Semi-Professional Basketball: The Stories of Players Just Looking For a Shot

A.J. McLinnContributor ISeptember 5, 2010

Ames handling the ball during a Ball State home game
Ames handling the ball during a Ball State home game

When people think of professional basketball, they think of the NBA.  They think of the money, the cars, and the houses.  They think of the private jets, the finest hotels, and the expensive clothing.  What people don’t think of is semi-professional basketball.  They don’t think about the hard-working players out there who put in just as much time and effort as NBA players, but instead of making six-figures per game, they make barely enough for gas money.  These are the players who work regular 9-to-5’s during the week, and play ball on weekends.  There are numerous semi-professional leagues throughout the country---ABA, CBA, WBA, IBL, USBL, etc---each a little different than the other. 

During my senior year at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, I worked for the Indiana Diesels of the American Basketball Association.  I was the Assistant Director of Basketball Operations and Director of Scouting.  My job was to put together the team’s try-out camps, and find players to potentially sign.  I searched through thousands of rosters dating back to the 90s, looking for players who could possibly make the team.  It was very difficult to find ways to contact the players, let alone get them to come to a try-out.  The team charged $75 for a try-out, which is a lot of money to a young man, who is recently out of college, trying to make a living for himself and his family.  Fortunately for me, I was able to find some very talented players who did indeed try-out.  I know that there are many players out there, bouncing around from league-to-league, who do not get the recognition that they deserve, but this article is about one player in particular, Chris Ames.

Ames is a 6’3, 200-pound guard from Jackson, Mississippi.  He was a four-year letterman at Wingfield High School, leading his team to a 22-10 record during his senior year.  Ames averaged 14.9 PPG, 12.9 RPG, and 4.5 APG during that season.  He went on to play Junior College ball at Southeastern Illinois, and helped his team to a 35-4 record during his freshman season, as the team made it to the National Junior College Athletic Association Final Four.  During his sophomore season, Chris led the team to a 19-11 record, while averaging 12.0 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 4.0 APG, and 2.0 SPG.  He then transferred to Ball State to finish his collegiate career.  Ames was asked to take the role of a perimeter defender, and being the type of player he is, he was willing to do whatever it took to help his team win.  During his junior season, Chris was third on the team in steals, and fourth in assists.  When his senior season came around, he saw a bump in minutes and did not disappoint.  Not only was Ames one of the best defenders in the MAC conference, he was by far the most efficient scorer for the Cardinals, shooting 69.1% from the field.  Ames has the ability to knock down outside jumpers, but he really excels at driving the ball to the basket and using his strength to score in traffic, part of the reason why he was so efficient.

After graduation, Ames looked to play pro ball.  He returned home to Mississippi to play for the Mississippi Blues of the ABA.  He was promised compensation and housing, yet he never saw any of it.  Chris found himself sleeping on the floor at friends’ houses while he tried to continue to make a name for himself in the league.  However, a man can only go so long without any income, so he decided to return to Indiana to find work.  I was hired by the Diesels in February of 2010, and the first players I tried to locate were former Ball State players, as I was familiar with their games because I had the chance to see them play in-person.  I was able to track down Ames on Facebook, and invite him to a try-out camp.  He was a little wary of the whole situation after what had happened with his previous ABA team.  I met with him on Ball State’s campus to assure him that this situation would be completely different and that I would not be involved with a team that displayed such poor ethics. 

Our first try-out camp was held in Muncie on May 15th, 2010.  He showed up to the camp with great motivation and determination.  He was matched up against one of the Diesels’ returning players, a 6’7 wing that led the team in scoring the previous season.  Ames did exactly what he did at Ball State, and that was play excellent defense.  He was very physical with the bigger man, and not just on the defensive end.  He showed great control with the ball and was able to get to the basket, absorb contact, and score.

Ames did more of the same at our second try-out camp in Indianapolis.  This time around, he took more of a leadership role, directing and leading the offense, even though he was not running the point.  He showed the same strength and athleticism he did at the Muncie camp, as he was able to get to the basket with ease.  He was all over the floor on defense, guarding multiple players, picking up the slack for some of the lesser players at the camp.  Once again, Ames was one of the most impressive players at the camp, one of two guys that really stood out to me.  The other was Quade Milum, a 6’8 forward from Akron, who can play both the three and the four.  Milum has excellent length and great athleticism, and routinely dunked in traffic.  He uses his length very well on defense to block shots and break up passing lanes.  He also showed the ability to step outside and knock down perimeter shots.  The Diesels were ready to sign Milum, but he received an offer to play professionally in Germany.  He will be playing this season with SVD Dortmund in Regionalliga 1.   

After the try-out camps were over, it was clear that Ames was going to make the team, and it became official a couple weeks ago.  While his roster spot is secure and he will not have to worry about not getting paid, he knows not to be expecting much.  A typical salary for a member of the Diesels will range from $75-$200 per game, and there will be 22 games this season.  Add it up, and he’s looking at maybe $4,000 for the season.  Everything the teams does will be on weekends, that way the players can work during the week, and play ball on the weekends.  The Diesels, along with most ABA teams, do not offer housing for their players, as it is too expensive for these low budget organizations.  Obviously a $200 game check, once or twice a week, is not enough to support yourself, so the players must continue to live where they do, work, and then commute to training camp, practices, and games.  Once the season starts, the team will not be able to practice and play games on the same days during the weekends, so the players will then have to find time to work out during the week, while they work full-time jobs. 

Not a lot of players are willing to put in the time and make the sacrifices necessary to succeed at the semi-pro level, as it can take such a toll on a player, both physically and mentally.  But Ames, along with the rest of the Diesels, is ready for training camp and to get started with the season.  The ABA can be a great exposure league, and it is a good way to get noticed by other teams and agents, and that’s exactly what Ames is hoping for.  With the possibilities of the NBDL and overseas looming, Ames is working harder than ever to show everybody just how good is he and that he belongs with the best.

There are many other stories out there like Ames’, players putting in the hard work, trying to get noticed.  Many of these players just need an opportunity, but those opportunities are scarce.  When players do get an opportunity, they run the risk of playing for a team where the owner cheats them out of money and other things promised to them.  Some agents are untrustworthy and are only in the business to help themselves.  So, a lot of it has to do with luck and timing, and finding the right place to start your career.  Players need to surround themselves with people they can trust and who are interested in finding the best opportunities for them.

There will always be talented players lost in the shuffle, and it’s too bad, because you never who could rise from obscurity and make a name for himself.