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. The next time I play him, I’ll ask.
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, short 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 thought I saw Casey Jacobsen, a rookie, give me a nod to out of the corner of my eye as he was taking off a fancy, polo shirt and tapered slacks, but I’m pretty sure he was worried about his hair getting messed up. 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 what looked like a massive, rose gold Rolex. A’mare Stoudemire was laughing and talking to Gugs (Gugs, if I remember correctly, was Tommy Gugilotta’s nickname) about his night out.
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.
I thought about Barbosa. He had just arrived from a small village in Brazil, and he was 19! There was no way he was going to dominate me. Hell, my jersey was retired, hanging in Kent State’s rafters, there is no way this kid is gonna beat me, I thought.
Starbury, yeah, he was going to be a problem for me, his quads looked like 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.”
I gave him two thumbs up, looked away, and tried to smile, horrified. The commercials flashed through my mind. Little Penny talking shit in my childhood memories.
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. Then David Griffin, the small, ginger-haired head scout (that got me the Rav4 and the apartment with Scottie Pippen’s nephew) 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 in stock. What size are you?”
“Christ, are you serious?” I thought while announcing my shoe size with glee. “12.”
“Follow me,” he said. “I’ll introduce you to our equipment manager staff.”
Fast forward to 2018. I’m aging, I’m balding. I’m older. I have a slight dad bod developing, and I look back on that NBA thing and laugh about how young, naive, and dumb I was.
I laugh at the fact I thought I had a chance to make that team. I had no fucking chance, and it was heartbreaking for me. I cried like a snotty, flu-infested baby for hours after they let me go. I wanted to jump off a bridge when I landed in Poland for my next professional season, and worse, I’d gained 30 pounds because of depression, being homesick and not ever wanting to play basketball or fail again.
Anyways, I got a text last week from a friend of mine, Sterling, about playing in a run with some NBA guys.
“Ohhh, what?” I texted back.
I wasn’t playing a lot, and I usually pretended to be pretty busy, because the idea of hooping against old college and competitive Chicago league players that would judge their games off beating my old ass didn’t really appeal to me.
But Sterling caught me this time:
“Marion will be there. Didn’t you say he was at Phoenix while you were there? Let me know if you want in. We need one more.”
“Wait, the Matrix?” I typed back quickly.
Hamlin Park is a shithole, Chicago gym in a pretty nice area of Lincoln Park. I parked my car behind a bright orange Dodge Charger with black racing stripes and laughed, but as I got out of my car (no, it wasn’t a Rav4), I wonder if that was his car.
“Am I fucking parking next to him again,” I wonder.
There is a folding chair holding the double doors open. I push through it, and the chair clangs to the ground. The court is small. The rims might not even break away. The windows have metal cages with vents that you open with a chained, pulley system.
“What the hell kind of operation is this?” I think, walking around a tall, light-skinned, black guy doing the Mikan drill with his back to me. The bleachers on the other side of the court have a few young guys putting on gear, tights and hoop shoes, so I walk towards them.
I cut through the free-throw line and realize it’s Shawn. The Matrix turns around. He looks older — just as outrageously tall, but older, and wider, bigger, and his UNLV dry-fit shirt fits tightly to his chest. He didn’t have the old-man body while he was at the Suns.
Then again, neither did I.
Shawn nods at me, “What’s up?” I nod back, and walk to the bleachers. I want to ask him if he remembers me trying out for the Suns. I wonder if that was his black Hummer. I wonder if he remembers when I outscored Leandro Barbosa in the preseason, inter-squad scrimmages.
I wonder if he will remember after I beat him today and repeat to myself:
“You get overlooked until you continue to make the decision not to be.”
I sat down and put on my ankle braces, basketball shoes, and pulled out my trusty Wilson basketball. It was GO TIME.
To be candid, I played pretty good for a 39-year old retired dude that still prefers flip-flops to designer shoes.
But I wished I had put more time into my fitness and game since retiring from pro hoops three years ago. I was training for a triathlon, but playing to 120 points is hard in your late thirties, and it is much harder than running at a slow pace on a treadmill for an hour. But I paced myself, and at halftime, the humidity index was unbearable, so we decided to end the game at 105.
