EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Usually, the adversity basketball players are asked to address in interviews comes from their team losing five of six, say, or a poor shooting performance.
DaJuan Summers, one of 31 players participating in a free agent minicamp held by the Brooklyn Nets this week, and a member of a fraternity thousands strong willing to do virtually anything to earn a spot in the NBA, went through adversity of a different sort earlier this year just to get some basketball shoes.
The former Georgetown standout, after a 2012-13 season that included a D-League All-Star game appearance and a brief stint with the Los Angeles Clippers, had signed with BC Budivelnik in Kiev, Ukraine. His second child, a baby girl, had been born to his girlfriend, Selita, in November. Finally able to fly, he'd flown "my girl and my kids," as Summers put it, smiling, to Kiev to join him.
And then, a revolution.
"The wildest thing -- the protests!", Summers said following a second day of workouts at the Nets' practice facility. A handful of reporters had gathered, mostly thanks to a promise to speak to Billy King, the team's general manager. "When everything started to happen, I went down to the center [of Kiev]. And they had it barricaded. And they'd walk through it, Molotov cocktails, things were burning. It was surreal... I'm going to the Nike store, 'cause that's where the store was, downtown, 'cause I'm trying to get some shoes. And I see probably 50 people with flags, running through. And I'm thinking, maybe I might want to leave. But they weren't worrying about me. I just got my shoes and got out of there."
Summers quickly sent Selita, his four-year-old son and his then-three-month-old daughter back to their home in Baltimore. Summers stayed. He only returned a few weeks ago, spending months apart from his newly-extended family in a war zone.
"They were worried about me," Summers said. "But I just tried to keep them calm. She knows how important this is to me. This is my dream. All my energy, my focus, is getting back to playing at this level. I know I can play at this level."
But what Summers went through is emblematic, if more extreme, of what thousands of players all over the world deal with, driven by an unshaken belief that to play professional basketball at the highest level is what they're meant to do. Constant movement, low pay and no security is the reality for many more who earn a living shooting hoops than the glamorous lifestyle we often associate with The League.
What drives 31 players to come out to an office park in New Jersey -- that's right, despite having moved to Brooklyn, the Nets still practice in New Jersey, at least for now -- with the promise of nothing more than a brief look at their game by a team's general manager and coaching staff? It's this belief, this dream, and really, nothing else. There's not much money to be made, playing basketball in Kiev, or the D-League, or some of the other far outposts of professional basketball represented on the floor Tuesday morning.
Ever heard of Bilboa Basket? Trabzonspor? Lokomotiv Kuban? Weber Bahia Estudiantes? Altshuler Shaham Giboa Gali?
All of those teams had players in East Rutherford. The last two produced two each. And another one, Summers, came via BC Budivelnik.
"I can't pronounce it," Summers said, after trying, laughing about his attempt. "Don't judge me. Please don't judge me."
But naturally, that's precisely why Summers and the 30 others were there -- to be judged. More precisely, to be judged differently this time. Summers has played for the Pistons, the Hornets and the Clippers. The Bobcats had him in training camp in 2012. They all found him wanting. At the moment, any team in the league could have him.
So they all hit the floor for five-on-five scrimmages Tuesday, after some instruction and drills on Monday. They'd play 3-to-5 minute increments, with hockey-style line changes. Brief snippets of game play, needing to show something, anything, to convince the Nets to keep them around for a longer look.
I asked King what he and the coaching staff can see over the course of three days with these players, if it is determinative, or merely about getting a closer look at something Nets scouts already spotted in game action.
"Well, it's a combination," King said Tuesday, following the second day of workouts. "We've already scouted them, in college or Europe, so now you bring them in for three days to reaffirm what you believe, to prove things that you didn't believe. And now we'll take some of these guys to summer league with us. And then we'll get another chance to evaluate them."
But once there, should they make it to the summer league, there are no guarantees. Most NBA summer league players don't crack the team's regular season roster, either. These players were merely competing for the chance to move from one longshot pot to another, to keep their games on display in front of the people who control those 450 NBA roster spots.
For college basketball junkies, the names were mostly familiar. You could see how players had developed, or how they hadn't, how players had gotten stronger, or how athleticism had been compromised by age.
