Inside a P.F. Chang’s in Boise, Idaho, in early 2011, Jeremy Lin, Steve Novak and Danny Green sat down for dinner as teammates on the Reno Bighorns of the NBA Development League.
Lin went undrafted in the summer of 2010 and was on a D-League assignment with the Golden State Warriors, who had signed him to a two-year deal with partial guarantees.
Novak started the season with the Dallas Mavericks, but was waived in January, just days before his contract became fully guaranteed. His agent scoured the NBA looking for an interested suitor before advising Novak to accept a deal to join the Bighorns.
Green was waived at the end of the prior season by the Cleveland Cavaliers after appearing in 20 games as a rookie guard. The Spurs picked him up but released him after he appeared in two games in November. For the first time in years, Green had a chance to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas at home with his family. He contemplated going overseas to play in Italy, but decided a D-League stint would be his best chance to make it back to the NBA.
When Green joined the Bighorns in January, he was excited for an opportunity to play basketball again, even if he didn’t know exactly where he was going.
“I didn’t know geography well,” Green said. “I was thinking, Reno is in Nevada, it’s gotta be close to Las Vegas. Instead, it was far as hell. The total opposite, and it was cold as shit.”
Aside from not packing proper clothes, Green was also humbled by the transition from going from the NBA to the D-League.
“They spoil you so much here,” Green said. “Down there, it was like, man, this is hell. But really, it wasn’t that bad. It was just normal life.”
Normal life meant taking the team van to get his own groceries, cooking breakfast for himself in the morning, and scrambling before games to find a trainer who would tape him up. One thing did work in Green’s favour: because there was an odd number of players on the team, he would luck out and get his own hotel room sometimes on road trips instead of having to share with a teammate.
Before Novak would go on to play 11 years in the NBA, before Lin became a sensation in New York, gracing the covers of Sports Illustrated (twice) and Time Magazine, and before Green set an NBA record for most 3-pointers made in the Finals and won a championship with the Spurs, they were three guys sitting in Boise, Idaho, in a place they didn’t want to be, wondering where their basketball journey would take them next, if anywhere at all.
“None of us knew each other,” Novak said. “But we said, hey, we can be each other’s best friends. We can be a means to proving ourselves and getting called up. We were all sitting at the dinner table having been told that none of you are good enough right now to be in the NBA.”
How one player’s career winds up can be determined by many things. Top draft picks have turned out to be disappointments, fading away and eventually becoming an answer to a trivia question many years later. Other players go unnoticed in college and manage to surprise everyone at the professional level, often becoming integral parts of championship teams.
And then there is everyone else, players who fall somewhere in between those two hypothetical scenarios, the ones who fight for a coveted spot in the NBA, as well as those who often go on to have unspectacular careers overseas and are never heard from again.
The latter scenario is also the most likely one for many players in the D-League who have been told by NBA teams they are simply not good enough. When Green arrived in Reno, he had not developed into an elite defender yet and was not a reliable shooter on the offensive end. Expectations were low when Green arrived in Reno.
“I was hoping they would run some plays for me,” Green said.
Eric Musselman, the head coach of the team, envisioned much more for his newest acquisition. In Green, he saw a matchup nightmare, a player who could play multiple positions and control the offence. Paired with Lin, a point guard with an intriguing skillset, and Novak, an elite shooter, Musselman was elated with the talent on his team.
Aubrey McCrary, an assistant coach, didn’t travel with the team during their trip to Idaho.
“I remember calling Aubrey and saying, ‘We’re never going to lose another game,’” Musselman said.
In his first two games with the Bighorns, Novak scored 37 points and made nine 3-pointers. Three days after joining the team, Novak got a 10-day contract from the San Antonio Spurs, who eventually signed him for the remainder of the season.
Musselman called McCrary back after Novak’s departure and told him he thought they would never win another game again.
Lin and Green’s tenure with the Bighorns were much longer than Novak’s. Lin played 20 games with Reno, averaging 18.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.4 assists in 31.8 minutes. Green played 16 games, averaging a team-high 20.1 points along with 7.5 rebounds.
Novak’s departure is indicative of the D-League experience. Players are hoping to showcase their skills for a chance to get back to the NBA. At times, it can become detrimental to what a team is trying to accomplish. Players look for their own shots. They’re not particularly interested in building camaraderie with their teammates. It can create a toxic environment for a team.
Musselman never saw that with Lin and Green. “I would walk into practice 40 minutes before practice and those two guys would be working out with the assistant coaches,” Musselman said. “They both had a single-mindedness of we want to win while we are here, but we are also here for a reason, to overcome our deficiencies and change our reputation and get back to the league.”
Because Lin was on an NBA assignment with the Warriors, he would get his own hotel suite and first class seats on flights, all paid for by Golden State.
