For the love of the game
By Rustin Dodd
TULSA, Okla. — Billy Thomas sits on the bench and peers toward the ceiling, patiently waiting for the public address announcer to introduce the starting lineup as a sparse crowd of about 500 fills the seats in the Tulsa Expo Square Pavilion, capacity 4,500.
“At guard, 6-foot-5 inches, from Kansas, Billy Thomas,” the announcer says, as Thomas rises, slowly slaps his teammate’s hands and moves toward the center of the floor.
It’s been 10 years since Billy Thomas, now 32, last put on a Jayhawk uniform, and played before thunderous capacity crowds in Allen Fieldhouse and the NCAA tournament. On this day, Thomas’ team, the Colorado 14ers of the National Basketball Development League, are playing the Tulsa 66ers at 11 on a Thursday morning.
This is Thomas’ life as a basketball vagabond. He has spent the past 10 years moving from team to team, from league to league. Throw a dart at a map, and Thomas may have played there. Places such as Argentina, Serbia and Cincinnati. He’s had four brief visits to the NBA, including his latest when the Cleveland Cavaliers signed him for this year’s NBA playoffs.
Thomas is among a small group of one-time KU players who have missed out on the riches of the NBA, but still can’t part with the game they love. Players such as Scooter Barry, Aaron Miles and Michael Lee have tried to hold onto the game as long as possible, playing for paychecks in minor-league towns and carving out careers in faraway European leagues. Barry managed to play professionally for 19 years. Miles has found a decent living playing in Spain, while Lee has given up the dream for a potential coaching career.
Since 1988, more than 110 players have suited up for Kansas. Just 23 have played at least one regular season NBA game.
Greg Gurley, a Kansas guard from 1991 to 1995, like the majority of players, never harbored dreams of playing in the NBA. He said he realized quickly as a freshman that he would be making a living in something else other than basketball.
“Most people probably don’t realize it as quickly as I did,” Gurley said.
The NBA Draft consists of only two rounds and just 60 selections. But that didn’t stop 84 underclassmen from declaring for the draft in 2007, adding themselves to a list that included 25 European players and every other college senior.
“More so than ever, guys think they can go to the next level. It’s crazy,” Gurley said. “They put all their hopes and dreams into one impossible goal.”
It’s a phenomenon that Dr. Andrew Jacobs has noticed while working for more than 25 years as a sports psychologist. Players are groomed from an early age to believe that the NBA is their own personal destiny.
They are often star players on their high school teams, Mr. Basketball in their states, McDonald’s All-Americans, starters on highly ranked Kansas teams playing nationally televised games on ESPN. Suddenly, their four years of college are over, they are not drafted by the NBA, and they face life without the dominating focus of their lives – basketball.
“A lot of guys, to be honest, a lot of them have never thought about anything beyond their sport,” said Jacobs, who worked at the University of Kansas from 1981-85. “So for a lot of them, they don’t know what to do. They’ve been playing basketball their whole life; now it’s like, ‘What am I going to do?’”
Back in Tulsa, Billy Thomas drives to the basket on Russell Carter, a first-year pro from Notre Dame who’s nine years younger than Thomas. Thomas gently lays the ball off the glass and gives Colorado an 84-78 lead. An NBA scout sits courtside, scribbling notes.
Thomas wasn’t considered an NBA prospect when he left Kansas in 1998. Too small to play shooting guard and not skilled enough to play point guard, Thomas was the definition of what NBA scouts call a ‘tweener.
But ‘tweeners can find a niche in the NBDL, the league Thomas called home for most of this season. As the de facto minor league for the NBA, the NBDL, or D-League, is home to former college stars, NBA busts and many more players who still dream of NBA success. Life in the D-League is a life of inexpensive motels, charter vans and little money.
According to Thomas, a C-level contract in the D-League pays around $13,000, while a few players might make closer to $25,000.
By January 2005, Thomas had lived the minor-league life for seven years and nearly given up. He’d been chipping away at his NBA dream, playing abroad in Argentina, the Philippines and in small American towns such as Greenville, S.C., and Salina. By that January, he was playing for the CBA’s Dakota Wizards in Bismarck, N.D.
