Ground Level at the Fort Wayne Mad Ants G-League Tryout, where Everyone has Something to Prove

Standing outside of the Plassman Athletic Center at Turnstone at the annual Fort Wayne Mad Ants open tryout, my body shivered. I spent $200 to wait for the doors to swing open at 9 a.m. Until then, I stared up at the sky, observing the skyscrapers above me, most of whom flexed Nike shooting sleeves, Adidas headbands or Jordan shoes.

Every year, the organization holds this tryout and hopeful NBA players flock to the gym, trying to show that they could be the future of the team. Roughly 150 players showed up to this tryout. On a larger scale, there are 27 total G-League teams, each of whom hosts an open tryout of sorts. If a player is lucky to be noticed, they become eligible for the G-League draft. Chances are slim. 200 players sign G-League contracts and 70 more players filter from their parent NBA team to their G-League team.

Yet there I was, my ankle socks nestled inside my dirty sneakers, those of which doubled as basketball shoes. Trying out to get a feel for the process and what it took to make the team, I expected to get dunked on numerous times. I was ready to understand the journey, just as I wanted to see what the destination held.

Nonetheless, it was familiar: I had always been the smallest kid in the gym. The foundation of my basketball-playing career was built on diving for loose balls and taking charges. I like to say I am the unofficial official charge leader in my high school’s history.

With varsity basketball perched atop my proverbial resume, I was a fish out of water in more ways than one. Talking to the imposing players next to me in line, college basketball seemed a requisite. I gave up on my dream years ago and hadn’t played competitive basketball in 940 days. By now, my six-pack has slushed into a dad bod.

As the players began to flock inside the gym, I was taken aback by the sheer amount of bodies who hoped to manifest their dreams.

As I stood in line, waiting to ink the line that signed away my life, I pondered many thoughts and came up with a few convictions I couldn’t shake. First, I wanted to make sure my performance didn’t impede these players’ dreams. Many of these players were fathers, hanging onto the last threads of their NBA dream as they trek country-wide for G-League tryouts like this one.

So I would pass easy shots up and play tough defense, like I always did. It wasn’t easy though.

10 a.m. hit and head coach Steve Gansey called all the players to mid-court. 20 more bodies filtered into the gym. My body tensed up and reality kicked in: I was trying out for a pro team.

Coach Gansey wrapped up his speech by trudging on about typical basketball schemes: hedging screens, forcing baseline, not over-dribbling. However, after the speech, dunk contest-worthy slams were showcased, underscored with oohs and aahs of spectators echoing off the insulated walls.

While the dunks rattled the rims, scouts and coaches froze with blank expressions. They didn’t care.

The coaches were optimistic, but if there was giddiness, it wasn’t made visible.

“Right now we’re going to have a meeting with all the coaches and my staff and my GM, Brian Levy, and we’re going to be scouting who we like,” Gansey said.

The first part was the stage at which the high-IQ athletes were distinguished from the street-ballers, while the second stage was the time to finally play a game of basketball. As I sauntered over to my group, I masked nervousness with a false sense of self-confidence. Seeing the players, I was encouraged to see a few guys more out of shape than me. While I was ready to play, though, my coach thought otherwise.

Our coach, with his gold necklace, black sweatsuit, chest hair fully exposed — exuding the aura of a hard-nosed 1980’s casino owner — ran us through typical Mad Ants plays. My whole group groaned with dissatisfaction.

At noon, the eccentric coach huddled us up, telling us to have fun yet play exclusively to our strengths. It was a contradiction, but that’s the point. Practice was a time to improve upon weaknesses, but the intention of the scout was to see through immediate impact and find long-term—yes, NBA—potential.

Our hands united in the middle of the circle and we bellowed out a flimsy yell, “team!” While players on teams were familiar with each other, each were referred to based on the assigned numbers taped to their back. I got a kick out of calling a player, “167”.

The games lasted 40 minutes, comprised of two 20-minute running clocks. Every player was given an opportunity to play half the game, each of whom paid the same steep price of $200. The clock started to tick and all my fears washed away, replaced more by general anxiousness–this was my last competitive game. All I had to do was be myself.

Desperate to make an indent on the executives seated above us on the track and the guy in the red, the scout watching our game, I immediately pressed full-court and dove for a loose ball, igniting a fast break. Then, I hit two floaters on consecutive possessions, one arcing over a 7’4’’ player.

This wasn’t so hard.”

We were up by ten when I subbed out. My coach’s Cheshire grin — like a casino owner seeing a gambler gambling away a jackpot — and a pat on the back, reaffirmed confidence in myself. He proceeded to start me in the second half.

Quickly, self-confidence morphed into arrogance. I got too comfortable thinking I belonged. Everything tumbled downhill from there.

