Follow the Bouncing Ball

Cleveland’s Rock

Mario Zucca

The End of the Hoop Dream: A Journey to the Extreme Fringe of International Basketball

Fueled by desperation and long-shot hopes, a twentysomething huckster agent leads 10 end-of-the-line players on a European exposure tour. It could be their final chance at basketball glory, but will anyone buy what he’s selling?

Jon Solomon has the same birthday as Michael Jordan. “Do you want me to prove it?” he asks. He’ll pull out his passport if needed — anything to show that he’s not lying. Solomon will do whatever it takes.

It’s important to Solomon that people know about his birthday. He’s a high-octane huckster and a low-level basketball agent, someone whose very handshake inspires suspicion. But as much as anything, Solomon is a storyteller. And the story he tells most is his own.

“I was the real-life ‘Rudy.’”

“I took T-Mac to China.”

“I been to Vegas.”

“Did I ever tell you about that lady on the plane?”

This one is good, he says. It was 2011. He was flying from Dallas to Tucson when an older woman tapped him on the shoulder. “You’re the chosen one,” she told him, or at least that’s how Solomon tells it now, riding shotgun in my rental car.

Solomon is small and white, with the energy of a Chihuahua, a face that sprouts hair quickly, and a late-twenties paunch. It’s September 2014. We’re in Germany, flying down the Autobahn, trailing two vans full of American basketball players and a German coach named Hans Beth. We’re near the beginning of a journey through the fringe of professional basketball: two weeks, nine games, 10 cities. The players want jobs. Hans wants wins. Solomon wants all of that for everyone, plus something more — something that will end with him on a stage in Springfield, Massachusetts, accepting his induction to the Hall of Fame.

“You look at all the pieces,” he says. “This trip, the lady on the plane, same birthday as Michael Jordan. It might be in the cards for me to put a dent in the game.”

I first learned about Solomon on YouTube. He’d posted the rough cut of a segment that Philadelphia’s Comcast SportsNet had produced about his life, and the video felt more like a five-minute advertorial than a work of broadcast journalism. It begins with grainy camcorder footage of a scrawny high school basketball player. This is Solomon: an “underdog” running the floor, making a free throw, floating off the court on his classmates’ shoulders, all without explanation. Seconds later, Solomon’s voice comes in, booming impassioned platitudes about dreams pursued and obstacles overcome. It sounds as if he grew up in the Philly suburbs but took speech therapy lessons from rappers Freeway and Beanie Sigel. “I wanted to get better; I wanted to prove everybody wrong,” he says to the camera. “And I think it kinda has the same flow in this business.”

As the video rolls on, a few facts emerge: Solomon is a worldwide basketball impresario, founder of something called the Self Motivated Athletic Agency, and a dogged worker shown one moment leading aspiring pros through drills and the next barnstorming through China alongside Gary Payton and Tracy McGrady.

Solomon’s niche, I soon learned, is connecting overlooked American players to low-level professional leagues around the world. He says things like, “I gotta hit my Mongolia connect”; “Let me reach out to my man in Hungaria”; and, “Once you convert it to pesos, that’s a whole lotta bread.” He spends his mornings Skyping to Europe and his late nights texting contacts in Asia. “What I really want to do,” he says, “is take MJ to Dubai.”

The first time I met Solomon, in February 2014, he turned his video camera on me at the moment he shook my hand. “It’s for the reality show,” he said, as if that should explain everything. Solomon wanted me to follow him to Germany and Mexico, to Delaware and Taiwan. He spoke of a player with one leg and another with three fingers, of the world’s best dribbler and the world’s best dunker. “I got stories for you, dawg,” he said. “I got stories for days.”

Even as he boasted, something about Solomon was sweet. He never wanted to get off the phone. He always wanted me to listen just a little longer as he discussed his plan to change the game. I was fascinated by the circle in which he ran — a global network of vagabond ballers from no-name schools, barely earning a living to play in remote hoops outposts, subsisting on pirated DVDs and mediocre cheeseburgers. Solomon was a gateway to a little-known basketball underground, a world that exists in the space between ambition and delusion.

So I flew to Germany to follow one of Solomon’s exposure tours. And when I arrived, I found 10 American players wondering what the hell they’d gotten themselves into.

Those players had grown up with the dream of playing pro ball, and with the NBA out of reach, they’d heard it was possible to play overseas. But how? That’s where Solomon came in. Months before, he’d sent a mass Facebook invitation to “a few thousand players,” he said, including almost every outgoing senior at almost every college in the country — from high-major Division I all the way to NAIA Division II. Come to Newark, Delaware, it said, and try out for a tour of “serious basketball players” pursuing a “professional career.” Some ignored it. Players with good stats at good programs don’t need the unsolicited services of an agent they’d never heard of.