“I prayed all that week, and I came to the conclusion that maybe it wasn’t in the cards to make the NBA,” Thomas said.
But as he sat on a flight to the CBA all-star game, at peace with himself, a call came in. The New Jersey Nets wanted Billy Thomas.
Thomas played 25 games for the Nets in 2005, before being released. The next season he had a 17-game stint with the Washington Wizards.
This season, Thomas has played briefly for both the New Jersey Nets and Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavaliers needed Thomas to help fill out their roster after a midseason trade. The Cavaliers signed Thomas to a 10-day contract on Feb. 22. That night, he was on the court, playing alongside LeBron James, scoring nine points on three-of-11 shooting from three-point range, as the Cavs defeated the Washington Wizards 90-89.
“I relished that moment,” Thomas said.
Three weeks later, Thomas was released again. His second 10-day contract had run out, and Thomas headed back to the D-League — back to the life of economy motels and commercial flights, away from the 5-star luxury of the NBA.
“They told me I did everything right,” Thomas said. It wasn’t enough. The Cavaliers needed a big guy.
“I have a greater understanding for the business now,” Thomas said. And the business of professional basketball can be bitter. Thomas has spent entire seasons living out of hotels. He’s had to deal with financial headaches and lean on loved ones when times got tough. There are few million-dollar contracts in European basketball, and none in American minor-league basketball.
“Not a lot of people can live off $13,000,” Thomas said. Sometimes, between seasons, Thomas would worry about when that next paycheck was coming.
“Those thoughts are always in the back of your mind,” Thomas said. “I’ve had to learn and become a better manager of money.”
His short stays in the NBA have helped with brief infusions of cash. One 10-day contract in the NBA matches Thomas’ entire year’s salary in the D-League.
On an early April day in Germany, Scooter Barry, 41, sat in his house outside of Braunschweig and looked at photographs. The memories came flooding back. Memories of a lifetime dedicated to basketball, of 19 years in foreign cities and foreign leagues.
Barry left Kansas in 1989, a young kid with sandy blond hair. Little did he know, he’d still be playing basketball 19 years later. He couldn’t predict the struggles, sacrifice and joy brought on by nearly two decades of basketball.
He was just a self-described “6-foot-2, thin, white kid from Danville, California,” and basketball was his life.
As a reserve guard on “Danny and the Miracles,” he won an NCAA title under Larry Brown in 1988 and played on Roy Williams’ first Kansas team his senior season. He wasn’t just Scooter Barry, Kansas basketball player, he was always the son of NBA Hall-of-Famer Rick Barry, practically basketball royalty.
“Being Rick Barry’s oldest son, I had all the pressure of trying to compete and follow in his shadow,” Barry said.
As expected after Barry’s senior season, he was not selected in the 1989 NBA Draft. He attended the Boston Celtics’ free-agent camp, played his way into an invitation to their veteran camp and played his first NBA preseason game matched up against future Hall-of-Fame guard John Stockton. As he recalls, on his first possession, Barry cut to the basket, Larry Bird hit him with a backdoor pass and Barry shuffled the ball to Robert Parish for a dunk.
“I’m thinking, I made it,” Barry said. “I just made an NBA play with Larry Bird and Chief and I’m here.”
Here didn’t last long. The Celtics needed one more guard to fill out their roster, and they chose Georgetown point guard Charles Smith, who played on the 1988 U.S. Olympic team.
“We can’t cut the Olympic point guard and keep Scooter Barry,” he remembers the Celtics’ brass telling him.
But they told him they thought he could still play. Don’t get a regular job just yet, they said. Play in the minor leagues and see where you end up.
He played that season in the now-disbanded Continental Basketball Association, for San Jose, just miles from his boyhood home. After one more season in San Jose, Calif., the phone rang. It was a German club in Braunschweig. He’d be the first American to play for the club. Barry packed his bags and headed across the Atlantic.
Barry’s European odyssey took him to four different countries. He met his wife, Kersten, in Germany. Together, they lived the “gypsy lifestyle,” Barry said.
