There are a pair of moments in "Summer Dreams," a documentary premiering Saturday on CBS that follows six people looking to make NBA names for themselves during the annual Summer League showcase, that offer a bit of insight into the margins of "making it."
We see 6-foot-5 shooting guard Dwayne Davis — a 23-year-old Philadelphia-born prospect who was homeless as a teenager and bounced around before shining in a lone season of Division I ball at Southern Miss — immediately slough off word that he hadn't been selected in the 2013 NBA draft and begin beaming at the no-promises news that the Golden State Warriors want to take a look at him in Vegas:
Later, we see 6-foot-8 forward Romero Osby — an All-Big 12 honoree during his senior season at Oklahoma and a second-round draft pick of the Orlando Magic whose selection came without a guaranteed contract or roster spot — drive home from his final Orlando Summer League game, praying he'd done enough to convince the Magic brass to keep him around:
For Davis, merely getting to take the cross-country trip with "godbrother" and best friend Kasheef Festus — even without any guarantee of playing time or money, at home or abroad — represents a shot at something better. For Osby, an up-and-down week at the NBA's post-draft proving ground means it could all be falling apart, because even though his agent has already lined up a high six-figure salary offer in Europe, that's not The Dream.
There's validity and merit in both attitudes, of course, and the tension between the two poles — between hope and fear, between the thrill of going after the brass ring and the disappointment of failing to reach it — courses throughout "Summer Dreams," a project helmed by Mike Tollin (whose sports-related credits include "Varsity Blues," HBO's "Arli$$," "Coach Carter" and the "30 for 30" documentary "Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?") and Jon Weinbach (who co-wrote and produced the wonderful "The Other Dream Team"). The documentary traces the journeys of six people with vastly different pedigrees and circumstances — the unsigned duo of Davis and Osby, 2013 first-rounders Michael Carter-Williams of the Philadelphia 76ers and Shane Larkin of the Dallas Mavericks, referee Lauren Holtkamp and D-League coach Joel Abelson — who travel to Summer League in pursuit of the ultimate goal: a full-time gig in the NBA.
"The Las Vegas Summer League truly is the 'American Idol' of basketball," Dallas Mavericks general manager Donnie Nelson says during the documentary. "And it's not just the 'American Idol' for the United States — it's the 'American Idol' for the entire globe."
The filmmakers find varying degrees of success in their attempts to mine the drama in their characters' divergent situations. It's a matter of stakes, really.
There are obstacles and hurdles for Carter-Williams and Larkin to overcome — the former must work through wonky shooting in his Orlando debut and find steady footing in his relationship with his mom, Mandy Carter-Zegarowski, who has assumed responsibility for managing his career, while the latter wrestles with heavy competition in the Mavericks backcourt and a summer-scuttling ankle injury. By and large, though, there's never any sense that the rookies are ever in any real danger, that there's any chance their travails will end in anything other than a seat at the table. That's because there wasn't.
Carter-Williams was the No. 11 pick in the draft, chosen by new Sixers boss Sam Hinkie as the point guard of Philadelphia's future, a role reaffirmed by the draft-night deal that sent incumbent starter and All-Star Jrue Holiday to the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for fellow rookie Nerlens Noel and a top-five-protected 2014 first-round pick. He was going to be the 76ers' starter this year no matter how much he struggled with his elbow positioning, and he was going to make more than $4.5 million over the next two years, because first-round contracts are guaranteed.
The circumstances were a bit different for No. 18 pick Larkin. His path to playing time was already barred by free-agent acquisitions Jose Calderon, Monta Ellis and Gal Mekel, and it was only made more difficult by the broken ankle that put him down just before he was about to leave for Vegas. He was still guaranteed to receive more than $3.1 million over the next two seasons, though, affording him a bit more time to prove his worth and work himself into the mix.
In a broader context, too, both MCW and Larkin have more to fall back on than anyone else in the story. While the changing dynamic between Carter-Williams and his mom might have rocky parts, but he still has the backing of parents actively looking out for his best interests. And if everything else fell apart for Larkin, well, he's still Barry Larkin's kid. Their spots were secure, their money was locked in and their safety nets were in place. They were going to be OK, which makes it tough to wring compelling moments out of their attempts "to find their way to the NBA." (The most interesting items in their arcs came in the form of comedic grace notes, with Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle chatting with Larkin's girlfriend and Queen Warrick telling Carter-Zegarowski about how her transition into being an NBA mother included phone calls to the league office about why her son, Hakim Warrick, wasn't playing.)