But what about the benchwarmers, the coaches’ scapegoats, the academic nonqualifiers? Solomon was offering them a chance. The details were vague, but still, it was something: a tour, an agent, scouts. The players had to cover their own travel expenses and pay $250 to try out, but if they could get there and prove themselves, who knew what might follow?

So they traveled from across the country and paid their fees to hear Solomon sell them a dream. About 50 players tried out. Seven made it to the tour, and they would have to pony up another $1,000 for airfare and $350 to help cover food, gas, and hotels along the way.1

Now, on a Tuesday night in a near-empty gym in Magdeburg, Solomon’s team is streaking up and down the court against a team of German pros. Each player has two weeks to impress a European club enough to get a job offer. It’s the second quarter, and the Americans, despite jet lag, are dominating.

“Good shit, baby! Good shit!”

That’s Brian Freeman. Six-foot-eight, nimble, and entirely unskilled. Three colleges in five years, from the Atlantic 10’s Fordham all the way down to D-II Bowie State. He’s an aspiring writer and a loner off the court, but during games, he’s among the loudest on tour.

“Move off the ball! Don’t stand still!”

That’s Nick Brown. Three years at Division II powerhouse West Liberty, then one in NAIA. Six-foot-seven, a shooter and a coach’s son — he’s already been named captain. Brown played a few months in Bolivia, which makes him one of three players on tour with prior experience in overseas leagues.

“Clap your teammates! Motivate positive! Don’t play shit ball!”

That’s Hans, the coach. German, middle-aged. Organized and efficient and prone to shouting. He rarely smiles, but when he does, it’s with his entire body and often in response to something he’s just said.

There are eight more players, from Karl Moore, a 6-8 power forward who averaged nearly a point per minute his senior season at Culver-Stockton College, to Sam Wallace, a 29-year-old 6-10 center taking a stab at a pro career. The group stays at budget hotels and often eats at Burger King or KFC. The gyms are tiny. The locker rooms are cramped and stale. The team has no official name. Solomon says they represent the Self Motivated Athletic Agency. Hans says they represent a German charity called Basketball Aid. The players say they represent themselves.

When the final horn blows, they’ve won, 108-51, a blowout by a group of misfits who’ve spent their basketball lives in search of a place on a cohesive team. Tonight, in this East German city, it feels like they’ve found it.

Coach Hans Beth addresses the SMAA team in a locker room in Heidelberg.

Jordan Ritter Conn Coach Hans Beth addresses the SMAA team in a locker room in Heidelberg.

If you start with the NBA and begin working your way down, you’ll find a basketball netherworld that is vast and multitiered, home to the rich and the underpaid, to outrageous talents and to barely mobile stiffs. Start with the Spanish ACB League, the best in the world behind the NBA. Then there’s the rest of the Euroleague elite: big-budget clubs like Besiktas in Turkey (former employer of Deron Williams and Allen Iverson), or the Greek club Olympiacos (onetime home to Josh Childress), or, down in Israel, Maccabi Tel Aviv, where Cavaliers coach David Blatt worked before Cleveland. In Asia, the Chinese Basketball Association lacks local talent but pays handsome salaries to marquee imports like Stephon Marbury and Andray Blatche. Bounce around the continent and you’ll find other countries that pay well like Taiwan, South Korea, and the Philippines. Down in Australia, American players can find decent money, a Western lifestyle, and no language barrier. Closer to home, the Puerto Rican league tends to attract NBA washouts. The same goes for moneyed clubs in Lebanon and Iran (where ex-Laker Smush Parker played in 2012).2

Then there are the hinterlands. American players earn money from Uruguay to Cambodia, El Salvador to Indonesia, in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Azerbaijan. In Europe, second-, third-, and fourth-division teams all import talent from the States. These teams pay — not much, but it’s something. Most of their games aren’t televised, and their crowds are sparse, but they cover their jerseys in sponsors’ logos and plaster their gyms with banner ads. This nets enough revenue to offer imports food and housing, plus $500 to $1,500 per month.

Overseas leagues typically restrict the influence that foreign players can have on the game by limiting the number of non-locals who can be on the court at once. This means that American players aren’t competing for just any roster spot. They’re competing for import spots, and most clubs expect them to be the best players on the team.

Here in Germany, Solomon’s team won’t face well-known clubs like Bayern Munich or Alba Berlin. Instead, they’ll play teams from the second through fourth divisions: ProA, ProB, and the semipro Regionalliga. After their dismantling of ProB Magdeburg, Solomon is brimming with optimism. “We keep doing that,” he says, “and all these motherfuckers getting jobs.”