One season in Tenerife, Spain, the next in Messina, Italy, with stops in Australia and Belgium. “I’ve tried to get involved with the customs, and I tried to get the full life experience in every country I was in,” Barry said.
While most players give up the game in their mid-30s, Barry played until he was 39.
“Three different times, people thought my career was over,” he said.
At age 35, Barry was playing in the French league All-Star game in Paris while Kersten sat in the stands.
“I just loved the game so much,” Barry said. “I’m a junkie.”
Everywhere he went, every game he played, he said he remembered the words of Roy Williams, his former college coach. “Be thankful for every game and every opportunity you get to play this great game, because one day it stops,” Williams told him.
Barry’s 19 years of professional basketball allowed him to see the darker side of European hoops: teams with shabby facilities and rogue owners who refused to pay players.
“There were a lot of teams where I wasn’t getting paid on time,” Barry said. He had to go to court twice to claim money he was owed. Kersten found the gypsy lifestyle was not ideal for raising children. One season, Barry, Kersten and their dog spent nearly four months living in a hotel, waiting to get an apartment.
“It could be lonely,” Kersten said. “Every country, there’s a different system, different language. You’re constantly moving, so the relationships you make are superficial.”
They also felt financial strains.
“It’s not like I was making millions that I can live off of the rest of my life,” Barry said. “I don’t have a pension.”
“I got my degree in psychology, and I went and tried to play basketball,” Barry said. His long playing career cost him any chance to gain work experience.
“The 17 years I played basketball is life experience, but it makes for a pretty funny resume when you go and apply for a job.”
Barry’s journey ended in Leon – a city in northwest Spain. After 19 years and six different countries, Barry was ready to call it quits. He was 39 years old, playing against players nearly half his age, still holding on. Barry was playing spot minutes, his body finally started to feel its age and he was spending more time on the bench.
“I hated that,” Barry said.
He was miles away from his pregnant wife, Kersten, and 3-year-old daughter, Lauren, and their home in Germany. Barry and his wife had lost a child in pregnancy while he was playing in Tenerife – his last basketball address before Leon. That memory still deeply affects him.
Barry wanted to be there when his first son, Grant, came into the world. He wanted to walk his kids to school; and after Grant was born, Barry and Kersten decided family had to come first.
“We looked at each other and said, ‘Playing basketball is not the thing anymore,’” Barry said. It was “‘time to be a husband and a dad and look for a real job,’” Barry said.
These days, Barry wakes up in his small house in rural northern Germany, 15 miles outside of Braunschweig. He walks his daughter 500 yards to her kindergarten classroom, and plans his family’s move to the United States. He’s lined up a marketing job with a fitness club in San Ramon, Calif. The only holdup is regaining his American passport, which he had to give up when he acquired a German passport a few years ago.
His basketball life is over, although Barry still admits even at age 41 “…if my knees and my legs would continue to run and jump I would probably still be playing.” Unlike his father and three brothers, Barry never made it to the NBA, but he’s happy his life worked out the way it did. “I wouldn’t have met my wife, and I wouldn’t have had my family if I didn’t come over to Europe and play,” Barry said.
Growing up in Portland, Ore., the long odds of the NBA didn’t seem so long for Aaron Miles.
He was a highly touted McDonald’s All-American at Jefferson High School in 2001, and pegged by then-Kansas coach Roy Williams to start at point guard as a freshman.
“You’re one of the top players coming out of high school; you get recruited by a school like Kansas, everyone knows who you are,” Miles said.
After Miles helped lead Kansas to back-to-back Final Fours in 2002 and 2003, the NBA seemed like the next logical step.
But when Miles left Kansas in 2005 as the school’s all-time assists leader, he got a harsh dose of NBA reality. After going undrafted in the 2005 NBA Draft, Miles made the Golden State Warriors, but played just 19 games, averaging six minutes per game. In January 2006, Miles was released and the former Kansas star soon found himself playing for the D-League’s Fort Worth Flyers.
