Editors’ Note: This is a guest post from Seth Johnston. Seth is a wily veteran of the basket-blog-o-sphere. This is Seth’s second contribution to The Diss. Follow him on Twitter here.
“If I don’t make it, after all this, I can at least sit back someday and tell my kids I tried.”
Akeem Scott does not have kids yet. But he does have an NBA dream, which he’s telling me about as we wait in line at a Blimpie’s in Boise Idaho. There is much to discuss; his has been a long, hard journey that included six years of shuffling between pro-teams abroad; a grind that came after being an overlooked high school prospect on a junior college team. Then there is his present, in which he is a thirty year-old point guard playing for the Bakersfield Jam of the NBA D-League at a pivotal moment of his career. He turned down the most lucrative offer he has ever received for this opportunity. Finally, there is his future, which may or may not include the realization of his dream. One thing that is certain is that his yet to be born children will have one hell of a role model for going all in on big dreams.
It is all too much for me to get to in one hour or so at Blimpies. Scott is in town for a season opening back to back against the Idaho Stampede and made time for me between his film session and pre-game shootaround. I step to the counter and place my order, a turkey and provolone one wheat with all the veggie fixings and extra mustard. I could have done better but there is no time for sandwich-based critical thinking. Scott doesn’t order—he has a team lunch coming up, another event looming on the itinerary.
I bring up Scott’s D-League debut the night before. He played well in the loss, scoring 13 points on 4-7 shooting to go with six assists in twenty minutes off the bench. It was a good first impression, important in a league where the goal is to stand out enough to turn the head of an NBA decision maker. To my surprise, he seemed agitated.
“I want to be known as a winner. I want people to say I win wherever I go. One difference between here and overseas, overseas sometimes if you don’t win, you don’t get paid. Guys get mad, guys want to leave, but they don’t pay you to play, they pay you to win. If the team isn’t winning they don’t want you there.”
I insist on praising his performance in last night’s game. I tell him what I saw: his smart, high energy, speedy style on both ends of the court, how he throws his body around. He’s effective and fun to watch, and I’m not the only one who has noticed. He thanks me, but he will not say that he played well if his team lost.
“Be efficient, come off the bench, make my free throws and open shots, play great defense, be a good teammate, that’s a role I can play.” Politely, he’s shifted the conversation to his value to an NBA team.
I grab my sandwich and we settle into a booth.
A lifelong, transient basketball underdog, Akeem Scott loves to fall down. Born and raised in New York City, he moved with his family to Virginia at the age of thirteen. Like many athletes Scott credits his style to pickup games against his older brother, five years his senior, and his brother’s bigger friends.
“My brother would tell them ‘Hey, if he’s playing with us, go at him like we do each other.’ I fell down all the time on concrete. That’s why falling on hardwood is fine to me. I like when I hit the ground hard and hear the crowd ‘Ooooh’, then bounce right back up. My brother watches me play and laughs: I play the same now as I did then.”
A childhood spent competing against bigger and stronger bodies prepared Scott for life as a six-foot tall basketball player, and by his senior year of high school he was a standout shooting guard. Talking about his high-school career Scott is encyclopedic, recalling high-level prospects and players whose names I never knew with equal detail.
He tells me about the highlight of his high school career, a post-season run that ended in a championship game heartbreaker. He still carries the lows of his high school career too, the accolades that failed to do justice to the star guard of a top team—Second Team AAA All-State, Honorable Mention All-Metro—and of the lack of interest from college recruiters.
After high school Scott took the best opportunity available to him and headed for Catonsville Community College in Maryland, a school competing at the Division II level of junior college. After one strong season at Catonsville, Scott moved on to Garrett College, another JUCO but one competing in a higher division. Again Scott impressed, was named an All-American, and at last had the attention of NCAA Division I basketball. He transferred to High Point University in North Carolina for his final two years of eligibility. In his senior season, he averaged 14 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 steals per game. College degree in hand, he set out to become a professional basketball player.
Scott was already somewhat used to being on the move; he had split his childhood between New York and Virginia and his college career between Maryland and North Carolina. In the next phase of his life the shifts would be more frequent and greater, in both distance and culture, and be witnessed by stamps in a passport rather than exits on the Interstate. I ask how many countries he has played in.
“Pssssssssssh…..” Scott blows his lips and thinks for a moment. He has a better way of answering, “I have over fifty-five stamps in my passport,” he says.
Since we are talking passports I bring up that Scott has two of them, USA and Jamaica, the latter of which provided a key boost to his career. But before we can talk about Jamaica we have to talk about the country where Scott first played professionally; where he would transition from scoring guard to full-time point guard, where fans would chant his name, and where children would mob him after big wins. We had to talk about Finland.
Just as Division I college teams ignored Scott out of high school, big professional leagues ignored him out of college. Scott took the best offer he had, a tryout contract from a team based in the small Finnish town of Uusikaupunki. The contract was small in Euros but huge in that it kept the dream alive. Scott moved to Finland.