There was Jack Cooley, once of Notre Dame, now of Trabzonspor (that's Turkey, by the way), picking up offensive rebounds and garbage points. Rick Jackson, once the automatic double-double at Syracuse, now plying his trade for Altshuler Shaham Giboa Gali (that's Israel), got position, time and again. I watched Scott Machado sacrifice his own shot to run the same constant fastbreak that they play at Iona up in New Rochelle, N.Y. And Summers, seemingly leaner, yet stronger than he appeared in his promising, inconsistent three years at Georgetown, stayed active in every play, took open shots without forcing his own.
About that calm on the floor: it wasn't that way for everybody. And the desire to show off in such a setting is understandable. Figuring out just what will give you that chance to hang around, maybe be one of the 450 next year, isn't easy.
"The first day, you could see it a lot," Summers said about players who were more concerned with putting up numbers. "One guy who went home, I told him, 'Don't press it, don't force the issue. Because if you can score, it's gonna show. But making the right pass, the assist, opens more eyes than you crossing somebody up and getting a bucket.'"
That was Machado's gameplan, or maybe just how he always functions. Immediately, he found Ivan Johnson with a long lob pass for a bucket. Moments later, he hit a cutting Donte Greene in stride for a layup. His mind worked more quickly than those around him. A free throw shooter would get set, and already, Machado was looking around the court, seeing precisely where his makeshift teammates were, plotting his course.
Machado, even on made baskets, would rush the ball up the floor. Was it that Iona offense? Or had Machado seen how Jason Kidd liked to play, urging his point guards to be more aggressive and get into the offense quicker?
"I know how J-Kidd plays," Machado told me when it was over Tuesday. "And I know how he's coaching the Nets. I watched them during the playoffs, and I saw how he wanted it to be done. So I kind of came in here with the aspect of, I kind of play like him, and also, I would push the ball, that's my type of game. Passing the ball, getting my teammates easy shots."
Summers, meanwhile, missed several early attempts. He flashed to the free throw line, but it rimmed out. He found open space on the near sideline for a three, but it bounced off. A 15-footer went halfway down, but no more. I'd seen him let some early misses affect his entire game at Georgetown, the defense slowing, the shot never showing up.
He didn't do that on Tuesday morning. At the other end, following the 15-footer gone awry, he aggressively challenged a shot at the other end, blocking it with a windmill motion. He ran down every fast break, and soon enough, started getting the rewards. Up ahead of teammates, one man to beat, he created space with his non-shooting arm, drew the contact, made the layup. A pair of breakaway dunks drew the notice of the writers still trickling in.
"I realized that I don't have to force my offense," Summers said. "The game is gonna come to you, if you play defense, if you stay in the game. I know I can shoot the ball, those things come. So I know if I can get to halfcourt, it gets you easy baskets, it gets you in the game. So that's what my focus is. If I get on the roster this season, they're not gonna be looking for me to drop 20 a game. So I just understand my role a lot better, more mature, just know what guys are looking for from me."
Let's not romanticize this, however. The flaws were in evidence Tuesday, just as surely as the skills. Machado's playmaking ability led to extended D-League time, even 21 minutes with the Rockets and eight more in the playoffs with the Warriors. The league wonders, though, whether he can consistently finish at the basket, and can bury a jumper regularly. Some of his awkward finishes Tuesday were hard to reconcile with the player who routinely delivered the ball into the hands of teammates he'd just met, occasionally even before they knew they'd be in position to receive it.
Then there was Machado's alternate on Tuesday, the former Florida point guard Kenny Boynton. Boynton was everything Machado wasn't. He's quicker than Machado, and gets to the basket seemingly at will. His shot is smooth. But really -- he's everything Machado isn't. At no point did it seem like the point guard Boynton had much interest in finding his teammates. He'd knock down a contested three without looking for anyone else. He'd flash past his defender, jump in the air, and only then seem to make a plan.
And so it went with many of the players on Tuesday. Cooley didn't supplement the garbage baskets with much of an offensive game, looking awkward on his lone post-up. Jackson, too, didn't seem to have developed much beyond defensive rebounding. Poor Donte Greene, who'd agreed to a deal with the Nets back in the summer of 2012 before an ankle fracture nixed the agreement, still moved like each step was a compromise.
