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Living the very un-NBA life that is the Orlando Summer League

Posted By John Karalis On July 13, 2013 @ 11:24 am In General | No Comments

Celtics first-round pick Kelly Olynyk made his mark at the Orland Summer League. (AP)

Celtics first-round pick Kelly Olynyk made his mark at the Orland Summer League. (AP)

ORLANDO — There is no glamor in this.

The Orlando Summer Pro League is the player’s equivalent of a physical exam. It’s sterile. Clinical. Sometimes, it’s uncomfortable.

A few dozen young men, many of whom just met, assemble at what must feel like an ungodly hour to perform for the assembled coaches, executives, scouts, agents, and media. For many, it’s a first taste of life as a pro. For some, it’s another in a line of chances to prove they are worthy of an invitation to training camp. For a few, it’s a mandated appearance to hone a skill, or work on something new.

The players are fully exposed on the court. Every squeak of sneakers, every slap of a foul, every curse after a missed shot is heard quite plainly by just about everyone. With no more than three rows of seating surrounding the court, expressions are clearly visible, even winces from coaches who clearly expected something different from a play.

Yes, the environment during these games can be unforgiving.

But most of these guys love it.

“I’m really having fun out there and having fun with my team,” said first-round pick (and summer league star) Kelly Olynyk. “It’s a great group of guys, a great group of coaches, very encouraging.”

Strip away all the ancillary stuff like crowds and a PA announcer, and what these guys have been doing out there all week is simply playing basketball. For the purists who want to hear and see every little bit of detail, this is a little slice of bliss.

“It’s been great,” new C’s coach Brad Stevens told me this week. “I’ve been able to get to the gym and sit, and listen, and talk, and evaluate and then I can go back to my room and work. So it’s been a great balance.”

It’s actually rather informal, really. Most people show up to games in shorts, taking in the action as if it was something that killed an hour or two before running off to a tee time. There are plenty of players strolling through downtown Orlando in their T-shirts and flip-flops, enjoying a bit more free time than they’re normally used to. They’re not just trying to launch careers, they’re launching friendships with the only guys around right now that understand this grind.

“We went out to get something to eat all together,” said guard Phil Pressey. “It gave us a chance to get a feel for each other and just like playing with each other.”

And make no mistake about it, this is a grind. There are practices, film sessions, strength and conditioning sessions, and of course, the little matter of five games in six days. Some of those games started when most people were still making their morning commutes. While you were pouring your second cup of coffee, guys like Courtney Fells and Tony Mitchell were trying to convince someone in that little gym that they were worthy of a few dollars and a spot on an NBA roster.

“We came here to win games,” said Olynyk in his best attempt at feeding the media NBA-level canned answers. Then the schedule tripped him up.

“That’s what we’re going to try and do every night. Or every morning. Or afternoon. Depending on when we play.”

It’s easy to be in awe of the moment. Players are dressing themselves in gear that bears the name of an NBA team. They are using NBA lingo and playing in front of NBA executives without the buffer of fans to take the edge off the situation.

One NBA executive marveled to me about how much stock people put into summer league. It is, he said, just a chance to see the guys apply the things they’ve done separately at their workouts. At the same time, Celtics assistant coach (and head coach for the summer league team) Jay Larranaga often mentioned how some of these guys are showcasing themselves for other teams, even while wearing green.

That’s part of the deal teams make with some of these guys. Darius Johnson-Odom played three games for the Celtics, made his case for those seated at the Magic’s practice court, and then left to join the Nuggets summer league team in Las Vegas (the Celtics are not participating in the Las Vegas league). Many others are also double-dipping. That’s part of trying to make the show. It’s part of the struggle.

The payoff, if there is one, is gigantic. You can see the stress that puts on some guys. Sometimes you see it on the court. Sometimes you catch it when they step into the media dining area to get some food.

We are all an intermingled lot in Orlando. One day I sat next to an accountant for young NBA players while I scarfed down a meal before setting off to my typing. The next I sat next to a player and his agent discussing business. Then it was the two scouts who coincidentally were expressing how impressed they were with Olynyk’s game. A table away, members of the Greek media discussed story ideas.

We’re all part of this circle of basketball life. There are the players who play, the executives who may pay them scads of money to do so, and the media who make sure you know about it all. Seeds are planted in Orlando. Relationships begin here. Dreams are born here. Some dreams die here.

It’s not glamorous, but you’ll hardly find a single soul in there that would trade these moments away.


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