The second half saw me commit two early turnovers and any confidence I had was abruptly destroyed. There were only two games, and once you made a few mistakes, your teammates lost trust in you, I quickly realized.

Were they icing me? When you don’t touch the ball, it’s difficult to get in a rhythm, I learned. When everyone is trying to prove something, the ball sticks to players’ hands like Elmer’s glue.

Generally, I like to consider myself quick and athletic. However, I soon faced the reality that these guys were simply on another level athletically.

In the second game, my drives were stymied by the quick point guards who guarded me.

By the end, the box score read eight points, but the eye test appeared like trees falling in a silent forest. We were up by 20 for most of the game and my points came late in the second half.

Despite the win, my team clearly never developed natural chemistry. Coach Gansey recognizes the difficulty in playing with random players at a tryout where everything was on the line for most players.

On a positive note, Coach Gansey handed me major participation points, which will keep my ego afloat in the coming days.

“I saw you getting after it, you were picking up early, I think you should have gotten the ball a couple times…but you played hard, that was good, Gansey said. “I tell you what: you got after it, you got on the floor a couple times.”

So, at 2:33 p.m., after my 940-day hiatus, I officially announced my retirement from the game of basketball.

Nigerian Native, Chris Sodom, has too much riding on the line to give up now.

The 7’4’’ Sodom is as imposing in size as you’d expect, yet his tone is soft-spoken, like a wise man who’s seen many adventures. Since arriving from Nigeria, his path has been long-winding and unconventional.

The first time his baseball-mitt hands graced an orange sphere was in the United States at age 18. Similar to his idols Hakeem Olajuwon and Joel Embiid, his first love was soccer. But once he sprouted to 7’4’’, basketball was unavoidable—scouts certainly didn’t miss him.

Out of high school, he was ranked as a three-star recruit and received ten offers, according to Rivals.com. Flipping through three high schools in Georgia, Texas, and Tennessee, Sodom lived with three separate host families. He chose Georgetown but transferred after a season of only 6 game appearances. He violated team rules, though wouldn’t comment further. Following Georgetown, he committed to George Washington, this time leaving due to “family issues” (he did not explain any more).

By sophomore year, he was out of college with no diploma to his name. Fortunately, the G-League’s college scholarship program allows Chris to study while he plays. Sodom, like other players, has the opportunity to take online classes and ultimately earn a college degree. The program started last year, giving players a chance to graduate for up to five years after they finish their G-League career.

“I’m really trying to take advantage. That’s my goal. If I play in the G-League, then I take classes right away,” said Sodom.

Despite receiving an offer to play professionally in France last August, Sodom hung up — his calling was in the states. It’s easy for scouts to lose touch with potentially fringe bench players while they toil away overseas, Sodom explains. Over the last year, he’s tried out for the Northern Arizona Suns, the Wisconsin Herd, and now the Fort Wayne Mad Ants. For now, he calls Phoenix his home.

“The NBA is the NBA, man. I will play for whichever team. Team-wise, I want to play for the Wizards, but the Pacers are a great team. I like Victor Oladipo.”

To get there, he trains with Reggie Jordan—a former Celtics and Wizards guard—improving on shooting mechanics. He has other areas to work on, too. His legs resemble beanpoles. A stronger lower body could help him fight through fouls. In the first game, I grabbed his arm when he was going up for a dunk and the refs almost let it slide.

“They only called it because it was two of you guys. Small guys get calls all the times, but I don’t.”

Through it all, his family lives in Kaduna, Nigeria. He tries to give them updates on his situation.

“I talk to them all the time. I make calls. It’s not an easy way. We are a big family, a lot of cousins, so they got to take care of the kids. I don’t think there’s a plan for them to move to the United States.”

From my perspective, Sodom was a top-ten player at the tryout. He was active on the glass, blocking and dunking shots, sometimes without even leaving the ground. He also hit one mid-range shot against my team. He talked to a scout following the game.

It wouldn’t surprise me if an extra large Fort Wayne Mad Ants jersey draped over his slight frame in two months.

Sodom wouldn’t be surprised either. He thinks he has the talent to be a big man on an NBA roster.

“I always get on the court with the mindset that I am the best player on the court,” Sodom asserted. “To me, I am the best player on the court for sure.”

Sometimes, that mindset restricts him from making the right play. On one play, a guard fed him the ball in the low post and he spun around and clanked a fadeaway shot off the back rim. A will to improve keeps Sodom in check.

“Some shots will fall and some will miss, but taking the right shot is something the scouts are watching,” my coach said.

Holding out hope that one of the three teams he has tried out for noticed him, his foot will evidently stay on the pedal.

“I didn’t do this tryout because the other three didn’t work, I did it to have a lot of options.”

