Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Jeremy Tyler: Across the Universe

Jeremy Tyler recently wrapped up an engagement with the Dallas Mavericks summer league squad. At 24, the 6'11" basketball nomad has been with 11 pro organizations and counting.

He's hoping this gig will lead to something more permanent.

Tyler was once a famous phenom, a player who jumped the gun way too early. Not only did he skip college but his senior year at San Diego High as well. At the time, the 17-year-old decided the best path to the NBA was through European pro ball—it would take just a couple years to reach that pesky minimum age requirement imposed by David Stern.

The precocious prodigy was counseled in this regard by his father James Tyler, sneaker huckster Sonny Vaccaro, and agent Arn Tellem, then of the Wasserman Media Group.

“This hopefully will turn out to be one of the great life lessons for Jeremy,” Tellem said per Pete Thamel of the New York Times.

That was back in 2009 but it seems much longer ago. That was when Tyler was being described by NBA veteran Olden Polynice as a young Hakeem Olajuwon, and as “one of those guys who comes along once in a lifetime.”

That was when Polynice described the young protégé as being “pimped.”

Jeremy’s plan was to go overseas and come back a star. He’d become the top overall pick in the draft, shake Stern’s hand on stage, make $200 million over a glorious basketball career and then segue into modeling.

But the trans-continental divide didn’t quite work the way Vaccaro had pitched it to the high school dropout. Tyler’s first team was Maccabi Haifa in Israel where he butted heads with tough veteran players and a head coach with no time for coddling.

The teenager was benched, disciplined and lectured. He responded with complaints and accusations. And he played just 10 games before quitting and returning home to San Diego.

Vaccaro was nonplussed, saying per ESPN: “It would’ve been beautiful, utopia, if he had played and helped his team win a championship."

Tyler’s older and wiser now, a tough, solid player who averaged 11.8 points and 8.3 rebounds per game in Las Vegas. He has learned the tricks of the trade during his globetrotting years. Perhaps Tellem was right, but it wasn’t just one grand epiphany.

Back in San Diego, Tyler examined his options—no high school diploma and no longer eligible for college ball after signing a $140,000 pro contract. And he wouldn’t be draft legal for another full year.

But he still had Vaccaro in his corner. The godfather of the sneaker wars hooked Tyler up with Tokyo Apache, a Japanese basketball team that had just been purchased by a Los Angeles-based investor group led by Evolution Capital Management.

Tyler’s dream was still alive, he’d just get made in Japan.

The new head coach of Tokyo Apache was Bob Hill, a seasoned basketball operative from both the college and pro ranks, including the Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs and Seattle SuperSonics. Bob and his son Casey had been working out prospects for their new venture in Dallas. It was now July, 2010, and the Hills had a reclamation project they would partner Tyler with—Robert Swift who would ultimately become a junkie with a stocking over his head in Gold Bar, Washington. But that hadn’t yet happened.

Swift had been another teenage cautionary tale, drafted at 18 out of Bakersfield High in California before Stern had instituted his age limit. Like Tyler, Swift had been repped by Tellem.

By the time Tokyo Apache happened, the 7-foot Swift had played parts of four seasons with the SuperSonics and the Oklahoma City Thunder. He had wrecked his knee more than once, picked up some nasty habits and scorched all his bridges. Hill had been one of Swift’s coaches in Seattle.

Things didn’t start well for either Tyler or his new mentor in Tokyo. Swift was holed up in his downtown apartment, drinking himself into oblivion. And Tyler, who was still not privy to certain basketball fundamentals, was being ripped a new one at practice by Hill.

But things turned around with interventions and tough love. Swift stopped drinking, turned 25 and began collecting double-doubles. He was also relating well with Tyler who was now 19, and starting to figure out how the game should be played. The universe was coming back into alignment.

“Being in Japan is amazing, especially in Tokyo,” Tyler said per Christopher Johnson of the Times. “Everybody is so positive, my coaches, my teammates. There are so many different things to explore here. Basketball is taking care of itself.”

But on March 11, 2011, a massive earthquake shifted the earth on its axis and caused a tsunami that washed out entire cities. In the aftermath, Tokyo Apache disbanded—their L.A. investors decided it just wasn’t worth the hassle anymore.

That was the end if basketball for Swift whose life spiraled into heroin and minor crime sprees. But for Tyler, there was still hope—he was finally eligible for the NBA draft.

He returned home again, convinced there was still salvation to be claimed. And to the surprise of many, the basketball exile began snaking his way up the draft board with the gift of gab.

Per Scott Howard-Cooper of "In interviews with team executives,Tyler has shown himself to be more than a perceived ungrounded basketball soul wandering the globe in search of the next start, and has impressed clubs with his maturity and ability to address his image—even spinning his tangled past into a positive."

Just days before the draft, there were rumors that Tyler could be a fringe lottery pick. But on the night of June 23, those hopes failed to materialize. Perhaps there was simply too much baggage, too many missteps. Tyler slipped out of the first round and was ultimately selected at No. 39 by the Charlotte Bobcats and immediately traded to the Golden State Warriors for cash.

It wasn’t exactly the dream he’d been peddled as a high school junior, but Tyler was now in the NBA—maybe.