Even Summers, who looked like the best all-around player on the floor Tuesday, never found that perimeter shot.
But let's not forget, the 450 who play in the NBA aren't flawless players. They all bring strengths and weaknesses, just as Summers, and Machado, and countless others still nurturing this NBA dream do as well. It is easy enough to imagine Summers in Brooklyn black, serving as a stretch four in the offense Jason Kidd and company utilized after Brook Lopez went down. Scott Machado could be finding Paul Pierce, a pair of fiercely intelligent floor presences acting in concert to outwit quicker opponents.
There are precedents. Chris Copeland, of the Belgian league, became Chris Copeland, playoff contributor, then Chris Copeland, signer of a lucrative free agent deal with the Pacers. Jeremy Lin was a D-League point guard multiple teams passed on. Even Hilton Armstrong, who participated in the last Nets free agent minicamp back in 2012 after playing on the same French team Machado did, found his way back into the league this year with the Warriors.
I asked King, who'd captained the 1987-88 Duke team that reached the Final Four if he'd have approached his playing days differently now, with the D-League active and many more opportunities in leagues around the world. Would he have pursued the NBA dream?
"I don't know," King said. "I had some good advice from people who said I couldn't shoot, and it was a longshot to make the NBA, so go and get my [coaching] career started, which I think was the best advice. Because I was able to get into coaching at the NBA level at 27, and become a GM at a young age. Trying to pursue that dream, of a guy that can't shoot, who can defend, it may have been 28, 29, then trying to get a career started. But I think nowadays, there's the D-League, there's opportunities. But each player's got to say, what's best for me."
In the meantime, much has been missed while Machado and Summers keep this dream alive.
When Selita gave birth to his daughter back in Baltimore, Summers couldn't be there.
"She was born in November, I had a game in Istanbul," Summers said. "I just missed it... I got back that same day, I missed the birth by maybe ten hours.
"You know, we went through a lot this season, me being away, pursuing a dream. Everybody is a major part of that... My girl, my close friends, they know exactly what my intentions were. Going over there this season, is to get back home, to build my leverage and to build my stock, to show my versatility and to show how I can play."
Machado, meanwhile was playing for the Golden State Warriors' D-League team in Santa Cruz when his father, the man he credited with teaching him the game of basketball, died this year. He went through much of that grieving process playing basketball in France, for ASVEL Lyon-Villeurbanne, sharing time at point guard with Summers' former college teammate, Chris Wright. (You know, the guy who is still pursuing the NBA dream despite a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.)
Machado, whose college was a short trip from his Queens home, talked about how hard it was to move away from his family. Skype can only do so much. His father, even the loss of his father, was motivation for him to continue.
"He was a big supporter," Machado said, still clearly emotional about it. "He was somebody who always spoke to me about the game." Acknowledging that he'd been away when his father died, though, made it hard for Machado to continue talking basketball, and I didn't force him to do so.
Earlier, Machado said he'll return to Queens after the minicamp, keeping sharp by playing some games in Nyack, N.Y., with some former NBA players, and wait for that call to come.
As for Summers, he's done more than dream about what the NBA will mean for him. He's dreaming for four these days, with a stop at a similar minicamp, held by the San Antonio Spurs, next on his agenda. That, and some needed time back in Baltimore, getting to know his youngest daughter, now six months old, and celebrate his son's fifth birthday this month.
"I've been here before, so I know what the NBA's about," Summers said. "I know you've just got to keep working, opportunities always present themselves... And yes, it means a lot to me to be able to give my family the things they deserve, and the things I think I deserve, too."
Though King can't be disappointed with how things turned out for him, a hint that he still considers what might have been crept into his message when he gathered the 31 players at midcourt following the scrimmage Tuesday.
"I said, you know, not everybody here is gonna be on our roster. But it was great we got a chance to see you guys play, we got to know you as people in a short amount of time, and we'll always keep following you," King said. "But as long as you can play basketball, whether it's here in the NBA, the D-League, or Europe, continue to do it. Because somebody's gonna pay you to play basketball. I said, for me it ended quickly. So for you guys, as long as you can get paid to play basketball, it's a dream."