A woman with white hair, glasses, and a wrinkled face sits on a barstool in an elevator in the Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa, her body hunched, her eyes peering over the open pages of a blue hardcover book. I can’t quite make out the title. She glances up, smiles, and says hello. I ask if all this up and down makes her sick. She says no. But, she says, the other day, when the state championships in wrestling were here, she went up and down so many times, saw so many faces go in and out, that later she dreamt of The Walking Dead. I ask if she meant the TV show, the one about zombies and survival and the apocalypse, and she says yes that’s the one. Her job is to escort people on the elevator in between two floors. She escorts players, dancers, and reporters. Crew, staff, and referees. At one point the elevator car is full of a dozen or so young girls, collectively the Mini Kicks, the night’s halftime entertainment. Above there is the arena—the seats, the concessions stands like Hot Dog Nation and Dippin’ Dots and Moovers and Shakers burgers and milkshakes, the lights, the fully loaded bar, the neatly swept pavement circling the court, the stalls to buy merchandise, and the fans milling about—and below there is the underbelly. For nearly every event at the Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa, the elevator goes up and down, up and down, guiding people between two worlds.
As the final seconds of the third quarter tick off the clock, Damien Wilkins dribbles the ball past the half-court line, blows on his right hand, and waits. 12.9 seconds to go. All four of his teammates fall back in unison to the baseline, two on the blocks, two in the corners, leaving only Wilkins and his defender, the 6’8” Jamal Jones. 9.7 seconds. Wilkins doesn’t call for a screen from a teammate, doesn’t bring out a safety valve option on the wing, doesn’t even look over to the bench. Instead, he dribbles through his legs. Once. Twice. Three times, four times. Until he’s at the top of the key, the ball in midair slightly cupped by his left hand, the defender crouched with head up and knees bent, Wilkins crouched, sprung like a coil about to surge to his left—3.9—and when he does unleash the energy, a single dribble takes him to the elbow, where a second dribble stops him on a dime.
At 35 years old, Damien Wilkins is a full thirteen years older than the player defending him. In fact, Wilkins is the oldest player on the court. Older than every teammate on the Iowa Energy, older than every opposing player on the Delaware 87ers. And as he stops, bringing his body back from where he was headed, Jones is left in the dust. The combination of a nearly imperceptible push-off with the right hand and a sudden step-back pivoting off the left foot creates a cavern of space. And with 1.9 seconds remaining, his body fading back, his fingertips guiding the basketball into orbit, the other nine players on the floor watching, he releases the ball. Wilkins lands on one foot—the other is kicked out dramatically—while the ball reaches its apex. His left hand has not moved; it’s motionless as stone, as if the basketball still needed its support. His right hand is raised high, holding the follow-through. Splash. Half a second remains.
It’s a Monday night in Des Moines, and there are just over 2,000 people here, and this game isn’t televised, and it won’t get mentioned on SportsCenter, and ten years from now—maybe ten days—there might not be a single person who remembers this moment, but when I see Damien Wilkins drop the jumper at the end of the third quarter, when I gaze across the court from the scorer’s table where I sit, Wilkins looks a lot like Mike.
In the fourth quarter, the game pretty much in hand, an opposing player misses the first of two free throws, and a dull roar begins to stir in the crowd. A kind of primeval chant. A sort of ancient custom of which I—sitting innocently and ignorantly at my post, configuring my various notes about the game—am completely unaware. I look up from my scribbles. Fans here and there start standing up, their faces snarled, their teeth bared, their eyes vacant and determined at the same time, all their attention devoted to the player on the free throw line. Their chants turn to heckles, their heckles into hollers, until a wild frenzy has broken out.
Looking up to the jumbotron, I discover the catalyst of their fervor: According to an intensely flashing, radiating sign, if this player misses the second of his two free throws, we—the people, the rabid spectators—will receive free buffalo wings. Free buffalo wings! Some of our mouths begin to water as the player tosses the ball lightly, spinning it back to himself, hoists it up in shooting position, and lets loose. Despite the modest attendance, the noise in the arena is disruptive. We want the buffalo wings. We want the buffalo wings bad but, alas, the beautiful arc the basketball traces in the air leads straight through the hoop, and our dreams are ruined.
