parajumpers kinder All Ball Blog with Lang Whitaker
DES MOINES you bring a suit? Energy coach Nate Bjorkgren looked me in the eye, ready to passjudgment on my abilityto make the unprecedented leap from journalist to NBA Development League assistant coach. The room was dark except for a projector shining stats against awall. It was almost as if I was in aninterrogation room ina spy movie.
In four hours, the Energy would host the Tulsa 66ers in a game with playoff ramifications. At25 17, the Energy hada shot at winning their division. The last thing Bjorkgren and his team needed was a distraction on their bench.
The thing was, I honestly felt like I could handle being an assistant coach, at least for anight. I spent almost 15 years covering the NBA, and a lifetime playing and observing basketball at all levels. I coached a church league team for a few years and won a few titles by employing an aggressive zone defense and an offense best described as the best player take all the shots. chance to be part ofa real, professional game as a bona fide assistant, though? It was something I’d never considered. But itseemed like a great opportunity to pull back a curtain to a larger audience.
Honestly, I don much about the D League. My ignorance isnot born from some misguided elitism, though. I watch NBA games seven nights a week. I don’t have time to view much of anything else. I don in to college basketball games, either, or hockey or or With The Stars or or well, pretty much anything, at least from October through June.
And, so it was thata lifetime of accumulated hoops experience led me here, with an invitation from Bjorkgren and the D League in hand, to an undecorated auxiliary locker room in the basement of an arena in the middle of Iowa.
I was prepared. My suit hungin a stall just a few feet away. We had a video crew in tow to record the entire experience.
I was as ready as I wouldever be. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. This is Des Moines
Downtown Des Moines is a mixture of small town Americana and ongoing urban renewal. Old buildings along the banks of the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers are being repurposed into sun filled loft apartments. The hipsters are here, transforming long abandoned buildings into coffee shops, cafes and arts and entertainment spaces.
The economic backbone of Des Moines is a thriving insurance industry it is rated the third largest insurance center in the world. There are so many insurance companies downtown that running into Cliff Paul wouldn’t be surprising.
That not all Des Moines in known for, though. The exposed brick wall at Java Joe’s here is covered with photos of glad handing political figures, a reminder of the importance of the Iowa caucuses, the kickoff to the presidential race every four years.
The Iowa D League franchise was founded in2007, and in 2011 the Energy won a D League title. They play in the Wells Fargo Arena, a beautiful facility that holds almost 17,000 people. The Energy arewell supported they have set several attendance records, including drawing over 14,000 to a Finals game in 2011 andgenerally average several thousand fans agame.
Part of the challenge of life in the D League is that franchises are forced to endure an itinerant existence. Teams fly commercial, and becauseD League squads aremostly based in smaller cities, commutes usually require at least one connecting flight. (For what it’s worth, the players I spoke to were unanimous in their belief that nocommercial airplane seat should be able to recline at all.)
The Energy have offices at the arena, but because the facility is booked regularly for a variety of events, they can’t always practice there. On this weekend, for instance, they had to hold practice at Grand View University, a small school located a few miles from downtown.
I arrived in Des Moines on the morning of Friday, March 21, aday before the Energy were to playthe 66ers. When I finally found the gym at Grand View, Patrick Jacobson, the team’s public relations and marketing director, met me carrying an armful of Energy gear, which he dropped at my feet. If I was going tobe an assistant coach for the weekend, I was going to at least look like a coach. All I needed was awhistle.
The only people inside the gym when I arrived were Bjorkgren and forward Moses Ehambe. Pretty much immediately, Ehambe trotted over and vigorously introduced himself.
Bjorkgren stood a bit over 6feet, his shaved head reflecting the gym’s fluorescent lights. Because the Energy had finished a game just 12 hours earlier(a 129 128 home win against the Fort Wayne Mad Ants), Bjorkgren told me that the morning practicewould be a light one. The guys would get up a few shots and do some easy stretching. The sessionwould be about maintaining and recovering.
lot of our shootaround time and our practice time is more geared toward us, Bjorkgren said, our team, making our team right, making sure we know the plays, making sure we know what we’re going to do on defense. Yes, we scout the other opponent very much,
but it’s more of making sure our team is right just because of all the changes that take place. are three assistant coaches on the Energy staff (Bruce Wilson, Deane Martin and Tyler Marsh) as well as Dylan DeBusk, who is the basketball operations assistant. Once the team arrived, the five coaches spread out among the nine players and worked on shooting drills. A few players rotated near midcourt doing stretches with athletic trainer Keith Walton.
I knew a few names on the Iowa roster from their various stints in the NBA or at high profile college programs Curtis Stinson, Kalin Lucas, Glen Rice Jr., Austin Freeman, Josh Boone. I spent a lot of time talking to swingman Larry Owens, a rangy scorer in his fourth D League season. He’d had a few short trips to the NBA over the years, but for now he was in Des Moines hoping to uncover a path back to the NBA.
Bjorkgren had only recently found his way back to Iowa. Born in Storm Lake, Iowa, Bjorkgren had worked as an Energy assistant coach in their inaugural season. Last summer, Bjorkgren returned to Iowa to coach the Energy. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. world of the D League NBA established the D League in 2001, although it was initially called the NBDL. The league began with eight teams; today there are 17, with another coming next season. Fourteen of the D League’s 17teams are a single affiliate of an NBA team, which means they work directly with an NBA team’s front office and ownership. The Energy are one of the three D League teams that remain independent. As such, the Energy arealigned with five different NBA teams the Bulls, Nuggets, Timberwolves, Pelicans and Wizards. Instead of having one franchise to report to, Bjorkgren has to juggle relationships with five.
went to a number of different training camps, so I get to take bits and pieces of every NBA team that we’re a part of this year and kind of incorporate that into our system, said. year we were a one to one affiliate of the Golden State Warriors, so that when assignment players came down, I was able to run the plays that were part of Coach [Mark] Jackson’s playbook. So it made it easy for those assignment players. That’s how it prepares me as a coach: I get to see the ins and outs of the NBA and how teams handle things differently. One way the D League definitely is a minor league is the salaries. According to an agent I spoke to, the D League has three salary tiers: $25,500; $19,000; $13,000. On most teams, two players are paid at the top tier, two players occupy the second tier and the rest of the team makes the minimum. The per team salary cap in the D League is $178,000 per season, which is a little less than Brooklyn Nets center Brook Lopez makes for playing one NBA game. While all the D League players are provided with housing, transportation, insurance and a travel per diem, the financials are a sliver of even the rookie minimum NBA contract (which this season is worth a bit under $500,000).
just the world of the D League, Energy forward Othyus Jeffers said. know what you’re getting yourself into. We could fuss about the things the D League don’t have, we could say great things about the D League, but at the end of the day, it is what it is. You gotta roll with the punches. Everyone knows we don’t get paid. Everyone knows the travel is very tough. But you still have to perform. many players, signing with the D League is a calculated risk. Leaving for an overseas gig during the season is financially unfeasible due to the standard buyout figure in the D League contract, which is around $45,000, double or triple the entire value of most contracts. Players may hope to supplement their D League income by playing overseas after the D League season, butmany leagues run concurrently, making that impossible. If a player wants to make more money than the D League offers, hecould choose to pursue a gig overseas though with financial crises in many countries, basketball contracts aren’t as sizable as they were even a few years ago. Playing overseas also brings up the whole out of sight,
out of mind conundrum.