I was playing well. Dishing. Scoring. Shooting. I brought my A game. And we were up by 10 to 12 points most of the game. But it closer to 105, the momentum started to shift and closer the game became. The Matrix started playing harder. Everyone did, actually.
“Go get the ball,” I said to myself. “You get overlooked until you continue to make the decision not to be.”
The Matrix must have had thirty rebounds already, but feel the confidence come back into my game again. I feel the flow, see things happening like I did when I was still playing.
My eyes light up, again. The boa man hedges to late on a pick and roll. I step back and pump fake.He bites, and I blow by him to score a layup off the wrong foot and wrong hand.
Tim Doyle, a friend of mine with two kids who lives in the burbs, yells, “You still got it Huff,” and I smile. It feels good to hear. “I do still got it, don’t I?” I think. Five more points to go. 100, Good Guys.
Bad Guys come down and miss an easy layup that Shawn facilitates. He’s pissed. “Goddamn, man — just take your time.”
We come back down the court with a head of steam on a broken transition. I drive and kick it to Sterling. He drives and pulls up for a tough contested jumper on a guy that still plays overseas. It swishes through the net. 102.
We are going to win. They come down and shoot a quick shot, and one of our guys tips the ball. He is afraid the Matrix is around. In the Matrix, nothing is safe.
“Grab it!” I yell. The tip caroms to the floor in slow motion. I’m there. I’m right there. I go to pick it up and suddenly it’s sucked away by the vacuum hands of The Matrix. Another put back. I forgot how big he was, how fluid he is still for being retired just like me. 102–103, Bad Guys.
My chance to win the game is now. I bring the ball up the sideline and wave my center over. Shawn is still guarding him. I hear a Chris Rock voice yelling in my head: “Score on him. End the game. You know what he did to you? Demand it. Be it. This dude doesn’t even know your name or that you got cut from the biggest dream of your — ”*
“LUUUKE, COME SCREEN!” I scream, the adrenaline rising. Luke played at Dayton. He is a pure, four-man — a great shooter and smart player. It was time to finish it. Put The Matrix out of his misery and make him remember the kid Jerry Colangelo cut.
Shawn switches this time. He is guarding me hard, putting pressure on me, but he knows I’m taking this shot. He knows I’m going to try and hit a three to end it. I dart to the right, stop, go behind the back, tilt back to the three-point line and fire off a Steph Curry-esque three-pointer (we were playing with a high-school, three-point line).
It’s not a good shot. It’s a horrible shot actually, but I don’t care. “This is my time,” I think. “My time.”
The Matrix’s fingers and arms are outstretched for the block and for a moment, the halogen light I’m looking into is even screened away by his jumping body. The rim is gone. But the ball makes it by him. It is in en route.
For a split second, I know the game is over.
“OFF LEFT!” Shawn yells, sprinting by me looking backwards.
But I stay. I want to follow the shot in. I want to see that ball go in. I want him to know who I am. I’ll tell him. I’ll ask him the questions after. I’ll have the pride then. I hold my gooseneck, my wrist flipped down, my feet landing just as the ball descends towards the hoop. Then I feel a breeze and the leather orb drifts by the rim in the slow motion.**
AIRBALL — Damnnit. God dammit.
There’ss a scramble and a race to get back, but it’s too late. Someone shoots a layup, misses, and Shawn is there. His hands gobble up the ball and in one motion he jumps for the rim. None of us are near him except me. I swipe and miss.
Bucket. Game over.
I smiled and walked off the court, brimming with pride. I had grown. I wasn’t afraid to take the big shot anymore. All the years overseas taught me that one thing: if you have the opportunity, make it happen. Live with no regrets.
Shawn nods to me with respect. I appreciate it and nod back.
Maybe one day, he’ll know we were teammates.
Trevor Huffman is a former professional basketball player and contributor at Grandstand Central. His new podcast, ‘The Post Game’ looks at the game after the game, as he speaks with retired athletes about life beyond sports. Subscribe here.