Hoop dreams meet hoop reality

When three tall black men move into a rich, white Southern neighborhood, it's not a sitcom -- it's "Down Low," ESPN's minor-league basketball reality show.

Published April 17, 2002 8:00PM (EDT)

I live on Tradd Street in Charleston, S.C. -- perhaps the whitest, richest, most genteel stretch of pavement in all the South. So imagine the stir that might occur if three swashbuckling and terrifically tall black guys took up residence with a hulking Mexican fellow down the block. Suddenly, the Wentworths and the Ansons have plenty to chat about at cocktail hour.

Turns out it's just the National Basketball Association's experiment in the world of reality TV. You see, these young guns are all players on the North Charleston Lowgators of the National Basketball Development League, a fledgling minor league for borderline pro players. They're also stars of a new show on ESPN called "Down Low: Life in the D-League." It's "Survivor" with a full-court press.

There's no need for lame immunity challenges on this show; every day is a real-world fight to stay on the island. In one recent episode, the team faces its first roster change. Alone in spartan hotel rooms, benchwarmers express their anxieties about being cut. And when game time arrives, these players fret that they're throwing away their job security with every errant pass. Later, the camera is in the meeting room when the coaches finally release Chris Robinson, a starter with NBA experience and a bad attitude. Someone makes airline arrangements on a cellphone and he's gone.

In other installments, the Lowgators try to polish their game in front of NBA scouts, survive a low-budget road trip from hell and struggle with government bureaucracy to get Mexican center Victor Avila the correct working papers. And all the while they're playing ball day after day, trying to win games, stay healthy and get the hell out of the NBDL.

But does the show really capture the realities of the D-League? To satisfy my curiosity, I spent a few days trailing my new neighbors and the ever-present ESPN crew. I cruised the sidelines at two games, yawned my way through two morning practices and lurked at the edges of a few charged locker room speeches as the playoff-bound team limped through some late-season doldrums. All this to see what the life of minor-league ballplayers -- and the challenge of filming it -- is all about.

The Lowgators are a motley bunch of unrealized potential. There's Fred House, a vaguely goofy rookie straight out of college whose explosive game might be ready for the NBA if he could add more control to his arsenal. There's Galen Young, a multitalented forward who's still working to fulfill the prophecies of NBA success. There's B.J. McKie, an aggressive point guard with wisdom and poise beyond his 24 years. And there's Terry Dehere, the team's lone vet, trying to shoot his way back into the big time.

None of these 11 characters appears headed for marquee NBA stardom. None is a dominating big man or a dazzling scorer who will transform the game. They're here in the D-League because they've got an incomplete game right now. Most of them have the physical gifts and raw skills to take it to the next level -- a role-playing position with an NBA franchise. But they're not there today. And frankly, many of them may never make it. As good as they are, their lives are still up in the air.

Shaping this raw talent is the job of Alex English, a Hall of Fame scoring wizard and native South Carolinian taking his first stab at professional coaching. In his 15-year pro career, mostly with the Denver Nuggets, English made eight All-Star teams and posted 25,613 points -- which may well be more than the entire Lowgators roster will amass in the NBA combined. Yet despite his impressive playing résumé, English is well aware that he has a tough road ahead of him. "My goal is to be an NBA coach and I still have a lot to learn," says English. "I guess I'm in the same boat as the players."

It's not an easy job. In one episode, English walks down the aisle of the bus and hands his players copies of a book by legendary coach Phil Jackson. The book, he tells them, is all about building teamwork. A few players dive in, but many others turn to the camera and admit with a grin that they won't crack the spine. You get the feeling that some players have a far greater hunger to find wisdom, to win and to move on than others.

Filming all these ups and downs is a bare-bones squad of five -- two producers, a production assistant and a single camera crew. The crew looks like a group of guys you might see out on a public golf course or in a good steakhouse. They dress neat and casual and have the mannerisms of former jocks. But these guys are all pros with plenty of experience filming feature content for the NBA and ESPN. They're playing pranks one minute, and dissecting a vérité moment the next. They go wherever the players go: practice, the locker room, the mall.

For everyone involved, there's more work than play. Anyone who thinks ballplayers have ripped abs due to the grace of genetics should watch these guys work. What better way to start the day than with two hours of fast-break drills, five-on-five scrimmages and endless three-point shots? The sessions resemble a typical high-school practice, only here the sounds of swishes fill the gym and guys have to take care not to hit their heads on the rim. Scrimmages are heated, bordering on brutal. Everyone pays attention to the score. "It always gets aggressive," says House. "If you practice soft, then you'll play soft."

These guys work for their money. All $27,500 of it. Yes, that's how much a Lowgator gets for six months of ball. Most of the players could make more dough if they joined a team overseas, but they choose to suit up in the NBDL for the supposed visibility.

"The only way to get back to the NBA is for those people to see me," says Dehere, who came to the Lowgators with six years of league experience in Los Angeles, Sacramento and Vancouver, a solid perimeter game and a noticeable limp. "Right now, I need exposure. The money's not important."

That said, everyone playing ball in North Charleston has money on his mind. They're all aware what's waiting if they can take their games up a notch and crack the ultracompetitive 12-man active roster of an NBA team. These days, the minimum annual salary in the NBA is upward of $330,000. A 10-day contract in the league -- a common arrangement come springtime as players go down with injuries -- can pay nearly as much as a whole season in the minors.

It's hard to think of such riches back at the practice gym. After the final scrimmage -- the blue team wins! -- the trainer circulates through the stands, strapping and taping ice packs to shoulders, knees and other moving parts. The Lowgators slip on sandals and hobble back out on the floor to take 50 free throws before a film session begins. "People think the life of a ballplayer is all peaches and cream," says McKie. "But most of the time, it's just a job."

The team seems to practice in a different gym every day. Today, we're at a local Catholic school, and the film session goes down in a conference room complete with billowing flowery curtains and a three-foot statue of the Virgin Mary. Players file in to watch the team's lackluster second half from the game the night before. The camera crew kneels in the corner and pans across the players and coaches as they mutter and grimace. Coach English has some sharp comments about the team's poor play, harsh words from a guy who makes player personnel decisions. Someone kills the lights and players watch their miscues in silence. There's an awkward privilege to witnessing the moment and everyone in the room seems too consumed by dejection or anger to notice the cameras.

Somehow, the cameras catch many of these raw moments: the halftime pep talk that sparks a game-winning comeback, the shoving match at practice that demonstrates frayed nerves, the telephone call to the girl back home, the aside that speaks volumes. The crew is shooting constantly, logging hours of tape a day. The producers are constantly sifting through the footage and constructing story lines for each episode.

While I followed the team, it was clear that the Lowgators were in uncertain shape with the playoffs looming. Would the team enter the playoffs reeling? Or would they pull it together and end the regular season on a winning note? The crew filmed away, trying to capture the right footage to illustrate either scenario. The process may add a little gloss to the relentless and often boring grind of the season, but the show otherwise seems to capture the NBDL experience in its element.

Whether the players are at practice, napping at the hotel or racing carts through the local supermarket, the ESPN crew is a constant companion, quietly shooting away. They almost always have a camera running, ready to swing the lens in the direction of a developing situation. "If a camera doesn't catch it, it's gone," says co-producer Dion Cocoros. "We've got to stay on our toes."

In many ways, the games and the practices are the easiest things for the crew to cover. After all, the whole team is in one place at once and the focus is clear. But every day, the crew has to huddle up and figure out where the most interesting stories are developing off the court. Perhaps one player's girlfriend is in town for a day or two. Or another has a doctor's appointment to check out his knee. Or another is disenchanted with his playing time and is itching to speak his mind. There aren't enough cameras to cover them all.

