The Players’ Tribune, Lance Thomas (http://www.theplayerstribune.com/lance-thomas-new-york-knicks-duke-basketball/)
In the last six years, my duffle bag has been the only constant in my life. I’ve taken it all around the globe with me. It’s just small enough to lug around easily, but big enough to fit the necessities.
Toothbrush. Toothpaste. Soap. Shampoo. Razor. Deodorant.
iPod and headphones. (Gotta have the jams.)
And whatever clothes could fit after that.
And that’s honestly it. I never put anything more in that bag than what I thought I absolutely needed.
When I went undrafted out of Duke in 2010, I became a basketball nomad. From Tobacco Road to southern China to New York City — with plenty of stops in between — I packed that duffle bag, hit the road and tried out for anybody willing to give me a look.
I love the game and my passion took me to interesting locations, but at that time it didn’t feel like much of an adventure. In my mind, I was an unemployed college graduate looking for work in one of the most cutthroat job markets out there.
At times, it was hard not to internalize the critics — including my own friends — when they questioned my journey.
Do you think you’re really good enough to play in the NBA?
I know I’m good enough.
It’s looking a little shaky with the whole basketball thing. There’s no shame in putting that Duke degree to use somewhere.
I just need a chance to show what I can do.
Why don’t you just go play in Europe? At least you’ll make some money over there.
Nah, can’t do that.
I knew that, for the most part, once you went to Europe, it was easy to fall off the radar of NBA scouts. My basketball journey wasn’t about just getting any contract I could. It was about the NBA, and only the NBA.
I knew the D-League was my best shot.
Fortunately, I had one big asset: time. I didn’t have kids. I didn’t have student loans. I could live with my parents when I needed to. I could live frugally. I just had my duffle bag — and a whole lot of time. And I was lucky that my family backed my decision to keep chasing the NBA dream.
To the people who doubted me: I know that many of you thought you had my best interests at heart. I want to say thank you. Thank you for adding fuel to my fire.
Every year, the NBA draft gets everyone talking. You hear a lot about the lottery picks, and you might even hear a bit about the late-risers who have maybe an outside shot of going in the second round. But for every player who gets drafted, there are a bunch of good college players who don’t hear their names called. For some guys, draft night is heartbreak. They wait at home with their families in disbelief as all 60 selections come and go. For others — usually players from mid-majors who are good but who lack exposure — they know well before the draft that they’re going overseas.
It wasn’t a huge surprise that I didn’t get drafted. It stung, but it wasn’t devastating. I always knew my road to the NBA would be long and winding. I woke up the next day motivated as hell.
I didn’t have any team workouts lined up. I didn’t have any real connections with agents. I had just won an NCAA title with Duke, but I wasn’t a big-time prospect. One thing I’ve always had is self-awareness about what I do well on the basketball court. I’m a defensive specialist. I hustle. I try to do the little things. I’m damn proud of those skills.
I started training. Soon I got a call from the Austin Toros in the D-League.
I approached the league differently than a lot of guys. In my opinion, almost every guy there has the same game plan: Shoot a lot … score a lot … hope to get signed an NBA team. They think dropping 40 a night is their ticket.
Remember Linsanity? Of course you do. Jeremy Lin comes to the Knicks from the D-League and flat-out dominates. Puts up ridiculous numbers for a whole stretch of games.
Teams in the NBA aren’t looking for a 12th man whose signature skill is jacking up a bunch of shots.
It was called Linsanity for a reason: It was an extremely rare case.
The thing is, most teams in the NBA aren’t looking for a 12th man whose signature skill is jacking up a bunch of shots.
I took solace in that. My game plan was to play up my strengths.
I believed that there were four things in particular that I could do that would help me reach the NBA.
1. Be vocal. Fewer players are vocal than you might think. I wanted to be a leader both by example and through my words. That sounds nice and all, but what it really means is being a little annoying — talking on every play on defense, being active in the huddle, asking questions if you don’t understand a play.
