I played high school basketball and for the past couple of years have renewed my interest in the game on Sunday mornings at the JCA. (Although I haven’t played in a couple of months)
The Jacksonville Jam are in their first year of existence as a professional basketball organization. They’re in the ABA, a far-flung league that gives guys hope that there is a future for them somewhere up the chain of basketball leagues. Part of the Jam’s promotional program is to employ an “11th man” a quasi-celebrity to join in the warm-up, sit on the bench and get a little game time as well.
I was the 11th man last Friday as the Jam played the Atlanta Vision. The Jam are in the playoffs, the Vision are a schedule filling team. So I figured to get some playing time, and even have a chance to score.
“The guys will embrace you,” the team’s PR person told me as I was doing the news live at 5 and 6 from the UNF Arena. And he was right.
“I’m Tony,” one of the post players said to me as they walked on the floor for warm-ups.
I joined the team in the locker room just in time to hear Coach Steve Tucker give his pregame instructions. “I’ve said all along a team will come out of the shadows, why not this one!” Tucker asked the Jam as they huddled in one alcove. He was clearly challenging his team to make a statement tonight.
The actual time on the floor starts just like any other basketball experience: the lay-up drill. The first thing I noticed was that I wasn’t one of the “bigs.” At 6’3” I’m used to being an inside player, somebody who’s asked to bang the boards, set picks and start the break. But in this lay-up line, I was somewhere between small and little.
I made a few lay-ups, missed a few, missed most of the warm-up jumpers but stayed in the drill until the end when an assistant called me over to say, “You’re starting.” I thought that was kind of funny but then he laid it out for me.
“We’re going to win the tip and run “T-Flat.” You go to the baseline with the other four guys while the point brings the ball up. He’ll beat his man and drive the lane; you flash out to the wing and spot up. He’ll feed you the ball and you hit the jumper. Then get back on defense.”
Sounded simple enough.
The Jam do a good job of putting on a show. They have “Jam Idol” before each game, letting fans show their vocal talent and the winners get to sing God Bless America and the National Anthem. They’ve converted one of the racquetball courts into a kid’s playground and another into a merchandise mall. The opening sequence has an NBA feel with music and loud introductions. I was the last starter introduced, slapping low fives with the mascots and joining the team at center court.
“A fast start,” Coach Tucker exhorted his team.
“Get back and play defense after we run the play,” he told me on my way to the floor. “They’ll try and isolate you but after we get the ball back, we’ll call time-out and get you out of there.” I thought I’d get a few trips down the floor but I was now told I’d be out after one possession. I’m not sorry to say I was a little disappointed.
As predicted, we won the tip and headed down the floor on offense.
“Down here Sam,” ABA All-Star Jerry Williams said as he pointed me to the baseline. It all seemed perfectly scripted. And I had practiced the wing jumper in the warm-ups so I felt ready. Sure enough, the point guard beat his man and was driving to the basket. I flashed to the wing and was wide open. And that’s when the guy with the ball pulled up and shot his own 15-foot jumper.
“Wait a minute,” I wanted to scream, but the ball was coming in the other direction already. I picked up the guy who wasn’t being guarded (I found out later he played on the And 1 tour all last year) and luckily, he didn’t get the ball. I was in a good position for the defensive rebound until some 6’10” guy (a teammate called “Spiderman”) swooped in to grab the ball. I was tipped out of bounds and that’s when the timeout was called and I went to the bench.
I sat there for a while watching as the Jam went to work. Inside, outside, three pointers, the talent on the floor was impressive. You could see that each player had skill but all had a little hole in their game. Or they couldn’t quite integrate into a team concept.
Tucker paced the sideline yelling offensive sets “Two game,” “Name,” “Stack,” and many others. Intense doesn’t begin to describe his demeanor. When the Jam had a 42-point lead, I thought I might see the floor. But it wasn’t until a minute remained in the half that I got back in. Two offensive possessions resulted in some time clock burning followed by a defensive double-team in the corner that lead to an errant three pointer at the end of the half.
Tucker’s speech in the locker room was clear and to the point: Send a message to the rest of the league and keep piling on the points. Atlanta had beaten Wilmington just a week earlier, the same Wilmington squad that had beaten the Jam just two nights earlier on the road.
“The worst thing you can do is play them even this half,” Tucker told his team. “Pour it on these guys because they won’t stop playing and send a message to Syracuse and other cities, we’re for real.” That’s when I knew I wouldn’t be playing again but rejoined the team on the bench to watch the 3rd quarter unfold.
Tucker was right; the Vision didn’t quit and quickly chipped into the Jam’s halftime lead.
“When we get back in there,” Williams told his fellow starters, “We need to bring the hammer.” And they did winning 141-95.
And I never touched the ball.
It was fun though, getting a first hand look at the team and the talent. Tucker is serious and the players are accountable to him and each other. They’re plenty talented, but like I said they all have a hole, however small, in their game. I can’t imagine how good the guys in the NBA must be!
I’ll stick to the Sunday morning game.