Confronted with the uncertainty of going undrafted before last year's NBA lockout, Rick Jackson decided to put his NBA dream on hold and play with France's Chorale Romaine to continue working on his game and get some professional experience under his belt.
"I felt like I learned a lot from overseas just playing with a bunch of veterans over there because there's not a lot of young guys over there playing in France," said the 6'9" post in an interview during the Santa Cruz Warriors media day at the Golden State Warriors' practice facility in Oakland on November 15, just before the beginning of their preseason. "The average is about 30 or 31 over there so I had a lot of veterans on my team and I just learned a lot of new moves. And, you know, playing with older guys, I think that always makes you better."
Unfortunately, Jackson's plans of getting back to the NBA appeared to get derailed when he suffered an Achilles injury in April against Pau Orthez. For a NBA hopeful, April is an awful time to suffer an injury of that magnitude: even if you're on a NBA team's radar, it means no summer league and certainly puts a NBA training camp invite in doubt. And for someone who went undrafted to begin with, it's lost time to work on their game.
"Just sitting out watching basketball for six months, seven months is tough," said Jackson. "I mean, you think once you get on the court you're just going to have it right back right away the first time you play, but it's not that easy."
Then in September, the Warriors came along with an offer that would probably catch anyone off guard - after nobody called his name on draft day when he was healthy, the Warriors approached him with an offer that was impossible to turn down while he was still unable to play.
"By the graces of God, the Warriors still gave me a chance and they brought me to training camp and they really just rehabbed me," said Jackson, with a hint of disbelief though beaming with appreciation. "I guess they felt I was good enough to be here one day and rehab me and then gave me a chance to play for the D-League team."
With that, Jackson was off to Santa Cruz to play in the D-League as a Golden State Warriors "affiliate player".
The general sentiment about playing in the D-League was probably summed up most succinctly by rookie guard Carlon Brown during the first Santa Cruz media day a couple of weeks ago.
"I just want to come out and play," said Brown. "I know I can play everyday and try to win for this team and our specific organization."
And it's hard to imagine coming out with any other mindset.
Santa Cruz, like many D-League cities, is certainly not the most glamorous place a pro athlete could choose to take their talents. For most of these guys - who were born and raised across the country - Santa Cruz is what 2012 first round draft pick Travis Leslie charitably described as, "different".
But it's also no Bismarck, North Dakota.
"It's a little different," said Taylor Griffin when asked about his experience in Bismarck last season, where the now-Santa Cruz Warriors were playing as the Dakota Wizards. "It was cold. It was flat. It was really windy. Actually, kind of similar to Oklahoma. Colder than Oklahoma, but as far as the landscape and the wind it's similar."
Yet what Bismarck and Santa Cruz do have in common within the context of the pro basketball world is that they're both in the U.S., which means they bring players that much closer to their ultimate goal of making the NBA. That makes the otherwise pedestrian life - modest salary, little publicity, and playing in small cities - all worth it for these guys.
"I know some of [the WNBA's] better players get paid a little more than some D-League guys," said Griffin, who attended Oklahoma University at the same time as current WNBA players Courtney Paris and Danielle Robinson before being drafted by the Phoenix Suns. "But I actually ran into Danielle, I guess this summer, they were playing and I was flying from Oklahoma back out to L.A. And they were in the airport traveling just like we do - commercially. You know, that's a huge difference, even from college; in college we flew charter and obviously with the Suns we flew charter. Then coming here everything is commercial, you're waking up at 6:30 a.m. or 4:30 a.m. to fly to wherever.
"And it's a grind, but that's part of it and what it takes."
To say that D-League players are humble is probably an understatement or maybe even a misnomer entirely - humility is a job requirement and probably pointless to mention, though it's the one thing that certainly stands out about talking to these guys; they can't be the stereotypical attention-starved, me-first prima dona types in search of celebrity status via pro sports.
But in the midst of it all, juxtaposing where they are now with what they're striving for can only really be described as humbling.
"Some guys are just more content with going [overseas] and making the money immediately," said Lance Goulbourne, who, like Jackson, was also in Golden State's training camp and is in Santa Cruz as an affiliate player. "Some guys don't want to be living the life like this, just waiting and hoping. But I'm really just looking after my dream and trying to chase that - the money doesn't really matter to me right now. I don't have any children right now so I don't have to feed anybody but myself."
Goulbourne, who can draw confidence from seeing former Vanderbilt teammates like Golden State center Festus Ezeli playing in the NBA, was clear that he wasn't exactly sitting by his phone "waiting and hoping" for it to ring and have someone on the other end offer him a chance to take the next step in achieving his NBA dream.
The reality is that you simply don't have time to adopt that mindset.
"You can't go in looking to get called up," said Stefhon Hannah, a returning player who won Defensive Player of the Year last season playing for Dakota. "I feel like that's where a lot of people go wrong as far as like worrying about, 'Oh I need a call up. I need this. I need that.' Look, if you wanna do the D-League, you gotta do the D-League first. You gotta take care of business here and then if that happens, then that's a blessing."