At first, Solomon seems like more of a personality than a person, even though the basic facts of his life are unremarkable. He grew up 45 minutes outside of Philadelphia, where he warmed the bench at Hatboro-Horsham High, then again at Division III Arcadia. In college, he met Jason Hall, a talented player who was born with three fingers on each hand. Solomon worked with Hall as part trainer, part life coach, and part PR rep. “The three-fingered player was gonna be my first million-dollar ticket,” Solomon says. “He didn’t want to be famous though. That was the big difference between me and him.”

Still, Solomon followed Hall to Division II Kentucky Wesleyan, where they found a routine. Wake up, work out, rest, work out, repeat. “I saw them in the gym one day,” says Kwan Waller, a former Kentucky Wesleyan player who’s now on Solomon’s tour. “And Jon is just running around like crazy. Just sprinting everywhere, chasing every rebound, going full speed. I saw this passion in Jon. I swear I’ve never seen that before. So I’m like, Who is this guy? And how do I get him to start doing this with me?”

In Waller, Solomon found his muse. While Solomon is all careening, self-aggrandizing ambition, Waller is more contemplative and introverted. Both, however, were gym rats. Back in Philly they met Percell Coles, a former Cleveland State guard who had played in Ukraine and Estonia. Coles proposed a plan: Take a group of Americans to China and arrange games against local teams, with the possibility of visiting players getting signed by trip’s end. Solomon coached. Coles and Waller played. The team went 8-2. No players earned contracts, but Solomon relished the adventure. He had found his hustle.

Solomon returned to China in 2012, where he says he helped former UConn recruit Nate Miles earn a contract, and in 2013 he got a call from a Chinese businessman who needed help organizing a “legends tour” — a string of exhibitions featuring retired NBA stars. Solomon tapped his already vast collection of colleagues, acquaintances, and random business cards he’d coaxed out of strangers, and in short order he secured commitments from Tracy McGrady, Gary Payton, Jason Williams, and Bonzi Wells. “He was a wild, little crazy, wired-up kid,” says McGrady’s bodyguard, Harveaire Berrien, of Solomon. “But he handled his business. Everything was professional and smooth.”

Solomon came home with new contacts and newfound credibility. He was no longer just another huckster in a business full of them. Now he had a little clout and some connections to parlay. Now, he could say, as he did to me the first time we spoke on the phone: “You know that trip where T-Mac and Jason Williams and all them went to China? I’m the motherfucker who did that.”

Nick Brown listens on the bench as Hans addresses the team.

Jordan Ritter Conn Nick Brown listens on the bench as Hans Beth addresses the team.

More than a year after that trip to China, I’m wandering around Magdeburg with Solomon and Hans in search of a drink. The two met in 2013, when Solomon was on a similar trip. Hans suggested they run another tour together and split the responsibilities: Solomon would organize tryouts and recruit talent in the States, and Hans would pitch sponsors, schedule games, and coach once the team arrived in Germany. “Who you think could get a job?” Solomon asks Hans as we sit down at an outdoor café. Solomon may be the agent, but Hans has the local connections.

Hans goes down the list. There’s Karl Moore, the crafty left-handed power forward, and Nick Brown, the 6-7 shooter with Bolivian-league experience. With the right fit, Hans says, they both could play in ProA. A few others can play ProB, and some might manage to catch on in the fourth-tier Regionalliga.

Then, the rest: Springy but raw Brian Freeman, big but immobile Sam Wallace, and jump-shooter-gone-cold Fred Williams. “They cannot perform,” Hans says. “They have no chance.” It’s the fourth night of the tour, and already their head coach believes that these players have wasted their time and money by coming to Germany in search of a job.

“No chance at all?” Solomon asks.

“No chance.”

This dynamic — Hans saying no and Solomon begging him to say yes — has been simmering since the tour began. They have competing goals. Solomon wants to get players contracts and to film the whole tour. His ultimate plan, he admits, is to turn these trips into a reality show. Hans, meanwhile, has pitched the tour to sponsors as a way to support Basketball Aid. “It is for cancer kids,” he says.

Minutes later we ask for separate bills. The waitress drops them off, and Hans and I each pay our €4 checks. Solomon never ordered a beer, but the waitress brought him one anyway. He drank it without protest, but now he looks at but does not touch his bill, in shock.

“I can’t pay for this,” Solomon says.

“What are you talking about?” Hans says. “You drank it. You pay for it.”

They go on like this for a few minutes, until finally Hans throws down four more Euros. As we leave, Hans wags a finger at Solomon: “You pay me money. You owe me.”

Solomon looks down as we cross the street, back toward the hostel we’ve booked for the night. His body slumps. “I don’t have any money,” he says.

It’s true. Solomon has connections and passport stamps. He has ideas and desire and passion. But he has less than $800 in his bank account, he says.

