On a table, in a ballroom, before two sober men in sober suits, a small wooden box shaped like an octagon rolled in circles carrying the immediate future of Korea’s professional basketball league.
The box sat on a stand like an old fashioned Rolodex. Inside the box, marbles the size of peas rattled against the sides like nails in a package. Anyone who stumbled into the Grand Ballroom of the Palms Casino Resort on Tuesday morning, and encountered the nearly 120 basketball players watching a spinning wooden box with a mix of bewilderment, anticipation and disinterest would have thought it the most ridiculous thing they saw in a city of absurd.
This would be the lottery for the Korean Basketball League Draft.
There are more than 100 basketball leagues in more than 50 countries with many processes for player acquisition, but only one league has a four-day tryout and draft for the two American players each team is allowed to have. And only that league comes here, to Las Vegas. bringing along all the coaches, scouts and general managers from its 10 teams, who sit behind tables draped with team banners watching hours of games played by players on whom they already have years of video evidence.
In virtually every other league, teams sign American players as free agents. But the KBL does not believe that such open-market bidding is fair to their less-fortunate franchises. They feel the most democratic way is to fly everybody to Las Vegas for a tryout and a draft.
“We want to make sure our teams that do not do well the season previously have a good chance to pick up better players,” said Jaemin Lee, the KBL’s director of basketball operations.
And so here in the Palms, basketball egalitarianism plays out in a room tucked far in the back of the casino, past the baccarat tables, the all-day buffet and the forest of Outback Jack slot machines. For more than two hours, the players will sit in straight rows of ballroom chairs enduring roll calls, speeches and the mysterious rattling of marbles inside a wooden box to replicate what the NBA does with ping pong balls. They will do this because the 20 jobs that will be filled in the two-round draft are as good as any in international basketball, with $20,000 to $30,000 a month salaries paid regularly in American dollars, tax free.
And that is worth watching a wooden box shaped like an octagon spin on a Rolodex stand.
The box stopped spinning. A marble dropped out. One of the sober men in the sober suits picked it up and pinched it between his thumb and forefinger.
“Blue,” he said.
The Seoul Samsung Thunders had won the first pick.
“It’s a ridiculous process but this is what they do,” said Rod Benson a 30-year-old forward who played in college at the University of California said as he stood in lobby outside the grand ballroom.
Benson, 6ft 10in and 30 years old, is exactly what KBL teams want in an American player. He is a tall man in a league of mostly short players. He is thoughtful, older and willing to embrace the rigid structure of a basketball culture like none in the US. Because of this, he has been playing in the KBL since 2010, coming here every summer from his condo in Hollywood to play two days of basketball before coaches who already know what he can do and sit through a draft where he has been sure to be picked.
Benson and the KBL have been good for each other. He has played in championships with two different teams, cherishing most his time with Wonju Dongbu Pormy, located in what he describes as “the North Dakota of Korea,” a cold city in the north. He has learned to survive in a league where many foreign players struggle because he understands the absurdity of what his coaches demand and does his best to make them happy.
“They will tell you to do something that’s basically impossible and that gets frustrating,” he said. “But they say it is not impossible they have seen it done. That’s just an example. They ask you to do something that is impossible every time and believe it is possible.”
“Just keep doing what they tell you to do,” he continued. “The more eager you are and the more you show you are trying to do what they want you to do the more they will respect you. If you show you are not into it and you are not coachable they will send you home. Just be coachable and try your best.”
Still, even Benson has clashed with the KBL system. This is easy to do. Teams practice constantly – far more than in the US or most countries. Coaches demand a lot of their American players and do not tolerate any hint of laziness. Sometimes it isn’t enough to try to do the impossible and believe it is possible. The smallest slight, like a refusal to acknowledge an elder could be interpreted as a lack of sincerity.
Earlier this year, the Changwon LG Sakers kicked American Davon Jefferson off the team during the playoffs after he bent down to stretch during the playing of the Korean national anthem. The team said his dismissal was for an accumulation of misbehavior, but the message was clear: no American, no matter how good is more important than honor of cultural traditions.