A little while later, however, our carnal wishes are granted. A great sigh of satisfaction ripples through Wells Fargo Arena when the team passes 100 total points, and—again looking up to the jumbotron—I see that, having passed the century mark, we have all earned a free small French fries from Wendy’s. But the sign teases out some more information: If we eclipse 120 points, that small French fries from Wendy’s will be upgraded to a large French fries from Wendy’s. A large French fries from Wendy’s! Unfortunately, when the buzzer sounds, the Energy finish with 117 points.
When I first walk through the doors of the arena about an hour and a half before tipoff, I meet a woman named Madison in the VIP entrance. A recent graduate of Iowa State University, Madison, handing me a lanyard with a rectangular press credential dangling at one end, explains how she landed the job serendipitously, just one of those things that kind of appeared and worked out. She’s nice, pretty, and helpful—and all the while, as she’s explaining these things, and as I wait for the elusive Mike (the Energy’s PR guy, with whom I’d set this whole thing up), I, attempting to separate the credential card from the lanyard, wanting to clip it to my hip instead of wearing it around my neck, which makes me look a little too eager, manage to cut my pointer finger surprisingly deeply. It’s bleeding, and I have to ask Madison if she has a Band-Aid. She doesn’t. “But,” she says, “I have some tape.” So I tape my finger, and the blood seeps through the Scotch and I rue my stylistic decision.
Mike arrives. He apologizes for being late. (He wasn’t late; I was early.) Leading me away from Madison, away from the VIP entrance, down an elevator, and into the bowels of the arena, he explains that the Energy’s staff of eight people—eight people total, eight people including Mike and Madison, including the GM and sales and everybody—does the dirty work that NBA staffs don’t really deal with. Mike has been setting up the space for the Energy’s game. Wells Fargo Arena hosts all sorts of events, from Nickelback concerts to the state championships in wrestling, the latter of which sold out, from rodeos to the Iowa Wild, a minor league hockey team on whose ice the court has been laid. In other words, the Iowa Energy décor isn’t permanent. Before each game it goes up. After each game it comes down.
After a while Mike leaves me to my own wanderings. In the press room—I’m the only press I see—I eat a pretty decent Philly cheesesteak and eavesdrop on the event staff nearby, most of whom are eating Philly cheesesteaks too, although one guy says he doesn’t think his stomach is prepared for such a meal tonight.
The throes of March, for the basketball fan, is a time of agonizing exuberance. In the NBA the playoff races are heating up, and it’s nearly early enough to start discussing potential matchups, title favorites, and MVP winners. In college, Selection Sunday has come and gone and we’re in the heat of March Madness, and the fever has caught all around. And there’s the discussion about the bridge between the two, between the NBA and college ball: the draft.
Right here, eating this Philly cheesesteak in the press room, listening to the conversation of the event staff, the basketball excitement is palpable. They’re talking about some matchup or other set for the following day. When I finish my dinner I amble out to the court and find my place at the scorer’s table, where I talk with Paul and Bill, two middle-aged men who’ve been doing stats for the Energy for nearly a decade, two guys who nod comprehendingly at my own basketball enthusiasm when I explain how most people don’t understand what it means to watch the Philadelphia 76ers play the Sacramento Kings on NBA League Pass on a Friday night when everyone else is out at a bar looking to get lucky. They nod. Because even though this is Iowa, with no team from the NBA, the MLB, the NHL, or the NFL, basketball fever is here.
The D-League is one big experiment. I think that’s part of the excitement that draws in some of the more devout basketball disciples. A sort of testing ground for the NBA on multiple fronts—every referee hire since 2002, for example, has officiated games in the D-League—perhaps the most exciting aspect of this amorphous and ever-changing gameplay are the rules. In the 2014-2015 season, the league is testing a new challenge rule, giving coaches the opportunity to throw their proverbial red flag as in the NFL, prompting the referees to instant replay to determine whether a foul was really a foul. In the game tonight, the 87ers’ coach challenges a block-charge call, and the play is reversed. The element seems fairly confusing, and if the NBA is really attempting to slow games down I’m not sure I see the rule making the leap to the big leagues. But still—it’s fun.
