Two years ago, I went to the NBA summer league in Las Vegas for the first time. It was a great deal of fun, and also it was very miserable, which is probably the only way to describe any trip to Las Vegas. While there, I saw many things that were interesting, most of which were not directly related to the games being played. I saw a woman who, for whatever reason, decided to take a nap in the middle of a busy sidewalk in the middle of a very hot day. I saw a player who was trying to earn a spot on one of the teams openly proposition a prostitute in an elevator late one evening. I saw a man leave his hotel room for a few minutes one night because he couldn’t sleep and then he somehow ended up losing $200 at some slot machines in, like, five minutes. (Me.) It was all neat. And great. And I will never, ever go back.
Do you know who Bryn Forbes is? He’s at the summer league right now, which is why I ask, and also why I mentioned the summer league above. He’s a too-slow, too-ordinary, on-the-bubble player with the Spurs team there. He’s also — and this is the best thing — somehow leading the Las Vegas summer league in scoring. (As I write this, he’s coming off back-to-back 35-point games and averaging over 29 points per game. For context, he averaged 2.6 points per game with the Spurs last season.) I love Bryn Forbes. I have allowed myself to fall in love with him these past two weeks.
Falling in love with Bryn Forbes–type players is really the best part of summer league. You get to just sort of dump yourself into them for a bit: root for them, hope for them to be noisy enough and vibrant enough that they land on a team somewhere for guaranteed money; absorb all of the energies they put out into the universe as they attempt to chase down a dream against almost impossible odds. It’s beautiful. (Jonathon Simmons, who appears just days away from signing a gigantic guaranteed deal, is a player I fell in love with at the 2015 summer league. I’m so excited to watch him get paid.)
The thing of it is, though, you can’t just grab any player — or, at least you can’t just grab any player and expect for things to feel meaningful or consequential. There’s a checklist you have to follow. There are boxes that need to be ticked off. Stuff like: Does he have a cool face or haircut or something like that? Does he look like he doesn’t belong on the court because he’s too short or too overweight or too tall or too uncoordinated or too white/Latino/Asian? Did you play against him at an open gym somewhere? Is he from the same neighborhood as you? Does he have a name that makes for fun puns? (I spent the entire last football season trying to talk myself into Brock Osweiler due to all of the Brock-based puns that were available. Him being terrible was truly a waste. "Bryn" is a gold mine.) Anyway, you’ve got smaller things like that, and those are great to have. But really, there are six big requirements that are very vital and necessary:
You need for the player to have been an unheralded prospect.
Anybody outside of, say, the top-25 picks in the draft works fine here (Tony Parker was the 28th pick in the 2001 draft). Better still if he’s a second-round selection (Manu Ginobili was picked at the end of the second round). And best of all if he never even had his name called on draft day (Bruce Bowen went undrafted, and he ended up being an integral part of three championship Spurs teams, and also Avery Johnson went undrafted, and he ended up being an integral part of the first-ever Spurs championship). Bryn falls into that last category. He wasn’t drafted at all.
You need for the player to have a personal obstacle in his backstory.
Did you know that Reggie Miller had to wear leg braces for the first four years of his life because he was born with a hip deformity that splayed his feet? That’s a real, incredible thing, and the sort of thing we’re looking for here. Something that causes you to instantly invest yourself in a person and his journey. Is the player from a different country where he grew up in very bad conditions? Does he have a sick family member he plays for and draws inspiration from? Was a childhood friend hurt or killed in some bad accident? So on and so forth. A lot of times, it’s very easy to watch professional athletes on television and see their perfect bodies and incredible talent and forget that there are, in all likelihood, a bunch of ghosts and shadows that they are trying to outrun or fight away, same as everyone else. When you read about those moments or hear about them in some pregame montage, it’s always very impactful. (My beloved Bryn transferred to Michigan State after playing for Cleveland State for two seasons because he wanted to be closer to his son.)
You need for the player to have a sports obstacle in his backstory.
This makes it easier to become smitten with him because it allows you to not only identify with him, but also to lionize him. Was he a budding star who suffered through an injury? Was he always told that he was too basic to ever stand out? Was there a coach along the way who told him he’d never make it, that he should switch sports or consider just not playing altogether? That’s the kind of thing we’re looking for here. For Bryn, an easy thing to pick out is he missed out on making his varsity team in high school when he was a freshman. I also missed out on making my high school varsity team when I was a freshman,* so that’s how Bryn and I are connected. Him making it into the league means I’m making it into the league, even though it definitely doesn’t actually mean that, you know what I’m saying?
*I also missed out on making the varsity team when I was a sophomore and junior and senior.
You need for there to be some false equivalencies you can make about the player.
For example, the thing above about Bryn not making his varsity team: That’s also a famous anecdote that gets told about Michael Jordan. So we can connect Bryn to greatness there. And what’s more, Bryn’s disappointment happened his freshman year. Jordan’s happened his sophomore year. I’m not saying Bryn is better than Jordan, per se, I’m just saying that he didn’t do the thing that Jordan also didn’t do, except he didn’t do it a full year before Jordan didn’t do it. That’s, of course, ridiculous (and also confusing), but you get the point. Is your player the new Steph Curry? Does he remind you of a LeBron? Is he a couple seasons away from being a meaner Kevin Durant? On and on.
You need for the player to have at least one thing that he’s really good at.
It can be anything. Is he very good at 3s? Is he an exceptional dribbler? Does he frequently deliver way-too-hard fouls? Does he have incredible court vision? Is he a rebounding demon or shot-blocking savant? This category is good for branding purposes, but it’s also good for brand-busting purposes, which is a very important thing. What I mean is, Bryn came in as a rookie and he was mostly known as a spot-up shooter. Each of the articles written about his run now, though, mentions his off-the-dribble attack (HE’S THE NEW KYRIE!), his floater (HE’S THE NEW TONY PARKER!), and his ability to draw contact (he shot 17 free throws in a recent game against the 76ers so HE’S A SMALLER JAMES HARDEN!). You need a guy who has a thing, and then you need for that guy to do more than that thing.
You need for there to be at least a tiny amount of risk involved.
It can’t be a situation where you pick a guy who’s guaranteed to make the team. It doesn’t work like that. There has to be a chance that he doesn’t make it, because otherwise what’s even the point of cheering for him? When I was reading all of the pieces about Bryn that went up this past week (that’s a thing you have to do when you are in love), Jeff Eisenberg of Yahoo Sports had a part in his article that mentioned how the Spurs already have 12 of 15 roster spots sewn up, and two of the remaining three "could be earmarked for free-agent guards Jonathon Simmons and Manu Ginobili," and that even if Forbes manages to grab that last spot, his salary for the 2018 season "won’t become guaranteed until January 10." That’s terrifying, and it also turns the volume up on everything he does for the next six months. That’s the kind of thing you need in the background all the time for the guy who you’re in love with: the threat of the guillotine coming down and ending it before it’s even really started.