HOUSTON—It’s the night of Oct. 13, 2014, and the Houston Rockets are hosting the Phoenix Suns. Dwight Howard and James Harden are sitting this one out, but that’s no surprise. After all, this is just a preseason game, and the preseason isn’t for superstars. It’s for the rotation guys, the end-of-bench guys and the guys who won’t make the team.
It might as well be any preseason game. The names change, the teams change, but the struggles are the same.
It’s 45 minutes before tipoff, and the locker room is almost empty. Jeff Adrien is there, stretching out on a foam roller, doing what head coach Kevin McHale might call a “Jane Fonda workout.” His headphones hint he doesn’t want to be bothered.
Jeff is just 28, but he’s bounced around a lot for a relatively young guy. According to ShamSports, he started his professional career playing in Spain for a year, then did a stint in the D-League.
Over the next two years, he was picked up and waived by the Golden State Warriors twice and by the Rockets and Charlotte Bobcats once each. There were two more trips to the D-League thrown in for good measure. Last summer, the Bobcats signed him again only to trade him to the Milwaukee Bucks halfway through the year.
In spite of the fact he posted solid averages of 10.9 points and 7.8 boards, the Bucks didn’t give him a new contract, so the Rockets picked him up for the minimum. With no clear-cut favorite among the reserve bigs, he now has his best chance to prove he’s worth a bigger contract.
At least it should be. He played well his first two games but now has a nagging ankle injury. Hence the secluded Jane Fonda workout.
It’s just a preseason game, but it’s an important one to Jeff, even if it just means getting through it without aggravating his ankle.
Troy Daniels comes in and grabs a seat at his locker. Last year, Troy didn’t make the Rockets’ final cut in training camp, so he played for their D-League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. He tore things up, draining a freakish 5.0 three-pointers per game.
On the court, he’s brash and bold. Off it he’s so soft-spoken you have to lean in to hear what he’s saying.
He believes he benefited from the experience—even more than if he’d made the Rockets in training camp last year. “I think that I’m a better player,” he says. “Instead of sitting on the bench, going to the D-League, I’m playing in the games and getting on the floor. It’s better than being on the bench and not getting the proper playing time.”
And it helped him learn what they do in Houston: “The Houston Rockets and Valley Vipers run the same system and call the same plays, so that helped a lot when I got called up.”
Troy knows the benefits of the D-League, but now he’s in the NBA to stay. He parlayed what he learned in Rio Grande into a call-up to the mothership. He turned that into a game-winning shot in the playoffs. “When I hit that shot, I felt that everything was for that moment, and now that moment is for this year.”
Now he’s on a guaranteed contract, but he’s looking to extend that into more playing time. He’ll have to take that from Jason Terry, former Sixth Man of the Year.
Troy’s played just 20 total minutes in the Rockets’ first two preseason games, but Terry and Harden aren’t dressing tonight, so he has a chance to get some run. It’s an important chance to prove himself as a viable sixth man.
A choir is singing the National Anthem, but press row is still only half-filled. After all, it’s just a preseason game.
Kostas Papanikolaou gets the start for Harden. “Pops,” as they call him, is a dynamic rookie from Greece.
Joey Dorsey takes Howard’s spot. This is his chance to prove he can be an NBA player.
Joey is another one of those guys who has been working hard to get back into the Association. He was first drafted by the Rockets back in 2008 with the 33rd pick. After playing sporadic minutes for Houston, he got traded to the Sacramento Kings.
After they waived him, he was picked up by the Toronto Raptors. After they didn’t want him anymore, he went to Europe. There, he played in Spain, Greece (where he won an award for Best Defensive Player), Turkey and then Spain again.
Now he has his second shot with Houston, which gave him a guaranteed deal.
The game is a competitive one despite the facts that the Suns are playing all their starters and the Rockets don’t have their stars.
Joey leaves the game midway through the second quarter. Other than that, not much notable happens. Neither team takes more than a five-point lead. Surprisingly, the kids and vagabonds are holding their own.
But then the Suns start out the second half on a 17-4 run, and it looks like reality has caught up with the overmatched Houston reserves.
That’s when Tarik Black subs in for Joey, who is clearly struggling, and shortly thereafter things start to turn around.
Tarik’s an undrafted rookie out of Kansas. He did both the Orlando and Vegas summer league thing twice, first with the Orlando Magic, then Houston.
Frist, Troy takes over. With the Rockets down nine, he drains a three. Then he steals the ball from Anthony Tolliver and gets a hockey assist via Donatas Motiejunas, with Isaiah Canaan getting the finish.
Isaiah draws a foul on Goran Dragic with the Suns over the foul limit. He hits both free throws. Tolliver misses a shot, and Troy grabs the rebound. Then Troy knocks down another three, sparking the hashtag “#TreyDaniels.”
