Leon Smith is the best athlete in t the gym, but he’s not here to play. He leans back in a metal chair and watches his brother run the floor at the Savannah Center, on the campus of Indiana University Northwest, during a September free-agent tryout for the Continental Basketball Association’s Gary Steelheads. Of the 30 hopefuls participating, five or six have the fluidity, control, and head-turning athleticism required to someday compete in the CBA, considered a stepping stone to the NBA. Smith’s brother, Jerry Sanders, is one of those few. Sanders is a lithe, elastic six-eight forward who played briefly at Northern Illinois University after graduating from Gordon Tech. He hasn’t played competitively in over a year, but he is talented, if not Leon Smith spectacular. The brothers share a complicated personal history, and each displays an unexpected quiet confidence.
If you’re a basketball fan, you already know the Leon Smith story. Or think you know it. He was born in the Chicago projects, abandoned by his parents, then sent to live in group homes with his brother. He slept on benches, spent nights walking the streets. If he hadn’t grown into an imposing six-ten talent with a freakish wingspan, incredible strength, and a rare, innate sense of space, Smith might have lived a tragic, anonymous, and possibly short life. Instead, in his teens he became a star at King High School. He dunked and the lights flickered, the building shook, the other team’s fans high-fived. His legend exploded and sycophants swarmed. Street agents disguised as fatherly mentors descended. His own father reappeared. Drafted straight out of high school with the last pick of the first round in the 1999 NBA draft, Smith joined the Dallas Mavericks. He rebelled, fought teammates, and sniped at head coach Don Nelson, and the team severed its connection to him. Nelson wrote him off as a mistake. Smith broke down, and violent, bizarre, self-destructive outbursts followed. He was arrested in Chicago for threatening an ex-girlfriend. He attempted suicide, taking handfuls of aspirin, and was discovered passed out cold in his apartment, paint smeared across his face. A flameout at 19, he became a cautionary tale, a stay-in-school PSA. His story was about a system betraying a kid and a kid betraying his talent, and it was supposed to be over.
Except that Smith kept working. He worked on a midrange jumper, his free throws, his strength, and he’s now beginning training camp with the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks. He shredded the CBA with the Steelheads last season, averaging 16.8 points and leading the league with 15.5 rebounds a game. The Atlanta Hawks signed him for the balance of the year, then in February he was dealt to Milwaukee along with Toni Kukoc for forward Glenn Robinson. When NBA scouts use words like “upside” and “potential,” Leon Smith is what they mean. Many are still leery of his past, his attitude, and the limitless potential of his downside. The Bulls had people at every Steelheads game last season, and they didn’t sign him. Ask Steelheads personnel and coaches to describe him, though, and they only tell you about his work ethic, his intelligence, and his talent.
“He made mistakes and he knows it, but he worked hard and played well for us,” says the team’s PR director, Michael Nieto. Smith tries to sound humble about his second chance at the NBA, but he has an unambiguous, edgy assuredness.
“Nothing’s guaranteed,” he says. “I’ve got to prove myself all over again to a new team, but I’ve worked hard.” I suggest that the Bucks are a great fit–close to home, a playoff contender. He grins and says, “Give me enough playing time and I’ll get any team to the playoffs. I’ll get the Bulls to the playoffs. I just need minutes.” Saying this here is no big thing, but having the restraint not to say it to his next head coach will be everything. Right now he’s eager, smiling, and jacked with cloudless confidence, watching his brother.
It’s 9:30 AM and the aspiring Steelheads are still going through drills. The coaches organize a simple three-man weave, a grammar school drill where the ball is advanced upcourt with sharp passing. At the near-pro level it should be tight, but there is a vast range of experience in the gym and some players are already lost. They drop passes, run into each other, blow layups. The coaches are frustrated, and the gifted players are impatient. However, the best players still manage to shrug off the inadequacies of the worst. One second you cringe at a ball thrown too late by someone too fat, the next you’re marveling as Jerry Sanders catches a badly thrown pass on the wing, adjusts, and finishes with his elbows at the rim.
No one at this tryout is guaranteed anything. The Steelheads will fill their roster with the last players released by NBA teams, not with idle talent from Gary and Chicago. The CBA is a whisper away from the league and NBA scouts attend every Steelheads’ game. They didn’t sign anyone from last year’s open tryouts, and they may not add anyone this time. Still, athletes like Sanders get their attention.
The Steelheads coaches steadily increase the complexity of the passing drills until the players run three-on-two and two-on-one fast breaks. Sanders remains impressive, moving in quick, long strides and finishing confidently. No fewer than 25 participants in the tryout consider themselves point guards, but most are just small basketball players. This allows the handful of big men with pro-ready bodies to excel, and they’re rarely matched against one another.