2. Master the intangibles. As they say, the effort you give is one of the few things you can control. If there was a loose ball, I felt I should be the one to get it — no excuse for not hitting the deck. And if one of my teammates had been the one to hit the ground, I tried to be one of the first people there to pick him up. Coach K helped instill that in me at Duke. I’ve always wanted my teammates to know that I’m out there fighting for them. I took pride in that. Still do.
3. Guard the other team’s best player. Not many guys want to do this because it’s embarrassing when someone scores 30 on you. In the D-League, that concern is magnified. Nobody wants an NBA scout to see them get crossed up and taken to the rack. But I didn’t care I was a forward, but I made it a point to D up guards, swingmen, or centers — one through five, whatever. And yeah, I got beat a lot. It’s punishing guarding the other team’s scorer, night in and night out. But I knew that if I was going to be noticed, I would have to take the harder road.
4. Work on your weaknesses. For all my talk about the importance of defense, I knew I had a weakness on offense. I had to improve that part of my game.
The D-League is a grind. Practices. Games. Group workouts. Individual workouts. Hour after hour in the gym. A lot of long bus rides. That’s just how it goes. I had multiple stints with the Toros so that whole deal is still fresh for me.
You’re not making a lot of money. You’re seeing your former teammates and competitors having success in the NBA.
In my low moments, I’d dwell on my fears.
You’ll make more money in Europe. Put your degree to use. Give it up.
But I kept grinding. I started to make a name for myself — in the D-League, anyway. I made the All-Star team. That was fun. The recognition helped. With the NBA lockout going on during the Pan Am Games in 2011, the U.S. roster was filled with some of the best from the D-League. I got the call-up. Playing in Mexico was an unbelievable experience. We wound up taking home the bronze in that tournament.
I remember the game against Puerto Rico, the eventual gold medalists. They had this guy, Renaldo Balkman, who had actually been with the Knicks for a few years. He could flat-out play. I told my coach, “I want to guard Renaldo.”
I ended up having a great showing against him. With the NBA season on hold that tournament had a lot of eyes on it — so I think some scouts noticed.
Once the lockout ended, I got invited to training camp with the Hornets. I was in peak shape already, way better than a lot of guys who hadn’t been playing organized ball during the lockout.
I actually made the team out of camp that year, in 2011. Eric Gordon was probably the big name for the Hornets then. I was coming off the bench primarily for Jason Smith, but also sometimes for Carl Landry and Al-Farouq Aminu.
In the third game of the year, we lost to the Suns at home the day before New Year’s Eve — a ho-hum game by all accounts. I didn’t yet consider myself a full-fledged member of the New Orleans Hornets. D-League players routinely get called up to NBA teams only to be dropped back down soon after. I knew that.
My focus was set on taking it day by day.
When the clock hit 0.0, I followed my teammates back toward the locker room.
I was barely beyond the tunnel, when someone grabbed my arm.
“Hey, the GM wants to speak with you.” It was that quick. No pleasantries. No b.s.
“Hey, the GM wants to speak with you.”
It was that quick. No pleasantries. No b.s.
I had been waived.
The GM said the normal stuff about how it was “business, not personal.”
For me, that was a wake up call, regardless of whether or not I had done something wrong or hadn’t given enough.
Step your game up, Lance.
So for the next month or so, I worked my tail off down in Austin. The injury bug hit the Hornets and I earned another opportunity in early February.
I was determined to stick around this time, even though they were only offering me another 10-day contract. That’s how it usually works when you get called up from the D-League.
Ten-day contracts. You hear a lot about them. But to experience one? It’s weird.
People don’t even realize what a 10-day actually is. It’s ten days. Not games. Days.
Ten consecutive days.
NBA teams usually play about three games in 10 days. And there’s a good chance you won’t even play in all of them.
It can be incredibly nerve-racking. Luckily, they can’t keep you in limbo like that all season long. At the end of your second consecutive 10-day contract a team has to decide either to keep you for the rest of the season or to cut you loose.
People don’t even realize what a 10-day actually is. It’s ten days. Not games. Days.