Teams have the opportunity to advance the ball in the final two minutes of either half without using a timeout. The league is also attempting to mitigate the effectiveness of Hack-a-Shaq. Teams shoot free throws after the fifth foul instead of the fourth. There are advertisements on jerseys. Players can grab the ball off the rim, otherwise goaltending in the NBA.
Even tonight, there’s a basketball buzz—and maybe it’s only five percent, or two percent, of all the human beings in the arena, who have the basketball buzz, because it’s certainly not with most of the fans slobbering over their impending small French fries from Wendy’s, and it’s not really with the Mini Kicks, but it’s with the staff and with the coaches, with the players and the referees.
Then there is the fact that tonight, on a Monday night, in a venue with a capacity of 16,110, making Wells Fargo Arena just fractionally smaller than your average NBA stadium, the attendance of the Energy-87ers game is 2,136. But to tell you the truth I don’t know how they’ve come up with this number, because when I look around the seats I do not see two thousand people. Maybe if you included the players and the coaches and the event staff and the Mini Kicks, but even if 2,136 people really are here filling the stands, imagine if the upper sections weren’t cordoned off, and imagine if those 2,136 people were evenly distributed throughout the arena. That would mean 13.3% of the seats would be warmly occupied by someone’s rump. In other words, for every eight chairs, seven are empty. Imagine what it would look like—some kind of missed connection on Craigslist between a sports team and its fans.
And while you can point to the extenuating circumstances to explain tonight’s sparse attendance—the fact that the Energy have played three games in four nights, that tonight is Monday, that the week before was spring break for Iowans and nobody wants to come back from vacation to immediately gear up for another event—while indeed more people, according to Iowa’s staff, usually show up for games, you still must remember that in the last game of the D-League Finals the year before fewer than 5,000 people bought tickets, in a stadium of 13,000.
The disconnect between the vision the D-League has of itself and the reality in which it finds itself. It’s like an incomplete sentence, a thing of occasional beauty and sporadic sublimity that at the same time can feel a little off—a little unfinished. It’s really jarring at times, actually, speaking with the players and the staff and executives, people whose ambitions and goals are limitless, but who nevertheless inhabit a harsh world. It’s a time of fracture. There’s the romance and then what’s past the romance, and what’s past the romance can be overwhelming, debilitating, crippling.
When I talk more with Mike, I understand and feel past the excitement. I feel the weight and exhaustion, the job beyond the sexy sheen presented to the fans. Part of Mike’s job is not only the PR and marketing behind the Energy, it’s also hanging up banners. There’s no hourly worker for that kind of stuff. All eight staffers, even General Manager Chris Makris, do some dirty work. All eight staffers work on sales. All eight staffers work day and night trying to get that one additional fan to the game.
All this unsexy stuff of course exists in the NBA, but the difference—the huge difference—is in the payoff. When you sell out an NBA arena, when you play on ABC, when you sign a contract for millions of dollars…for players and staffs, these dramatic and ecstatic moments can purchase eons of the mundane. In the D-League, those moments are hard to come by. You’ve got to survive on basketball, and basketball alone.
Nearly all the fans have filtered out of the arena. No cameras. No press conference. No reporters ambling about, except for me. Standing outside the entrance to the locker room, I wait for Wilkins, who, Mike has promised me, is willing to talk for a few minutes.
After not too long he emerges from the locker room. “Let’s take a walk,” he says, and I follow him out of the tunnel and onto the court.
“So,” I begin, a little nervous, “you played in the NBA, what, five, six—”
“Nine years,” he says, grinning at my mistake.
Nine years in the National Basketball Association. Four years with the Seattle Supersonics before one year each with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Minnesota Timberwolves, Atlanta Hawks, Detroit Pistons, and Philadelphia 76ers. Nine years, 149 starts. 10,839 minutes logged. 1,331 field goals made. Two seasons in which he played all 82 games. Once, he scored 41 points in a double-overtime game, a game in which a rookie named Kevin Durant hit a clock-expiring three-pointer. Damien Wilkins is the son of Gerald Wilkins, who played thirteen seasons in the league. And if the name “Wilkins” rings a bigger bell, that’s because Damien Wilkins is the nephew of the legendary Dominique Wilkins.
