One-and-Done

More than 4,000 players have appeared in an NBA game, but for a select few, their careers couldn't have been briefer. While not all recall those precious minutes fondly, many will never forget.
photo of Gerald NarcisoGerald Narciso@@geraldnarcisoFreelance contributorJune 16, 2020

They are part of the NBA fraternity. You know, the one whose members receive jerseys with the Jerry West silhouette stitched on the upper left shoulder.

Some played less than 10 seconds; some played more than half a game. Some scored; some didn't. One shared a court with Dr. J and Charles Barkley, while another briefly called Tim Duncan a teammate.

It's a random but, in many ways, exclusive club. Of some 4,400 players who have ever suited up in the NBA, only 66 did so once, per Basketball Reference. That's one regular-season game. One check-in. One box score.

Each year, there are roughly 450 roster slots in the NBA. Between cuts, trades, two-way players and incoming rookies from the draft, sometimes sticking in the league is just as hard as making it. 

"You soon learn that the NBA is a carousel; guys jump off, jump on," wrote former NBA player Chris Herren in his 2012 autobiography, Basketball Junkie.

"The line between who makes it and who doesn't is a very thin one."

Every player has his own unique journey. Herren himself had a relatively brief NBA stint, appearing in 70 games over two seasons during the early 2000s. In contrast, Vince Carter logged 1,541 games in 22 seasons before his farewell tour was abruptly ended because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Buried in Carter's 1998 NBA draft class was Tyson Wheeler, a late second-round pick who played a single game for the Denver Nuggets during the 1998-99 lockout season. A crafty 5'10" scoring guard (think Celtics-era Isaiah Thomas) out of Rhode Island, Wheeler, along with teammate Cuttino Mobley, helped lead the Rams to a surprise Elite Eight appearance.

For players like Wheeler who stopped for the proverbial cup of coffee in the league, talent (or lack thereof) wasn't necessarily the obstacle. Situation, timing, numbers games, injuries or just plain bad luck contributed to the "woulda, coulda, shouldas" of their NBA longevity.

Tracking down players with single-game experience under their belts to talk to B/R was a wild goose chase. Many were unlisted. Most ignored. Some, plain and simple, didn't want to revisit that period. To them, it was a failure.

"I would rather not be included in a feature like that please," emailed one player, now working outside basketball. "I just kind of moved on from that experience."

Whatever the shortcomings or their interpretations of their careers, they're still in the books. They still played in one more NBA game than probably you or I. They still have memories they can take with them forever. Stories they can tell their kids. The stars they can say they played with. The stars they can say they played against. The contracts they can say they signed. The arenas they can say were packed.  

Because those who know, just know.

         

Tyson Wheeler: February 8, 1999, Denver Nuggets vs. Houston Rockets, Compaq Center (Houston, Texas)

Tyson Wheeler admits the details of his month-and-a-half stint with the Denver Nuggets are a bit murky.

That's expected after 21 years. He has trouble remembering the eight other regular-season games he dressed for but didn't play. Wheeler, now 44, can't even verify if he got on the floor or not during the preseason. 

A two-time member of the Atlantic 10's first team, Tyson Wheeler was drafted in 1998 but only managed to get into one game for three minutes in 1999.
A two-time member of the Atlantic 10's first team, Tyson Wheeler was drafted in 1998 but only managed to get into one game for three minutes in 1999.MATT YORK/Associated Press/Associated Press

But what remains clear as day was that moment in Houston when his coach, Mike D'Antoni, called his name from the end of the bench late in the fourth quarter. It was the third game of the season, and the Nuggets were getting blown out by the Rockets.  

"I wasn't ready to get in," Wheeler recalled with a laugh during a phone conversation with B/R. "I was just chillin' on the bench and wasn't expecting to play. But I'll tell you what, when I took off my warmups I was so, so nervous."

Drafted 47th overall by the Toronto Raptors the previous summer, Wheeler was excited to go to Canada and play with his friend from his home state of Connecticut, Marcus Camby, who lobbied Raptors management to draft him. Toronto, a team that also boasted Tracy McGrady and fellow rookie Vince Carter, not only had a void at the backup point guard slot, but it also had a history of appreciating undersized guards like Damon Stoudamire.