This comes as a surprise. Upon meeting Solomon, it’s easy to assume he’s a scam artist. Yet con men, at least successful ones, have money. Solomon is broke. The tryout fees for this tour yielded about $11,000, he says, nearly all of which Solomon spent on tour-related expenses. Most agents earn commissions from their clients, but at the time of this tour, Solomon only represents one player with a paying job. He lives in a one-bedroom apartment with his mother in the Los Angeles suburbs. This is fine, he says. He just needs time to sell the reality show pilot. For now, he’s an incubating mogul, subsisting on hot dogs and chicken nuggets. Some meals, he eats only bread.

Hans would prefer that his partner have money. To be clear, Hans would prefer that Solomon have several things: decorum, calmness, humility. Most of all, Hans seems to want to be in charge. According to Hans, Solomon is “a child.” According to Solomon, Hans is “an asshole.”

Solomon’s flaws are out in the open. “He drowns you,” says Freeman, “in his own ambition.” Hans, meanwhile, presents himself as polite and exceedingly competent, a coach who deserves respect. Yet he sneers at dissent. He often cracks jokes at Solomon’s expense, and then he scans the room with a doughy smile oozing across his face, seeking approval. The players regard Solomon with kind bemusement. Hans scorns him with gleeful malice.

More than one player on tour will call Hans the best coach he’s ever had, but the German’s tension with Solomon has already threatened to derail the trip. “We’re trying to be professionals,” says Sam Wallace, the 6-10 center, after a Hans-and-Solomon squabble in a Burger King parking lot. “How we supposed to be professionals when the dudes running this thing act like little kids?”

A couple of days later, before a game against USC Heidelberg, Solomon calls a players-only meeting. Well, players, plus him, plus me, so it’s really an everyone-but-Hans meeting. They sprawl out across his hotel room, sitting on the two queen beds, the dresser, the floor. Solomon begins: “I just wanted to come in here and ask y’all: Do you have any concerns?”

Fred Williams, the struggling shooter, speaks: “Everyone in this room has the exact same concern. Are we getting looks from coaches? What’s going on with the contracts?”

When it comes to finding players deals, no one knows who should be doing what. Solomon hands out business cards and has in past years marched up to German coaches to call their best players bums compared to his own clients. Hans is less aggressive. He’s a coach, not an agent.

Williams’s question is a fair one. The players were promised a showcase in front of coaches and scouts. Solomon told them to book round-trip tickets but to be prepared to skip the return flight if they got signed. “I came here with the mind-set: I am not going back,” Waller says.

But we’re almost a week into the tour and it looks as if everyone will be going home when it’s over. No player has had a serious conversation with a team manager. “You just never know,” Solomon says. “The call could come at any time.” He pauses, then segues to the real reason he called the meeting. “And, you know,” he says. “As for everything with him—”

“Who’s ‘him’?” Freeman asks. “Hans?”

“I’m not naming names,” he says, though Hans is the only person on tour not in the room. “I’m just saying, if we beat this team by 50, I’ma beat his ass.”

A collective laugh ripples through the room. This seems like an empty threat, more of Solomon’s bombast. “Y’all’s relationship is interesting,” Williams says. “We see that. Truthfully, we don’t like it from either end.”

Solomon seems to consider this, the possibility that both he and Hans could be in the wrong in various ways. He nods, as if he’s carefully choosing his next words, then says: “He’s a fucking dickhead.”

Karl Moore jumps in. “This could come back on us,” he says. “If you get mad at him, and then you don’t film a game or don’t talk to a coach or something, that hurts us.”

“If you’re in a group and you see somebody getting picked on, you’re supposed to stand up for that person, right?” Solomon says. “Well, right now I’m getting picked on.”

This opens up another piece of Solomon’s story. Growing up, Solomon was, according to his friend Matt McCollum, “the worst basketball player I have ever seen.” He could barely dribble or make a layup, much less a jumper. Yet Solomon craved improvement. He worked a part-time job to pay for private lessons. “Everything was wrong with him,” says Sam Rines, Solomon’s former coach. “He was small, unathletic, and fundamentally unsound. But he wanted to be good. He was determined. He was obsessed.”

Solomon developed a jumper and a handle. He added muscle and quickness. He made the team at Hatboro-Horsham High School and would stay in the gym for hours each day, shooting until he was sore, working to earn minutes and success that would never come.

Many of those around him found Solomon’s tenacity hilarious. Teammates challenged him to do the “impossible sit-up” — defined by the premise that if you put a towel over someone’s eyes, then hold them down, they will be incapable of sitting up. Solomon took the dare. One teammate covered his eyes, then another pressed down on his shoulders. Solomon struggled to move, pushing with everything he had, and then his teammate released Solomon’s shoulders. Suddenly, he rose, the towel fell off, and Solomon’s face smacked right into another teammate’s naked ass. The boys howled with laughter.

There were countless humiliations. “He had to be one of the most picked-on kids in any school’s history,” says Solomon’s former classmate J.D. Hemminger. Yet Solomon stuck with basketball and somehow made the team at Arcadia. His college teammate, Eric Elliot, recalls one bus ride during Solomon’s freshman year when the team’s seniors asked if Solomon thought he could make the NBA.