The key to a converting a 10-day into a deal for the rest of the season is to avoid looking over your shoulder. Trust your work, and man, don’t second guess yourself when you get an opportunity.
With that said, there are things you can do that will always up your value during a 10-day stint.
First and foremost, know the offense.
Let me say that again.
Know the offense.
That’s the kind of thing that stands out to coaches even if you’re not getting the ball. (And if you’re on a 10-day, you won’t be touching the ball very much.) As long as you’re running the offense the right way and you’re in the right spots when you need to be, you’re going to start to build trust with the coach. That alone might get you from two minutes of playing time in a game to five. And from there, you never really know.
The absolute last thing you want to be is out of place on a play. Coaches don’t give many second chances to 10-day guys.
Second, sprint everywhere. Be a madman. Be ruthless. Stay with your man or in your zone as if your life depends on it.
The third thing is, don’t get too comfortable. You’re not really on the team yet.
You may feel like you’ve “made it,” but you haven’t. You see those guys pull up to practice in fancy cars? Lambos, Ferraris, Maybachs, whatever. I was the guy getting picked up in a van and dropped off in the back of the facility. It’s really easy to get comfortable in those 10 days, to develop friendships and start to feel like a true member of the team. They start to develop friendships with the whole team. Some guys may even make them feel like they’re truly a member of the team. But the thing is, your teammates aren’t the ones making roster decisions, you know?
After my second 10-day stint of the year, the Hornets signed me for the rest of the 2011–12 season. But they didn’t pick me back up in the off-season.
This time, my journey led me farther than Austin, Texas. I decided to go to China. But there I was, in a place called Foshan, playing in a handful of games for the Foshan Dralions.
Once I got there, I got really down. I was frustrated with where my career was. I sulked for maybe one day. But I decided that I wasn’t gonna big-time those guys like they owed me something. I wasn’t going to play over there with the mentality that their league was inferior or anything like that.
I went over there like, I’m gonna fight because I don’t know who’s watching. I don’t know if New Orleans is still tracking my progress or if another team is thinking about signing a guy like me. I’ll show whoever’s watching how I respond to adversity.
I’ll tell you, though, China was a culture shock. I was only there for a month and a half, but still. Everything was different. Everything.
My team missed the playoffs, and I went back to the U.S. in February.
That summer, I joined the Bulls for Summer League in Vegas, and I played well enough to get invited to training camp with the Thunder.
Being with a winning organization like Oklahoma City meant that my attention to detail had to be stronger. Kevin and Russell, those guys run a tight ship. I did my best to blend in as seamlessly as possible.
There’s a misconception that nobody is gonna welcome a new guy.
I think I fit in really well because the veterans appreciated my selfless approach. I’ve played against Kevin pretty much my whole career, all the way back to when we were in high school. We were really familiar with each other’s games and he already knew what I was about as far as my effort and the things I bring to a locker room.
There’s a misconception that nobody is gonna welcome a new guy because he’s there to take someone’s spot. That’s just not how it is at all. The older and wiser guys, the better players, they always want you around — as long as you bring it. It’s very simple, really.
That’s how it was when I got traded from the Thunder to the Knicks in 2015. I fit in because I was a hard worker.
I was surprised when I met Melo. He’s a guy that has a certain reputation among some fans: “Great player but selfish,” people might say. But those people don’t know the guy. They don’t see the great leader that he is. Melo just wants people by his side who are going to fight with him through the whole game, winning or losing. The Knicks have had a series of tough seasons and injuries. That’s frustrating for him. He always wants to give more. I don’t know how people have spun that into a bad thing.
This year when things went south, Melo never tanked on the season. He never gave up. And you know what? He always found a way to stay positive with everyone whether he was healthy or not, and that was very admirable. He put a fire in our bellies to compete even when we were mathematically out of the playoff chase.
As you can tell, I’ve moved around a lot in the last few years, but New York became my home last season.
I’m still a basketball nomad at heart. Even today, I’m awaiting a phone call about where I’ll go next season. Maybe it’ll be the Knicks and maybe another team. Wherever it is, I still got that duffle bag in my closet. I’ll be ready to go.