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Toronto rookie took long road to NBA

TORONTO – For all the endless bus rides to empty gymnasiums, the paydays when the owner couldn’t cut checks, the most trying turn of Jamario Moon’s journey had to be the passes the Harlem Globetrotters tossed toward the rafters. The lobs arched 15 feet in the air, tumbling over the side of the backboard, the shot clock and leaving a leaping Moon reaching higher and higher to deliver the deed.

Night after night, gym after gym, the Globetrotters told him to take that freakish leaping ability and flush those dunks on demand. His knees ached and his stomach fluttered and Moon had come to understand those silly, staged games with the Globetrotters tested his resolve and resilience, his professionalism and persistence.

“If you didn’t get those dunks, they would release you,” Moon said. “Wherever they threw the ball, you had to get it. And I don’t care how young you are, that takes an incredible toll on your body. You’ve got to be upbeat every night. You’ve got to smile. You’ve got perform. You got to give them the show.”

MOON LANDINGS
2001: Milwaukee Bucks summer-league team

2001-02: Mobile Revelers (NBDL)

2002: Dodge City Legend (USBL)

2002: Philadelphia 76ers mini-camp

2002: Los Angeles Lakers summer-league team

2002: Utah Jazz summer-league team

2002-03: Mobile Revelers (NBDL)

2003-04: Huntsville Flight (NBDL)

2004: Oklahoma Storm (USBL)

2004: Harlem Globetrotters

2004: Rockford Lightning (CBA)

2004: Kentucky Colonels (ABA)

2005: Rome Gladiators (WBA)

2005: Fort Worth Flyers (NBDL)

2005-06: Albany Patroons (CBA)

2006: Marietta Storm (WBA)

2006: Fuerza Regia Monterey (Mexico)

2006: Gary Steelheads (USBL)

2006-07: Albany Patroons (CBA)

2007: Toronto Raptors (NBA)

– Eurobasket

He laughs now, and says, “People ask me how high I can jump, and I tell them the truth: I just jump as high as they throw the ball. I just go get it where it is.”

Moon is sitting in a lounge across the hall from the Raptors locker room at the Air Canada Centre, and even here, he thinks about those small towns, and dead-end leagues and believes the greatest thing that ever happened in his life was to be declared a junior-college washout eight years ago. Moon, the 27-year-old Raptors rookie cult hero, should’ve been stamped a cautionary tale years ago, back when three minor league teams cut him, back when the agents stopped returning his telephone calls and everyone was so sure that Moon was destined to end up back on the dirt courts of Goodwater, Ala.

Upstairs here, the Raptors team store is getting flooded with calls wanting his No. 33 jersey, and the television voice is running a contest to give Moon a nickname. Apollo 33? Moon Walker? All of it seems so surreal. Moon has thundered his way into the Raptors’ starting lineup, his blocks and steals, his electric dunks and slippery moves turning him into a YouTube sensation. Somehow, he is still standing. Basketball kept throwing those lobs farther and farther out of his reach, insisting that he jump higher and higher, and the most remarkable thing happened.

Jamario Moon didn’t come crashing to the floor, but ended up dancing on a star.

Through it all, Jamario and his wife, Tamara, still are careful to shop at Wal-Mart and clip coupons. They never did agree to that condo until Jamario had been standing in line for a food spread on the final day of cuts, and Toronto’s coach, Sam Mitchell, turned to him and brusquely announced, “We decided to keep you, by the way.”

Mitchell has been hard on him, pushing, prodding, because Moon brings the Euro-shooting style of these Raptors a long, wiry athleticism that they desperately needed. He’s been hard on him because he stood there with GM Bryan Colangelo in that June mini-camp and watched Moon honor scout Jim Kelly’s reports that the Raptors needed to take a long look at the possibilities from the Albany Patroons of the Continental Basketball Association. Together, they all understood that they needed to stop treating Moon the way the rest of basketball did, and stop asking why no one else had ever trusted their eyes and taken a leap of faith.

“I love this kid,” Mitchell said to Colangelo that day with Moon rising above a cast of characters in a workout designed to find even the hint of a gem in a year that the Raptors didn’t have a first-round draft pick. Moon planned to leave Toronto for a camp with the Cavaliers, but Colangelo didn’t dare run the risk of losing him. He signed him to a two-year, non-guaranteed contract for the minimum of $427,000 and invited him back for his first training camp.

