Tuesday, September 18, 2012


The further you go, the further the road stretches, playgrounds, youth leagues and endless summer camps. They were standouts in school, celebrated by peers and coaches, boosters and  sycophants. Some went undrafted, some have been knocking around forever and some have had more than a taste of glory. Each summer they make their way back from all corners of the basketball globe like lemmings. They hang around gyms, minimize their injuries and fill dance cards set by agents. What binds them together is a love of the game and a snowball’s chance of sticking around once the regular season arrives. Altogether, NBA teams hand out around 100 of these tickets each fall and they’re not easy to come by.

Heading into training camp, the Lakers are carrying an 18-man roster, four of whom are non-guaranteed rookies. There may be more added between now and then. It's unlikely the team will carry a 15th contract into the regular season as they prefer to keep a spot open for flexibility. Nonetheless, the tryouts aren't vanity deals. The chosen few will be practice bodies, specialists, role players and hopefuls and when all is said and done, they'll become files for future reference. And every now and then, one becomes part of the lexicon for all the others. 

On the night of June 28, 2012, the Lakers paid a cool half-million to Dallas for the 55th overall pick. In doing so, they acquired Darius Earvin Johnson-Odom, the man with the awesome name. The 6-2 shooting guard out of Marquette blew away the combine this past spring with a 41.5” vertical leap. He's got a defensive mindset and a sweet lefty jumper. The obvious obstacle is being a small guard on a roster with seven other guards, two of whom are named Bryant and Nash. Regardless, it would not be unheard of for the Lakers to hold onto the kid as a future prospect, especially given the need for affordable pieces within the new collective bargaining agreement.

I wasn’t thrilled when the Lakers took Robert Sacre in the dead last slot, passing on point guard Scott Machado who was somehow still on the board. Machado has since signed a three-year deal with the Rockets. Nonetheless, Sacre, a seven-foot banger out of Gonzaga, was solid in Summer League play for the Lakers, leading the team in minutes and showing signs of relevancy. He was born in Louisiana and moved to Canada at age seven. He is beloved by former teammates and sports an ocean of ink, including two dogs, a lion, rapper DMX and one that simply reads, "water the bamboo." The Lakers don’t have a lot of front court size in reserve and Sacre has an insurance policy shot, especially if Dwight Howard’s back isn't ready.

Reeves Nelson is the prototypical cautionary tale, a former projected lottery pick who got kicked off the UCLA squad for disciplinary reasons in his sophomore year. An undersized center and power forward, nobody ever accused Nelson of not being willing to mix it up. There’s a difference however, between being willing to fight and willing to play when your team’s down. There’s plenty of conflicting stories, as well as a ten million dollar lawsuit against Sports Illustrated. The story took an unexpected turn when the Lakers invited Nelson to work out before the draft. They subsequently brought him to Vegas for Summer League and left him on the bench for the first two games to test his character. They liked what they saw both on and off the court and offered him a training camp contract. There is plenty of potential and always has been, just as there has been for countless other players who chase the dream.

Greg Somogyi was never a projected lottery pick or anywhere near it. At 7-3, his center of balance lies somewhere between a rickety stepladder and an origami figure in a stiff wind. A native of Hungary, Somogyi averaged 3.5 ppg during his four undistinguished years at UC Santa Barbara. He can’t shoot, can’t rebound, can block a little, and is otherwise fully able to stand under the basket and get dunked on. Somogyi is the least likely of these four to make the Lakers or any NBA team for that matter. Still, he is very, very tall. And, will likely find work if he wants it in Europe along with a whole lot of other really tall eastern bloc guys.

There’s stories on every team, from those just beginning their NBA quest and from those nearing the end. It’s the same for every sport and for dreams unrelated to sports. It’s the story of the holy grail and that which remains tantalizingly out of our grasp. Johnson-Odom, Sacre, Reeves and Somogyi all met in Las Vegas and probably got to know each other a little bit. At the Lakers’ El Segundo training facility, they will compete for one improbable chance.

There’s a term in Vegas for gamblers who lose everything – broke money is what’s given by casinos for a one-way ticket out of town and away from temptation. The itch never quits though. Training camps will begin and they will end and the hopefuls will drift away. They’ll have a bit more than broke money in their pockets and they’ll head back on their serpentine journeys, endless and elusive, with no direction home. 

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