By Seth Rubinroit, 13, Malibu HS
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Seth hopes to succeed Mitch Kupchak as the next Lakers GM.

The fame, the glory, getting paid millions of dollars to play a game you love. No wonder there are thousands of people competing for fewer than 450 jobs to play basketball in the NBA.

To find out how to get into the NBA, I went straight to the source at the Summer Pro League, or SPL, in Long Beach, where young players and NBA hopefuls gather to catch the eye of scouts. I talked to close to 100 current and future NBA players, and professional coaches and trainers, to find out the answer to the million-dollar question: How do you make it in basketball? They offered their advice to young players on everything from how much to work out to the importance of having a good agent.

When should kids start to play basketball?

It is best to start playing basketball as early as you can to have an advantage. Many basketball players at the SPL said they started playing competitively at about age 5. Memphis Grizzlies guard Dahntay Jones said he started playing at 7 or 8. But, there is still a chance you can make it into the NBA if you don’t play basketball early. Kendall Dartez, an NBA hopeful, didn’t play basketball until he turned 12. Even more amazing is that NBA legend Hakeem Olajuwon never picked up a basketball until he turned 15, and he is a future Hall of Famer. But the fact that he is 7 feet tall might have helped him.

Do short athletes have a shot at playing in the NBA?

Not having the right height to play your position will hurt your chances of making it, but you still have a shot. "You can look at it [size] as a problem, or as an advantage. I could be quicker than them, but I have to get off my shot quicker. I look at it as an advantage," said Mark Peters, a former UC Riverside player who grew up in Carson. At a "listed" height of 5’10", he is almost always the shortest guy in any game he plays.

Other people are tall compared to non-basketball players, but undersized for their positions. "You’ve got to go with the cards you are dealt," said Kareem Abdul Jabbar Jr., a 6’6" guard—tall, but not as tall as his dad, Lakers great Kareem Abdul Jabbar, a 7’2" center. There are ways to overcome your height. Jabbar Jr. has been playing in any league he can, including a stint with the Lakers Summer League squad, doing anything to get exposure. There have been a few really short players in the NBA including Mugsy Bogues, who had a great NBA career despite being only 5’3"!

What are coaches and scouts looking for?

Many players don’t pass the ball or play defense; they only try to score a lot of points. But that is not what scouts or coaches are looking for. "All the coaches and GMs want to see basketball played the right way. If you think you are going to come in here and be a one-on-one scorer, you will hurt your chances [of making an NBA team]," said Lakers assistant coach Bill Bertka. "If you are a point guard, they want to see if you can run an offense. If you are a two guard, they want to see if you can guard [shooting] guards and score. If you’re a center, they want to see if you have those skills."

How many hours a day should NBA hopefuls practice?

Jerry Dupree (right), a former USC forward, goes up for a shot at the Summer Pro League in Long Beach. To hone his skills, he practices 1,000 jump shots a day.
Photo by Seth Rubinroit, 13, Malibu HS

You need to practice a lot to get into the NBA. Exactly how much depends on who you talk to. Cedric Henderson, a Memphis Grizzlies forward, said he practices five hours a day, shooting close to 1,000 shots a day. Jerry "Trampoline" Dupree, the high-flying former USC forward, said he also shoots 1,000 shots a day. Dupree also added this advice, "You don’t have to shoot 1,000 in an hour. It could take like shooting in the morning, afternoon, and night just as long as you can get in the gym one of those times. You should shoot 20 shots on one side, 20 shots on the other side and build up, you know."

Bryan Finley, an American Basketball Association (ABA) sharpshooter, said, "I try to make 300 shots a day. Just ‘makes,’ so sometimes I’ll shoot 500."

"I practice basketball for about two or two-and-a-half hours a day," said Nick Vander Laan, the Golden State Warriors center.

If you get into the NBA, the coaches will work you hard. Lenny Wilkens, the New York Knicks coach with the most career NBA wins, said, "My practices are anywhere from two-and-a-half to three hours."

How important is working out?

