J’Nathan Bullock is in an unfamiliar city, interacting Friday with strangers in a setting that’s too familiar to him and most of those around him. He’s a professional basketball player auditioning for his next contract. One of the 17 hopefuls trying to win a place on the Maine Red Claws’ 10-man roster.
He’s got about two weeks or so to prove he belongs. He won’t guess his odds. He has to remain hopeful.
“You get accustomed to the process,” said Bullock. He wouldn’t talk about personal anxiety or stress. “We’re all playing for that shot. It’s always a blessing to be that one.”
As in, you’re the one.
Friday was media day at the Portland Expo. Players in Red Claws game uniforms sizing up the people with microphones or notepads. Questions are asked but there are few easy answers. They are 17 candidates but they’re not a team. Seventeen must become 10. Seven men will get a goodbye, a handshake and a wish for future good luck. That’s the deal. You lay your talent and your soul on the line and soon learn if it was all good enough.
Bullock smiles. He’s 26 years old and has his degree in mechanical engineering from Cleveland State. He also helped get his team to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 23 years.
That was 2009. Several NFL scouts contacted him that year. He hadn’t played football since high school in Flint, Mich., but at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds and huge soft hands, his potential was typed as a professional tight end. He was signed to a free-agent contract by the New York Jets. He didn’t make the opening-day roster.
“It was an experience, a good experience. I’m glad I went through it.”
He took his basketball game overseas to Australia and Belgium. He joined a pro team in Iceland. “I had to get used to being on an island. Had to get used to 20 hours of darkness and then 20 hours of light. He smiled and tossed his dreadlocks. Finding someone to take care of the hair in this country was a challenge. But women nearly everywhere know how to braid hair.
Bullock was the Eurobasket.com All-Icelandic Player of the Year. He found someone to help with his dreads.
For every Bullock who sees his window of opportunity closing, there’s someone much younger who sees opportunity everywhere.
Abdul Gaddy, 21, is one. He was once touted as the second-best schoolboy point guard in the country after John Wall. Gaddy went to the University of Washington in his home state; Wall went to Kentucky.
Gaddy tore his ACL during his sophomore season; Wall was selected first in the 2010 NBA draft and plays for the Washington Wizards.
Gaddy played four years at Washington and went to one NCAA tournament. He shouldered the pressures of high expectations. Maybe unrealistic expectations.
“It was tough at first,” said Gaddy. “I was 17 and the journey was just beginning. You’ve got to take it in stride. I embrace opportunity.”
He was a high school teammate of Avery Bradley, the Celtics’ shooting guard. Their high school in Tacoma, Wash., had another alumnus you’re very familiar with: Jon Lester, the Red Sox pitching ace. Gaddy hasn’t met him. Not yet, anyway.
Marcel Anderson, another guard, is a Chicago native who went to Harris-Stowe State. “St. Louis,” said Anderson before I could even ask the question where.
“It’s an NAIA Division I school. I was late in taking basketball seriously. I wanted to go to a small school to stand out.” He’s 27, played in London and most recently for a pro team in Rochester, N.Y. “Everyone’s living for the passion to play basketball. I can’t wait to show mine.”
Pick a player, listen to a story. The paths are different but the anticipated destination is always the same.
Mike Taylor, the Red Claws’ coach for a second year, has to find 10 players out of 17. Ten who fit. Ten, hoping that one or two might help the Celtics. The math is tough. The D-League nurtures at hyper-speed. It’s the difference between it and minor league baseball or hockey. Identify the talent as you learn about the man.
“You don’t change the fundamental aspect of getting to know people,” said Taylor. “I’ve told them they can’t achieve goals alone. They have to do it collectively.”
He was itching to get out of the nice black suit he wore for official photos. He needed to change into the working clothes of a coach who must find a team.
Seventeen had to become 10. The Red Claws’ season begins Nov. 22.
Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: