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Redemption and Last Chances at NBA Summer League

For Adam Morrison, Hilton Armstrong, and David Harrison, the long road back to the NBA begins in Las Vegas.

Adam Morrison

The NBA’s logo was everywhere last week in Las Vegas. Outside the Thomas and Mack Center, it was painted on a giant balloon — plastered across canvas, blown up by hot air, it was a hollow welcome to all visitors. In the gym, it was on posters and printouts, floors and backboards, socks and jerseys, headbands and Spaldings. If you went to the bathroom, you passed a few logos on your way to the stalls. If you took a stranger’s business card, you saw Jerry West’s silhouette next to your new friend’s name and number.

It was all quite helpful. When you’re sitting amid a sea of half-empty seats, watching a steady stream of turnovers and missed shots, and you’re trying to figure out why that guy at the free throw line looks vaguely familiar, it’s good to be reminded that this is an NBA production. Welcome to NBA Summer League: Where a Reasonable Facsimile of “Amazing” Happens.

The event is part debutante ball, part class reunion, and part industry convention. The two gyms — Thomas and Mack Center and the adjoining Cox Pavilion — are filled with scouts and agents and coaches and bloggers, as well as a smattering of paying, hoops-addicted fans. It’s a place for hope (Portland draftee Damian Lillard, who averaged 26.5 points in four games, inspired plenty of that) and for stirrings of regret (I overheard one scout tell another, “Now is when everyone starts saying, ‘How’d we miss on that Jeremy Lamb kid?'”). Yet the competition itself feels like a sideshow, something to fill the time between Mark Cuban sightings, Harrison Barnes autograph sessions, and the swapping of Dwight Howard rumors. “It’s a basketball bubble here,” says Michael Goldberg, director of the National Basketball Coaches’ Association. “Everyone’s here — NBA people, D-League people, overseas people. It’s the past, the present, and the future of the game, all in one place.”

There’s plenty to see. You can watch Sam Cassell stalk the sidelines in a polo and cargo shorts, yelling and pleading and instructing, and looking like he could either lead his own NBA team someday or become the coolest AAU coach in history. You can bump into Norris Cole wandering the halls in his “Miami Heat: NBA Champions” cap. You can listen as a grown man walks past a 6-foot-11 athlete, then turns to his friend and says, “Oh my god, dude. That was Dexter Pittman.” You can see scouts researching prospects on Wikipedia, agents asking about the logistics of acquiring foreign passports, and kids begging for autographs from players they can’t name.

It’s a place for work, too. If you’re a GM looking for a 12th man, this is the place to start. If you’re an Italian league coach searching for a talented but undersize big man to carry your team to the Euroleague Final Four, this is where you find him. And if you’re an NBA executive looking to hire a low-level scout or an assistant video coordinator, there are dozens of candidates milling about just behind the baseline. “You can’t walk anywhere without someone coming up to you who wants a job,” says one NBA assistant coach. “They’ve got a scouting service or they’re trying to get into coaching or maybe they’re unemployed, saying, ‘I’ll do anything — just give me a chance.'”

Chances. Like everything in Vegas, that’s what this is about. For fans, it’s a chance to see lottery picks play their first games in NBA (practice) jerseys. And for players who aren’t under contract, it’s a chance to earn a spot in the best league in the world. Few will make it. Though players spend the week wearing the NBA logo, summer league still feels like an elaborate game of dress-up, just another Vegas fantasy to be entertained and then forgotten. That’s why press row is filled with scouts and agents from across Europe, ready to comfort players NBA teams will never sign, promising minutes and money in Italy, Greece, or Spain. Says Milton Lee, general manager of the D-League’s Springfield Armor: “A lot more guys here are going to end up playing in our league than actually playing in the NBA.”

But for some, the D-League won’t suffice. They’ve spent time in the NBA, followed by time overseas. They’re pushing 30. They’ve considered quitting the game for good. They’re guys like David Harrison, who’s just back from China, talking about his last chance and throwing around the word redemption. Or Hilton Armstrong, recently finished with a season in France and happily counting his euros, but eager to reclaim a spot in the league. And, of course, there’s Adam Morrison, now in the post-“bust” phase of his career, making everyone remember why they loved him in the first place.

All of them are here, playing for a second chance. They know this event is a minor diversion on the NBA calendar. But for them, it could be the most important week of the year.

Down in the Cox Pavilion basement one afternoon, David Harrison steps to the free throw line of a UNLV practice court, his Mavericks jersey clinging to his chest. As Harrison shows off his high release and soft touch, shot after shot drops through the basket. He walks off the court, smiling. “I can shoot now,” he says. “Could never shoot when I was in the NBA.”

Before the 2004 draft, ESPN.com’s profile of the Colorado center said, “His maturity level and dedication to the game are big, big issues for scouts.” But, 7 feet tall and built like a grizzly, Harrison had a chance to become a formidable inside presence. The Pacers selected him with the last pick of the first round, no. 29 overall.

He averaged 18 minutes a game as a rookie, 15 the next year, and eight the following season. The lack of time tormented Harrison. For him, self-worth and athletic performance had long been intertwined. That lesson came from his father, former NFL lineman Dennis Harrison. If David lost, he got a whooping. If he won but played badly, there’d be a whooping all the same. “I love my father,” he says, “but things between us — they weren’t good.”

Rather than rebel against those values, Harrison internalized them. Competition became his drug. “It’s how I managed that dark side,” he says. “I always needed that release.” He continues: “Sitting on the bench in Indiana, I wasn’t getting to compete. I lost all of that. I started looking for something else.”

Marijuana did the trick. Days would pass with Harrison sitting at home and smoking, not wanting to ever leave the house. Still, he got out from time to time. When teammate Stephen Jackson fired a handgun outside an Indianapolis strip club in 2006, Harrison was there. Earlier in his career, Harrison was involved in one of the ugliest moments in NBA history. He was charged with assault and battery for punching a fan during the 2004 Malice at the Palace brawl between the Pacers and the Detroit Pistons. In January of 2008, he was suspended for five games after failing a random drug test. After the season, he went to drug rehab on league orders.

On the first day, Harrison stood to announce who he was and why he was there. My name is David Harrison. I’m a basketball player. I smoke a lot of weed. “People were like, ‘You’re here for what? Smoking pot? Nobody goes to rehab for smoking pot,'” he remembers. Well, I drink too. I mean, I’m not an alcoholic or anything, but I get drunk sometimes. “I laid out all my baggage,” he says now, “and then I started hearing everybody else’s stories — they were beaten, or they were touched, and they ended up strung out, losing everything. It was unbelievable. I realized maybe my baggage isn’t so bad. I haven’t had to deal with the things these people had to deal with.”

The Pacers chose not to re-sign Harrison after that season. He had a tryout with the Timberwolves, but as Harrison was walking off the court, he tore a calf muscle. He sat in pain, watching as then-Minnesota coach Kevin McHale approached. “He told me, ‘You can stop right now. You can decide this is it. Or, if you want, you can keep going. It’s your choice.’ That’s always stuck with me.”

So Harrison went to China. Immediately, he thrived. “I think I was a Chinese emperor in another life,” he says. He became a focal point on offense (“It’s fun to actually get to touch the ball,” he says), made good money (he won’t reveal how much, but says it was more than the NBA minimum), and won a championship with the Guangdong Southern Tigers. Early in the 2010-11 season, Harrison broke his leg. While healing, he leveraged some connections to get a job in commodities at a bank in Hong Kong.1


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On his Twitter account, in addition to thoughts about basketball and his personal life, Harrison regularly chimes in on Chinese mergers and acquisitions, as well as general economic trends. He likes Ron Paul, distrusts Ben Bernanke, and is pessimistic about Chinese company CNOOC’s move to buy a Canadian oil and gas company.

Despite his love for the country, Harrison eventually decided to leave China, coming Stateside to be closer to his son and to recapture a sense of home. He spent time with the Reno Bighorns of the D-League last season, thinking that offered him the best shot at returning to the NBA. And now, here he is in Vegas, a month away from his 30th birthday, hoping this latest attempt will be the one that pays off. “My life is like that U2 song — ‘Stuck in a Moment,'” he says. “I’m stuck in this process of trying to get back. I can’t get past it.” With the money he can make in China, I ask, why is he so focused on returning to the NBA? His one-word answer: “Redemption.”

Maybe he’ll get it. Maybe not. Either way, Harrison has found a peace he once lacked. “I was a selfish person,” he says. “But I’ve grown. Now, instead of going to L.A. and partying with my friends, I’ll go home and hang out with my son. That’s a better life. That’s the life I want to keep living.”

The next night, Harrison takes the floor against the Hornets. He is active and mobile, playing physical defense and challenging shots, but he only gets six minutes of playing time. He finishes with one rebound, one turnover, and four fouls. Dallas wins, 78-65. “We got the win,” he says afterward. “That’s what matters.”