“Guys get resentful,” Musselman said. “With Jeremy, it never happened. It was the opposite.” Routinely, Musselman would look up from his seat on the flight and see Lin giving up his more luxurious and comfortable seating to taller players on the team.
Looking back now, Lin says the individualistic approach of the D-League is the one thing that he never wants to experience again.
“You’re on a team,” Lin said. “But you’re not all the way on a team. It was very hard. I just wanted to be on a team where our collective goal was as great as we can be as a unit, and not the different agendas of ‘we’re on the same team but competing against each other.’”
Despite those circumstances, Lin and Green pushed through, and still credit Musselman for helping plant the seeds for what would eventually become very productive NBA careers for the two.
“He gave me the freedom to just go and play,” Lin said. “He gave me confidence that I didn’t have. He gave me a chance to just work through it. To do that at the professional level was a big step for me.”
Almost a decade after their experience together in Reno, Musselman laughs when asked to name the most talented player on that team. “Marcus Landry,” he says. A 6-foot-7 forward from Wisconsin, Landry went undrafted in 2009, had two brief stints with the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks, totaling 18 career NBA games. Landry is 33 now, and plays professionally for Busan KT Sonicboom of the Korean Basketball League.
“He was the one guy I felt really bad for because he didn’t get called up,” Musselman said. “In today’s game, being able to play multiple positions, he definitely would have gotten called up. It was a few years before teams started looking for those type of guys.”
Opportunity. Circumstances. Chance. Luck. These are words that come up in every conversation about a basketball player’s career path.
Another player on that Bighorns team was Aaron Miles, who went undrafted in 2005, made the Warriors out of training camp and appeared in 19 games before he was cut mid-season. Miles spent the next five years playing overseas before returning stateside to play on the Bighorns.
In 15 games in Reno, Miles averaged 15.1 points and 8.8 assists.
“As arguably one of the top point guards of the D-League,” Miles said. “I felt like I was on the verge of a call-up.”
And then Miles suffered a season-ending ACL injury in the middle of the season. With that, the opportunity of returning to the NBA was taken away from him.
Miles finished his career in Russia and is now the head coach of the Santa Cruz Warriors of the G-League.
“It was tough to swallow,” Miles said. “Our basketball journeys aren’t always going to be the same. It was good to see guys like Jeremy and Danny go through it, to see them keep pushing, and when the opportunity presented itself, they took advantage of it. It’s a testament to their work ethic. It takes perseverance. I would have loved to have that opportunity, too. But it didn’t happen.”
It is the fragileness of the basketball journey that makes Green and Lin appreciate where they are now. Hard work, perseverance and determination put them in a position to get back to the NBA, but sometimes it’s just luck and circumstances.
In another world, perhaps it is Landry and Miles who are the prominent characters of this story, and it is Green and Lin who are names that you once heard of many years ago now toiling overseas or coaching in the G-League.
From sleeping in airports, having to get his own ice and sharing gyms with local hoopers, Green eventually went from Reno to San Antonio, re-joining the Spurs in March of the 2010-11 season and going on to establish himself as one of the top 3-point shooters and defenders in the NBA.
A year later, Lin reunited with Novak as teammates in New York, and Linsanity happened.
Even as he became one of the most recognizable athletes in the world, Novak saw the same player who he credits as having played a huge part in getting him back to the NBA.
“I was lucky to be in Reno with Jeremy,” Novak said. “He wasn’t a point guard who was trying to shoot all the time. He played the right way.”
In New York, Novak saw the exact same approach from Lin. “We were winning games because he was making the correct basketball plays,” he said.
Eight years after they sat down for dinner together in Boise, Green and Lin are teammates once again in Toronto. Meanwhile, Novak is a broadcaster with the Milwaukee Bucks and says he hopes his two former teammates play well but lose every game in a potential Eastern Conference finals matchup.
Last Friday, in the fourth quarter of a Toronto Raptors victory at home over the Portland Trail Blazers, there was Lin diving to the floor to force an extra possession and Green hitting a corner 3 with under a minute left to tie the game and set the stage for Kawhi Leonard’s game-winning shot.
Musselman, who still exchanges texts with both players regularly, was not surprised.
“Jeremy was the best loose ball getter I’ve ever seen,” he said. “And in any clutch situation, we would put the ball in Danny’s hands and he would score the ball.”
Now, they’re back together and doing it on a team with championship aspirations.
Green admits it’s a bit surreal.
“I never thought we would be teammates again,” Green said. “We’ve made decent careers for ourselves but I want to achieve more things. I don’t want to be satisfied. We’re trying to do something special here. Hopefully, we’ll get to reflect on more things together when our careers are done.”
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