Benson was sent home early last season in a dispute with a team for which he helped win two championships, Ulsan Mobis Phoebis. The team said he wasn’t playing hard. Benson said the team seemed to forget the two titles to which he contributed. Soon he was gone. On Tuesday, as Samsung’s coaches and scouts huddled to make the first pick he felt an anxiety like none he had in previous KBL drafts. Did his release last year hurt him? Will anyone draft him or is his name spoiled in the league forever?
International basketball is a minefield for all American players. It sounds glamorous, travel the world, play basketball and get paid. But reality is a far more treacherous thing. Many foreign teams are not solvent. Promises mean nothing once the players arrive. Contracts are ignored or simply disappear.
“Take everybody here, put him in the auditorium and ask who has a horror story about playing overseas and just about every one is going to raise their hand,” said one international basketball expert during a break from the tryouts, which are held at a high school west of the Strip.
He is right. Soon the stories spill out. One player told of a team’s media campaign to destroy his reputation. Another said his apartment in Russia had been ransacked in his team’s attempt to charge him for damages and therefore keep the money it still owed him. Ron Howard, a guard who played at Marquette and Valparaiso, has never seen the final $90,000 a team in China owes him after a season that actually went well.
“I can always say I have $90,000 in China someplace,” he said with a laugh.
KBL teams don’t have the same financial problems as those in other countries. They are owned by local corporations which why is there are franchises named “LG” and “Samsung.” Making payroll is not an issue. The $200,000 salary for a first-round pick in Las Vegas helps give the KBL a reputation as one of the best-paying basketball leagues in the world.
The hint of the good, dependable money is why players fly here, stay at their own expense and go through the tryout process. Since one of the many quirks of the KBL rules is that teams can only replace foreign players with those who attend the tryout and draft, simply coming here for a week and staying through the draft guarantees a possibility of being signed when another player gets hurt or sent home.
This year’s tryout is the first for Howard, who has played in Australia, Israel and Puerto Rico in addition to the NBA Development League. He would not have been wanted here before. In the previous 18 years the KBL has existed and run the tryout and draft, teams have come in search of forwards and
centers. Each team brought a Korean point guard to Las Vegas whose sole responsibility was to run an offense with four big men. He wasn’t even allowed to shoot.
After last season, the league decided the tall Americans were slowing their games. They wanted a faster, more exciting game so they changed the draft rules. Starting this year each team must take one player 6ft 4in or under, meaning that instead of picking two forwards each club will effectively have to select a forward and a guard.
This means an opportunity for Howard but a greater worry for Benson and other big men accustomed to coasting through KBL drafts. Ten jobs once certain to be given to men like him are now gone.
No one may be more affected by the rule change than forward Chris Massie. He is one of the more improbable stories in the draft having never played high school basketball. He had been working three years as an electrician when was discovered in a late-night Houston pickup game frequented by overseas players home for the summer. A junior college in Oxnard, California, offered a scholarship and soon he found himself the target of a recruiting war between John Calipari at Memphis and Cincinnati’s Bob Huggins which is something like being caught in crossfire at the OK Corral.
Massie picked Memphis and turned his two seasons there into a 13-year international career, which is only the second thing for which he is famous. He is more known as the elusive “Chris,” husband of Mal on the Real Housewives of Atlanta. He has made a handful of appearances on the show, most of which involve resolving disputes between Mal and her sister Cynthia Bailey. These were not enjoyable experiences, however. He is happier being the 6ft 9in forward in Korea, popular the last two seasons for his manners and unselfish play.
In another year, he would have been certain to be picked in the draft. But he will be 38 in September and with half the spots going to guards he settled into his seat at the draft with a vague sense of uncertainty.
“I with I didn’t have to go through this tryout all over again,” he said.
To watch the Korean Basketball League draft in Las Vegas is to feel like you’ve been dropped into an NBA draft from 30 years ago – only in an alternate universe. Team executives and league officials wear suits and sit behind tables. The players wear shorts and t-shirts and sit in the rows of chairs across the back of the room. After the top of the lottery is determined the octagon box is put away and the remaining marbles are placed in small gold balls that are dropped in a round tin like a Bundt cake pan, rolled around and pulled back out thus determining the rest of the first round.