There’s no sarcasm in Harrison’s voice, but this is the summer league, where winning and losing barely matter. Still, in coaches’ and general mangers’ eyes, clich├ęs are better than complaints. So Harrison says nothing about his time on the bench. He can’t afford any missteps — not anymore.

Right next door at Cox Pavillion, Hilton Armstrong emerges from the curtained area of the gym that’s functioning as a locker room and sits in the stands. Over his Clippers jersey, he’s wearing a T-shirt that reads GOD OVER MONEY, and when he talks about life in the NBA, the first thing he mentions is pride.

“When you’re in that league, you go through every day knowing you’re one of the best basketball players in the world,” he says. “Even if you’re not Dwight Howard or somebody, you’re still in that league. No matter who you are, wherever in the world, if you know anything about basketball, the first thing you think of is the NBA.”

And he was there — at least for a while. A lottery pick out of UConn in 2006, Armstrong spent four seasons in New Orleans, contributing as a rebounder and shot-blocker but never averaging more than 16 minutes a game. Over the next two seasons he bounced from Sacramento to Houston to Washington to Atlanta, and when the lockout started last year, he decided to skip the country.

Armstrong picked France, moving to ASVEL Basket in Lyon with his French-speaking wife and their 3-year-old daughter. “She picked up French right away,” Armstrong says of his daughter. “All of a sudden I’ve got my wife and my daughter having conversations about me, and I can’t understand what they’re saying.”

He took time to adapt to the European game — “I got a lot of fouls called on me at first,” he says — but enjoyed the lifestyle, the playing time, and the chance to explore a new country. His wife also gave birth to a son (“My little Frenchman”) named Eli. “It was great,” he says of the experience, “but it’s not the NBA.” He might get a chance to return. The Clippers are looking for a backup big man to round out their roster, and on the court in Vegas Armstrong shows he can be serviceable, efficient, and — perhaps most important for end-of-the-bench players — low-maintenance. In a game against the Spurs, Armstrong uses his thin frame to slip into position on the block. He draws fouls and finishes easy buckets off offensive rebounds. He blocks and challenges shots. He screens. He rolls. He does it all at full speed, pausing only for high fives and slaps on the back.

Armstrong insists he is motivated but not desperate. If the NBA calls, he’ll be thrilled. If they don’t, he’ll move on. “No matter what,” he says, “I’m going to keep playing.”

And then there’s Armstrong’s summer league teammate. The one with the slithery, shoulder-length hair, who was first hyped, then mocked, and finally discarded by the league he always dreamed he’d one day reach.

I ask to talk to Adam Morrison before a game one afternoon, but he declines, preferring to do it afterward. We meet again the next night, as Morrison walks out of the locker room. His eyebrows are furrowed and his lips are stuck in a half-smile, but I can’t tell if this is a look of distrust or if it’s just Adam Morrison looking like Adam Morrison. “You know why I didn’t want to talk to you before the game last night?” he says. “All of these are just so negative. It’s ‘How come your hair’s so long?’ and ‘How come your career’s been so shitty?’ I don’t want to be thinking about all of that before I have to play.”

Whatever his strategy, it works. Morrison is one of the stars of the summer league, averaging 20 points per game on 55 percent shooting, including 62 percent from 3. It’s impressive, but still a far cry from what was once expected. At Gonzaga, he was legendary. A volume shooter with a mop top and a mustache, Morrison seemed like a gift from some sort of hipster god to basketball’s young and white fans.

Charlotte drafted him third overall in 2006, and if you’re reading this, you probably know the rest. He bombed. After a decent rookie season (12 points per game), he sat out the next year with a torn ACL. Charlotte traded him to the Lakers. In Los Angeles, he celebrated two titles from the end of the bench. The next season, Morrison entered training camp with the Wizards. He got cut. He disappeared.

So to recap: Adam Morrison wasn’t as good at basketball as people who get paid to guess who will be good at basketball thought he would be. And because we’ve collectively decided that undeserved hype is akin to moral failure, Morrison is now guilty of one of the game’s greatest sins. “Everyone knows I’ve taken a lot of flak,” he says. “But I’m not a bad dude. I haven’t stabbed anybody. I’m not on probation. I was drafted high, and I wasn’t good enough to warrant that. I get it — I really do — but sometimes, it’s just like, man, come on.”

