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Dutiful dreamers

Life in D-League, pro basketball's triple A, is a low-paying, perk-free grind of travel, small cities and half-full gyms, but faint NBA hopes keep players going.

February 13, 2008|Jonathan Abrams | Times Staff Writer

BOISE, Idaho -- Spacing is a concern now, possibly more so than it is on the court.

There is no charter flight for the Los Angeles D-Fenders, the Lakers' Development League team. Abdoulaye N'Diaye and Jelani McCoy, both nearly seven feet tall, stake out a couple added inches of space by claiming front-row seats on the flight headed here for a two-game trip.

Their teammates scatter throughout the plane, most nodding to sleep as the sun seeps through the windows with no blinders.

This is a dream on a budget -- or life in the NBA D-League.

A budget that puts two players per hotel room, and offers a $30 per diem and salaries that top out at $26,000.

High school and college standouts are now tweeners and too-shorts, and the dream is maybe what gets players through trips -- be it here, Fort Wayne or Sioux Falls.

Some D-Fenders have played overseas, where the pay is more lucrative, but returned -- either subscribing to the out-of-sight, out-of-mind theory or weary of living far from home.

But the payoff of making it to the NBA with a minimum annual salary of $427,163 -- somewhat mystically referred to as "the league" -- outweighs any burden. Even a 10-day NBA contract almost matches the highest D-League salary.

So the dream trudges on.

The players shuffle off the plane. A fresh sheet of snow fell this Thursday morning, pushing a sunny Los Angeles day into the past.

The D-Fenders consist of McCoy (UCLA), N'Diaye (USC), Cecil Brown (Canoga Park High and UC Santa Barbara), Brian Chase (Virginia Tech), Errick Craven (USC), Stephane Lasme (Massachusetts), Sean Banks (Memphis), Brian Morrison (North Carolina and UCLA) and Wendell White (Redondo Union High and UNLV).

Some have attended an NBA training camp -- falling just short. Then there is McCoy, UCLA's all-time leader in blocked shots, who has 72 games of NBA experience spread among eight seasons.

The 14-team league, spearheaded by NBA Commissioner David Stern, is largely still searching for a way to manifest itself into a true feeder system for the NBA.

The D-Fenders are better off than most. They are owned by the Lakers and travel with a trainer and equipment manager.

There are some horror stories -- teams waiting for their jerseys to be washed -- all dependent on whether a reliable high school kid can be found.

Waiting for his luggage in Boise, N'Diaye talks of not having been home to Senegal in three years. Lasme, in Golden State Warriors gear retained from his six seconds of game action there, talks of seldom seeing his girlfriend. "It's tough, man. It's tough," Lasme says softly.

Most players are exhausted after a 6 a.m. roundup in Los Angeles.

Some grab food, a turkey sandwich from the hotel; the rest scatter for a quick nap. The shrieks of a fire alarm drill cut into it. Anyway, it's time for practice.

They shuttle off to Qwest Arena, a tiny downtown facility built with hockey in mind more than basketball.

The strategy is laid for the next day's game against the veteran Idaho Stampede. "If it's a pick-and-roll this side . . ." D-Fenders Coach Dan Panaggio begins.

"Then trap it," Chase finishes.

That's Chase -- a coach on the floor. The team's point guard and leader, he went to training camp with the Miami Heat and spent some time with the Utah Jazz last season. Listed generously at 5 feet 10, his size is an obstacle he's overcome at every stop -- college, the ABA, the CBA and here.

McCoy, 30, is first to enter the lobby for the trip to Friday's shoot-around. A maid mops around him.

Sometimes, when there are few fans in the arena for games, he imagines it packed.

An hour later, a lackadaisical shoot-around is stopped by Panaggio, a longtime coach who takes pride in having tutored at every level. He is part-time coach, part-time psychologist, full-time mentor.

"What kind of body language is this?" he asks his team, gathered at midcourt. "Am I asking too much? Do your jobs. If you don't want to be part of this, let me know."

These two games are a crossroads for his team. The Stampede is riding a 17-game win streak and has beaten the D-Fenders three times.

His players fall into five categories: Those who work hard, trying to reach the NBA. The talented player with character issues. The veteran in a holding tank waiting for his next call. And those either content to still be playing or simply not good enough for the NBA.

Meal. Nap. Ride to the arena. "Where's Abdoulaye?" Panaggio asks.

The center is running late and comes to the bus in sandals. "You are wearing sandals with no shoes," Panaggio says. "Do you know what the dress code is?"

He sends N'Diaye back to his room and tells him to take a cab to the game. The shuttle leaves.

"I hate to fine guys who can't afford it, but he is a repeat offender," Panaggio says.

N'Diaye is fined $25.

He arrives almost as soon as the shuttle does and heads to the court before requesting tickets. The trip is a semi-homecoming. He played at USC, but before that at the College of Southern Idaho.

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