While Chris Sodom is blessed with the height to theoretically play in the NBA, Cameron Gause has to find a way to compensate. At 5'9'’, the odds are stacked against Cam. The average height of an NBA player is 6’7’’ with only four players listed under 6’0.’’

Gause defines himself by his work ethic, not any measurement.

“I work out everyday. I lift before the morning of work. I’m in the gym every night. I wake up, go to sleep, then I’m back in the gym.”

Plane tickets. Ubers. Hotels. Everything adds up. To manage, Gause works at Jewish Community Center six days a week and coaches the summer camp there.

“It’s all about time and money. I don’t have that much money. It’s expensive every tryout. Also, all these younger players are coming up more explosive and so the older you are, it’s a harder chance.”

While on one play, he twisted in the air for an acrobatic finish, switching the ball from his left hand to his right mid-air, on the other end is where his name will be made. Think Patrick Beverly. Marcus Smart.

Walking the fine line of cautiousness and standing out, Gause has to be careful. Overcoming diminutive height means perfection is required. Every step is calculated and it can get to your head if you’re not careful. Gause is careful.

“I wouldn’t say I’m the best on the court. I’m realistic, I’ve played with a lot of good players. Confidence-wise, I consider myself one of the best on the court, maybe skill-wise. You still have to have the utmost confidence in yourself. It comes from putting in the work, the confidence comes from there.”

Overseas, chances are far and wide. If the call never comes from a G-League team, dreams aren’t dashed. In China, for example, players put up video game-like statistics and parlay it into contracts in the states.

“I could go overseas, get some stats in, then try to come back over. Right now, I’m trying to take every opportunity I can that comes up, get my name in there.”

Even then, he likes his chances of signing a G-league contract. He played well enough at the Northern Arizona tryout to make it to the final cut of 25 players. Teams are looking for floor generals who lead their team to victory, a positive considering his team won the championship game.

Rewind to high school, during a time when Cam couldn’t imagine being in this position. Ineligible until winter break his senior year, his team went winless for three straight seasons. The team ended with 3 wins on the season. Scouts were blind to Cam’s work ethic, only seeing the results on the court. So Cam took a prep year, where his skillset was refined.

Still, unlike Sodom, Cameron Gause has a fallback option if things don’t fall into place. At New Mexico State, he earned a journalism degree and if playing basketball doesn’t work out, he wants to write about basketball or be a sports agent.

Gause can draw upon connections to fill in the lines; he once played with Sim Bhullar, and is familiar with a few ESPN workers. It all depends on what he sets his mind to. Still, at age 25, the clock is ticking on his athletic prime.

Cam and I waved bye to our teammates as I interviewed him; I was probably never going to see them again. I hitched a ride back to Indianapolis, where I would return to my dorm and start typing like a mad man.

Cam, on the other hand, Uber’ed back to the Red Roof Inn, ten minutes from the Plassman Athletic Center at Turnstone. At 8:30 A.M. the next day, he Uber’ed to Indianapolis and texted me to play basketball. While he was always looking to play, my limbs squirmed like jelly. I texted him: “no, sorry.”

Playing five hours of grueling basketball, sweat seeped through the shirts of Chris Sodom, Cameron Gause, as well as the 150 other players. While some hung their head, Sodom and Gause raised their chins, smiles wiped across their faces. No matter the outcome, they remained positive.

Indeed, Sodom’s own personal motto is: “You gotta stay positive.”

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In the face of warm positivity exuding from the players was a cold reality from the coaches.

Coach Gansey reflected on the reality, “We take this very serious. And if we can get a guy from this tryout to training camp, which we will have one or two guys come straight to training camp, we can give up to four guys contracts for training camp or for a pool for the G-League draft.”

Open tryouts have been the subject of famous movies — think Invincible or Rudy. Jonathan Simmons wrote the script of his own movie when he tried out for the Austin Spurs. He is the gold standard for G-League players working to mine out careers. Simmons turned his open tryout for the Austin Spurs into a G-League contract, then worked his way up to a guaranteed contract with the San Antonio Spurs. He received a three-year, $20 million contract with the Orlando Magic last summer.

The organization is trying to find the next Fort Wayne Mad Ants superstar. Last year, they signed J.D. Tisdale based on his open tryout. The last superstar, Ron Howard, landed in their laps at open tryouts in 2006.

“[Howard] was first league MVP of our G-League and won us a championship and he came from open tryouts,” Coach Gansey said.

Slowly untying my shoes and placing my basketball into my bag, my shoulders slumped. Despite my knees aching every step, I wasn’t to be lifted off the court like Rudy. And I certainly wasn’t destined to be the second-coming of Ron Howard.

Chris Sodom and Cameron Gause are hoping with every bone in their body they can be.

Butler women’s basketball beat reporter for the Butler Collegian, Butler men’s basketball beat reporter for the IndyStar. Twitter: @drewfav

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