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Big Backpacks, Dri-FIT, and Draft Prospects: A Special Trip to the NBA Combine

Welcome to the place where Larry Bird, Pat Riley, and Frank Vogel mingle with league officials, agents, media, and everyday fans who happen to be very interested in the vertical leap of prospective NBA draftees

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I’ve never made a habit of watching the NBA combine. In the past, if I’ve seen any of it, it’s been because some play from the scrimmages got into my feed somehow or ESPN was interviewing a coach or GM I wanted to hear from. I haven’t actively avoided the event, it just hasn’t ever been something I’ve sought out in earnest. Typically, the guys going in the high lottery aren’t going to be playing 5-on-5 and there are only so many times I can watch people jump in the air and slap at a Vertec. But when my wife had to be in Chicago for work during the two days of the combine, I decided to tag along, head over to Quest Multisport, and see what it was like.

Truth be told, I kind of imagined I’d get bored at a certain point. I didn’t. There was too much to look at—a smorgasbord of NBA and NBA adjacent celebrities, drive-by handshakes, and nerves. I sat in the stands and watched all I could. Scrimmages and shooting drills and three-quarter court sprints and maximum vertical tests. Malik Rose and Jameer Nelson and Kyle Guy’s new haircut and a windswept Vlade Divac in a pair of Forces. Here are some other things I saw.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Kendrick Perkins making solid two-handed chest passes. He passes with sincerity. He passes with dignity. Perkins is an assistant for one of the teams during the scrimmages. He’s warming his guys up. The passes matter to him. He wants them to arrive on time. He wants them to be perfect. Rob Pelinka walks around and looks for someone to talk to. He will look for a while.

Waters in the Gatorade coolers that look like cylinders. The kind they still have in concessions stands at high school football games. People in Washington Wizards Dri-FIT polos carry cameras and say things like, “that’s the meat of the edit.” Two writers argue about the nature of sign and trades. Someone starts saying Chris Bosh’s name over and over. Another writer waxes on about the quality of this draft. “Some people say there’s no difference between 11 and 30. Some people say there’s no difference between 5 and 35.”

Rick Carlisle stands tall in a Cirrus Aircraft hat. He looks even more like Jim Carrey in person. Rod Thorn walks into the bathroom and gets in line. Some guy says to him, “Got here too late.” Thorn says, “I guess I did.” After Thorn handles his business he takes his time washing his hands, then fixes his hair in the bathroom mirror before he leaves. He’s wearing loafers. They are very shiny, like stars.

Vinny Del Negro makes a classic beginner’s mistake: His black undershirt is longer in the sleeves than his combine-issued polo. You want to grab him. You want to say, “Come on, man. Have some respect for yourself. You’re Vinny Del Negro for God’s sake. You’re the combine director. You played for Jim Valvano.” Doug Collins glides around the gym, pats everyone on the back, tells Kenny Atkinson something kind that makes Atkinson say “Thank you” a bunch of times. Collins speaks into Alvin Gentry’s ear with an intensity typically reserved for prayer. Every time I see him, Collins is talking to someone else. He’s the mayor of the combine. He’s here to make you feel good.

Larry Bird is courtside. They’re making him sit in the same chairs as everyone else. He should get a special chair with extra padding. Actually, he should just get to sit in a recliner or lay on a couch or a bed or something. Get him a hot tub, suspend it over the court, make life easy on your legends.

Landry Fields is talking with someone I don’t know. So is Jameer Nelson. Joey Crawford is in a mint-green Tommy Bahama half-zip pullover. Nazr Mohammed is wearing a gigantic backpack. Fred Hoiberg is by himself on a side court, dressed in a Nebraska polo and talking on the phone. Mike Dunleavy Jr. walks by talking to a guy that looks like Brian d’Arcy James.

There are lots of people with more than one phone. There are lots of terrified ball boys unable to move quickly enough to satisfy some of the players and some of the coaches. The boys make poor passes to the shooters waiting on the ball. The boys are in over their heads.

John Beilein makes Erik Spoelstra laugh. A guy in a Joakim Noah Bulls T-shirt jersey walks by. There are so many pairs of the Cole Haans with the Nike soles at this thing. Perkins scowls at an official while assistant coaching in one of the scrimmages. Larry Hughes is also assistant coaching and wears calf-length tights under his shorts. Tayshaun Prince is wearing a gigantic backpack. There’s a toothpick in his mouth.