“Anything is possible,” Solomon replied.

The seniors laughed. “Come the fuck on,” Elliot remembers them saying. “You really think you can make the NBA?”

Solomon looked straight ahead and repeated himself: “Anything is possible.”

Later that night, when Elliot was in the locker room, getting ready to head home, he heard sneakers squeaking in the gym. He walked in to find Solomon, crying as he ran suicides, all alone. Elliot told him to go home, but Solomon refused. He wouldn’t stop.

Now, sitting with the players in his hotel room, Solomon reveals none of this. After a life of being mocked, he refuses to project weakness or vulnerability. His fear has calcified into defiance. “He’s being an asshole,” Solomon says of Hans, “because I’m not being his bitch.”

Freeman stands, shakes his head, and walks out of the room. Other players follow, done with whatever this is, until eventually only Solomon and I remain. “That was good,” Solomon says. “I let them know I ain’t playing.”

That night in the huddle, out near half court, away from Hans and Solomon, Fred Williams speaks. “We control our destiny,” he says. USC Heidelberg is ProA — the SMAA group’s stiffest competition, on their biggest stage, at the end of a day when the entire tour has begun to feel like a waste. “This is our time,” Williams says. “Put everything else aside. This is us.”

Moments later, against high-level opposition, the Americans look like an actual team — communicating on defense, passing and cutting on offense, screaming for each other from the bench. Except for Tyler Burse. He has struggled since day one — missing jumpers, fouling without purpose, forcing shots. “FUCK!” he shouts after a miss, and the invective booms through the gym. As a German player goes for a layup, Burse swats down at the ball from behind, making light contact. A whistle blows. Flagrant.

“Fuck this bullshit!” he yells on his way to the bench. “I hate this European shit! They soft! In America, I would bust all their asses!” Burse was supposed to be the best player on tour. Both Hans and Solomon saw him as a future pro, a thick-chested 6-7 slasher who averaged 20 points per game at Tennessee Wesleyan. He could guard multiple positions and score from the post and the perimeter and all places in between.

Burse wasn’t sure if he could afford the trip to Germany; he made it here after his church took donations to cover his ticket. He clearly has the talent to play pro ball, but now here he is with a contract on the line, blowing it. When he reenters the game in the second half, things get worse. While trying to get around a screen, he hyperextends his knee. “Ohhh!” he cries. “I can’t play no more! Oh my god, I can’t play basketball no more!”

The injury turns out to be less serious than it looked, but watching him writhe and yelp on the floor casts a pall over his teammates. It dawns on them that this tour may not end like they’d hoped. They are thousands of miles from home, with no contract offers in hand, entrusting their futures to a man most of them met through Facebook. “It can all be over,” says Waller, “just like that.”

Some players are already thinking about what’s next. Before this trip, Burse had been considering grad school for physical therapy. Williams had interned at law offices and was starting to make plans for the LSAT. Brown dropped out of college for a short-term contract in Bolivia; he’s already wondering if he’ll have to return home and finish his criminal justice degree. Waller has been on four tours with Solomon. He’s done stints in Mexico and with the $100-per-game Lake Michigan Admirals of the Premier Basketball League. He believes he’ll someday make the NBA. But he’s wondering if this path — alongside Solomon — is the way to get there.

And then there’s Freeman. He dreams of becoming a screenwriter, but that can wait. “I’m not done with this game,” he says. But he hasn’t been a standout on tour. “I’m probably not going to get a contract out here,” Freeman says. “I’m fine with that. … This game can be the best thing that ever happened to you, or it can just be something you chase. And then someday you look back at it all and say, ‘Shit. Where did all the time go?’”

Solomon thinks Freeman is good enough to get a contract. Maybe not in Germany’s upper divisions, put perhaps the Regionalliga or some other market. He blames Hans for not inviting more coaches to games. That afternoon, Solomon calls another team meeting, this time to say Hans has failed to look out for the players. “We all came here to get guys contracts,” Solomon says. “I feel Hans’s agenda is not that.”

The players start nodding. They’ve played. They’ve won. They’ve proved themselves to be better than some Americans who already have spots on German rosters. But the trip is winding down, and right now, it looks like everyone is going home.

That night, at dinner, Solomon tells Hans he’d like to hold a meeting. Then, as Solomon and I climb in the car to head to the hotel, he becomes delirious at the thought of their impending confrontation. “Shit’s going down!” he says. I ask if he’s scared. “I ain’t scared of that motherfucker! I should just go straight to him — ‘I’ma smack the shit out you, Hans!’”