“You go from staying in the Trump Towers with a room by yourself, and then you go to the D-League and you’re in a Holiday Inn with a roommate,” Miles said.
Injuries ruined Miles’ chance for an NBA contract in his second professional season. Three weeks before Miles was to head to training camp with the Portland Trailblazers, he suffered a foot injury during a workout. Miles said the injury was difficult to treat, “especially not being at Kansas, or a place where you get good physical therapy.”
Unable to stick on an NBA roster, and frustrated with the low pay and hassles involved with the D-League, Miles signed with the French club, Elan Bearnais Pau-Orthez in 2006. This season Miles is in Seville, Spain, playing for Cajasol Baloncesto Sevilla in the ACB – Spain’s top league. It’s a far cry from the low-budget NBDL. Players in the ACB can make an upward of $1 million per year, while most earn at least six figures.
“The people here are nice,” Miles said. “The weather is beautiful.”
Miles lives in an plush apartment with his girlfriend, and he’s just blocks from his team’s gym. They eat at T.G.I.Friday’s in his neighborhood when they tire of Seville’s Tapas bars.
He’s playing 20 minutes per game this season, battling against some of the top players in Europe. With his team out of the playoff picture at 12-19, Miles’ Spanish season ends May 9. He’ll have to make another decision this summer: stay in Europe and make a six-figure salary or pursue his NBA dream.
Miles said he still aspires to play in the NBA, but European basketball is becoming more appealing.
“A couple players over here don’t even care about the NBA anymore,” Miles said. “They’re making a good living over here. For them it’s all about making a good living and setting themselves up for the future.”
While Miles spent the first year of his post-Kansas career chasing his NBA dream, his childhood best friend, Michael Lee, a Kansas guard from 2001-05, sat idle, waiting for the phone to ring.
One month went by, two months, then three months. He had played at Kansas, graduated and built a network of contacts, but nothing materialized.
“I was like, ‘Dang, what do I do? Do I have to go get a job right now?’” Lee said.
After a short stint with the Harlem Globetrotters, Lee visited Miles in France. Another friend in France hooked him up with a tryout with the club Entente Orleans. Lee signed a medical contract with the team, meaning if another player was injured, Lee could fill in.
“Over in Europe, I was really struggling,” Lee said.
He’d never thought of simple obstacles such as the language barrier.
“The first day they gave me my car, I got two speeding tickets and my car got towed,” Lee said.
“I wouldn’t go to the laundromat because I didn’t know how to use any of it in there, so I would wash my clothes in the shower, and hang it up around my room.”
After nearly three months in France, Lee returned home and played shortly for the Vancouver Volcanoes of the International Basketball League and the Kansas Cagerz of the now-defunct United States Basketball League.
After suffering a shoulder injury last season, Lee returned to Kansas, enrolled in graduate school and was a graduate assistant for the Kansas basketball team during the 2007-08 season.
Injuries were just part of decision, Lee said. For now, he’s focusing on finishing his graduate coursework and pursuing a coaching career.
“Basketball at the professional level, it’s a hell of a sacrifice. I wasn’t willing to make that sacrifice,” Lee said.
Billy Thomas’ NBDL season ended April 15 in a playoff loss against the Los Angeles D-Fenders. He had planned to come home to his newlywed wife and their new home in Overland Park.
If his NBA window was closed, Thomas said he was thinking about Europe for next season. “It’s about setting myself up for the future,” Thomas said.
But a day after Thomas walked off the court in Los Angeles, his phone rang again. This time Cleveland needed a guard. Thomas was added to the roster for the playoffs and made a three-pointer off the bench in game two of Cleveland’s first-round series against Washington.
Thomas isn’t guaranteed to be in Cleveland next season. In basketball, nothing is guaranteed. But for now, Thomas is back in the NBA, back playing alongside one of the best players in the world, LeBron James, fulfilling his dream.
Thomas said he plans on playing three more years, and hopes to get into coaching after that.
The basketball life is all Thomas knows.
“Deep down, you have to love what you do,” Thomas said, “love the fact that you’re fortunate enough to play basketball for a living.”