It is very important to be strong. The small guards have to be able to handle contact when they drive toward the basket, and the big men have to be tough enough to be intimidating, and able to play against other big guys. "You have to be strong," said Bryan Finley, a guard for the ABA Long Beach Jam. "Weight lifting is just as important as practicing." So, how long should you work out? "I do athletic training probably two hours a day and then strength and conditioning for about two hours a day," said big man Nick Vander Laan, the Warriors 6’10" 249-pound center. How will working out help you get into the NBA? "People will see I’m in shape and ready to play," said another big man, former Pepperdine Wave Nick Sheppard, a 6’11" 265-pound center. What happens if you are a big man and you don’t work out? Well, how well would a fly do in a tornado? NBA big men have to go up against Shaquille O’Neal, who weighs more than 340 pounds! "He’s the biggest guy I’ve ever seen!" said Los Angeles Clippers center Chris Kaman, with a faint sense of fear in his voice. There is no way to get into the NBA without working out … a lot.

How can players prevent injury?

Injuries are the biggest problem for basketball players. An injury can take you from being the obvious first pick in the NBA draft to never being able to play again. There is no way to totally prevent an injury, but stretching may help. "You should warm up first, then stretch, then play the game, then cool down, and stretch again," said Gary Vitti, the trainer for the Lakers.

How dedicated do players need to be?

You have to spend hours and hours practicing. It’s a major commitment, and it helps to have the support of those around you, especially family. Joanne Jones, mother of Dahntay Jones, guard for the Memphis Grizzlies, said, "I didn’t miss a practice. I didn’t miss any of his AAU [Amateur Athletic Union] games. I never missed a game until he came to the NBA." Dahntay said: "My mom not missing a game built a support system that is near and dear to me." He added, "I am in love with basketball more so than women."

Is it hard to balance athletics and academics?

Just because you’re an athlete, doesn’t mean you can forget about studying. Yet when you practice basketball for hours and hours, you don’t have a lot of time to study. "You’re very tired from practice but if you don’t do your schoolwork, you won’t be able to play in the games. After practice, instead of just laying down and going to sleep, you gotta put in two hours of studying," said Bryan Finley, a graduate of Central Connecticut State University.

If a player strongly thinks that he is talented enough be drafted out of high school, shouldhe go pro?

Come on, this is a really "tough" choice. For these high school basketball stars who were interviewed in USA Today in April 2004, going pro was a no-brainer. Al Jefferson, a first round pick out of High School to the Boston Celtics, said, "You can go to college to earn a degree so you can make money or you can go straight to the NBA and get paid for something that you love." Hmm, let me think about that for about two seconds.

Josh Smith, a first round pick out of H.S. to the Atlanta Hawks, said, "If you need money to support your family, you can’t get it playing in college. College is great, you can get an education and room and board, but let’s face it, playing in the NBA is a great job." Yes, the NBA is a great place to make money. Dwight Howard, the first pick in the 2004 NBA Draft, is making $4.1 million. Even the last picks can make more than $300,000. Shaquille O’Neal makes a whopping $29.4 million.

Sebastian Telfair, a first round pick out of H.S. to Portland, said, "If I wanted to be a doctor or lawyer, I’m going to college. Fortunately, we’re talking about basketball, where we develop our talent at an early age."

Although the NBA is tempting, college has perks. Getting a college education will help you if basketball doesn’t work out, and the four years in college will help develop your skills, which will get you more money in the NBA. Shaun Livingston, who made the jump and got picked fourth overall by the Clippers, said, "(Making the jump) isn’t for everyone. You have to know yourself."

College basketball players practice even more than in high school. How do they keep up their grades so they can stay eligible to play?

"In college you’ll have a study hall where the coach will make you go to a classroom outside of school and just do your homework for like two hours and study for your tests," said Bryan Finley.

Joanne Jones, mother of Dahntay Jones, said, "Basketball is secondary. Dahntay was always an A student in school. He was able to play basketball because he got good grades in school."

What should I do to be prepared to shoot a game-winning shot?

The winning shot can be shot by anyone who gets open, as Derek Fisher showed in the Western Conference Finals when he hit a last-second shot to beat the San Antonio Spurs, and you better be ready. Many players practice shooting while another person counts down 3 … 2 … 1 … "Growing up as a young kid, I was thinking when playing on the playground about making the shot with the clock winding down. So, not a whole lot was going through my mind," says Keith Smart, a hero in the 1987 NCAA Championship game when he hit a game winning shot to lead Indiana University to victory. Cedric Henderson, a Memphis Grizzlies forward, fresh after making a game winning shot at the SPL, talked about what was going through his mind. "Just make the shot. That’s it. Get it up, follow through." In the NBA, when you shoot a big game-wi nning shot, millions of people are watching, and they will love or hate you depending on the outcome. But, no pressure.