At the hotel in Wiesbaden, the players follow Hans and Solomon to a group of cowhide couches in the lobby. “Everyone came here for one reason and one reason only,” Solomon tells Hans. “That’s to get a contract. These guys have done their part. So you need to do your part.” Before the trip began, Hans sent an email to every coach in Germany, notifying them of the dates of the tour. In his mind, that’s enough. “This is not my job,” Hans says. “This is your job.”

“I try!” Solomon shouts. “And every time you tell me not to do it!”

Now Waller steps toward Solomon. He’s the only person here who has known Solomon for years. He’s seen him in fights. He’s seen him confused, scared, unhinged. “Be civil, man,” Waller says. “Be civil.”

Solomon is not civil. Standing up, he arches his back and points at Hans, eyes growing as he screams: “You’re not my boss!”

When Solomon quiets down, Hans looks up from his oversize chair and addresses the players. “I am not calling coaches for you,” Hans says. “I am not your agent. He is your agent. I am 100 percent happy with everyone on tour. I’m hoping coaches come to the next game. I have talked to coaches. No one has said, ‘I want to speak to this player,’ or ‘I want to speak to that player.’ I don’t want to force it.”

Solomon starts yelling: “Tell them the truth! This isn’t about them! It’s about Basketball Aid! Cancer kids!”

“If someone gets a contract,” Hans says to the players, “I am so happy. But Jonathan — he knocks on every door. He hands out business cards. People do not like this.”

“He’s lying!” Solomon shouts. “He’s lying, he’s lying, he’s lying!”

“Jon!” Brown says. “Talk like a human being.”

“Right now, Jon, none of us want to sign with you,” Freeman says. “None of us want anything to do with this.”

“I was thinking of ending this tour,” Hans says. “I was worried about ruining my name because of dealing with Jonathan. I am still here. I am still with everyone. I have trouble saying, ‘Take this player.’ That’s my name if you don’t perform.”

Solomon points at Moore. “Look at him!” he says. “He is dying for a chance. Dying! He’s doing everything right. He’s performing every single game. He paid to get here. They all paid to get here.” Solomon is shouting again, but now the players let him speak. “If you’re not on the phone talking about Nick, who’s performed the whole time, or Sam, who had a great game last night, or Karl Moore, who’s been great the whole tour, then what are you doing?”

The players wait for Hans to respond, and again he says that he’s not their agent but that he’s rooting for them and giving his honest evaluations to coaches. He repeats his concern that working with Solomon could ruin his reputation. As Hans talks, Solomon inches toward him, almost feral in his rage, until he’s standing directly before Hans with a raised fist.

Freeman and Wallace — the two biggest players on the team — move to separate Solomon and Hans. Finally, Brown, the captain, ends the standoff. “Let’s all come together,” he says, giving Solomon an opportunity to lower his fist. The team gathers in a circle with their hands in the middle. Nick motions to Hans to break the huddle.

“Team!” Hans calls.

“Ball!” they reply, and with that, the players return to their rooms.

A half hour later, Solomon meets Hans in the lobby to apologize: “Not for what I said but for the tone and the anger I used to say it.” Later, in private, Solomon is still high on confrontation.

“That shit was crazy, right?” he asks me. “You think he was scared?” Before I can respond, he answers his own question.

“Yeah,” he says. “I think he was scared.”

Hans Beth coaching the SMAA team in Heidelberg.

Jordan Ritter Conn Hans Beth coaching the SMAA team in Heidelberg.

Hans and Solomon don’t make up, but they move on, and before long the players notice a change. Everywhere we go, Hans is constantly on the phone, gauging possibilities, offering scouting reports, and seeking referrals. Interest is growing. Perhaps contracts are coming soon.

With four days left on tour, the team’s route doubles back toward Berlin, stopping to play in three cities along the way. Hans keeps the phone glued to his ear as he drives. The requests continue: for game tape and highlight reels, for general managers to talk with players, for wings who can rebound and for bigs who can guard the 5 but play the 4.

After we arrive at a hotel near Mainz, Hans calls Brown, the sharp-shooting Bolivian-league veteran, down to the lobby. A third-division team needs an import who can play both forward spots. This is the chance he’d hoped for. But there’s one hitch. “This coach,” Hans says, “he says he has no money. He can offer a shared car, one meal per day, and a shared apartment. But no money.”

Nick sits, mouth flat, eyes shrinking. No money? He’s here to become a professional basketball player. He wasn’t planning to get rich, but still — nothing?

“What should I tell them?” Hans asks. “Are you interested?”

Nick takes a quick breath: “I’m interested.”

That night, the first hard offer comes. It’s for Wallace, the big man — $750 for a four-week tryout, then $900 a month if he makes the team, plus a shared apartment, a shared car, and three meals per day. Wallace is the oldest player on tour, a Brooklyn native who walks slow and talks slower. Hans thinks he’s lazy. Solomon thinks he’s entitled. But he’s skilled and strong and he’s played well enough to earn a chance. Yet it comes with a warning: For a 29-year-old from Division II Elizabeth City State, this is about as good an offer as he can expect.

