing basketball while still tired from the tryout, and I hurt my foot. I have not played since.
by Sean Dengler
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