The next Jeremy Lin might’ve been in the building.
The Santa Cruz Warriors, the NBA Development League (D-League) Affiliate of the Golden State Warriors, held the first open professional basketball tryouts in Santa Cruz County history last Sunday. With about 200 onlookers cheering them on, 68 players tested their basketball skills. The tryouts, held on Oct. 14, signified the speedy arrival of Santa Cruz’s first fully professional sports team.
“I came out here for the experience,” said Justin Contreras, a 21-year old Watsonville native and Cabrillo student. “I like playing with better players, this isn’t the Grant Street Park crowd I’m used to.”
All players paid $100 or $125 admission for a chance to be coached and evaluated by the team’s coaching staff. Admission fare was based on whether one bought their ticket the day of the event or via pre-sale off the Santa Cruz Warriors website.
The event was the team’s first basketball related event since the announcement of the relocation from Bismarck, N. D. in May.
Professional players like Kyle Luckett and Cardell Butler shared court with a group of impassioned local amateurs. Luckett and Butler were of select few players looking for an invite to the Santa Cruz Warriors training camp, where at most five spots could open for players to compete for a main roster job. Luckett believed his expanded basketball skills would separate him from the pack of skilled prospects present.
“This is for me,” Luckett said. “I know if I work hard enough, I’ll make it.”
Luckett stood out as the tallest player at tryouts, at 7’0” tall. In the scrimmage portion of the tryouts, Luckett stymied defenders as a rebounding big man with a raw offensive game.
Luckett is one of an elite group of players who played Amateur Athletic Union basketball (AAU), on a summer league for elite high school players, with some of the game’s best known prospects including Greg Oden, Mike Conley and OJ Mayo in the mid 2000s. In 2005, Luckett declared for the NBA draft, where teams pick eligible players looking to join the league, straight out of high school, despite never playing in more than eight games in four high school seasons due to academic problems and injury woes. Luckett became ineligible for NCAA Division I basketball, where top prospects play before entering the NBA draft, because of his status as a professional.
“Several NBA teams liked me, but wanted me to attend college for a few years,” Luckett said. “I didn’t think it was a good idea but my AAU coach told me to declare. I went undrafted.”
After the draft, Luckett spent the next few years homeless, working at a grocery store to support his two daughters. After a few years off the radar of basketball scouts, Luckett was recruited to play at Chabot College in Hayward, Calif., before starting a professional basketball odyssey where he’s played in Hungary, Japan and the D-League in the past three years. Now 26-years old, Luckett continues to follow his goal of making an NBA team.
For Cardell “Ballaholic” Butler, a famous player from San Francisco playgrounds and the AND1 Mixtape Tour, a televised traveling team of players who travel the country looking for the best players on the blacktop, becoming part of the Development League would be vindication of his previous career move to stay a star on playgrounds across the country.
“The Knicks offered me a training camp spot, but I rejected it to stay on the AND1 Mixtape Tour,” Butler said. “I don’t regret it at all, but I still want to see where my game is in comparison to the D-League.”
Arriving as spectators, several UCSC men’s basketball players recognized Butler immediately from his popular YouTube videos and appearances on television. At least one scout in attendance was confused about Butler’s appearance at the tryouts, saying that Butler could have better options elsewhere.
“I don’t know what he’s doing here,” said Tom Hull, a scout for several European teams and coach of a Palo Alto eighth-grade basketball team. “He could be making good money right now in Europe.”
Not all of the players present played for an open roster spot. Don Wiberg, the oldest player at 76-years old came out to the Warriors tryouts to check something off of his bucket list. The retired UCSC electrical engineering professor played to the strength of his own septuagenarian athleticism on the court. Wiberg treated the topic of a potential NBA future with an air of laughter.
“I can’t run, I can’t jump, I can’t shoot, it gives me an advantage,” Wiberg said. “I set a wicked screen.”
Berkeley rapper and entrepreneur Brandon McCartney, otherwise known as Lil B, took part in the tryouts as part of a social media stunt. McCartney tried to show off his crossover dribble, immortalized via song, throughout the event to little success.
McCartney believed his best-selling point to the Warriors staff was his devoted fan base in the local area. Several fans and players went up to McCartney during the tryouts to ask for his autograph and to take pictures with him.
“I think I can sell some merchandise if they let me be on the bench,” McCartney said. “I was thinking I could be a little like Jeremy Lin that way.”
Former Fresno State player Bennie Rhodes was amused with the turnout, but was looking to make an impact. Rhodes was one of only 39 who took part in the Warriors first open tryouts in Oakland on Oct. 7.
Rhodes had the day’s most exciting play with a thunderous dunk on an offensive rebound over several earthbound help defenders, drawing an awed reaction from the buzzing crowd. Rhodes was nonchalant about the play afterwards.
“I’ve been trying to make the NBA my whole life,” Rhodes said.
The Santa Cruz Warriors will begin home play against the Bakersfield Jam on Dec. 23 at Kaiser Permanente Arena. Their Arena is located at 140 Front Street.