LAS VEGAS — Calvin Roberts is a former Junior College All-American, NBA draft pick, and Liga ACB veteran. In most cases, a resume like that wouldn’t look out of place on a roster of Las Vegas Summer League hopefuls.
That’s except for one small detail: Roberts is 61 years old.
Roberts hasn’t played professional basketball in almost 20 years, but decided to attempt a comeback far later than nearly any player ever has. Why? To finish what he started and prove to himself that he really was good enough for the NBA.
"I feel like I missed out on something that I should've finished a long time ago,” Roberts told SB Nation. “I just now have the chance to achieve something that nobody else has done before.”
Roberts was drafted by the Spurs in the fourth round in 1980 and saw camp stints with the San Diego Clippers and Atlanta Hawks, but that was the extent of his NBA chance before heading overseas. Roberts formally retired in 1999 when his agent couldn’t find any teams that wanted to bring him on because of his age. He was 43 then.
Nearly two decades later, he’s giving his NBA dream another shot. And he’s serious about it.
“I just said once I start, I'm not going to stop,” Roberts said.
The NBA fantasy returned into focus a year ago, when his wife goaded him to get back into shape to play basketball with his kids. As Roberts began shooting around with his two younger children, he came to a realization: He felt as good as ever.
Roberts is aware his age makes his goal an extreme long shot, but as he worked out more, he said he began to feel as good — no, better — than ever before. He felt like he was in his 30 again. His knees didn’t ache.
That allowed him to justify giving this another shot. He’s never had back problems. He never was forced out of the game by father time dealing him a career-ending injury. He had just taken an 18-year break.
So Roberts began to train harder. He changed his work schedule at Sam’s Club to the night shift so he could use the gym more frequently during the day for wind sprints and weight training. He started by strengthening muscles he felt he’d use in games, and then augmented them by beefing up the muscles that supported them. Roberts said he never got “chubby” after he retired, but suddenly his skinny frame began to fill out with rippling muscle.
Today, Roberts hardly looks like an average 61-year-old. He has a torso like a tree trunk and the bulging biceps of a man 30 years younger. Even though he had warned his oldest daughter that he was attempting to make a Las Vegas Summer League roster and had been working out more frequently, she still was not prepared for her father’s physical transformation when he came to visit her at college.
“I hadn't seen him in about a year when he told me,” Natalia Roberts told SB Nation. “And then he came to visit me not long after and he was ripped.”
“It was amazing. He has never been in that good of shape in his life.”
As his workouts began to show results, Roberts sent letters to the Hawks, Spurs, and Clippers all teams he once had cups of coffee with nearly four decades ago, pitching a Summer League roster spot. He also contacted Los Angeles Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson. Why? Because he played against Johnson in 1978, back when Johnson was a teenage star at Michigan State.
Roberts said he knows teams have received his letters because people have signed for them, and he was hoping for Johnson’s “support” after fondly recalling their their showdown 39 years prior.
But the teams themselves tell a different tale. Despite his hard work and ample usage of the postage system, Roberts never heard back from anyone.
A Hawks communications representative told SB Nation they were aware of Roberts’ efforts due to articles about his quest and appearances on programs like SportsCenter and Good Morning America. But due to the amount of letters they receive requesting opportunities for a workout, they were unlikely to “remember one over another.” It didn’t matter that the letter came from a 61-year-old man who played for them in camp in the 80’s.
A Clippers spokesman said they could not find any of Roberts’ letters in their offices, while the Spurs and Lakers declined to comment when asked if they heard from Roberts.
Mark Warkentien, the New York Knicks director of player personnel, knew about Roberts’ quest to make it to Las Vegas Summer League. Once upon a time, Warkentien coached and recruited Roberts to Cal State Fullerton as an assistant coach. But that was decades ago.
“You see the headline stuff, 'Calvin Roberts wants to make a comeback.' I said 'wait a second, that can't be my Calvin Roberts,'” Warkentien told SB Nation. “I'm 64-years-old. I coached him when I was in my early 20s. So yeah, I took notice very quick."
Warkentien said the Knicks had already assembled their roster for Orlando Summer League when he became aware of his former player’s efforts. While he says the Knicks are “always looking to get better, so [they] can never eliminate anything," he didn’t exactly seem convinced that Roberts could help his team.
"Realistically? I coached Calvin in the 70s,” Warkentien said. “I coached Calvin when Nixon was president.”
NBA Summer League has come and gone, and nobody answered Roberts’ call. The Las Vegas resident’s dream had never been geographically closer, but not being on a roster made it feel further away than ever.
Despite the setback, Roberts still made appearances at the Thomas and Mack Center throughout the week, hoping that someone — anyone — would give him the shot he’s worked so hard to get.
As he watched the action taking place in UNLV’s Thomas and Mack Center, he did so from the dark hallway between the concourse of the arena and the lower bowl. Roberts said he didn’t want to sit too close to the court. The closer he is to the action, the more painful not being on the hardwood becomes.
But even as all hope seems lost, it sprung again. Roberts was fueled by interactions with people his media appearances have inspired, like the kid wearing a Kevin Garnett Minnesota Timberwolves jersey he’d met earlier in the week. The teenage boy stopped to shake his hand.
“Good luck making it,” he said.
Roberts also stays inspired through interactions with those closer to him in age. He recalls fondly the seniors who come up to him on the street after seeing him on TV.
“Let ‘em know that when you get to a certain age, that don't mean that's it for you,'” he said they tell him.
Summer league is now over, and Roberts’ dream seems farther than ever. But he didn’t work this hard for a year to stop now. One day, he vows to become the oldest man to play in the NBA.
“How long I'll keep doing it? I don't know. Until somebody acknowledges that I'm trying to get on a team,” Roberts said.
“They can give me a yes or no answer. That's all I'm asking for.”