Hoop Dreams: Sleepless Nights And Homesick Hearts In The NBA

Since its inception, SLAM has approached the game and those who play it from a fresh, new angle that has kept the magazine and website the number one place for basketball fans for over twenty years. Unfortunately, due to a litany of circumstances, SLAM doesn’t always have the time, writers or space to capture every story we’d like to. Thankfully, publications like Narratively—a platform devoted to untold human stories—exist .

While most publications dedicate their All-Star Week coverage to today’s brightest stars (which SLAM will do as well!), SLAM and Narratively are bringing you four alternative basketball stories from around the globe.

The group of stories debuted this week represent a commitment to reporting and the telling of stories about players past, present, and future. They are narratives not about marketing or hype but about taking readers to courts around the world. It’s about giving readers fresh perspectives–even a group of stories directly from the players themselves. Narratively and SLAM are proud to present Hoop Dreams: Sleepless Nights And Homesick Hearts In The NBA.

Thank you to Ben Osborne and Pete Walsh of SLAM and Noah Rosenberg, Brendan Speigel and Garrett McGrath of Narratively for forming the best five-player lineup and cranking out a winning slate of basketball stories.

For more about Narratively, visit their site, Facebook and Twitter.

Scan the fondest memories of every basketball player in the National Basketball Association and you’ll see variations of the exact same scene: a bright-eyed youngster on a day with not a cloud in the sky, dressed in the latest athletic gear and dribbling a regulation basketball dramatically as the five seconds left on the imaginary shot clock in his head tick away.

Five. He is in perpetual motion, mimicking the moves of his idol player, stopping on a dime in the best sneakers his family could afford, making the rubber on his soles squeak before rising from the asphalt, hardwood or driveway pavement.

Four. He rises, almost in slow motion, powered by as much throttle as he can muster from his tiny calves and quads.

Three. He cradles the ball into his shooting hand and then launches a jump shot over the outstretched arms of his imaginary defender. The ball spirals from his fingertips in an imperfect arc.

Two. It holds there, an orb of resolute destiny, like a plume of cigarette smoke, before gravity seduces it downward into the cylinder.

One. The ball tickles the net just so, as if a light breeze had awakened it from a deep slumber.

Zero. Swish! It’s good!

The rush of that game-winning shot and the imagined roar of the crowd going wild has fueled the drive and dedication of every kid who’s ever dared to realize his dream of making it to the NBA. The thing about dreams, though, especially if they come true, is that they’re incomplete. Kids think only of the bright side; it never occurs to them that there’s even a remote chance of discontent in the professional athlete experience. But, just as sure as there are pros to being in the pros, there are some downsides to life in the League. Four current players—José Juan Barea, Dante Exum, Brandon Jennings and Shaun Livingston—talk about what they miss most about the simple life and why sometimes it’s a total drag to be a professional athlete in a league where everybody knows your name. These are their stories.

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European Vacation: Brandon Jennings

The pizza in Italy is very different from the pizza found in the United States. That’s one of the first things that Brandon Jennings noticed when he landed in Rome to play professional basketball for the Italian club Lottomatica Virtus Roma back in 2008. There he was, an eager and wiry 19-year-old a long way from the comfortable confines of Compton, CA, intent on proving that his decision to forgo the University of Arizona in favor of turning pro was the right one. Even now, as he’s reestablished himself as a premier point guard in the NBA, helping the woeful Detroit Pistons return to the glory days of Dennis Rodman and Isiah Thomas’ Bad Boys, Jennings, 25, thinks fondly of the wood oven-baked pies that pizzerias made with fresh tomato, basil, mozzarella and pride.

“I really miss the food,” Jennings says, as he’s getting ready for practice. “The authentic Italian food was awesome. I was eager to prove myself and get to the NBA but when I think about it and look back, I really miss that Italian cuisine.”

It was a turbulent time for Jennings. His story was used as a pawn in the media chess game for and against the NBA’s “prep-to-pro” policy, which prevented him from declaring for the draft right after graduating from basketball powerhouse Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Virginia, where he’d averaged 32.7 points, 7.4 assists and 5.1 rebounds a game. According to the league’s policy, which was implemented with the 2006 draft, Jennings had to be at least 19 years old and a year removed from high school graduation to enter the draft. So, instead of a year in college, he opted for a year playing professionally abroad.

“The only thing I missed out on by not going to college was probably the parties,” he says. “I mean, college can’t teach you about real life. I think that’s what I learned when I didn’t go to college. Once you get out of school, that’s when you got bills and life becomes real. The best part of skipping college was the fact of being a professional athlete. I was a professional. I was finally a pro. So that’s where my career started but also being able to take care of my family, I had a shoe deal over in Rome, so the opportunity was something that I couldn’t pass up.”

Had the teenage phenom become a star in the Italian League during his rookie campaign, he’d have been a trailblazer, a shining example for others to follow. But things fell apart. In 27 games, Jennings failed to live up to expectations, averaging a paltry 5.5 points, 1.6 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. All of the experts across the pond questioned whether he was skilled enough to warrant the Milwaukee Bucks’ use of their first round (10th overall) draft pick in 2009.

With so much to regret about the way he played that year, it’s surprising to learn that the only thing he laments is not fully digesting European culture.

“I felt like I was at peace when I was overseas,” says Jennings, who has seen his star rise significantly since leaving Italy. “I didn’t have to worry about family members or anybody asking me for anything. I was just living my life. The thing I most regret is not taking advantage of really experiencing and taking in the places that I visited while I was there. Greece, Turkey, Slovenia, all these different places. I wish I would have took it in more and really took advantage of it.”

For stories from J.J. Barea, Dante Exum and Shaun Livingston, click here.