Tacko Fall denies Grant Williams at the rim. A man behind me says to no one in particular, “He’s just too big not to get drafted.” Perkins screams at the officials to call three seconds in the lane on Tacko. They don’t listen to him. Perkins’s beard is in full effect. It looks like Mike Woodson’s goatee, but bigger and more striking. Michael Finley and Mark Cuban talk to each other. A few feet away is T.J. Ford and James Posey. Posey has grey hair now and it makes me feel old. Carsen Edwards refuses to miss jump shots during the on-the-move shooting drills. James Jones talks to a man in a visor. Masai Ujiri uses his hands a lot when he talks. Shane Battier has a wonderful smile. Sam Presti sits courtside with his hand over his mouth. Roy Hibbert, also assistant coaching a team, is being very positive. He’s working with Williams on how to get shots off when going against taller guys. Kiki Vandeweghe is texting someone. He’s not looking where he’s walking. A woman screams, “Tito! This way!” Nic Claxton blocks Moses Brown twice at the rim. Pat Riley hangs his reading glasses from the neck of his button-up and he’s thrilled to see Tom Crean. Crean is in his Georgia hoodie, and a massive messenger bag is weighing him down. Brent Barry, Sean Marks, and R.C. Buford are deep in conversation. Ujiri talks to Scott Brooks. Brooks nods his head a lot and says, “That’s it.” He says it like what he wanted to say was, “You’re exactly right.”

Ignas Brazdeikis puts Neemias Queta in the rim. The bounciness of Jaylen Nowell. The nobility of Grant Williams. The distinguished Butch Beard. Shams refreshing Twitter. Darius Bazley showing out in a beautiful pair of neon green New Balances. Cody Martin taking a charge while wearing a top bun. Crawford making Beard laugh hard. Luka Samanic’s long shoestrings. I worried all day he’d trip on them. He didn’t.

The event’s exact name is: The 2019 NBA Draft Combine powered by Under Armour. It was not brought to you by Under Armour. It was not presented by Under Armour. It was not sponsored by Under Armour. It was powered by Under Armour. That’s a hell of a verb. The smartest thing that company ever did is add that “u” to “Armour.” It’s an added spice, gives the whole thing a European feel. I feel fancy just typing the word. Armour. I am Napoleon. Armour. I am Louis XIV. Armour. Do you like my driving gloves? Armour. What about my driving mocs? Armour. I own boats. I’m a boat guy. Armour. David Yurman is like a brother to me. Armour. He’s the godfather to my children and my very best friend. Armour. Our families vacation together in Bora Bora every year. Armour. The water is beautiful there. Armour. I currently have so many Domino’s Piece of the Pie Rewards points that I could order three pizzas right now and not have to pay for a single one. I am the Warren Buffett of the Domino’s Piece of the Pie Rewards Program. At this time, I’d like recommend to you their cinnamon twists. They taste incredible, especially if you pour the icing on when the twists are still hot. Use gravity. Let the icing do the work. Keep a loose, active wrist, and drizzle until empty. You can’t take it with you. Armour.

Four images accompanied the NBA’s and Under Armour’s signage for the event. The first was a figure playing defense. He’s mid-slide and trying to force the non-existent offensive player right. In the second image that same figure was shooting the basketball. He’s right-handed. His form looks fine. You’d like to see the right elbow tucked in a bit more but the world will not give you everything you want. You need to toughen up some and stop being so whiny all the time. The third image has the figure running. I spent a long time thinking about whether or not he was getting out on the break or getting back on defense. I have to start living a more exciting life. In the fourth image the figure is jumping, reaching, one arm up, palm flat, stretching. He’s testing his vertical. His right ring finger looks too short. Click Clack. We must protect this house. The NBA logo is beside the four pictures. I never noticed Jerry’s shorts are part of the equation. They’re defined in the outline and they’re as short as you remember. On to Day 2.

Friday, May 16, 2019

Woj—Garth Brooks microphone on his head, game face on—clutches a legal pad to his chest and waves at someone in the stands. Buford makes Ryan Saunders laugh. Finley is wearing a gigantic backpack. The man that was in the Joakim Noah T-shirt jersey the day before has now traded that in for a Pau Gasol Bulls T-shirt jersey. I thought, for a moment, it was the one true no. 16 for the Bulls, Paul Zipser. Alas, it was not. I wish it had been.