"I thought that would be a perfect situation," said Wheeler, who was twice named to the Atlantic 10 first team.

Wheeler never set foot in the 6ix. Because of the lockout, there were no rookie minicamps or summer league, which claimed any opportunities he may have had to build rapport with Raptors coaches. When the lockout ended, Wheeler was informed at the league's Rookie Transition Program in New York a week prior to training camp by friend and fellow rookie Tyronn Lue (who had heard from his agent) that he had been traded with Chauncey Billups to the Nuggets.

A throw-in in the deal, Wheeler quickly found himself in a position pinch. The Nuggets already possessed three established point guards under contract: Billups, Nick Van Exel and Cory Alexander. But a productive training camp and relentless work ethic raised eyebrows in the front office. D'Antoni, a then-first-year NBA head coach, informed Wheeler that he made the team.

"We were going to cut you today, but you've been doing so well we wanted to keep you on for a little longer," D'Antoni said, according to Wheeler. "We didn't expect you to be this good."

Even though he played on big stages against future pros at Rhode Island, Wheeler had some fanboy moments in the NBA. As a lifelong Lakers fan, he gawked at Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant from the bench when they came into town. Hours before a preseason game in Utah, he remembers inching his way to the opposing side of the court to get shots up with Karl Malone, breaking an unwritten rule.

"John Lucas [the Nuggets assistant coach] yells at me, 'Tyson get your ass back here, you can't be shooting around with Karl. Are you crazy?'" said Wheeler, now an assistant coach at UMass.

By the time he finally got in against the Rockets with 3:08 left in the game and the Nuggets down 23, Houston's star trio of Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen were on the bench, finished for the evening. After getting fouled early, Wheeler stepped to the line, butterflies still on 1000.

"My first free throw, I almost threw it through the backboard," said Wheeler, noting his college teammate Mobley, then a rookie with the Rockets, was beside him on the free-throw line and said, "Damn, bro. Slow down. Relax." After swishing the second, his nerves calmed. Wheeler began mimicking what made him successful in practice, running the offense and controlling the tempo.

With 1:15 left to play, Wheeler found himself wide open on the three-point line directly in front of the Houston bench.

"I shot it, and what I used to say when I shot the ball, I would say my last name 'Wheeler!' like how kids nowadays say 'Kobe,' and that shit went in! And I remember turning around and Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen, Hakeem Olajuwon were laughing on the bench."

"Wheeler!"

He hit his one and only NBA field goal and finished with four points and two assists in three minutes.

"I couldn't believe a 5'10" kid from New London, Connecticut, who was hardly recruited out of high school, and the work that I put in and the time that I put in shoveling snow at the park, staying up at the court for seven to eight hours a day, that my dream had really come true," Wheeler said.

The next day, Wheeler achieved an even bigger life milestone. After flying home to Denver from Houston, he was met with a fax (remember, this was 1999) at the front desk of the hotel he had been living in. His daughter, Tiara, had been born back in Connecticut. He jumped on the next flight to meet his firstborn and be with his girlfriend (now wife).

When he returned to the team days later, he suited up for six more games, though he never got into any of them. He was cut on February 19, 1999. There were stints in the summer league and training camp with other teams over the next few years (and he was the final cut in Seattle's camp in the fall of '99), but he never stuck.

"As a competitor, I always wanted to get another chance, because I thought I could play in the NBA," said Wheeler, who started a coaching career in 2010. "But, I didn't dwell on it. It is what it is. Still had a really good career playing overseas and the CBA and ABA. So, there's no hard feelings at all."

Wheeler rarely talks about his NBA experience, other than while recruiting prep stars to UMass, "just [to] let kids know they don't have to go to the highest level to be noticed." He has no mementos of his brief Nuggets days, and he never took home his uniform once he was cut. "I'm not even sure they would have given it to me." However, he would be interested in retrieving the video evidence of the Rockets game one day.    

"I know there is some footage out there," he said. "But even if I don't get it, I still have the memory."

   

Antonio Anderson: March 3, 2010, Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Denver Nuggets, Pepsi Center (Denver, Colorado)

Anderson logged 15 minutes in his one game with the Thunder, but it was enough to earn him a second 10-day contract with the team.
Anderson logged 15 minutes in his one game with the Thunder, but it was enough to earn him a second 10-day contract with the team.David Zalubowski/Associated Press

It was the middle of February 2010 when one of the winningest college basketball players of all time, Antonio Anderson, got a call from his agent: "I think Oklahoma City is going to call you up."