“Then I got cut,” is all he has to say about his introduction to professional basketball.
I emailed Mikko Taatila, a writer covering basketball in Finland at the time, who added “Akeem wasn’t a good fit with their coach back then and had to go after less than twenty games.” The team was losing and the coach wanted to start over. They don’t pay you to play, they pay you to win.
Scott returned to the United States with no leads on what to do next. He worked out constantly and added strength to his frame. He waited. Several months went by.
“I had some tough times that year. I didn’t know if anything would come.”
Scott recommitted to his faith and church community, a connection he maintains to this day. He waited some more. When his phone finally rang it was an invitation for a D-League tryout. The complication was that the tryout would cost money and Scott was running low.
“I emailed the coaches before I left. I told them I only have this much money, and if I travel to do this tryout I’ll have twenty dollars left in my bank account. I had to know they were real. They said they were.”
So he went.
Scott returned home after the tryout feeling good about his performance. While waiting on word from the D-League he received a surprise offer from Finland. This was a different team than he played with previously, and this one played in a lower division. The offer was smaller than the last in Euros but again, big in that it kept his dream alive. Scott jumped at the opportunity and was back in Finland by the time the D-League team invited him to join their training camp. In need of money and already having made the journey, Scott stayed in Finland. It would be five years before he would try out for a D-League team again.
Playing against the weaker talent in Finland’s lower division Scott averaged 29 points and 4 steals per game. As Taatila put it, “He pretty much took the team over and carried them to the top.”
Scott’s domination of lower division Finnish hoops was no surprise. The surprise would come next. Scott had attracted the attention of a team in the top division, a team wonderfully named the Espoo Honka Playboys. The Playboys were midway through their season and in need of a back-up point guard who could also be a running mate for first round NBA draft pick Petteri Koponen. They signed Scott.
“That’s when all that crazy stuff happened.”
All that crazy stuff is when Scott became a sort of folk hero of Finnish basketball. In his debut with the Playboys he scored 45 points and his tear continued into the post-season. By the championship game opposing fans were focusing their energies on him, chanting something Taatila translated into “Who the fuck is Akeem Scott, he’s a loser.” Scott wouldn’t learn the English translation of the taunt until after the game but heard his name and got the gist. He played into the crowd and they grew even more boisterous. The Playboys won and Scott was named MVP of the post-season and finals. Gloriously, highlights of that game and Scott’s triumphant post-game interview (“Don’t chant my name in no big game or this will happen to you”) are still available.
“Fans loved him, he’s so energetic and he plays so well when he gets the crowd going. After his first home game, there were dozens of little kids outside Honka’s locker room to get his autograph,” Taatila tells me of Scott’s time in Finland. To date Scott’s only presence on Wikipedia is on the Finnish language version of the site.
That season was more than the professional high of Scott’s career up to that point. The Playboys needed Scott to primarily play point-guard and with Koponen battling injuries that need became even more acute.
“It was hard. It’s really hard. You have to change everything,” Scott recalls.
The scoring guard to full-time point guard transition is attempted often. In Scott’s case a team need pushed him towards the change but the professional prospects of a six foot point guard are usually better than those of a six foot shooting guard, so it was worth the effort for Scott as well. The change in responsibilities—from primarily scoring to directing the team’s offense and creating for teammates in addition to scoring—is drastic enough that many don’t make the shift and lose their confidence in the process. Scott made the leap. Over the next two seasons, his final ones in Finland, he cemented the change.
After Finland Scott bounced around Eastern Europe—a season in Montenegro, partial seasons in Latvia and Ukraine—and perhaps would have remained on the Northern and Eastern Europe circuit for the rest of his career if not for the intervention of a government’s decision. Scott’s mother was Jamaican born and when Scott applied for dual citizenship Kingston granted it. The benefits to Scott’s basketball career were significant. First, it excluded him from counting towards the American player quotas adopted by many professional teams abroad to protect local jobs from American talent. Second, it made Scott eligible to play for Jamaica’s national team. Competing for a national team would keep Scott sharp during the professional off-season, introduce him to pro-teams in a new hemisphere, and by competing in large international tournaments against a healthy number of NBA players, offer a chance of greater exposure in the basketball world.
In 2010 Scott tried out for the Jamaican National Team and made the roster. In his first stint with the team he was named honorable mention at the 2010 Central American and Caribbean Games. The next two summers Scott would earn all-tournament and honorable mention honors in other international competition, securing his role as starting point guard. More importantly, he helped Jamaica qualify for the country’s first ever FIBA Americas tournament in 2013. At FIBA Americas Scott would encounter a new highpoint in his career. This time more people would be watching.
Jamaica surprised in the early goings of FIBA Americas by making it out of qualifying and into the second round. The highlight came with a surprise two point upset over Brazil, a victory Scott helped to seal by hitting two free-throws with four seconds remaining. Less known is that the upset happened on Scott’s thirtieth birthday. Several days later Jamaica notched another big win over Argentina, and while they would not advance to the next round Jamaica had established itself as a dangerous team to watch in the future.
