A writer attempts to play, survive
PHOENIX — It’s 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning as I finish lacing up my shoelaces. As I look up and breathe, I ask myself a question that so many have asked variations of throughout the week leading up to this moment:
What the hell am I doing here?
Here is the practice court at Talking Stick Resort Arena, the home of the Phoenix Mercury and the NBA’s Suns. The “what” I am about to do is participate in a tryout for the Mercury’s male practice squad.
The male practice squad is not a new thing for WNBA and Division I women’s basketball teams, as Matthew Giles broke down for Vice in 2015. The Mercury have had their practice squad since 2008, and it’s something that the two staff members selecting the team — assistant coach Julie Hairgrove and general manager Jim Pitman — find to be a vital part of their organization.
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“When you only have 12 players on your roster, having a group that you can use to be the scout team that can compete and make your group better every day is something that’s really important to us,” Pitman said.
With a roster as small as the WNBA’s, Hairgrove also finds the use of the male practice players to benefit team chemistry and allow the team to use its players interchangeably against the men.
“If we’re on offense, instead of having our starting five going against our second group, you can sub in players and they can really work on playing together, and then we can work on playing against the guys,” Hairgrove said. “And then when we want to play defensively, we can play against stronger, quicker guys, and just work together as a group. I think that helps our team throughout the season.”
Most of the practice squad players have playing experience at the collegiate level, but more important than their talent is the basketball intelligence, cohesiveness and communication skills. In fact, Pitman agreed with me when I asked if those are more important than their skill level.
“A lot of guys here can shoot and dribble, but can they communicate? Can they understand a defensive scheme?” Pitman said. “Those are important to us.”
Hairgrove concurred: “We want a good group. We say that about our women. The people we draft, we want good people. We do the same for our practice squad, as well. We need team players. We don’t need 1-on-1 showboats because it is a team game, and the women’s game is more of a team sport.”
The commitment that the team asks of its practice players — be ready for practice from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. every day during the regular season, save for travel days and gamedays — is a consideration that both the players and the team have to make. It’s why the demeanor of those practice squad player matters.
“I think it’s good to get good personalities, good guys, because we do hang out a lot. It’s an everyday commitment,” Hairgrove said. “It is good because the players enjoy the guys and appreciate the guys coming and taking time out of their day to help us every single day.”
Factoring all that in, of course there is a talent baseline that is required of the players on the floor, as the practice squad will face some of the WNBA’s best on a daily basis. And, as any player in the WNBA can attest to, you don’t want Diana Taurasi mad at you for messing something up.
“She is very intense at all times. You see her at the games, but at practice, she is our hardest worker,” Hairgrove said of Taurasi. “When you come to work, you come to work. She holds everybody accountable. ‘We’re here for two hours, let’s get something out of it and let’s not waste our time.’ She’s very intense and you don’t want to piss her off.”
It’s with that in mind that the tryout was structured to blend in different types of drills, which show off talent and athleticism, but also adaptability and quick thinking. After a period of stretching, the participants did a 3-man weave and a 5-man weave, going up and back on each drill.
Then, Hairgrove had the 30 participants — which included four women, who were considered to be trying out for the Mercury and not allowed on the male practice squad, according to WNBA bylaws — split to the two sides and do the progressive fast-break drill. One side starts with a 2-on-1 and gets one shot, then the defensive side adds two players on the court and goes on the attack the other way. The 2-on-1 becomes a 3-on-2, and so on until it’s one shot of a 5-on-5.
“Skill is important, don’t get me wrong,” Hairgrove said. “[But] we do different drills like you saw today. Can you pick up five-man weave? We threw more complicated stuff in there, just to see how guys can react to that. It gets frustrating when guys can’t pick up things and our girls are like, ‘Alright, let’s go.’”
Life as a practice squad player comes with all kinds of adjustments for first-timers, even with simple things like what one fellow tryout participant asked me five minutes before starting: “Am I tripping or are these women’s balls?” But Pitman smiles when he thinks of each practice player’s first time on the court against Taurasi, Brittney Griner and the rest of the Mercury.
“It’s eye-opening, when you go against Diana Taurasi or Brittney Griner for the first time, and realize how good they are, how athletic they are, and in Brittney’s case, how good she is,” Pitman said. “It is eye-opening.”
The Mercury will tend to keep a lot of the same men from their practice squad year after year, giving Hairgrove, head coach Sandy Brondello and the players some consistency in their team. But Pitman believes there’s a ton of value in having an open tryout and welcoming all participants who want to come.
“Sometimes, good players don’t hear about it unless it’s open to the public, and we want to have the best squad we can have,” Pitman said. “But it’s also good for the media to be able to see what’s going on, too, and understand the level that we’re looking and really get the facts out by how good the women are in the WNBA.”
It was in that in mind that I agreed to do this, despite every single friend who heard about this ahead of time asking if I was crazy. It’s here where I note that my parents did not ask that question, fully understanding already that I am crazy, and just told me not to get hurt.
Slow and out of shape are a wonderful combination to bring out onto a competitive tryout, and even when asked for brutal honesty, both Pitman and Hairgrove still were extremely kind in their assessment.
“I didn’t have very high expectations going in,” Pitman said.
“I was a little worried about you at first,” Hairgrove said.
Hearing the story of a media member a few years prior who puked on the sideline twice during the tryout (who we shall not name here, for dignity’s sake) didn’t bolster my confidence at all. But I played this smart. I stayed in the back of the line as often as possible during the 3-man and 5-man weaves, and negotiated with another participant to hop onto the progressive drill as the fifth man in the 5-on-4 part, only going up and back once.
Then, we got to the final part of the tryout: two 5-minute, full court, 5-on-5 scrimmages. With the participants split into six teams, my team hit the court for the very first scrimmage, where my passing led to one basket for my team and two baskets for the other team.
The nature of the running clock scrimmages was for all the players to race up and down the court, wanting to make sure they showed who they were as a basketball player in case they could make the team. If it wasn’t obvious before the scrimmage how slow and out of shape I was, it definitely was after.
But within this, I did my best to play as best as I could within my extremely limited skillset. I was vocal defensively, calling out screens and any switches, making sure we had everyone covered defensively. On the offensive end: keep moving, set some screens and look for open teammates. That was apparent evident enough for Pitman to notice.
“I didn’t really expect much at all,” Pitman said. “You actually played pretty well. I was pleasantly surprised at the way you competed and the IQ that you showed.”
Shooting? I told everyone who knew about this — including a few of the other participants in the — that my goal was to not take a single shot, knowing how awful my jumper is. It felt like I had more airballs warming up than I did made baskets.
But in the second scrimmage, I ended up getting a pass while standing at the left elbow, with a defender sagging. This defender had heard my “no shots” goal before and during the tryout. I had to take the shot.
It was a perfect swish.
Hairgrove’s full quote from earlier: “I was a little worried about you at first, but once you warmed up, you got a great jumper. I was like, ‘Oh, why isn’t he shooting more?’ You knocked that one down with such ease.”
Oh, and you can bet your behind that I did not take another shot the rest of the scrimmage, making sure I ended the day 1-for-1 from the field. But even with the perfect shooting percentage, Hairgrove agreed with me on what I feel like was my most important accomplishment of the morning: survival.
“I thought you did well,” Hairgrove. “You hung in there and made it through, so hey, good job.”
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