Anderson, a 6'6" defensively focused guard/forward for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, had been making noise in the D-League (now the G League). A month before, he was named NBDL Player of the Month. And a year before that, he was wrapping up a storied four-year collegiate career at Memphis, which included 137 total wins and an appearance in the 2008 National Championship game—an overtime loss to Kansas—alongside head coach John Calipari and star point guard Derrick Rose.

Despite the winning pedigree and versatile skill set, he was passed on by NBA teams in the 2009 draft. His teammate at Memphis, Tyreke Evans, was drafted fourth overall.

"Sometimes, teams draft people based on, like, their points per game and things like that," Anderson, 34, told B/R. "But I knew what I could bring to the table. So, not being drafted really wasn't a bummer. It was maybe just more motivation to keep working hard."    

And grind he did.

Anderson joined the Charlotte Bobcats for summer league and training camp before getting cut just before opening night. He then found a starting role in Rio Valley, averaging 16.2 points, 6.1 assists and 4.1 rebounds. A week after his agent, Justin Zanik (now the Utah Jazz general manager), gave him the heads-up, the Thunder waived veteran Matt Harpring, opening up a roster spot.

"I just walked into practice and my [Vipers] coach [Chris Finch, now the associate head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans] gave me my paperwork and said, 'Your flight leaves later this evening. Just go home and pack and stuff,'" said Anderson, now the head coach at his alma mater, Lynn Vocational Technical Institute, which is located just outside Boston. "I was excited. I called my friends and family. It was a dream come true, and I was just ready to go to work."

Anderson signed a 10-day contract with the Thunder on February 22. However, he quickly learned that his new opportunity would have limitations.

"When I got there, Coach [Scott] Brooks told me that I probably wasn't going to play, but [he] wanted to see me develop in practice," Anderson said. "They were winning a lot of games with James [Harden], Kevin [Durant] and Russell [Westbrook]."

At practice, he came early and stayed late, focusing on bringing the intensity, learning the sets and distributing the ball. He marveled and took note of Westbrook, Durant and Harden's work ethics. Off the court, the up-and-coming superstars, who previously knew Anderson through the basketball circuit, welcomed him with open arms. He remembers going to Harden's house with several teammates and playing cards, or to Durant's spot to eat and watch games.

"They were a super tight-knit group. They were always together," said Anderson, who compared it to a college team atmosphere. But unlike college or the D-League, the NBA lifestyle was an instant upgrade.

"The D-League is different, man. It's a grind, flying commercial, sometimes driving to places, roommates in the hotels, things like that," said Anderson. "When you get to the NBA, it's chartered flights, meals on the plane, snacks, peanut butter and jelly—whatever you want. Best hotels, your own room, so it was just a huge difference."

In Anderson's first 10 days, he dressed only once over the course of five games (a DNP in San Antonio). On the last day of his contract, the Thunder were in Denver, and Anderson was informed by Brooks that he would dress again.

Late in the third quarter, with Carmelo Anthony cooking and the Nuggets up 25, Brooks started emptying his bench, and Anderson subbed in for Nenad Krstic.

"When my name was called, I was excited to get an opportunity to get out there and show I belonged," Anderson said. "I was used to playing basketball, so once I was out there, I was fine."

Anderson checked in with 2:37 left in the third and played the rest of the way. He remembers guarding JR Smith and switching onto Melo on a few possessions. He recalls playing heavy minutes with Harden, Serge Ibaka and Eric Maynor, focusing on running the sets. "I showed that I paid attention in film, so I knew the plays and the reads defensively."

A minute into the fourth quarter, Maynor drove and kicked it out to Anderson for a pull-up jump shot. Bucket.

"You guys have to help me find that clip!" Anderson told B/R.

The Thunder lost by 29 that night. But that didn't stop Anderson from receiving and responding to more than two dozen congratulatory text messages and voicemails after the game.

The next day, Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti gave Anderson a second 10-day contract. He dressed for three more games but never got back in. And at the end of that second contract, he was let go. Subsequently, Anderson made a summer league appearance with the Nuggets and attended training camp with the Pistons, but he never played another regular-season minute in the league.