Dennis Lindsey is wearing a white visor. Visors are great because you’re wearing a hat but you also get to show off your hair. It’s having your cake and eating it, too. Jerry Eaves is in a pair of the black-and-red Yeezy Boost 350 V2’s. He’s sitting next to Beard, who once again looks like some kind of king. They’re both wearing Simmons College of Kentucky men’s basketball T-shirts. Eaves is the head men’s basketball coach and athletic director for Simmons College. Butch supports his friends. I support him.

Big Tim McCormick is strutting around in a suit and complaining about the lack of leg room in the seats. David Griffin stands exclusively with his arms crossed. I think we own the same shirt. When I was a kid, one of the things I used to brag about was that I had the exact same shirt Preston Waters wore in Blank Check when he’s inside that ball that made him spin around like how you see sometimes in astronaut-training montages. My mother purchased it for me at Gap Kids. I had it before the movie came out. I refuse to be a follower. There’s an extremely underrated Tone Loc performance in that movie and Miguel Ferrer is on fire for the entire 93-minute runtime. It would be amazing to be an astronaut. Griffin looks exactly like an old boss of mine. His name was Danny. We worked in the racquet sports department at a health club together. He called the Thunder the Thundies and would regularly be drunk by 5:30 p.m. Sometimes he’d call me and leave me voicemails. Once, on a Sunday evening during football season, he hit me up and I didn’t answer. I was on my way into a movie. The Dallas Cowboys were playing the Washington Redskins on NBC that night. His voicemail was coated in some Duckhorn Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and was three words long: “My man … Cowboys.”

There’s a big guy in a white Titleist hat sitting on the front row of the stands and roasting everybody that walks past him. He’s hanging out near all the old referees. Chris Mack is wearing a large white watch. Pelinka finally found someone to talk to—Carlisle. Damien Wilkins is wearing a gigantic backpack. James Jones is proving the doubters wrong, sitting courtside. Frank Vogel is wearing a gigantic backpack, dapping up everyone in sight. He’s already got a tan. Kurt Rambis is nearby, keeping watch over his progeny, some type of spy-camera contact lenses probably sending a direct feed straight to Phil Jackson’s laptop camera. Rambis is also wearing a gigantic backpack. There are so many gigantic backpacks here.

A guy in the stands is sitting by himself and watching the music video for “Old Town Road.” It came out that day. It’s awesome. Finley’s earring catches the light from across the gym and the diamond drops dots of glare into my eyes. Travis Schlenk is in a comfortable, unstructured blazer. He has a can of something in the blazer pocket. The big dude in the white Titleist hat says something to him I can’t quite make out. Schlenk laughs.

More smoothness from Bazley. He can do a lot of things. Carlisle and Bird sit beside one another, face straight ahead, and talk to each other. Woj makes Schlenk smile. Schlenk seems nice. Gar Forman’s in a (probably down) vest. It doesn’t work for him. He looks weird in it. Jalen McDaniels seems like he might be a player. So do Jaylen Nowell, Ky Bowman, and Zach Norvell Jr.

On Day 2 it was announced the Los Angeles Lakers wouldn’t hire someone to replace Magic Johnson as the head of basketball operations for the organization. Cut to Pelinka, sashaying down a side court, Lakers jacket on his person, right hand in his right jean pocket. He’s talking on the phone. He posts up against a wall. He kind of watches the game. Gentry and Griffin sit beside one another and talk at a courtside table. Mitch Kupchak is in a cornflower blue half-zip fleece pullover. His legs stretch out in front of him. There are eight seconds left in a 1-point game. Kupchak looks asleep.

Isaiah Roby goes coast to coast and yams on someone. It’s quiet in the gym. No one at the combine cheers when anything cool happens. That’s not a complaint—I know there’s no cheering in the press box—it’s just strange to see something amazing and feel like you have to be quiet about it.

Woj, standing by himself, is eating something. I can’t tell what it is. The packaging is small, small enough that he’s going into the bag with only one finger. He’s eating the snack with passion. He’s attacking the snack. The snack is being dominated. It could have been raisins. It could have been peanuts. It could have been the Welch’s fruit snacks they had in that room I wasn’t allowed to go in. I walked in there accidentally on the first day thinking it was the room the media were supposed to hang in. I saw the Welch’s fruit snacks and I’m a human being. Some urges are hard to deny. I hovered over the treats, took them in. A man wearing glasses and a grey button-up shirt looked at me like I was the devil. I grabbed one bag, left immediately, and wished I’d taken three. I never returned.