Given the lineage, given the experience in the world’s top level of basketball, given the length of his career, nearly two times longer than the league average of 4.8 years, I wondered if, in Wilkins, there might be some sort of resentment at now playing in the trenches of the D-League. The glamor is gone; I wondered if that might lead to an underlying, if unspoken, bitterness.
Suddenly ten or fifteen five-year-olds, all wearing matching lime green shirts, part of a promotion that night involving a children’s hairdresser, interrupt my thoughts and Damien’s walk across the court. The kids run toward us waiving things they want signed, papers and t-shirts. They appear like green leafy weeds on a hot morning after a previous night’s rain.
“This place is sprawling with kids,” I say, and Wilkins looks at me, smiles, and says, “It’s good,” and then when a pudgy little girl with pigtails asks if he’ll sign her shirt and her paper, Wilkins says yes.
Bitterness? Right now, I can’t detect any. And maybe it’s a ruse, maybe it’s Wilkins trying to stay positive for himself, or for me, or for this story, but I have a hard time believing it’s not genuine.
Wilkins has three kids of his own, and while he plays here in Des Moines they live and go to school 900 miles away. “It’s mostly FaceTime,” he says ruefully, signing another autograph. He mentions the “cold cities” and the “travel,” the buses and planes and hotels, the lack of pay and lack of fans, the lack of family.
“Then why?” I ask him. “Why the D-League?” And even though he gives a lucid and reasonable answer, and even though some of his answer does make sense, the question is still haunting: Why endure the harsh realities of the D-League when there are other options? Why, specifically for Wilkins, endure the harsh realities of the D-League and not simply retire? But money isn’t the issue. There’s something else.
“I want to play my career on my own terms,” he says. (Note he doesn’t say end his career on his own terms.) “I can’t speak for other guys, but I want back in the NBA. I know I won’t be doing as much as I do here”—nodding toward the court—“but I think I can help out. My game is more nuanced than it was. I’m more patient.”
On the floor, you can see it. Two moments capture the microcosm of the bigger picture Wilkins is alluding to. At one point during the game he drives furiously toward the basket, rushing past his own defender and silkily soaring past the opposing frontcourt players standing guard in the paint, and when—airborne—he attempts to flush the basketball with a dunk, the ball clanks off the back of the rime; at 35, he just doesn’t have the legs of ten years past. Not much later he does something similar, careening into the paint, zigzagging with the basketball, and launching skyward. This time, however, he doesn’t cock back the arm for a power slam, but instead flips his right hand forward and gracefully lays the ball in the basket. That little adjustment meant two points. In this particular game, and over the course of this particular season, Wilkins plays more regularly with the grace of the second play.
The money. First and maybe most dangerously of all, they’re paid very little. In the D-League players are separated into three pay categories—A, B, or C—categories based on experience that come with respective meager salaries of $25,000, $19,000, and $13,000. There’s a $40 travel per diem, and teams pay for players’ housing, and the players are covered for health insurance, but even if you’re making the highest salary of the three categories it’s tough to see how you do it.
The low pay is one of the issues the new collective bargaining agreement might address, if the NBA gets serious about its minor league prospects. The low pay is one of the reasons playing abroad can be so tempting, one of the reasons Kalin Lucas, for example, a member of the Energy at the beginning of the season, after earning only temporary call-ups to the NBA, bolted to Turkey in the middle of March for a fatter salary. You couldn’t blame him, and nobody on Iowa’s staff seems to harbor any sort of ill will.
The travel. Everyone mentions it. Even those, like Mike, who don’t actually travel. Paul and Bill mention it. Wilkins mentions it. When the team travels, sometimes they go by bus: to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, or Fort Wayne, Indiana, or Grand Rapids, Michigan. They take planes to other states: to Delaware and New York and Maine. Three states in four days. And when they fly, there is no private charter jet. They fly commercial. They fly Sun Country or Delta or American or Spirit. They fly whatever is cheapest. And when they land, when they get to their hotel, they’re not checking into a Westin—it’s the Quality Inn, or maybe Drury Suites.