Even though 95% of the people in the room are American all announcements are made in Korean and translated into English. There are rules and the rules are read in Korean and English. The most significant is that each drafted player must immediately walk to a second, smaller ballroom with high ceilings, a chandelier and a single table surrounded by chairs and finalize a blank contract he has already signed. Refusal to do so results in a five-year ban from the league.
This is done because sometimes drafted players have better offers elsewhere and so agents lurk nearby, clutching cell phones signaling to their clients. At one point an agent appeared to traverse the room to catch his player before he went to sign a contract, presumably to keep him from signing, but the door closed before he could get there.
Before the official for Samsung could walk up to a spelling bee-style microphone and announce the team’s pick in Korean, a bang came from the back of the room. Ira Clark, a former star at the University of Texas, and a respected forward in KBL last season, burst through the doors. He had missed three roll calls and was on the verge of being banned from the draft when he stalked down the center aisle with arms upraised and three fingers pointed to the ceiling, shouting that yes, indeed “IRA CLARK IS HERE.”
He sat with the scouts of one of the teams before being told to take his assigned seat. Clark wobbled back to the players’ section, where he briefly stood on his chair. A moment later, when Samsung made former Missouri forward Ricardo Ratliffe their No1 pick, Clark howled.
“CHAMP-EEEEE-OWWWNN!” Clark shouted over and over – an apparent reference to Ratliffe’s standing as the KBL’s top player.
The KBL officials looked perplexed about what to do with one of the players heckling their draft. Warnings were issued. Still, Clark persisted.
“DID I SAY SOMETHING WRONG?” Clark yelled.
The officials didn’t seem to know what to say. They tried to hush him and for a few moments he was quiet. But when former Mississippi State forward Charles Rhodes was selected. Clark began again.
“CHARLES RHODES! AWESOME SHIT BABY!” Clark boomed.
Eventually, Clark stopped shouting at the draft. Needless to say, he did not get drafted but he was also careful to not leave and sacrifice his KBL future the way David Sutton, another KBL veteran did after he failed to be picked in the first round. He was gone by the time he was chosen in the second round, leading to an awkward discovery that a draft pick had left the draft.
This may be the last year of the KBL tryout and draft. Agents have been telling their clients that next summer the league could go to a free agent system like everyone else. One KBL official said the teams are divided on the idea of the Las Vegas draft. It is a sensitive and controversial topic inside the league.
But on Tuesday, the 10 teams each took their two players and they presented each with a jersey and a cap as they exited the signing room. It was an odd image – the league officials in suits and the players in shorts and jerseys. Benson, who wore camouflage short pants and calf-high socks decorated with fish, was ecstatic when he was taken by his beloved former team in the North Dakota of Korea.
“I’ve never been nervous for this before but this year I was … a little bit,” he said. “But it actually worked out perfectly because I’m on the best team and we have a shot to go back to the championship.”
As the executive from the Samsung team announced the draft’s final selection in Korean, Howard thought for a moment he heard his name.
“Nah,” he thought. “That can’t be right.”
Then the pick was translated into English.
“This is excellent, it actually did happen,” he said later, still wearing his Samsung jersey and hat. He had come to Las Vegas to keep his name in the pool of players, he hadn’t expected to be chosen and land a $20,000-a-month job. “It’s a desirable league. It’s very professional as you can see.”
In the back of the room, Massie pulled a black backpack onto his shoulders and slowly walked toward the doors. His name had not been called. He said he was fine, he had interest from teams in other countries, but still there was sadness in the way he slumped from the room.
Rhodes gave him a hug and said: “See you in a couple weeks.”
Massie smiled. He already knew a third of the players wearing caps and jerseys would not last more than a month past their 1 August reporting date. His phone will ring soon enough. He was sure of it.
“I’ll probably only miss the preseason,” he said.
Then he stepped out the doors of the grand ballroom, past the baccarat tables where some undrafted players had already stopped in attempt to change their luck. Behind him lingered the smiles and hopes of 20 players meeting coaches who already wanted to talk strategy. The executives were gone. The banners were coming down.
And what had to be the most improbable show in all of Las Vegas on all of Tuesday had come to an end.