For NBA wannabes, an A-list career may begin in the D-League.TWENTY MINUTES SOUTH OF DOWNTOWN RENO, NEVADA, INSIDE A MIRRORED-GLASS COMPLEX, 12 GUYS IN PRACTICE JERSEYS ARE RUNNING THROUGH PLAYS ON A BASKETBALL COURT. THEY’RE HUSTLING HARD, MOVING THE BALL, AND JOSTLING UNDER THE HOOP. THIS ISN’T A WEEKEND GAME AMONG CIVILIANS — EVERYONE KNOWS WHAT THEY’RE DOING HERE. BUT SOMETHING FEELS A BIT ASKEW.
People are missing passes, and shots fall short. It’s clear the players are not very familiar with one another. But the group needs to get its act together — and quickly — because the first game of the season is only 11 days away. As of this morning, the Reno Bighorns have been a team for exactly one week.
Head coach Jay Humphries blows a whistle to stop the action, walks into the clump of players, and instructs center Rod Benson: “Go headhunt the guy and get him in the paint — make him go here, and then you got an easy shot.”
Benson nods and jogs back into position. This is Humphries’ second season coaching the Bighorns. It’s also the Bighorns’ second year as a franchise in the NBA’s Development League, the official minor league for professional basketball.
Comprising 16 teams in secondary markets like Reno, Albuquerque, and Bismarck, the so-called D-League acts as a farm system for NBA franchises. Players join the league and are either drafted or allocated to a team with the goal of being called up to the pro level.
It’s a logical structure and a more organized counterpart to the labyrinth of minor and semipro leagues that support other sports. But when asked about the D-League, few sports fans have even heard of it.
“Our first season was 2001–2002,” explains Dan Reed, president of the D-League. “There were a handful of minor leagues with loose associations to the NBA. But there wasn’t a consistent affiliated system. Our commissioner, David Stern, had a vision that a true minor league in the NBA would be a good thing. He saw it as a holistic development of not only players but also coaches, refs, and salespeople.”