As the point guard at the helm of a newly competitive national team Scott’s profile rose considerably. On the court, he earned respect from some of the NBA players he matched up against.
“They asked me why they didn’t know who I was and what pro-team I played for,” he says.
When those curious to learn about Jamaica’s fast and aggressive point guard checked into Scott they saw the resume of a tough and adaptable veteran. Following the tournament Scott received the largest contract offer of his career from a team in South America. He had also started hearing from the D-League again. Scott faced the choice of many professional basketball players: money abroad or exposure and much less money in the United States?
It was a hard decision. When Scott was twenty-five he chose the overseas job over the D-League out of economic necessity. Now he wondered if he could leave money on the table for the opportunity to be closer to the NBA. He went back and forth. A surprise encounter intervened.
“I ran into John Bryant in the Atlanta airport.”
John Bryant, life-long friend of Scott and newly named assistant coach of the Bakersfield Jam.
“We talked. He told me I have to take this. He convinced me, this was the opportunity I needed. If it weren’t for running into him at the airport I probably wouldn’t be here. I took a big pay cut. I admit that if it doesn’t work out I’ll lose some sleep.”
Being in the D-League Scott is in the procedural sense just a single step from an NBA roster. He plays in front of NBA scouts every game and only has to convince one team that he is worth extending an opportunity to. In the practical sense there are one hundred and fifty or so other talented D-League dreamers who are the same step away from their dream; and most of them are younger. Scott knows this, but if he were the type to be discouraged by long odds he would have never made it this far.
After impressing at the Jam tryout in Atlanta, Scott was invited to training camp. As camp wore on Scott was establishing a role for himself as a steady veteran hand on a team with an average age of 26. Then came the first bump in his D-League experience.
There is a type unpredictability that is unique to the D-League. At any given time an affiliated NBA team can send a player down from their roster. The NBA players are expected to play major minutes, and as a result some players already on the team will see their playing time reduced. The Jam have five NBA affiliates, no team in the D-League has more. If the Jazz, Raptors, Suns, Clippers, or Hawks believe a player on their roster will benefit from heavy minutes with the Jam they will send him down.
As camp came to a close the Hawks sent guard Jared Cunningham to the Jam. Cunningham, a first round draft-pick in 2012, is in the final season of his rookie deal after the Hawks declined the option to extend his contract. He is twenty-two years old, a phenomenal athlete, and is attempting the same scoring guard to point guard transition that Scott made earlier in his own career. Scott knows how difficult the change is and, as always, supports his teammate. He also knows his own minutes are reduced as a result.
“It’s tough, it’s a tough thing that none of us have control over.”
After five games Cunningham was called back up to the Hawks but in the same move the Hawks sent two other guards to the Jam. Not surprisingly Scott’s minutes were reduced even further. In the game before the Hawks sent down two players Scott tied his season high in minutes with 23, scoring 20 points on 8-11 shooting to go with 6 rebounds. In the following game, with two new guards on the roster, Scott was in street clothes. Game to game he has little idea what his minutes will be or even who he will share the court with. He can only make the most of it, as he certainly did with this dunk on Hilton Armstrong:
The inconsistency of his role is, of course, not to Scott’s liking. He has made it through tough situations before and perhaps one of his greatest skills is staying positive, something he works on just as much as physical conditioning.
“My faith, that helps a lot. Any other stuff to stay positive too, I’ll do it. I read The Secret, I’ll do anything. I laugh a lot.”
Scott projects an engaging combination of positivity and confidence that leads you to believe he is comfortably in control in any situation. It’s easy to imagine him adapting easily to life in a small Finnish town or a large Venezuelan city. It’s misleading; Scott faces the same difficulties as anyone constantly on the move so far from friends and family. He has had his share of strained relationships, professional frustrations, and culture shock. He keeps a strong sense of home and a strong support network to keep stable. He can’t predict where basketball will take him but he knows that home is in Atlanta: his church, friends, and longtime girlfriend are all there. That familiarity and support system has been vital.
“This is crazy. This is a crazy thing to try. Sometimes you make a lot of money, sometimes you make no money. Sometimes your relationship is great, sometimes it’s lost out in the ocean.”
I ask how long he can keep going.
“When I feel like I can’t play like this anymore, that’s when I’ll quit. I look at guys like Nash, I pay attention to those stories, guys that played for a long time. Karl Malone won the MVP at thirty-five. I don’t feel old. I do the same workouts now that I’ve always done to keep in shape, and I got good genetics I guess.”
With that it’s time for Scott to rejoin his team and get back to work stubbornly pushing towards his crazy dream. Perhaps the ups and downs Scott is facing in the D-League should have been expected; the pattern throughout his entire career has been to be overlooked, succeed, move forward just an inch, and repeat. After spending only an hour with Scott I can’t help but wonder if it’s only a matter of a few more iterations before the only inch forward remaining is onto an NBA roster.