As a McDonald’s High School All-American, Omar Cook already had dreams of playing in the NBA. The 6-1 point guard from Brooklyn had established himself as next in a long line of New York City court legends, starring at nationally ranked Christ the King.

After flirting with the opportunity to play collegiately at North Carolina, he instead stayed close to home, choosing to enroll at St. John’s. Cook enjoyed an outstanding freshman season, finishing second in the nation in assists with 8.7 per game while averaging over 15 points per game.

But before reenrolling for his sophomore classes, Cook took time to examine the popular Kevin Garnett-Kenny Anderson “Who needs college?” curriculum. After talking with family, friends and so-called NBA experts, Cook made the decision to forego the remainder of his college eligibility and enter the 2001 NBA Draft.

No one knew ? or at least admitted to Cook ? that he would endure a merry-go-round of brief encounters with so many NBA teams. The Orlando Magic selected him in the second round, and then traded him to the Denver Nuggets in exchange for a future first-round pick. But Denver already had veteran point guards Nick Van Exel and Avery Johnson on its roster and had just signed rookie Kenny Satterfield to a contract, leaving Cook the odd man out.

Cook was waived on Oct. 25, and picked up a month later by the Dallas Mavericks. But Cook was unable to carve out a place on the Dallas roster either, and was released for a second time. Unsigned and without many options, Cook turned to a brand-new venue and signed with the Fayetteville Patriots of the National Basketball Developmental League.

Now midway through its inaugural season, the NBDL provides an opportunity for players to hone their skills in a competitive environment, while allowing them to continue their pursuit of NBA hopes and dreams.

The developmental league has only one division consisting of eight “Deep South” teams ? Fayetteville (N.C.), the North Charleston Lowgators (S.C.), the Asheville Altitude (N.C.), the Columbus Riverdragons (Ga.), the Greenville Groove (S.C.), the Mobile Revelers (Ala.), the Roanoke Dazzle (Va.) and the Huntsville Flight (Ala.).

Each team can carry up to 11 players, and there are no guaranteed contracts. Any player can be released at any point during the 56-game season. Big dreams without much job security is the name of the game.

Although the NBDL is the official minor league of the NBA, no team is an affiliate of any specific NBA club. Every player is eligible to be picked up by any of the 29 NBA organizations at any point during the NBDL season. Since the league began in mid-November of last year, four players have been “called up” to play for NBA teams.

Fayetteville Power forward Chris Anderson was the first player to be promoted to the NBA when he signed a contract with the Denver Nuggets just weeks into the young NBDL season. Former Asheville point guard Jason Hart (San Antonio Spurs), former Mobile point guard Anthony Johnson (New Jersey Nets) and former Asheville guard Rusty LaRue (Utah Jazz) have all received invitations to play for NBA teams. It is LaRue’s second stint in the NBA, already owning a NBA championship ring as a member of the 1998 Chicago Bulls.

While the minimum age to play in the league is 20 years old, the NBDL has its share of both young and old talents. The NBDL seems like the perfect place for any player, regardless of age or experience, to practice their game under the watchful eye of the NBA talent scouts. No academic transcripts (high school or college) are required. However the league primarily consists of players within a few years of their college departure, like Cook. There are also some longtime journeymen who are looking for one last shot at glory.

Since his rookie year in 1990-91, forward/center Dwayne Schintzius has played in over 200 NBA games. A first-round pick of the Spurs in 1990, Schintzius averaged a modest 2.7 points and 2.5 rebounds per game over his nine-year NBA career. But Schiniztius has not played in “The League” since the ’92-93 season, and now at 33 years of age he is struggling to grab hold of his NBA dream one last time.

The NBDL offers a place for talented, hard working players to resurface and improve their games after failing their first auditions with NBA squads. It is a league with deep basketball bloodlines. Other minor leagues have appeared and then faded from view ? USBL, Global Basketball League, Continental Basketball Association and the old Eastern League.

All have sent a shining star or two to the big show. And while the dreams of a select few do come true, it is here at this level that fantasy meets reality. Most of these guys won’t make it. Thus, the mentality of a NBDL player differs slightly from that of a NBA player. While they battle for rebounds and points like their NBA counterparts, they also must battle to save “face.”

There are certainly better paying jobs out there, and most nights players are conflicted between showcasing their own talents and doing what’s best for the team. They certainly don’t have the funds to travel first class and no one really cares who wins the game.

In the past, many players who did not survive in these minor leagues drifted into sad “back page” lives. It is here that the NBDL can be different. Instead of letting these athletes succumb to the harsh reality that their basketball skills just don’t measure up, maybe they can arrange for life skills and job training.

An even more bold gesture would be to arrange for a return to college, since most of these guys don’t have a diploma. Then the NBDL could stand for the “New and Better Dream League.” That way, hanging on to the sacred hoop dream can always pay off in the end for players like Cook and Schintzius, even if they don’t make it to the NBA.

Gerton can be reached at mgerton@campustimes.org.



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