"Down Low" isn't the only sports reality show on the tube. HBO ran a program last fall that tracked the Baltimore Ravens of the NFL through training camp. And ESPN has two other shows that track basketball teams: the Los Angeles Clippers of the NBA and the collegiate squad from St. John's University. Unlike these big-budget programs, "Down Low" is airing on TV while the tiny crew is still filming the action. And since the NBDL is so low on the sports food chain, the producers have gained more complete access than their rich cousins could dream of. The end product is a show that has a more documentary, less packaged feel than anything else of its kind.

In fact, it's a shame more people aren't catching the show, or the NBDL in general. Throughout the league, arenas seem to be dreadfully empty. At the second game I attended, the official attendance was 807, a total that must have included the hot dog vendors, the Marine honor guard and the three hip-hopping cheerleaders. Meanwhile, the show is televised at less-than-prime times. Typically, "Down Low" airs on ESPN on weekday afternoons and late at night -- great for college students and freelance writers, but tough for everyone else. Although the NBDL playoffs have just ended, the show airs through the end of April.

If you're not watching "Down Low," you're missing out on some unusually fine television. Plain and simple, the stories and characters are riveting. The first episode tracks Lowgator hopefuls during tryouts. Of particular interest is guard Tes Whitlock, a devoted but unsuccessful journeyman who hasn't been able to stick with a team, get health insurance or make a real living in five years. The competition at the guard position is particularly fierce and he seems to follow every good play with a bad one. After much introspection and nail-biting, the straight-talking underdog makes the team, for the time being. The episode ends with a triumphant Whitlock enjoying one of the perks of success: his first teeth cleaning in years. Not the usual crap you see millionaire athletes crowing about.

Frankly, "Down Low" is the first reality show I've seen that offers up this much reality. If the cameras go away, these guys are still there at the early morning shoot-around, still riding the bus to Greenville. At least that's how the players see it. "I don't change the things I say or try to candy-coat anything," says Young, as he gets worked over on the trainer's table. "I'm living my everyday life and the cameras just happen to be there."

Not surprisingly, the players say they enjoy watching the show -- and thinking about the recognition it affords. "I know the NBA guys and people all over get to see us, to see what kind of people and what kind of players we are," says House. "Plus, all the people who doubted me can turn on the TV and see that I'm really doing something with my life. People who thought Fred House would be in jail or with some dumb job can see me on ESPN playing professional basketball."

And playing it pretty well at that. Though the Lowgators might not yet be ready for prime time, there's no doubt these dudes can soar and ball. Unlike in the NBA, where the game often turns into a slow, complex dance of big men and outside shooters, the NBDL game is a frenetic track meet. On a bad shooting night, it might look like playground ball, but on a good night it looks like what basketball is supposed to be: a game with lots of transition running, aggressive defense and athletic players taking it to the hole.

In the end, the most compelling reason to tune in is to watch these men scrap for their professional lives. "It's a physical league and guys are hungry just like you. There's so much physical stress and mental anguish to get to the next level," says Young, who feels he's a consistent jump shot away from the dream. "Guys are hungry and competitive to get in here and then get out of here." With the regular season coming to a close, six players from the NBDL had been called up to play in the NBA. None of them were Lowgators.

I can't help but wonder which of these guys will reach the NBA and how long they'll stay there. Will any of them become rich and famous? And what will become of the others?

The players have no time or luxury for such questions. They have to show up at the gym every morning and take their shots and do whatever they can to get straight out of Charleston. "I don't have a master plan. I'll just keep working and waiting on that call," says McKie. "If it comes soon, it'll be good. But if I still need to prove to people that I can play the point guard position, that's OK. I'll come back here next year to prove it."

By Peter Flax

Freelance writer Peter Flax lives in Charleston, SC. His work has appeared in Men's Journal, Sports Illustrated Women, and San Francisco magazine.

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