After he was cut by Washington, Morrison didn’t touch a basketball for eight months. He didn’t watch games until the playoffs rolled around the following spring. He caught up with old friends, spent time with his two daughters. “It was awesome,” he says. “People think when you’re not playing you’ve crawled into a hole or something, but I was just hanging out, getting away from everything.” During that time, Morrison says he thought constantly about quitting the sport for good. He’d read the blog posts, heard the jokes. He knew he was a punch line. “Everyone was killing me after we won in L.A.,” he says. “They were all saying, ‘He got a ring and he doesn’t deserve it. He should give it back.’ That sort of thing. I hated that.”

Morrison mockery hit late-night shortly after the Lakers won the 2010 title, when Jimmy Kimmel invited members of the team to his show. Kimmel played a Morrison highlight montage, showing him in street clothes, fist-pumping and high-fiving and bench-sitting his way to a title. After the clip was over, Kobe Bryant said, “First of all, let me just say that was funny as hell. But secondly, let me just say that that’s a testament to our team, honestly, because Adam can really play. No, like, really. He can really, really go. And for him to take a step back and to do things like that really helped us get to that championship level.”

After his hiatus, Morrison looked for opportunities overseas. In most of the top leagues, he couldn’t even get a tryout. “Nobody wanted me,” he says. Nobody except Red Star Belgrade. In Serbia. On his ride into the city from the airport, Morrison saw collapsed buildings that still hadn’t been rebuilt since the 1999 NATO bombings. But the Serbian league allowed Morrison to recapture what he’d lost in the NBA. “I got to have the ball,” he says. “I got to come off screens, run pick-and-rolls, play with the ball in my hands. Everyone knows that I’m not going to be effective if I’m standing in the corner. It was good to actually play that way.”

He went from Serbia to Turkey, where he saw little action for Besiktas, one of the best teams in Europe. Though he insists the experience overseas was worthwhile, he has decided he won’t do it again. He’ll play in the NBA or he won’t play at all. If no team signs him, he’ll return to school, finish his degree, go into coaching, and spend time with family. So on this night, here he is, lighting up Vegas, taking one last chance.

On the court with the Clippers, Morrison has reclaimed his alpha role. He’s shouting for the ball nearly every time down the floor. He gets jumpers off screens and off the dribble, tip-ins in the paint, and trips to the line. In a game against San Antonio, Morrison hits a shot and prompts guard Cory Joseph to explode. “Somebody guard him!” he screams as the Spurs head back on offense.

After we finish talking outside the locker room, Morrison shakes my hand and starts to walk away. He stops and turns. “Just don’t kill me, man,” he says. “I’ve gotten enough of that.” He continues to the bus. Lakers coach Mike Brown passes and calls out, “Great game, Adam.” Morrison says, “Thanks,” and keeps walking.

On my last day in Vegas (Saturday, the second-to-last day of the event), press row has thinned out. To my right sits Himar Ojeda, a scout from Estudiantes in Spain, and he’s thrilled with the day’s possibilities. By now, most other European scouts have gone home, feeling worn out from 10 days in Vegas. But just as Ojeda’s competitors have left, their targets are starting to get more playing time. The European scouts couldn’t care less about Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Thomas Robinson. They’re here to see the journeymen and the outcasts, the kids whose dreams are about to be dashed by the NBA — and the men whose dreams were dashed three years ago. At this point in the week, the stars are mostly resting, making way for players who’ve been stuck on the bench.

To my left sits an NBA assistant coach. He’s disappointed. His team has roster spots to fill, but no summer league standouts to fill them. I ask him about the three players I’ve met. “I’ve never been a fan of Adam Morrison,” he says. “He can’t do anything but score.” On Armstrong: “He really has a chance. He has a definite role. You know exactly what he can do — rebound and block shots — and there are only so many guys who can do that at an NBA level.” I then ask about Harrison. “David Harrison’s here? Playing? I had no idea.”

Fortunately for Harrison and the others, they only need one GM or coach who likes them enough to take a chance. If that happens, these players still have to survive training camp, several rounds of cuts, and then a season of trying to prove they deserve their spot in the league.

That’s if they’re lucky. For now, they’ll take their places on the various courts across the complex. They’ll put on their jerseys, all adorned with the league’s logo. And they’ll hope that this won’t be the last time.

Jordan Conn (@jordanconn) wrote The Defender: Manute Bol’s Journey from Sudan to the NBA and Back Again, a multimedia e-book published by The Atavist.