How much should players "act?"

Acting is actually a big part of basketball. It happens all the time. When a player drives the lane, the player always tries to make the basket, then pretends like he got fouled so he can shoot free throws. Players also take phony charges, and argue calls that they know were their fault. Some players practice "basketball acting," and admit to using it in games. "I’m the type of player who likes to act a whole lot. You have to do that to get the ref’s attention. I try my best to get to the line at least 10 times a game," said guard Lennox McCoy, who caught the eye of many scouts at the SPL.

How can players market themselves to the scouts and coaches?

Talent doesn’t guarantee that you will make it into the NBA. Marketing yourself to the scouts and coaches is almost as important as having talent. The most basic thing you have to do is play in a lot of tournaments. "Try to get into every league and Pro-Am and professional league you can get into," said Mark Peters, the short guard who used to play at UC Riverside. Most players agreed that the Long Beach Summer Pro League is the best place to showcase your skills because there are so many NBA people watching the games. Last year, general managers Mitch Kupchak, Elgin Baylor, Isiah Thomas and Jerry West attended, along with coaches Rudy Tomjanovich, Mike Montgomery and Mike Dunleavy. There were also countless scouts. Plus, a lot of current NBAers play in the Long Beach SPL including Baron Davis, Bo Outlaw, and Sean Rooks.

"It’s always funner to play with the NBA guys because it’s where I want to be. So, we’re having fun out there, trying to make it fun, playing with a lot of enthusiasm, and showing the crowd a great game," says Jerry Dupree, a star in the SPL.

Another way to market yourself is to give videos of your games to scouts. Bryan Finley said, "I have a stack of videos and I always carry them in my car ‘cause I don’t know who I’ll run into, you know?"

Fred Smith Jr. of The Hoop Television Network, a basketball videotaping service, said the tapes help many players. "There have been kids that have received scholarships of over $100,000 based solely on our tapes of them, and players in the SPL who have gotten jobs paying big money based solely on our tapes."

Also, you can make a scrapbook of your stats, rosters, pictures, newspaper articles about you, and recommendation letters from your coaches. You can have a crazy hairstyle to get attention, talk to the media, get your name out there with scouts and coaches, and, of course, play as hard as you can.

How should players choose a good agent?

An agent is a very important person, so you can’t just let anyone be your agent. He is in charge of getting the most possible money for you, getting you endorsements, telling you where to play, hyping you and more. What should you look for in an agent? "I’m hands-on with my players. I go with them everywhere. If they’re playing somewhere, I stay with them the entire time. I make sure they’re taken care of. That makes it easier for them to trust me. For that reason alone, they never question what I tell them," said Ara Vartanian, an agent for NBA hopefuls Kendall Dartez and Curtis Millage. Another trait to look for in an agent is to make sure he is NBA-certified. NBA-certified agents are the only agents who can represent NBA players. They are screened, so you know someone is a real agent, not just a person trying to steal your money. Don’t just pick the first agent who talks to you. Make sure you feel comfortable with your agent, and make sure the agent is capable of handling your needs.

How do I manage my life in the NBA?

In the NBA, players need to handle their newfound fame and wealth. "It was an overwhelming experience. This is all under my name? I can do what I want with it? And we get another in two weeks? Overwhelming," Dwyane Wade, a Miami Heat guard, told the Los Angeles Times about his first NBA paycheck. The NBA put together the NBA Player Development Program to help players manage their lives. The program starts when you make it into the NBA with the Rookie Transition Program.

"The players have five days of sessions and meetings where they learn how to pick an agent, how to set up their financial aspects," said Dr. Yolanda Brooks, the senior director of Player Development. "They learn coping, stress management, they learn a bout the challenges of being a professional athlete, and they learn about image and etiquette."

The program continues helping players with anything they need including how to talk to the media, questions about finances, and more.

What if players don’t make it in the NBA?

"I will leave it in God’s hands." This sentence was echoed by way too many players at the SPL. In interviews with dozens of basketball players for this story, only a few had a plan for themselves if basketball doesn’t work out. If they don’t make it into the NBA, many planned to play in the ABA, other basketball leagues or overseas to make some money. The most determined players would try again to make it in the NBA.