As did most of his peers, Kelly understood that there were so few prospects left in the CBA. The league was running out older players, so many stuck between holding onto one final pro job before beating it back to the real world. Moon had such athleticism, such defensive instincts, such … such … determination. Here he was, 26 years old, never making it beyond a roster throw-in on an NBA summer-league roster and his will looked so undeterred, unrelenting. Logic told Kelly to move along, but his eyes, his heart, kept bringing him back to Albany again and again.

“There were a lot of other scouts who told us not even to waste our time with Jamario,” Kelly said. “We kept hearing about all the things he couldn’t do, but every time we watched him he looked great to us. Sometimes, opportunity and destiny have to meet in the same spot.”

Yes, Moon’s was a yearning that Mitchell was familiar, because it had once been his own. The Raptors coach had grown up in a small Georgia town that bordered Moon’s Alabama and bounced his own way through the bush leagues, subsisting on $15-a-day meal money in the CBA, before breaking in with the Minnesota Timberwolves at 26. Mitchell is careful to not make too much of their connection because he never wants people to think their shared backgrounds played a preferential part in Moon’s opportunity.

“But I try to stay away from that comparison because I’m making decisions on guys’ lives,” Mitchell said. “Jamario is here because he earned it.”

Moon had it so much rougher than Mitchell, who completed four years at Mercer University. As much as anything, Moon is a survivor of the corrupt grassroots basketball system that typically dices up far more players than it benefits. This improbable journey out of Goodwater, Ala., population 1,633, hustled him to Mount Zion Christian Academy in North Carolina. Before Moon, Mount Zion had made a name for itself by cherry-picking another long, wiry Southern prospect, Tracy McGrady. The Raptors drafted McGrady ninth in 1997, Adidas signed him to a rich shoe contract and that was ex-coach Joel Hopkins’ recruiting pitch to Moon.

“They told me to just come there, play ball, and I wouldn’t have to worry about nothing,” Moon said. “If I did good, I would probably be a first-round pick, just because of the people they knew, the pull they had.”

As Yahoo! Sports’ Dan Wetzel uncovered in his groundbreaking book, Sole Influence, Mount Zion was anything then but a school. Mortified to discover himself under 24-hour lockdown, unable to contact his parents in Alabama, Moon felt trapped. In the morning, the players shuffled over to a church where Moon remembers the classes mostly consisting of the basketball players laughing and raising hell until practice.

“We never did anything,” he said. “We were just there. I don’t even remember carrying a book at Mt. Zion.

“I don’t even remember seeing a book.”

Before he ever played a game, Moon wanted out. Only, he couldn’t get to a telephone to call his family. The players lived in a house with deadbolts on the inside and outside, with windows nailed shut. “Once you got into the house, you couldn’t leave until someone came the next morning,” he said. “It was like a prison.”

When Moon and Steven Hunter, now a Denver Nugget, made a jail break, they ripped out the nails clamping shut an upstairs window, leaped down and made a run for the pay phone at McDonald’s.

“We sat at a police station until my dad and uncle drove up,” Moon said.

This is how the grassroots system takes young lives, blows them full of false gods and phony pretenses. And then it casts them aside before the kids ever know what hit them.

Moon finished his senior season at Coosa Central, and soon found himself shipped out to Compton College to play junior college ball. “The situation was worse than at Mount Zion,” he said. “They had us in an old, beat-down house.” He had signed with Mississippi State out of Coosa, but didn’t have the grades to enroll. The college coaches sent him to Meridian (Miss.) Community College in 2000, where he made it half a season before the coach, George Brooks, had to drop him for finding so little motivation to study.

“A lot of his problems were listening to bad advice,” Brooks said.

Moon’s summer coach, Kerry Kirby, tried to talk him back into school, but he wouldn’t listen. “It would’ve taken him a year to get eligible and he just decided to enter the draft,” Kirby said. They worked together, made tapes for NBA front offices and scored an invite to the Chicago pre-draft camp. On a jumping test, Moon touched 12 foot, 4 inches. There was a buzz growing for him. A major agency signed him as a client. The NBA Draft arrived in 2001, Kirby showed up at the Moon house to a spread of chicken wings and the evening passed without Jamario hearing his name called.

“I just sat there, looking at the TV,” Moon said, “thinking, ‘What do I do now?’”

Now, Moon discovered how badly he wanted to make it. In three straight years, the Mobile Revelers and Huntsville Flight of the D-League, and the CBA’s Rockford Lightning, released him. “It was never in him to give up,” Tamara said. “There was never a moment that he ever talked about that.”