Then Tarik draws a foul and makes a pair of free throws. Suddenly, the Rockets have a three-point lead.
It’s no surprise the three kids have chemistry. Tarik tells me how tight the younger group has been.
“Me and Nick (Johnson), we’ve been bonding together all summer. Since summer league we’ve been having fun together…talking…speaking. I’m actually staying with Isaiah Canaan at his house, in his extra room, until I find out what happens with me, and I get my own spot. Troy comes out, and we hang out all the time. So we all get along, as well as getting along with the older guys on the team.”
That camaraderie between Troy, Isaiah and Tarik is useful in their comeback.
Beginning with Troy’s three, the trio—all scoreless until that moment—combine to score 36 of Houston’s last 46 points, including the last five from Isaiah. He puts the game away on a three-point play with 29 seconds remaining.
The crowd loses sight of it being a preseason game and gets into it.
McHale is asked if he thinks it’s good for the kids to get a preseason win. “It’s always good to win,” he answers. “It’s good for Isaiah to see the ball go in the hoop.”
The feeling in the locker room is positive.
Trevor Ariza played but watched the fourth quarter from the bench. He’s wearing a big smile, as though he enjoyed being a fan instead of a player for a quarter. “It’s very fun,” he says about watching them play. “They bring a lot of energy—a lot of passion.”
Troy and Isaiah are as linked in their interview game as they are in their on-court skills.
Troy says, “That’s my job. My job is to shoot the ball, to make shots. I did it last year, but I still have to prove to a lot of people that I can go out and make shots. When Coach calls my name, I will always be ready, no matter when it is in the game.”
Isaiah says, “I want to show them I am always ready. ... It’s just my job to be ready, so I just try to do that and be as professional as I can and always be ready when my name’s called.”
Be ready: That implies watching and waiting. Those aren’t things superstars have to deal with; that’s for the bench players fighting for playing time. Not knowing if or when you’re going to play but being able to come in already heated up requires a different kind of mentality.
Troy and Isaiah proved themselves worthy of that calling tonight.
Not everyone is happy, though. Joey is frustrated with his game; he didn’t play well tonight. The Rockets were outscored by eight points with him on the court, the worst plus/minus of anyone on the team. He has no points and only two rebounds.
So now he’s sitting beside his locker, talking to someone on the phone. “It’s been two years. What do you expect?” you can overhear him saying.
He keeps his back to the media as he gets dressed. When he finishes, he skirts the reporters moving toward him, then makes a bead for the exit. Mercifully, no one tries to chase him down. His disappointment didn’t need words to convey it.
McHale calls him, “very rusty” in the postgame presser, but he expects Joey to get better with time.
Jeff, who never returned after leaving in the second quarter, is trying to be optimistic. He’s asked about what happened with his ankle. “The kid (he doesn’t specify which one) stepped on my foot, and it kind of stretched. It’s not there, but it’s almost there. I think it’ll be fine tomorrow.”
Something in his tone reveals the hidden struggle of the professional athlete. His words speak optimism, but his voice carries a resonance of doubt. It’s as though he feels by preaching optimism he can make it so. The mental challenge of staving off the negativity is probably greater than we mere mortals realize.
And it works. The next night in New Orleans, he plays 17 minutes, scoring seven points, grabbing two boards and blocking a shot.
It’s a dilemma for the Rockets: Tarik has been playing better than Jeff or Joey, but they’re on guaranteed deals, and he’s not.
McHale notices how well Tarik’s been playing too, saying, “Tarik does a very good job of filling up the paint and banging bodies.” With all the injuries, though, McHale says they haven’t had a chance to get enough bigs in a practice to gauge where the competition stands.
That’s code for "the guy without the guaranteed contract loses." Tarik is likely to open the season in Rio and knows it.
“Me…myself….I’m not expecting to be on this roster like them,” Tarik says. “I hope for the best, but I also know that I’m a rookie and I have to earn my stripes. And I know that any day of the week they can call and say go down for a D-League stint. I already expect that. I’ve already accepted that. It’s not a problem.
He’s at a different place than Jeff or Joey are: Getting the Rockets’ attention and a gig in Rio means success for him.
These games mean nothing in the standings. There will be no preseason champion crowned. For the stars who have thousands of game minutes ahead of them, the preseason is nothing more than an inconvenient necessity.
For men like Jeff, Joey, Troy, Isaiah and Tarik, there’s no such thing as “just the preseason.” This is their proving ground. This is where roster spots are earned, where contracts or won and playing time is the prize.
This is where hopes are realized or dashed.
This is where everything they’ve done in their lives to this point is vindicated: the hours on the court from the time they were kids; for guys like Joey and Jeff, the thousands of miles traveled from team to team, country to country, league to league. It’s all for now.
To them, this is the preseason! It is their lives.
All quotes for this article were obtained firsthand.