But all of this - the psychological experience of fighting for your dream that seems distant even if Santa Cruz is closer to Oakland than Bismarck combined with the lived experience of sacrificing bigger crowds, paychecks, and publicity elsewhere - has to be considered taxing, if still a privileged lifestyle.
Yet for a player like Jackson or any of the other NBA hopefuls in Santa Cruz, the D-League provides almost unquestionably the best path for him to get to the NBA.
"Being in the D-league, I'm in close proximity with the NBA - which is a dream I've had since I was a kid - so that's probably the deciding factor," said Goulbourne when asked about his decision to choose the D-League instead of going overseas. "Going overseas, I'd probably have to wait until next year to get this kind of opportunity. So, stay in the D-League, hopefully get called up, and just try to chase my dream, to be honest, in the first year."
Hoping and waiting
It wasn't quite divine intervention that got Jackson to the Warriors, though you can hardly blame him for feeling that way.
The Warriors were actually one of 3-4 teams interested in Jackson this past off-season, with the Austin Toros being their chief competition. Having followed him both in college and overseas, Santa Cruz Warriors GM Kirk Lacob gave Jackson a call shortly after he was injured just to see how he was doing and assess whether he was someone they could sign despite knowing that they'd have to rehab him before seeing him play at all.
"We looked at his medical history, asked around, and found that he was getting closer," said Lacob. "He looked like he had a chance, so we wanted to get a better look at him. We brought him in, basically told him you're not participating in training camp - you're gonna be here, but you're doing all rehab stuff, which is kind of an unusual request for a guy (to) come into training and be told you're not even going to play."
After sitting on the sidelines for months, training camp brought another period of watching in frustration while teammates were taking the floor. But the Warriors - both Golden State and Santa Cruz - were well-aware of the risks involved for them and him as a player if he returned to action too early, initially setting their regular season opener as his first date to play in a game but remaining flexible.
"I had to tell him this a number of times," Lacob said. "'It's great that you want to play hurt, but especially with a big injury like that, it's not worth it. It's not like you have a multi-million dollar contract - you're trying to get that. And if you hurt it again, you're in trouble. So don't worry about now because we wouldn't have brought you in if we didn't believe in you. This is not the total one day flier; this is something (where) we're committing to you for some time.'"
Jackson begrudgingly remained patient, sitting out both of the Santa Cruz Warriors' playoff games while he tried to work his way back to 100%. When Jackson and I spoke on media day, he said he was 90% healthy and still trying to work on getting back to doing the little things that put him on the NBA radar to begin with.
"I picked up a lot because I watched the practices," said Jackson of his experience in Warriors training camp. "I mean, they didn't want me out there, but I still was there two hours before. I was working out during practice and watching practice. And during those two-a-days, I would be here probably in the gym you know nine hours just to see what's going on and just to have a little part in what's going on. You know, it helps."
Knowing that they wouldn't be able to see him play, that sort of attitude and work ethic was exactly what the Warriors were hoping to see from Jackson when they made the commitment to rehab him - they already had a feel for what he was able to do on the basketball floor from both their draft scouting and his play overseas. After averaging a double-double at Syracuse in what was a solid, though perhaps not extraordinary career, he continued to impress with his performance at the 2011 Portsmouth Invitational Tournament and was named to the All-PIT Third Team.
"We followed him in college obviously," said Lacob. "We were fans of his - we were a little surprised he didn't get drafted."
Yet writing about Jackson in an analysis of the 2011 Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, Joseph Treutlein of DraftExpress wrote that, "Jackson brings a solid, well-rounded game to the table, but may not stand out enough with one exceptional skill to find a role in the NBA initially...will likely need to continue developing to find a long-term niche."
That was hardly lost on the Warriors when they contacted an injured Jackson over the summer. And when taking that evaluation into account along with the Achilles injury suffered in France, Jackson stands out as exactly the type of player the D-League was made for and, perhaps more significant for Warriors fans, exactly the reason owning a D-League franchise is such a significant development.
Jackson just chuckled when asked if he realized that defense and rebounding was something that Warriors fans aren't even used to seeing, but there's little mystery that they went out and got him with that in mind.
"I felt like they really liked my game; the only thing they wanted me to do is just to get back to where I was at," said Jackson when asked about the type of feedback he got from Golden State prior to being designated as an affiliate player with Santa Cruz. "That's one of the things - just to get back to where I was at. You know and I feel like that once I get back to being the player that I was I'll get called up."
Every player on the Santa Cruz Warriors' roster has a story worth telling, but what's particularly interesting about Jackson's story is that the Warriors franchise has made an investment in a player who is not only unproven by NBA standards but to this point hasn't even been able to show what he can do in U.S. pro basketball. It was a bit of a leap of faith for a player who they knew couldn't perform when they signed him but might be able to help them in the long-term.