None of this is to pretend that any other league of sports is not a grind. Players in the NBA go through a daily, monthly, yearly grind. So do players in the NFL, the NHL, and the MLB. The season is long and hard, physically and emotionally. But if you’ve spent time on the road, like I have, you know the little upgrade from a Sleep Inn to a Marriott can make a hell of a difference.
The day after the game, I hop on the phone with Jed Kaplan—managing partner of the Iowa Energy, minority owner of the Memphis Grizzlies. I’m cruising on I-35 north from Des Moines to Minneapolis. Another gray day. We speak through the Bluetooth of my rented Toyota Yaris, and although I can hear Kaplan fine—can hear his thick New York accent, his knowledge of business and basketball—there’s an atrocious echo when I speak, so I try to say as little as possible.
“The upside,” he says, answering my question about his vision for the future of the D-League, “is immeasurable.”
Kaplan is brimming with ideas, ideas for the future of the D-League and its role in the NBA, ideas shared by—at least according to him—more and more owners, managers, and front staff executives. His litany of possibilities is almost endless: adding a third round to the draft; expanding the NBA roster cap to allow hybrid players who can fluidly jump from one league to another; increasing D-League salaries to compete more aggressively with European leagues; and clarifying communication and relationships between the NBA teams and their affiliates. The Utah Jazz, for example, just bought the Idaho Stampede. Some teams are much more involved in their minor league roster than others, but there is definitely a trend, Kaplan says, toward more intimate involvement.
The real work, however, can’t be done until there are thirty teams in the D-League; i.e., the deeper changes can’t occur until every team in the NBA has a direct connection, a direct home for its potentially fluid hybrid players. The ultimate model for the D-League is the baseball minor leagues, wherein players—sometimes for years—are groomed and grown, acclimated to systems that are microcosms of their respective NBA parent. Right now, that continuity doesn’t exist much. Right now, ironically, there’s not much “development” in the NBA Developmental League.
Kaplan’s infectious enthusiasm almost throttles the lingering doubts and questions about the league—that a future similar to the baseball minor leagues is unrealistic, that there’s no better alternative than college or Europe, that the basketball in the D-League is nothing but a discordant collection of individuals playing for selfish vainglory. As Wilkins told me, “You have fourteen guys in a roster that all may have different goals and agendas. All trying to get somewhere other than here.”
It’s not only the players: the refs, the coaches, the managers, even the staffs might all be thinking about making that jump to the NBA. The question that haunts the D-League is not whether it’s talented enough—it is—but whether it can endure the long road to the future, a road beset with conflicting desires, opposing egos, competing agendas.
What carries the D-League—or what the D-League can only hope will carry it—is vision. A vision of a future past the egos, a vision of harmony between the NBA and its minor league. It’s vision that carried players like Jeremy Lin and Danny Green, that carried referees, like Lauren Holtkamp, who made it to the NBA. It’s vision that drives executives like Jed Kaplan. And it’s vision that drives the players who know the Jeremy Lins and Danny Greens are few and far between, that although the promise of a future on the world’s brightest basketball stage might seems far away, the hope remains.
On November 19 in 2004, the year before I would earn my driver’s license in the state of Texas, a fan in the Palace of Auburn Hills threw what looked like a blue Solo cup at World Peace—formerly known as Ron Artest—who then proceeded to leave the confines of the 94 by 50 feet court, climb the stairs, and attack the man. This incident is colloquially known as the “Malice at the Palace.”
Behind me just a few feet are two Iowa Energy fans who have relentlessly heckled the opposing players and coaches. I have attended a respectable amount of basketball games, from high school to college to the NBA, and I don’t believe I have heard this amount of focused heckling in a long, long time. What makes it so painful to listen to is not the vulgarity—in fact, these polite Iowans don’t really use any profanity, nor are they saying things that would make one cover his child’s ears (actually, one of the hecklers is bobbing a toddler up and down on his knee)—what makes their berating so painful and visceral is the fact that they are sitting just a couple rows away from the opponents’ bench. This close proximity, when added to the sparse attendance and thus low decibels levels of sound, gives the hecklers absolute clarity in their messages to the opposing players and coaches. Everybody hears every word.