Anderson played a few more seasons in the D-League and various international pro leagues before transitioning into high school coaching in 2013.   

"For me, I knew I didn't want to spend my career chasing an NBA contract. I had the opportunities, but they didn't work out," said Anderson, who has aspirations to coach at the collegiate and pro level one day. "I played hard and had fun for as many years as I could, and now it was time to move on and maybe focus on helping others learn the game."

His game-worn blue Thunder away jersey hangs in his house in Lynn, Massachusetts. His other uniforms and practice gear from the NBA are stored in drawers. Often, he is asked by his players about his NBA experience, particularly about the work habits and personalities of KD, Russ and the Beard. Even though he didn't last long, he appreciates the time he had.

"It's very rare that anyone gets that opportunity," Anderson said. "Especially not getting drafted and starting in the D-League. Some guys get called up; some don't. Playing one game in the NBA was definitely a blessing."

   

Renaldo Major: January 17, 2007, Golden State Warriors vs. Los Angeles Clippers, Staples Center (Los Angeles, California)

Renaldo Major never did get to play with the Chicago Bulls team he cheered for growing up, but his one game with the Warriors allowed him to understand the esteem his family held for his effort to keep playing professionally.
Renaldo Major never did get to play with the Chicago Bulls team he cheered for growing up, but his one game with the Warriors allowed him to understand the esteem his family held for his effort to keep playing professionally.Noah Graham/Getty Images

"I wanted to be like Mike"

An hour before watching the fifth and sixth episodes of ESPN's docuseries on the Bulls, The Last Dance, Renaldo Major is thinking about one of his idols growing up on the South Side of Chicago.

"The Bulls in my household was like watching your favorite concert 82 times a year," said Major in a phone interview with B/R. "It would be like 20 of us in the front room every game cheering on Jordan on WGN Channel 9. It was the greatest time for my family in that era."

He remembers having long talks about those Bulls squads with his father. He also recalls the heartbreak of never seeing the Bulls live, although he was close once. His mother won tickets from a local radio station to Game 7 of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals against the Pacers, only for their car to run out of gas on the way there.

"We were stuck on the side of the freeway. I cried like a big baby at 16 years old," said Major, now 38.

Nine years after he missed seeing MJ in the flesh, he found himself on the Staples Center floor alongside Golden State Warriors teammates Baron Davis and Monta Ellis. Major scratched and clawed to earn a jersey, completing a most unlikely three-year basketball odyssey.

In 2004, after an up-and-down college career at Fresno State (he was a junior college transfer), where he got into some trouble and was ultimately dismissed from the team, the 6'7" guard/forward was ignored by the NBA. He paid his way to low-level pro league tryouts across the country, each without a callback.

The bright lights of the NBA he watched growing up must have felt a million miles away during a night in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he was without shelter while waiting for a tryout the next morning in front of European scouts.   

"I got there too early, and I didn't have money for a hotel, so I had to sleep at a McDonald's," Major said. "I remember when the manager woke me up and said, 'Sir, you need to get out of the store. You are scaring the customers; they think you're homeless.'"

Dejected and out of money by the end of that summer, Major was about to take a job at a Chevrolet manufacturing plant before he got an unexpected call from Duane Ticknor, the coach of the Gary Steelheads in the Continental Basketball Association (CBA). He had seen clips of Major at Fresno State and was intrigued by his length and ability to be a two-way player.

Major beat out several draft picks to earn a spot on the Steelheads. From there, he secured jobs in various minor leagues before getting drafted by the Dakota Wizards of the D-League in the fall of 2006.

Major averaged 18.2 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.5 steals while shooting 50.2 percent from the field in that first season with the Wizards, earning a spot in the D-League Showcase, where his all-around game caught the attention of NBA personnel in the stands.

On the morning of January 17, the last day of the three-day event, Golden State had just pulled off a blockbuster eight-player trade with Indiana that brought Stephen Jackson and Al Harrington to the Bay Area. Shorthanded for that night's contest against the Clippers, the Warriors were immediately in the market for a temporary swingman.