"Our goal for him was let's get a good look, understand who he is," Lacob said. "We obviously brought four guys in for those three spots knowing that maybe Rick wasn't going to be ready - maybe one of these other guys was going to pull out. We brought in an alternate just in case maybe he needed it. But Rick did a great job - working really hard. It was, I think, really good for him to get that treatment because I don't think he was getting that on his own and obviously being part of a NBA training staff and really good doctors helps a lot."
With the Warriors' D-League and NBA teams close enough for the entire organization to monitor his development, the Warriors quietly made a low-risk investment on a player they believed could possibly help them in the future. And independent of whether he ever gets a call up, they've given a young player who wants nothing more than a chance to prove himself the opportunity to continue pursuing his hoop dream.
Finding motivation to compete every day knowing that he could make more money elsewhere is hardly a challenge for Jackson - the faith that the Warriors have put in him only reinforces the faith that he has in himself.
"I mean it's a great feeling - that right there is a lot of motivation to let me know that maybe one day I'm going to play in the NBA," said Jackson. "Just for the team to take a try on me when they know [was] not going to play any games, not going to be able to practice - I can do nothing but rehab. I got cleared to start doing stuff on the court on September 19th and they got me out here the last week of September.
"So you know that's just a blessing right there and I just try to stay positive and just keep working and hopefully one day I'll get my dream."
Moving on: The surprising Santa Cruz epilogue
So imagine my surprise when I called Lacob up yesterday to clarify a few things for this story and he greeted me with some awkward information before I even had a chance to ask my first question: they were in the process of approving a then-unannounced trade involving Jackson going to the Austin Toros, as reported yesterday.
"He'll get playing time and that was my biggest concern because he was a guy I made a commitment to," said Lacob, helping to allay my rapidly increasing feeling that I had completely wasted my time on this story. "And we would help him to make it up there (to the NBA) and that would be tough to do with those other guys on the roster too.
"So, funny timing for sure - it all came together fairly quickly."
Yet rather than rendering this entire story irrelevant, even the conclusion of this chapter in Rick Jackson's career serves to illustrate a larger point that struck me from the day I initially spoke with him and heard his story.
It was no coincidence that the Warriors sent Jackson to the Toros, not only a team that initially showed interest in him and potentially had minutes available, but also a team affiliated with a first-class NBA franchise in the San Antonio Spurs - the Warriors, and perhaps Lacob in particular, made a commitment to Jackson that can't be said to trump the interest of the team but was unquestionably more significant in this situation than we might be accustomed to in pro sports for a player who didn't contribute a thing to the team's bottom line, either in revenue or wins. Perhaps a more cynical fan might look at this situation and simply say the Warriors wasted money on Rick Jackson.
"I know some other teams weren't as committed to being dedicated to the full length of the rehab he was going to have to go through - I'm sure they had some reservations about it," said Lacob. "You're paying a guy's medical bills when he's not playing and you don't know if he'll ever play for you. So it's an investment that you really don't know whether it will return."
Regardless of how common such stories are or have yet to become in the modern U.S. pro basketball world, the reality is that the Warriors would not have made an investment in Jackson at all were it not for the D-League: he likely wasn't going to make Golden State's roster even if healthy, he wasn't even healthy, and there would've been no reason to take a chance on a young talent they'd followed since the 2011 draft at all were it not for the D-League option.
"I don't think we ever would've brought him in if we hadn't had our D-League team - there would be no real reason to," said Lacob. "We probably would've waited until summer league next year or a free agent workout at some time. Or if he ended up in the D-League with another team we would've scouted him."
Jackson's story itself was striking to me simply be cause it seemed so out of the ordinary, but the broader implications for Warriors fans is that owning the Santa Cruz team enables the entire organization to take risks on developing players, like Jackson, who they like in the long-term but simply don't have a spot on a NBA roster in the short-term.
"It allows us to take a lot more chances, be a little bit more creative and innovative in the types of players we go after," said Lacob. "We wouldn't have taken a look at him if we didn't have a team and yet he's a guy who we liked a year ago. So, I mean, it kinda sounds stupid to say that you liked a guy a year ago and wouldn't even take a look at him. So it really gives us an opportunity to flesh out all of the opportunities that we've looked at. It gives us a chance to dive in deeper and better and have more information about ideas that we maybe wanted to try anyways."
Given that Jackson has already had a crash course in the harsh realities of professional sports - from going undrafted to sustaining a major injury to getting traded - and has remained undeterred, it's nearly impossible to imagine him seeing this as a permanent setback instead of one more opportunity to pursue his dream.
"I mean, every day you step out here just being in the D-League it's just motivating because there is a bigger goal," said Jackson back on media day. "I think once you enter the league there is no bigger goal because you're in the NBA so it's not like you're playing to get called up somewhere else. But here, I mean, you're playing to be in the league just like anybody. So guys are going hard, guys are leaving it all out on the court, and you know you gotta just treat every night like it's your last game because, I mean, it could be your last game in the D-League. I mean you don't know that - you could get that call up.
"So you gotta just go out there and you gotta just leave all out there."