The Original Moneyball
The story of Desmond Ferguson’s relentless pursuit of the NBA dream.
But in his waking hours Ferguson helped the Titans advance to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, two years in a row. After failing to reach the Tournament in its previous 17 seasons, it was tremendous accomplishment for the small program.
When Ferguson graduated, he left Detroit as the only player in its history to make at least 70 three pointers in three seasons and also set a single-game conference and school record with 10 threes in his final college game.
In October of 2000, at the age of 23, his professional career began. His first team took him to Holland, his next to Italy and then another to the Philippines.
“I was basketball for hire,” he says. One team to the next, jersey after jersey, coach after coach. Never staying for more than a season with anyone.
“You learn to accept it,” he says. “I’d miss my family, my friends, and just being home. But then you remind yourself it’s a job. You need to get that pay check, so you put your head down and go to work.”
In 2002, Ferguson finally found himself close to home, playing for the Flint Fuze of the now-defunct Continental Basketball Association.
His desire to reach the NBA still shook him to the core but the glamor of playing professional basketball had begun to wear off; replaced by the realities of jumping from one minor league to the next.
Ferguson went on to put up strong individual numbers with the Fuze and attracted the attention of The Sporting Al Ryadi Beirut team in Lebanon.
What seemed like an opportunity to reach a bigger spotlight, turned out to be a curse.
When he arrived in Lebanon he found out his spot on his roster was not guaranteed. The team wanted Ferguson to compete for his place against two other players they had brought in. Knowing this was not what he had agreed to, he left. When he returned to America, he was told he was ineligible to play basketball. In order for him to play in the CBA, the team from Lebanon would have to pay the $10,000 required to buy him out of his original contract. They refused.
Determined not to give up hope he flew to teams in China and Portugal, only to learn the presiding body of USA Basketball would not allow him to sign anywhere until the debt was settled. For the first time in his career, Ferguson had nowhere to go.
“I was stuck,” he says. “No matter what I tried to do, I couldn’t make anything work. I started to question myself, my future.”
For the next six months, Ferguson remained in the dark. The game he loved ripped from his hands.
His face hardens as he reflects back to what he describes as one of the darkest periods of his life.
He tried other ways to make ends meet. He worked as a barber, he made bootleg CDs, he even spent one day as a door-to-door salesman.
“My career felt like it was going backwards,” he says. “I felt like I was disappointing my family, disappointing myself.”
Six months later, he got another chance.
With one of their key players sidelined with an injury, Ferguson was brought in as a replacement for the CBA’s Rockford Lightning. With the desire to prove himself burning stronger than ever, he put up the best individual performance of his career, scoring 50 points and setting a league record of 13 three-pointers in a single game. As he sat in the locker room afterward, reflecting on the events that had transpired, he said to himself, “If I can’t make it to the NBA after this, I’ve got no reason to play anymore.” The next day he got a call from his agent.
“You’re working out for the Portland Trail Blazers in two days.”
The try out lasted two days, with four players brought in, each competing for the same spot. On the final day, with the management and coaching staff watching on, they had the four men play a game of two-on-two. First team to seven wins.
For Ferguson, this was it. All that was standing between him and his dream was three men. He took the game over. Scoring five of the seven points, including the final basket to seal the victory.
The coaches retreated back to their office and shut the blinds to discuss their next move in privacy. They didn’t need the seclusion, everyone in the gym knew what their decision would be.
Ferguson remained on the court, shooting jumper after jumper. He moved methodically, his body slowed by physical exhaustion and nervous anticipation. When the general manager finally approached him, he changed his world with one sentence.
“Welcome to the NBA.”
Ferguson proved to be a good fit on the Portland roster and the team signed him to a second 10-day contract. If they qualified for the Playoffs, his contract would be extended for the rest of the year.
As end of the season loomed, the team found themselves quickly falling out of Playoff contention. They finished the season in 10th place. They would miss the Playoffs for the first time in 21 years.
That summer, as he worked out for his return to Portland, NBA commissioner David Stern was finalizing plans for his league’s newest team, the Charlotte Bobcats. As part of their transition into the League, they held an expansion draft, a chance to hand-pick players from other rosters and build their team. With one of their final picks, they chose Ferguson.
His cell phone quickly filled with congratulatory messages, but he knew better. The Bobcats had drafted him knowing his contract was not guaranteed. The team never made contact with Ferguson. Just as a lifetime of practice and dedication had brought him his dream, one boardroom decision had made it disappear.
Dressed in a gunmetal grey sweater and matching slacks, Moneyball keeps his eyes transfixed on the basketball court. His fellow Rainmen are playing host to the Quebec Kebs. An ankle injury keeps his body confined to the bench but his mind is running up and down the hardwood. His body reacts to the action on the court, as if he can feel the game in his bones. One of his teammates dunks the ball and he leaps out of his seat, momentarily letting the joy of the game defeat the pain in his body. His voice travels forward, instructing his teammates, sharing what his journey has taught him.
This season will be his last. His career arc having followed a path that’s more common than those often celebrated. Despite how quickly his NBA dreams faded, he achieved what so few do. His relentless pursuit to the top of the sport took him to the far corners of the world, it made him question himself, question his abilities and question the realities of being a professional athlete on the fringes of success.
He views the men on the court as “the best blessing sowed upon me. They are lifelong friends.”
“It’s amazing what the game can do. It can bring people together; make them forget about their trials and tribulations. It can give hope to the kids that need it most. If I can reach out to one kid and give them that sense of hope, it can touch them for the rest of their life. That’s a powerful thing.”
As the halftime buzzer rings across the arena, Ferguson heads toward the locker room. Laughing with his teammates, he extends his arms upward and a sea of waving hands reach over the railing. As he disappears into the darkness of the tunnel, one of the young fans rejoices from his encounter. He puts his elbow in front of his body and arcs an imaginary shot into the air.
With his playing days behind him, Ferguson now lives in Lansing where he’s the head coach of boys varsity team at Everett High School, his alma mater. He also owns and operates an athletic apparel company: Moneyball Sportswear.