Wallace turns it down. He says he has to return to New York, where his mother says she needs him. “You came here to get a chance, dawg,” Solomon says later that night. “You’re gonna be making a huge mistake if you say no to this. You’re 29 years old. You’re not getting many more chances.”

“You keep talking age, age, age,” Wallace says. “I got boys my age getting jobs. I got boys with good agents getting jobs that pay serious money. I got a boy in Puerto Rico—”

Here Solomon interrupts: “They want NBA on the résumé in Puerto Rico.”

“He ain’t been in no NBA.”

“He’s probably Puerto Rican then. So he’s not an import.”

“He’s half–Puerto Rican.”

“See!” Solomon claps his hands. “I know the way this business works. You guys hear stories from your boys, talking about crazy money, saying you can get on, and it ain’t like that. If you could really get on, you wouldn’t be here.”

“I was hearing about Korea,” Wallace continues. “The KBL. Crazy money over there.”

“KBL?” Solomon says. “You ain’t playing in no KBL. I don’t sell nobody a pipe dream. That’s a pipe dream.” He knows the market. He knows Wallace’s value. “There’s other guys on this tour who would kill to be in your shoes,” he says. “They would do anything for an offer, and you’re sitting here about to turn one down.”

One of those guys is Karl Moore. He’s been the best player on tour. He gets high-quality shots against defenders big and small. He runs the floor and finishes in traffic. He seems to get better every game. He has a daughter named Heaven and a quiet certainty that someday he’ll make the NBA. A pastor once sent him a text message predicting he would begin his career in Europe before ascending to the league. “A prophecy,” Moore calls it. But with two days left on tour, he still hasn’t gotten an offer.

When we head to Kaiserslautern for the second-to-last game, Hans finally pulls Moore aside. He says that a third-division team from the southwestern corner of the country needs a 4 who can score, rebound, and defend. Tonight, the GM will be in the stands to scout Moore.

He dominates. He gets a steal and goes coast to coast for a bucket, plus the foul. He finds cutters from the high post. He throws a bounce pass from half court in transition that hits Burse, perfectly in stride, for a dunk. The Americans win — in overtime, at the buzzer, on a tip dunk by Freeman. Afterward, Moore walks away from the celebration and asks me: “Did you see him? Did he see me? Do you think I played good?”

After the game, the GM meets with Hans, and after about 15 minutes they invite Moore to join them. He sits with them in a university classroom, knees scraping the desk attached to his chair. “I have a good feeling about you,” the GM tells Moore, as Hans translates. “I look in your eyes and I see something good.” They want him — at least for a tryout. They can offer an apartment, a car, and three meals per day. For the four-week trial period, they’ll offer $750. If he makes the team, they’ll pay $1,000 a month. It’s not a very good team, and it’s not a lot of money, but it’s something.

An hour later, back in the hotel lobby, Hans mentions one other issue. Typically, an agent receives 10 percent of a player’s salary. At this level, teams often pay this fee, but sometimes it comes out of the player’s pocket. When they were negotiating in German, Hans told the GM that the team wouldn’t have to pay Solomon. Solomon never agreed to this — Hans just made the offer.

“So,” Hans says, “I will let you two figure that out.”

Solomon nods. Moore earned this opportunity, but Solomon put him in a position to get noticed. As an agent, Solomon earned his 10 percent. Yet now, Solomon makes no attempt to fight for his cut. “I mean, Karl’s got a daughter,” he says. “I ain’t trying to take no money from a man like that.”

After Hans and Solomon leave, Moore stays in the hotel lobby, not quite ready to go to bed. When he joins his new team, he’ll be earning poverty-level wages and playing for a losing club in a third-tier league. He’ll be far from his daughter and everyone he loves. He will just barely meet the definition of a “professional basketball player.”

He leans forward, his short braids swaying as he shakes his head. “I can’t believe it,” he says. “It’s like a dream come true.”

Karl Moore and Hans Beth after Moore signed with Saarlouis Royals.

Viermalzehn Karl Moore, right, and Hans Beth after Moore signed with Saarlouis Royals.

More good news. The team that had offered to sign Brown for room and board but no salary has decided to pay him: a few hundred dollars for the tryout and a few hundred more per month if he makes the team. We roll into Berlin, ready for the final game, against a fourth-division team called Lokomotive Bernau. “Last one,” Waller says before tipoff. “Last dance.”

“Damn, this is probably the last game of my career,” Burse says. He laughs. “I hope not, but shit.”

