by Duane Watson / @sweetswatson
Two weeks ago, Trey Johnson signed a contract with Angelico Biella that took him across the Atlantic to play professionally in Italy. It’s just the latest in the countless stops in the Jackson, MS, native’s basketball journey; Johnson has played for three colleges, two international clubs, three NBA teams, the Qatar national team and an NBA Development League squad.
Unfortunately, playing at the highest level of club competition in Italian professional basketball wasn’t Johnson’s childhood dream. It was playing at the highest professional basketball level, period—the NBA—which is why he sacrificed and endured a lengthy and uncharacteristic, five-season tenure in the D-League, hoping to get a call up to the big show… and stay there.
Up & Down, a documentary by Jeff Camarra, chronicles the 6-5 combo guard’s ‘10-11 D-League campaign with the Baskersfield Jam, and what the 27-minute movie may lack in production value and graphics, it makes up for on insight. Camarra and his three-man crew lived with Johnson in his modest accommodations for a week, documenting the D-League’s annual showcase, which pits teams against one another in front of NBA GMs, scouts and fans, in hopes of getting that coveted call up.
The impetus for the doc came by happenstance. “I read an article about players that the Knicks were looking at drafting and I came across Trey,” Camarra says. “This guy who went to college, didn’t get drafted, yet was the last guy cut three summers in a row by the Heat, Hornets and Lakers. It just kind of felt like one of the guys who never got a true shot.”
The first-time filmmaker however, felt Johnson did deserve that opportunity and was granted unfettered access to the league’s leading scorer: sleeping on his couch, documenting practices, games and conversations with Johnson’s family and agent to tell his story.
Those conversations are some of the most telling moments in the film. Particularly, when Johnson’s agent reassures him he has what it takes to make it and to continue on, stating, “We got other opportunities than $25,000 (a season).” But at that price and for multiple seasons, what keeps Johnson going? “You just play for the opportunity, in the D-League,” he says.
Waiting for that opportunity is not without sacrifice—away from his children and family and far from living the NBA lifestyle, is an exasperating waiting game.
As the film progresses, more signs of Johnson’s frustration with his situation continue to manifest. There are also brief sightings of Jeremy Lin and Antoine Walker playing at the showcase, both polar opposites, yet symbols of the promise and pain that the D-League provides. While Lin got the call up and leveraged his stellar performance into a lucrative multi-year contract, Walker is a cautionary tale, a former NBA All-Star who squandered his money and is desperately trying to get another shot (and paycheck) in the NBA. Both are examples of the fortunes and failures in the D-League where it can go either way—one on the way up, the other on the way down.
With Up & Down the observer gets an honest and informed look at the D-League experience and Johnson makes it abundantly clear which direction he hopes to be moving in.
Addendum: Up & Down has been doing the festival circuit, most recently winning Best Short Documentary at the Big Apple Film Festival. The film is currently in discussions to screen on the D-League’s official site, follow the film’s Facebook page.