He left the Kentucky Colonels of the ABA when the owner stopped passing out checks on Friday. Again, that happened with the Carolina Thunder. He traveled to Russia but bailed before he ever played a game. Moon won a championship with the Rome (Ga.) Gladiators of the World Basketball Association in 2005.

Along the way, he signed with the Harlem Globetrotters. “That way, I could go back to the minors with some money in my pocket,” Moon said. For a time, he loved to see the smiles on the kids’ faces, loved the joy with the Globetrotters that was missing in the bitter environment of minor-league ball.

“I thought there would be a couple of NBA scouts to see the Globetrotters now and then, but I found out there weren’t any,” he said. Slowly, surely, the travel, the dunking act, beat on his body. What’s more, he feared his edge slipping away.

“You could almost sense yourself losing the feel for the game, the feel of playing in a competitive game,” Moon said.

He found a new agent, Joel Bell, who found it strange that Moon had never been to an NBA camp, but initially feared signing this journeyman twentysomething. “A lot of them think they’ve been screwed,” Bell said, “and don’t understand that there’s not some GM caucus where they get together and say, ‘How can we keep these three guys out of the league?”

Bell went to work for him, and started getting teams to take a look at this item that had been miscast to basketball’s bargain bin. Moon’s salvation came with the Albany Patroons in 2005, under basketball’s ultimate survivor, Michael Ray Richardson. If Moon wanted to make it to the NBA, the Patroons coach told him, he needed to use that long, lean frame to make himself a defensive stopper. Forget running out on the break and chasing lob dunks and tip-back jams. Moon made himself into the CBA’s defensive player of the year, and first-team all-league.

Some scouts became intrigued, but Kelly stayed on him. Without a first-round pick in the 2007 draft, Colangelo had Kelly organize a mini-camp in late June and the front office and coaching staff were united in the belief that they couldn’t let Moon leave for that workout with the Cavaliers. They signed him to the defending Atlantic Division champions, and five months later, in the lobby of the Park Hyatt in Chicago, Mitchell proposed this idea to Colangelo: He wanted to move Moon into the starting lineup.

Colangelo had been thinking the same thing, and Mitchell said his boss told him, “Well, one of two things is going to happen: People are going to think you’re crazy, or they’re going to think that you’ve got the biggest balls going.”

Mitchell spared Moon an afternoon of nerves and told him a half hour before the game that he was starting, that Luol Deng was his assignment. The Raptors had no one like Moon and it was suddenly impossible to deny him. He was a menace on the floor, a disruption with body-to-body defense, blocked shots and steals. He started to fill up the stat sheet every night. Within two weeks, Moon played the Bulls again and had a 15-point, nine-rebound, six-block and three-steal game.

“He’s a smart player, but his athleticism allows things to happen,” Colangelo said. “He’s quick and agile enough to defend, but wiry strong. And he’s not afraid of anything.”

Mitchell rides him hard, and Moon loves it. He understands the connection with his coach, even if he didn’t know what Mitchell was yelling across the gym with reporters surrounding him after a recent Raptors practice.

“Don’t let this be your 15 minutes, Moon!” and the befuddled look to that Warholian reference prompted Mitchell to instruct a public-relations staffer to explain. Even so, Mitchell has a hard time believing this sudden success will change Moon. He knows he isn’t going out on the road, the way that Mitchell never did himself. “Just like me, he understands there aren’t too many chances for a 26- or 27-year old to make it. This is just my way of reminding him what he’s been through, and never to take anything for granted here.”

After practice last week, Moon giggled over his coach’s vigilance. Never, Moon insisted, does he want to feel comfortable with the Raptors anywhere but on the floor. These days, people are always asking him where he’s been all these years, and how his remarkable talent had never been nurtured, never discovered. There isn’t an ounce of “I told you so,” in Moon’s bones. He is so grateful they used him at Mount Zion and cut him in Mobile and Huntsville and Rockford and, yes, grateful the Harlem Globetrotters tossed those lobs so high and far that he feared he’d never be able to leap high enough to keep his job.

“I’m glad I went through everything I did,” Moon said. “I wasn’t ready for any of this at 21 years old, and who knows where I’d be now if I got drafted then? I’m thankful for everything God put me through.”

It wasn’t so long ago that George Brooks at Meridian Community College got a call from him. Once the Raptors had let him in the door, Jamario Moon told Brooks, they weren’t getting him out of here.

How high can Moon go?

Just toss it up.

Just try him.