And here I am, quite an uninvolved, neutral party, and the anger seethes inside me, bubbling like some witch’s concoction. In my imagination I am reading newspaper headlines the next day—Basketball Reporter Attacks Heckling Fans; or maybe I throw a chair at their most vulnerable areas and the headline reads “Malice at the Palace”? More Like “Tenderloin in Des Moines.”
If I were to write down every detail from the night that seemed to denigrate my experience with the Iowa Energy, if I were to record every instance where the façade of the new-look D-League broke down, from the guy singing the end of “The Star-Spangled Banner” with the wrong lyrics—o’er the land of the free, he sang, and the land of the free—to the empty seats, from Joseph’s Jewelers and the endless sponsorships to the police officer gaming on his phone during intermission, if I were to label one detail as the microcosm of everything that belittled the basketball, it would be the hecklers.
Sitting with hands on portentous bellies or toddlers bouncing up and down like the basketball they’re watching, they berate opposing players for missing free throws. They berate opposing players for missing three-pointers. They berate opposing players when their shots are blocked. They berate the opposing coach—Kevin Young, who to the relish of the hecklers was the Energy’s coach the year before—when he calls out a play, and they berate him further when the play does not go according to plan. They berate Kevin Young even more when they discover he has forgotten to wear a belt. In at least ninety percent of pauses—of which there are many—they berate. They do not let a moment pass without berating, and I learn to admire the composure and grace of the men who, that night, are doing the actual work.
Damien Wilkins grew up in Washington, North Carolina. It’s a small coastal town with fewer than ten thousand residents. Founded in 1776, it was the first town in the United States to be named after George Washington. During the American Revolution, the town served as a friendly port for supplies while nearby docks fell into British hands.
Damien, as a child, lived with his mother, his grandmother, and two aunts, all of whom worked at the local spinning mill. A lot of toil for a little money. Damien remembers frequent suspensions from school. Remembers stealing. Fighting with other kids. Remembers watching his mother’s car being repossessed. Remembers wearing wet blue jeans to school; his family had a washer, but no dryer. In his own words: “I didn’t know how to be ambitious.”
All this until, weeks into his seventh grade year, he was suspended ten days for fighting, and his mother, at a loss, sent Damien to Ohio, where his father was playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
And maybe there was something about the geographical distance, something about the space that worked in Damien’s mind, because it was in Cleveland, away from his mother, away from the spinning mill, away from everything he’d known, that he started to cultivate a personal vision: “I wanted to be something. I wanted to be more than I had already been. More than I’d already seen.”
But though this may be a story of struggle, it’s no tragedy. And though Wilkins isn’t a perfect man, he’s a fighter. From the genesis—to use Damien’s word for this moment—of his basketball aspirations, at the heart of Wilkins’ vision was selflessness, the desire to sacrifice for the one who sacrificed for him, his mother. And so, he laced up. Went to the gym. Put in the hours. Practiced free throws.
There are players more talented than Damien Wilkins, both now and then. Players more athletic, more skilled, players with more versatility and dynamism. But without a vision, you can’t walk. Without a vision there’s nowhere to go.
Vision drove a thirteen-year-old Damien Wilkins from the public courts in Akron to nine years in the NBA. Vision drove Wilkins somewhere other than here.
“I can’t and won’t,” he says—catching my eye in the quiet, nearly empty arena, not blinking, but staring right at me, honestly, I think, and earnestly, openly—“lose sight.”
At the end of the night it takes maybe fifteen minutes for the fans to clear out. After interviewing Damien Wilkins I shake hands with Mike and say goodbye, asking how to escape the confines of the arena. I walk past the locker room, past the old buffet where I can smell the receding trace of Philly cheesesteaks, past the last glimpse of the court to my right, and to the elevator, where I wait with a few others. There is a young woman on the dance team, now wearing sweats instead of the skin-tight, referee-themed crop-top she wore earlier. She looks tired, vacantly checking her cell phone. There is a player from the Energy; I can’t even tell which one, because he wears a sweat suit with the hood thrown over the top of his towering head. And there is me. When the elevator doors open we all three get on, and the same white-haired woman reading the same blue-covered book smiles at us, hits the button for the second floor, and takes us up.
Special thanks to the Iowa Energy, Jed Kaplan, and especially Damien Wilkins. If you want to read more of his story, check out his blog at http://thewilkinsword.com/.