He’s not exaggerating. For some of the players on tour, this is how their basketball lives end: not at their college senior day or an NBA retirement ceremony, but on a Wednesday evening in a Berlin suburb, with the teammates who’ve beaten them out for jobs, wearing jerseys that bear the logos of a two-bit agency and a charity they’ll likely never hear of again. Their dreams have been fading slowly. Here, they finally die.

Sam Wallace, who turned down his offer; and Brian Freeman, who questioned how long he would be willing to chase a contract; and Tyler Burse, who days ago lay screaming on a hardwood floor, will all go home. So will four others.

Kwan Waller will stay. Hans has spent the last two days calling more than 10 teams, asking if they have a spare room, a budget for food, and if Waller can stay and practice with them for free. Twelve hours before the scheduled flight home, Hans finds a taker. When everyone else disperses, Waller will stay right here, on a practice contract with Lokomotive Bernau. But after three months he’ll still have no paying opportunities. He’ll decide to come home. In summer 2015, he will follow Solomon back to Germany, and this time he’ll earn a contract with an English team.

Nick Brown will stay. Tomorrow he’ll board a train to Recklinghausen, where he’ll join Citybasket. In a week, they will cut him. The next week, he’ll go to a fourth-division club that will offer him a roster spot but nothing else — no money, no apartment, no food. He will decline and come home to finish his degree and figure out what’s next.

Karl Moore will stay. Tomorrow he’ll get on a train to Saarlouis, where he’ll join the Royals. He will earn a roster spot and go on to average 16 points and six rebounds, good enough to hope that he might sign a better contract next year. About 50 players tried out for Solomon’s tour. Ten made the team. Only Moore earned a steady job.

But when the final game tips off, no one seems disappointed. These are their last moments together, their final romp through a mostly empty German gym, the last chance to indulge their dream. During warm-ups they throw lobs and dunk with delight, and once the ball is live they play loose and fast, cruising to an easy win. Afterward, they drape their arms around each other for a final team photo, and when they walk to the locker room, Moore, the tour’s lone success story, asks aloud, “Is this the part where we get our money back?”

They laugh. “Hell yeah,” Burse says, but there are no refunds on spent ambitions. Solomon collects the uniforms to use for another tour, with another group of pro-hoops hopefuls eager to play basketball and dress-up in pursuit of a bare-bones contract. A trip to Taiwan is coming soon. In the coming months he will shift his attention away from tours and toward staging stationary tryouts that feature more players and fly in coaches from out of town. More than a dozen clients will earn jobs from a tryout he’ll run in Mexico. Five more will get signed from a camp he’ll organize on his next trip to Berlin.

But none of that matters now. For now, for these players, it’s time to go home.

Just before his flight back to the States, Solomon tells me one last story.

“Listen to this shit, dawg.”

This one takes some imagination. It hasn’t happened yet, but it’s coming, he says. First he’ll finish this tour. Then he’ll sell the pilot for the reality show. With enough invites, enough tryouts, enough tours, Solomon believes he’ll redefine the way talent gets discovered. “The game,” he says, “will be forever changed.”

And then, years down the road, he’ll get a call from the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. They will want to induct him — not as a player or coach but as a contributor to the game. “You know you can get it in that way, right?” he says. “All you gotta do is put a dent in the game.”

So he will fly to Massachusetts and he will stand at a lectern and speak. “All my coaches, all the dudes from my teams who made fun of me, all them cats who ever did me dirty — I’m putting all of ’em right there on the front row,” Solomon says. Anyone who abused him or doubted him, who made him feel inadequate. With the rest of them, right there, will sit Hans.

Solomon will go down the row. One by one, he’ll call them out: “I’m blasting all them cats.” He’ll mock them for the way they mocked him. “You made a mistake,” he’ll say, and now they’ll laugh because they’ll know he’s right.

In truth, Solomon isn’t cynical enough to run a scam. None of the players say they regret going on his tour. He doesn’t prey on their dreams. He dreams along with them, only harder. This is why his teammates mocked him when he tried out for varsity, and why his contemporaries do the same when he talks about his schemes. He fails to grasp how frightening it is to try.

If Solomon’s fantasy sounds familiar, it should. In 2009, when Michael Jordan was inducted into the Hall of Fame, he did the same thing. He was at turns charismatic and bitter, an outsize hero made impossibly small. Solomon watched that speech. He loved it. And did he mention they have the same birthday? February 17. Jordan was born in ’63, Solomon in ’86.

“Dawg,” he says. “That’s 23 years to the day. 

Filed Under: International Basketball, Professional Basketball, International Basketball Agents, Tracy McGrady, Stephon Marbury, Gary Payton, German Basketball, European Basketball, Euroleague Basketball, Jon Solomon


Jordan Ritter Conn is a staff writer for Grantland. He wrote The Defender: Manute Bol’s Journey from Sudan to the NBA and Back Again, a multimedia e-book published by The Atavist.

Archive @ jordanconn