When full-court scrimmages begin, Sanders’s team wins the first two games. In the congestion and frenetic up and down of the early runs, he’s occasionally tentative, occasionally engaged. He’s at least a head taller than most opponents, but few of his teammates can throw effective entry passes–too many attempt unnecessarily difficult no-look flings through traffic. Sanders doesn’t demand the ball, either. He misses a three, but a layup gets him involved. When locked in he’s electric, tipping in offensive boards, intercepting passes, and igniting quick breaks.
Leon Smith is focused on his brother. “I just tell him, ‘Play hard, be aggressive,'” he says. It’s the right advice. Sanders continues to fade into and out of dominance, often allowing the game to happen around him but without him. Then he pins a shot high against the glass and sparks another break. He looks like a man who knows he can do more, yet doesn’t.
Smith is very ready to hoop, ready to swat one of these stiff’s shots halfway to Hammond, ready to throw an elbow, pivot, stick some Sega-ridiculous dunk, then hang there and talk about it.
When asked if there’s an NBA player that he’s tried to pattern his game after, he replies “Leon Smith.” He’s quick with the answer. “You’ll see I don’t play like anyone else. I’ve added to my game. I’ll leave it to the rest of the players to try to catch up.”
As the scrimmages continue, coaches snap at participants who flash showmanship but not substance. They harp on talented players who don’t run. At 11 o’clock they decide to regroup participants by skill, creating a kind of varsity and junior varsity. The realignment allows the best players to face one another unencumbered by sloppy, sluggish teammates. The extended game played by the elite players is smooth and fast. Some play better amid this talent than they’ve played all day.
Jerry Sanders is tired. He lacks the bulk and the battery of more experienced players. He’s not inactive, but he’s not comfortable. You can tell he’s been away from the game. His hands rest on his hips, while older, stronger players are fighting for position, calling for the ball. He isn’t much of a factor in the best game of the day. Still, you sense that it would take only conditioning and competition for him to star in this scrimmage.
It’s late in the morning, and Smith, still seated in a corner of the gym, is drawing admirers. People wish him well, jab his shoulder. There’s a quiet, relaxed flow of gratitude between him and the Steelheads staff. The club supported him, provided an easy environment in which he could reassemble and sharpen a formidable game that had been largely ignored in the public shitstorm of his aborted season with the Mavericks. His name helped fill the seats in Gary, and he worked hard.
When the last game ends, the coaches gather the players at midcourt, thanking them and reminding them how precious and difficult it is to get paid to play basketball. Associate head coach Dale Osbourne offers a terse, effective assessment of the league, the tryout, and the participants.
“Playing in the CBA, you are one step away. One step away,” he says. “That’s how serious this business is. You show up at a camp like this out of shape, take bad shots, you don’t know how to run a three-man weave…” He pauses, shaking his head. “You have to take thousands of jump shots, stay in great shape. You guys only play two, three games of full-court basketball every day? That’s not a workout. If you are going to make money in this game you’ve got to work at it. Most of you have jobs, so you’ve got to be up at 5:30 in the morning, 10:30 at night, working out.”
Head coach Duane Ticknor, who has rarely addressed the players today, interrupts, pointing to the back of the room.
“Leon Smith, stand up.”
Slowly, he stands and unfolds. He’s huge. His shoulders are wide and his arms are preposterously long.
“That is an NBA player,” says coach Ticknor. Most of the exhausted players stretched out on the court are lucky to be in the same room.
In short closing remarks, Ticknor asks the participants not to call the team office. In the coming months they’ll patch together a lineup from NBA cuts, they’ll track player movement in leagues on several continents. A few of today’s players may get a call asking them to attend another no-promises preseason camp, but most won’t hear from the team again. Thanks and good-bye, drive safe.
Ticknor takes a moment to wrap an arm around Jerry Sanders, though, blending private encouragement with polite, thoughtful critique. Sanders leaves the floor with his head bowed; he’s critical of his play but looking to the future. Like his brother, he’s trying to move to another level, full of intense talk about improvement.
“I’m used to an organized game. Out here, a lot of guys were chucking passes through three, four people. Too much razzle-dazzle.”
When asked where he needs to improve, he fires back a checklist of coaching basics. “I don’t cut hard enough, I need to work on my jump stop, be aggressive. I’ve neglected footwork, post work, strength, and stamina. I need to get my wind back up, but that will come with playing. I’ve been out for a year and a half.” In that year and a half, he’s fathered a daughter, and he speaks with recalibrated hope and affection.
“When I left [basketball], I didn’t want to put up with things anymore. My daughter helped me get back to it. I miss the game, I miss all the stuff that goes with it. I miss the bus rides, the goofy conversations….I don’t want to look back and say, ‘shoulda, shoulda shoulda.'”
Smith stands at his shoulder, maybe listening, maybe anxious. Both brothers have survived treacherous circumstances, and their history is a crazy mix of the disordered, heroic, and disappointing. Today, though, it all feels good: they share talent and persistence, they’re beating back a sense of half-belonging, and it’s right to pull for them.