The 2011 lockout began a week after the draft and lasted until December. Summer twitterdom and media opinions turned in on themselves like dogs chasing their own tails. And when a shortened season finally got underway, the Warriors found themselves in transition under new head coach Mark Jackson.

It was the beginning of something good for Golden State but it was still a choppy ride—Stephen Curry played just 26 games with ankle issues and the team wound up going 23-43.

As for Tyler, he played 42 games with the Warriors, starting 23 of them but averaging only 13.5 minutes per game. His stat line of 4.9 points and 3.3 rebounds during his rookie season still remains his high water mark in the NBA. He was also assigned to the Dakota Wizards in the D-League on multiple occasions.

Despite the low numbers, Tyler was improving. His starts came toward the end of the season on a team decimated by injuries. In the last game of his rookie campaign, he played 44 minutes and delivered a career-high 16 points, plus nine boards.

The team even put together a brief “swagger and power” clip of the rookie’s highlights.

But the following season Tyler only averaged 1.1 point over 20 games for Golden State, along with more D-League assignments—the Wizards had by now moved west and become the Santa Cruz Warriors. And more changes were still in store.

Right before the February deadline, Tyler was traded to the Atlanta Hawks for future draft considerations. It was nothing more than a cost-cutting move—owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber wanted to get under the luxury tax ceiling. And whatever portion was left of Tyler’s second round minimum rookie contract, was enough to do the trick.

The onetime high school sensation played exactly one game in Atlanta before getting waived. Tyler was becoming a nonstory.

He appeared with the New York Knicks summer league team in 2013 and was signed in the fall before suffering a stress foot fracture that required surgery. He was subsequently cut to make room for J.R. Smith’s brother and signed by the Knick’s D-League affiliate, the Erie Bayhawks.

Tyler was brought back in late December by New York, playing 41 games for a team that had reached its nadir, featuring the endless death march of head coach Mike Woodson.

Zen master Phil Jackson took over basketball operations in March. Tyler was excited about new opportunities. He studied up on the Triangle offense, feeling that its inside-out nature could benefit his game. He listened in April as Jackson addressed his players in an impromptu group meeting. And when summer arrived and Derek Fisher was hired, Tyler praised the new coach’s leadership.

“Everyone is following his plan,” Tyler said of Fisher during summer league in July. “Everybody respects his system of the Triangle. Even off the court I’ve been replaying different sets in my mind.”

But Tyler was traded to the Sacramento Kings a month later and immediately waived. He managed a training camp invite with the Los Angeles Lakers who were coming off a train wreck season and about to embark upon one that would be even worse. Tyler lasted three preseason games before getting the axe.

Images of broken light which dance before me like a million eyes, they call me on and on across the universe.

The NBA washout did what anyone still chasing the dream would do—he headed to the People’s Republic of China. And there in an ancient mountainous province, he played basketball for Shanxi Zhongyu and a roster of Chinese nationals…plus Von Wafer.

Tyler was a star in Asia once again. He was living in the large industrial city of Taiyuan and took in the outlying sights—massive crumbling Buddhist statues and cliff-hanging temples. But this northern region isn't particularly suitable for tourism in the cold winter months, Mostly, Tyler practiced, played and enjoyed the hospitality of his hosts.  

The Shanxi Brave Dragons finished their season by losing on the road in the CBA quarter-finals to the Quindao DoubleStar Eagles. The game deconstructed in its latter stages, with the tempestuous Von Wafer kneeing an opposing player in the family jewels before tossing a chair into the stands.

Not to be outdone, Tyler got into a fight with Iranian man-mountain Hamed Haddadi and later deigned the giant’s act of contrition—matters escalated into a full-scale hallway rumble replete with security forces and ongoing Brave Dragon/DoubleStar Eagle skirmishes.

Another basketball season was over.


During the first week of summer free agency, DeAndre Jordan fled the Los Angeles Clippers for greener pastures, feted by select organizations before agreeing to terms with the Dallas Mavericks. Owner Mark Cuban went all in on the endeavor, according second-choice waiting status to Tyson Chandler who promptly signed with the Phoenix Suns.

But Jordan changed his mind after nearly a week of being a de facto Mav, leaving Dallas conspicuously lacking at the pivot.

A couple years back, Cuban blogged about the capricious nature of free agency and his penchant for seeing something in retread players who had failed in other organizations or systems. “I like our ability to work with what I call 'fallen angels.'"

How can a man who has been mentored by Robert Swift, engaged in fisticuffs with Haddadi, and failed to launch a $200 million career, not be a fallen angel? Tyler rebelled against the Basketball Gods and was cast out time and again. He has chased the rainbow, worked on his craft, become a father and played in every hoops system known to mankind—all by an age at which some prospects are just getting started.

Jeremy Tyler’s greatest sin wasn’t in listening to influencers. It was daring to be a teenager. Sure, he made a mess of things, like a kid with an electric guitar—just take some time and learn how to play.

But while sports is generally big on redemption stories, there is also a coded structure—a beginning and a middle and an ending. And if you take too much time getting to the hook, all is lost.'

Maybe Cuban will play the smart business angle, filling a hole with a minimum salary deal. And maybe a kid once bound for glory will knuckle down in Texas and finally deliver on his much-delayed promise.

But NBA training camps are still months away and professional basketball has increasingly become a year-round globalized business.

For Tyler, the great life lessons continue, across the universe.

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