It's a different ballgame for the other four subjects. Osby has to wow the Magic brass to convince them to offer him a guaranteed contract so that he can set up a stable foundation for his wife, Shalonda, and young daughter, Saniya. Davis must use his time with the Warriors' Vegas squad to make enough of an impression on any team to get a job offer somewhere in the world.
Holtkamp — a D-League, WNBA and NCAA official who made headlines in this space a year and a half ago after she was one of two female refs to receive short-term NBA assignments — needs to be "as good, as sharp, as perfect as I possibly can be" just to stay in the referee training program, let alone actually get a crack at becoming the female full-time referee in NBA history. Abelson, who introduces himself as the "best-looking Jew in professional basketball," heads to Vegas having just lost his job as the head coach of the D-League's Sioux Falls Skyforce; he must scramble to find an opportunity to get paid to coach somewhere, lest he be forced to revisit his days as a real estate agent and hating "every minute of my life."
Carter-Williams and Larkin will be all right no matter how their Summer League experiences pan out, but these four people are 10 days away from being swept aside, the unfactored remainder of the NBA equation. It's no surprise, then, that they produce the more arresting moments in "Summer Dreams," including Abelson's hotel-suite interview with Portland Trail Blazers general manager Neil Olshey, who presses the slick-talking 30-year-old aspiring coach to communicate what he can actually do.
"There's got to be some self-examination, right?" Olshey says to Abelson, who had been an assistant with the Idaho Stampede before moving into the top job in Sioux Falls. "Because there's been two situations where you had jobs. You weren't kept. You're a talented coach, but there's a lot of talented coaches. You know, that's one of the things that everybody forgets here. Look in that gym: former college head coaches, former NBA head coaches, former NBA All-Stars, Hall of Fame players, guys who were Executives of the Year as general managers, that are out of work.
"So how does someone get back in? And not networking, not schmoozing — what is it that differentiates you from all those other people? When someone says, 'We've got to get him into the organization, in whatever role, because he brings ... what?'"
Abelson, stunned, has no answer.
"Nobody's really ever said that to me," he says.
It's uncomfortable to watch someone realize that he not only doesn't know what to say next, but that he hadn't even really thought about elemental questions like what motivates him and what he really has to offer. You can almost see Abelson's coaching life flashing before his eyes. It's awkward, but it's real — an affecting, rarely seen look at the make-or-break moments that confront every person working to break into the NBA's inner circle.
It also highlights the issue of inspiration. Abelson has to do some digging to locate, define and communicate his; Holtkamp makes hers clear from the start, telling us she left her work as a chaplain in a women's prison and a mental health facility because it "was the work I just felt called into." Larkin wants to establish himself at the NBA level in part to step out of the shadow of his Baseball Hall of Fame father. Carter-Williams wants to give back to the mother who sacrificed her own basketball career to have and raise him after getting pregnant while playing college ball at Salem State University. Osby, again, has a wife and daughter to feed.
Davis' drive is a bit more expansive. After spending part of his youth living in shelters and a car following the loss of his mother at age 13 — "I never did anything to nobody, and then, from that point on, like, my life been so rough," he says, tears cascading — he wants to make it so that he can help at-risk kids, in Philly and elsewhere, avoid coming up as hard as he did:
"It's a great story," says Mike Fink, Davis' high school coach, after heading to Vegas to help work him out. "I just hope it has a happy ending, because he deserves it."
Osby declined the high-six-figure offer reportedly waiting for him in Europe, banking on breaking camp with the Magic and locking down a guaranteed deal.
"Romero Osby still have the NBA dream," says Nicola Alberani, general manager of Italian pro club Virtus Roma. "Maybe in three, four weeks, the NBA dream will be broken, and then European clubs will be more attractive."
Osby did receive an invite to Magic training camp, with the promise of a guaranteed deal if he made the team. He didn't. Instead, he suited up for the D-League's Maine Red Claws before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in January. In interviews promoting "Summer Dreams," Osby has said he's now more open to going overseas than he was during filming.
"For me, the NBA is just a matter of time. But I’ll feel fortunate if I get a chance to play basketball anywhere," he told SI.com's Matt Dollinger.
It's the natural progression of something he says in the documentary — a fear shared by every subject followed, and the underlying motivator for nearly all the on-the-margins movers that head to Vegas every summer.
"I just don't want to get lost in the shuffle," he says.
"Summer Dreams" airs Saturday, March 15, at 8 p.m. ET on CBS.
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