Wizards

Wizards

The first real event held at the St. Elizabeth's East Entertainment and Sports Arena in Southeast D.C., the future practice home for the Wizards and home stadium of the Mystics, took place on Saturday.

Before the doors even opened at 7 a.m., dozens of people lined up, waiting to get in.

But these weren't fans waiting to watch a game or a concert. These were basketball players, young and old by the sport's standards, all waiting for their chance to try out for the Wizards' new G-League affiliate, the Capital City Go-Go.

G-League teams are permitted to hold local tryouts and this was the first one in the history of the inaugural franchise.

The Wizards hosted over 100 players total across two sessions, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. They ran them through shooting drills, taught them two plays and then let them go in 5-on-5 scrimmages spread out between three courts; one in the main arena and the other two in the back of the building. 

Just about everyone from the Wizards front office was in attendance. Team president Ernie Grunfeld, senior vice president of basketball operations Tommy Sheppard and others looked on as hoopers from all walks of life played what were essentially pickup games, one after another.

The Go-Go are allowed to keep up to four players from the event. Those four would merely get invites to the team's training camp, which begins in October. The odds for these players to even get that far are minuscule and from there they get no guarantees for a roster spot.

 

"There are some things in life called reality," Go-Go coach Jarell Christian said. "The numbers are not in a lot of people's favor."

That said, there have been some success stories over the years from these types of tryouts. Go-Go general manager Pops Mensah-Bonsu told the players before the tryouts began about one famous case.

"Jonathan Simmons was in the exact same position they are. He doesn't hide the fact that he borrowed $150 from his mother to come to the tryout. She thought he was gonna fix his car. He's now a multi-millionaire with a multi-year contract in the NBA. I stressed to them that he was sitting in the exact same seat as those guys were just a few years ago," he said.

There were a few recognizable names in the tryout pool, most of which showed up in the afternoon for the more competitive session. Austin Freeman, formerly of Georgetown University, arrived wearing a Hoyas shirt.

Aquille Carr, known as The Crimestopper in Baltimore because of his legendary high school career, arrived in the afternoon. He was on-brand, wearing a Crimestopper shirt.

For the most part, the players participating came without a reputation to precede them. They are essentially regular Joe's, holding onto the hope of an NBA dream.

There were guys like Preston Ross III, 25, who works in information technology at ISN Corporation in Bethesda, MD. He played college ball at Winston-Salem St. and then overseas in Germany. He now lives in Woodbridge, Va. 

"It's nice to play in here and be one of the first to play in here," he said of the new facilities.

Ross' college teammate, Bryan Scott, is a 29-year-old operations manager at L.A. Fitness in D.C. He played in Mexico and Spain after graduating from Winston-Salem St.

There were guys like Dele Ojo, a standout in the pro-am Goodman and Kenner Leagues. He's 36 and grew up in Montgomery County, Md. He played at Damascus High School and then Pfeiffer University in North Carolina.

Ojo played in Canada and Mexico before returning to the states where he has won MVP, Finals MVP and defensive player of the year in the Goodman League. He played with Kevin Durant and LeBron James during the lockout year in 2011.

"Good guy. Kevin Durant, he's a good dude. He gets a lot of heat for going to Golden State, but he's a good dude," Ojo said.

Ojo stood out in the morning session for his motor. Wizards front office executives remarked about his style of playing full-court defense as a point guard. That work ethic is a source of pride for Ojo, who is a para-educator for Montgomery County schools. He works with behaviorally challenged kids. 

"Good kids, but they just need extra guidance. They come from rough backgrounds and I'm like a mentor to them," he said.

Ojo said he doesn't brag to his students about his basketball exploits. He learned that lesson years ago when he was working at an elementary school. He told one student, they looked him up on YouTube and from there the entire school knew.

 

"It got a little crazy," he said.

Kanu Aja drove down from Baltimore. He's 26 and went to Mount Saint Joseph High School before a college career that ended at East Carolina University. He now works as a property manager in Baltimore County, that after years of working security at clubs in Baltimore and Atlanta. He stopped because the job became too dangerous.

"I'm a big target. I worked some rough clubs," he said. "Now, I'm just trying to continue the dream."

John Holleman drove up from Petersburg, Va., just south of Richmond. He grew up there and played at nearby Virginia State University. VSU alum and former Wizards player Ben Wallace helped him train for the tryout this summer.

Holleman is 28 and uses his social science degree to help underprivileged youth and those dealing with mental health issues in the Petersburg area. He works in neighborhoods and schools that are poverty stricken and feels it is his life's duty to make a difference with those going through the same trials he has endured.

"You make a way out of nowhere," he said. "I just strive every day to be the best man I can be, on and off the court. I feel like basketball intertwines that. It's the game of life, it has its ups and downs, evidenced by mine. But if you have a strong will, you can overcome anything."

Holleman said that NBA player Frank Mason III, who won the national player of the year award at Kansas, is a good example of someone who made it out of Petersburg. Mason has realized the dream Holleman and others have strived for.

Whether he makes the Go-Go or not, Holleman is doing well for himself and making a difference in society. As he says, it wasn't easy to get here.

"[Growing up], it was just seeing what I didn't want to be every day. Every day was a constant reminder of what I didn't want to be. I had friends that at 14 years old were going to jail for life, or losing their life. Every day I just reminded myself that that's not the path that I want to take. With that, it was like okay, get an education first and foremost and use my athletic talents secondly. And have faith in God's plan for my life," he said.

Holleman and others were given another chance on Saturday as they hold on to hopes of an NBA career. But ultimately, given the odds, it's unlikely many if any of them will accomplish that goal.

That's where Mensah-Bonsu comes in. He has to inform the players of their fate. He does not take lightly the fact he may be the one who ends their basketball dreams for good.

"I've been in similar situations. I've been cut from multiple NBA teams. I've been in situations where I thought I was good enough to make it and I was told one way or the other that it wasn't meant to be. Those situations were painful. I always told myself that if I had the opportunity to be in this situation, to do this job with integrity and always make sure that I'm honest and that I see the human side of things," he said.

 

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