"Honestly, I think I really blacked out," said Major, who was walking through his hotel with teammates the night before when he received a call from a D-League rep. "I just dropped to my knees and thanked the Lord for like 20 minutes straight. Then I called my dad."     

Major played his way into the D-League Showcase while with the Dakota Wizards in 2006-07, and from there made his way to the Warriors for a 10-day stint.
Major played his way into the D-League Showcase while with the Dakota Wizards in 2006-07, and from there made his way to the Warriors for a 10-day stint.Dick Carlson/Getty Images

That next morning, Major took the first flight out of Sioux Falls to Los Angeles. He remembers weaving through L.A. traffic with Warriors personnel, palm trees in the backdrop on the way to the 5-star hotel that "as soon as you walk in, looked like a palace." He met Davis at the hotel, as well as the team's new additions: Jackson, who Major said took him under his wing, and Harrington, who "had this chain that was so big and like they had about a hundred diamonds in it." 

Major arrived at Staples Center that night, tired from a long day of travel but also somewhat nervous.

"It hit me when everybody got in the locker room when I put the jersey on, and I see Baron Davis put his jersey on and Monta Ellis. I'm like, 'Damn, I'm here,'" said Major, who last played for the Kansas City Tornados of The Basketball League (TBL) in 2019.

Elton Brand and Sam Cassell from the Clippers greeted and congratulated Major before the game. When then-Warriors coach Don Nelson subbed him in for Matt Barnes midway through the first quarter, the anxiety gradually dissipated, and he was ready to ball.

"I just went out there and had the best time of my life," he said.

Because the Warriors only dressed seven players that night after the trade, Major got extended minutes. He took mostly mid-range shots, and although they weren't dropping, they were within the offense. His first two points came in the second quarter when he caught a cutting pass from teammate Patrick O'Bryant for a two-handed dunk that made SportsCenter.

"It was on Sam Cassell, and he started talking like, 'You gonna dunk on me, young fella, for your first bucket?'" Major said with a laugh.

He also made a jump shot in that second quarter after missing his first four attempts (causing the Warriors bench to erupt) and hit a free throw. In 27 minutes, Major finished with five points, two rebounds and two steals on 2-of-10 shooting.

"I didn't have the best game, but I remember my dad was so proud of me," said Major, whose father passed away the next year. "Seeing our last name on an NBA jersey after all we've been through I think gave him peace."  

He didn't play in the next four games and was cut after his 10-day contract was up. Before he left the Warriors practice facility in downtown Oakland to head to the airport, the team's equipment manager offered to give Major his game-worn jersey.

"I was like, 'Nah, I don't want it,'" said Major. "That ain't the way I want to earn my jersey. I'll be back to get one when I stick."

Major returned to the Dakota Wizards, while the Warriors eventually went on to shock the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs as part of the storied "We Believe" run.

Major looked to have a good chance to make the Nuggets roster the following fall, but a loose valve in his heart was discovered during his physical, which required him to get open-heart surgery. Eventually, he recovered and continued his basketball journey for another decade, both internationally (Canada, Finland and Mexico) and in the D-League, where he became the league's all-time leading scorer in 2014.

He finally retired last year and is now living in Bakersfield, California, not far from his first and only NBA experience. He is building a youth basketball training program, Major Development, partly because he eventually wants to pass his knowledge and experiences down to his three-year-old son, Ramari, and 18-year-old nephew, Maurice.

And he has plenty to share.

"I'll tell my son one day, when he's dealing with adversity or gets cut from a team, to not let that deter him from who he wants to be," said Major. "Let those experiences make you work harder."

The game never made Major rich, famous or a Chicago Bull. But from the man who once slept in a McDonald's bathroom and never gave up on making his NBA dream a reality, it gave him a sense of who he could be.

"My one game … gave me so much life and made me want to be even better on the court and in life. Cause I knew then people were watching and that I was a role model. I didn't realize how much of a role model I was to my family and friends while at Fresno State. I was lost, and I was selfish. I woke up after that

"I'm going to write a book one day, and hopefully it hits the big screen. Zero-star recruit with no offers, but still made the NBA."


ESPN senior writer Zach Lowe joins The Full 48 with Howard Beck to discuss the NBA's plans to resume the season, what he's hearing about player concerns and how his MVP ballot is shaping up. 

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