The players were already there when I arrived, and it was still early. They were milling around and dapping up peers they'd been seeing in anonymous reverberant gyms like this one for as long as they all had been the best basketball players their age in the United States. That is, for as long as they had been considered the players most likely to wind up in this gym, for this reason. The gym was near White Plains, N.Y., in the old-growth suburbs 20-odd miles north of New York City, and the reason these players were there, in the uniforms of teams they'd not yet joined, was to get their photos taken for the first basketball cards of their professional lives.
The cards had to be ready for the season, and cards need images -- all kinds of images: isolated dunks and finger-rolls and layups, the classic Meaningful Glowering Over A Basketball Gripped Tightly look, and the occasional smile for the players willing to crack one. So they showed up at the NBA Rookie Shoot and waited to get their pictures taken, playing NBA2K while they waited, and joking around and trading the set of cards we gave them -- former West Virginia gunner Kevin Pittsnogle was especially assertive in getting his fellow invitees to autograph their cards.
Mostly, though, they were bored and without much in particular to do. When it was time, they ate burgers under a white tent with those of us who were there in our positions as employees of various trading card companies to photograph and interview and shepherd them through the paces of the day. The players were there for work, too. They'd have to sign autographs on various stickers and cards. They'd need to get all those photos taken. They'd need to answer the questions I asked them while they did those things, for the only line of basketball cards -- Topps Big Game Basketball, a product line that no longer exists -- that could justifiably be called, "reported."
There are only so many card-appropriate things to ask a 21-year-old millionaire, and I asked them. These were not questions designed to surprise or illuminate all that much, and they didn't. I learned that LaMarcus Aldridge has a firm handshake and a good sense of humor, and that Rudy Gay likes to talk about Baltimore; I remain convinced that former Illinois guard Dee Brown, now out of the league, could both get elected to Congress and do a very good job once there. I did not understand much of anything that Renaldo Balkman said, as all of it came out -- reluctantly and swathed in cavernous echo -- through his massive nose.
Balkman seemed more himself later in the day -- there was a brief period during which no one knew where he was, and I like to imagine him wandering around the leafy northern suburbs in full uniform, just taking it all in -- in a corner of the gym where a co-worker and I threw him, at his request, lob after lob. He dunked, again and again and more spectacularly, finally yelling with each dunk. At first there were no cameras, but as some players came over to watch -- there was a chance many of them hadn't seen him before, either, as he'd never played much more than 25 minutes a game on three meh South Carolina teams -- the cameramen came, too.
I'd been in that corner shooting around by myself, kind of sick of waiting to ask Patrick O'Bryant or Maurice Ager about Competing At The Next Level, and Balkman had silently sort of worked in with me. I knew who he was -- I'd already "interviewed" him at that point -- but had learned all that only recently. He had been a surprise first-round pick by the Knicks that year, a little fortissimo portion in Isiah's ongoing troll symphony that initially left Knicks fans too confounded to boo.
The player picked immediately after Balkman was Rajon Rondo, which ... well, anyway, Balkman was the 20th pick of that draft. The 19th was Quincy Douby, a gangly shooter from Rutgers. He was, for a high-volume scorer type, an awfully quiet dude, and the only other player who wandered over during one of the periodic clear-the-head sessions of jumpers/chasing-my-own-long-rebounds that I took throughout the day. Douby was different, both in the semi-superhuman way all the day's attendees were, but in that I was awed by him. My reasoning for this was backwards. It made sense that Aldridge and Gay and the rest were great enough to be where they were, and their size and bearing and overall wattage confirmed all that; nothing about Douby really made sense that way.
The awe, I guess, was born of my knowledge that the game was not as easy for him as the others there. He was spindly and of an in-between size and had a strange and poker-faced mastery of a knobby, homespun stop-and-start game; he hadn't played organized basketball until he was a junior in high school. Despite that or because of it, he'd made a characteristically mis- and overmatched Rutgers team competitive during a very good year in the Big East, and on certain instances fearsome. (Those of us who care about Rutgers basketball would later recognize this as a renaissance.) Douby didn't last in the NBA -- he reportedly shot well in practice, but froze up in games in very limited action. He played out his rookie contract and was gone without a sound. Last year, while playing in China, Douby scored 75 points in a game. Earlier this year, Balkman was kicked out of a game in the Philippines for choking a teammate.
Douby is one of the more recognizable names in this year's D-League draft, which is probably not what either of us foresaw during that brief, impromptu shootaround. I can't know what Douby was thinking; he was polite in our mini-interview, and the card I wrote for him has the words "I'm still learning" on it. I know what I knew about him then -- that he was a tweener who would have to learn to play point guard, which is a very difficult thing to do; that he came to the game late and would have trouble defending any position because of that and because of the body he was in.
And then, that day, I learned what I learned, which is that -- from various spots around the court, all of them behind the three-point line -- Douby just did not miss. This wasn't a game, of course, and there weren't even cameras there -- just him in a strange new uniform and a tired dude in his mandated company-logo polo shirt who collected one make after another and whipped the ball back to him. I stopped counting around a dozen. There were more. Finally a miss, and then more makes after that, just him putting the ball through the hoop from far way in near-silence and, at the edge of the steep slope of a hard future, seemingly quite at home.