(Article courtesy of My Hooploops, A Top Down Look at the NBA from the Bottom Up)
There is one seat that is fought over with an intensity, seldom seen outside the battlefield or ancient coliseums. It is the war that rages around the last folding chair on every NBA team’s roster. The NFL allows for scout teams that work directly with the main team. Baseball’s players go back and forth from the minors to the majors all the time and Soccer’s top teams all have feeder programs. The NBA, needing the fewest number of players, tends to have very little roster turnover during a season. During the playoffs, coaches shorten their rotations even more. Thus, perhaps the cruelest cut in professional sports is that of the last NBA training camp player. The fall they instantly experience – from fame, fortune and luxury – is extra-ordinary. There are only fifteen maximum spots available and some teams only fill thirteen of them, preferring to save the money, as opposed to paying a player to practice. He who captures such a spot, travels on a private luxury liner and makes a minimum of $60,000 per week. He is served gourmet meals and provided with free shoes and clothes. He is surrounded by trainers, masseuses and beautiful starlets, who all want to let him know just how big a star he is. There are photo shoots, VIP sections and private rooms at the best hotels in every city. He plays in sold out arenas that are filled with local and global celebrities and he gets to live a life that few of us can imagine. Last but not least is the fact that the last player on an NBA team is playing with and against the best players in the world. The alternative to all this is riding a D-League bus to play before a few hundred people, or playing internationally under potentially dubious circumstances.
Of all the players fighting for the last spot on a NBA roster, there is only one who was the last pick of the draft. On top of this, circumstance has conspired such that this last draft’s last player finds himself in pursuit of one of the most valuable final roster spots of all time. His name is Robert Sacre, and at this precise moment in time, he is the man in the most unique spot in sports. Robert Sacre was taken by the Super Star franchise of modern sports, the Los Angeles Lakers. His arrival coincides with the assemblage of potentially one of the greatest teams in the history of the sport. The whole world is watching to see what Steve Nash and Dwight Howard will add to a team that already has Kobe and Pao Gasol. So far, with a little over a week remaining before the season starts, Robert Sacre’s chances of grabbing that golden seat at the end of the Lakers’ bench are looking good.
This seven-foot Canadian had a very good, though less than nationally dominant, career playing for Coach Mark Few’s highly respected Gonzaga program. The WCC conference, in general, has been kicking a lot of players into the NBA going back to John Stockton and including Steve Nash, who played for Gonzaga and Santa Clara, respectively. Although recent lottery picks like Adam Morrison and Austin Daye have struggled, second round picks like Ronny Turiaf and St. Mary’s Patty Mills have made real roles for themselves in the league. If Gonzaga had made it deeper into the NCAA Tournament, Sacre probably would have been drafted higher. However, they were beaten in the second round by a very strong Ohio State team, whose big man, Sullinger, went in the first round to the Celtics. Failing to turn that personal and team matchup, into a victory, dropped Sacre’s stock all the way down to the very last pick in the draft.
Though Sacre was indeed well known in certain circles during college, he is on the verge of joining the most watched athletic team on the planet. Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Derek Howard, Pao Gasol and Metta World Peace, assure that the whole world is watching what happens with the Lakers. Those players of course, are all multi-millionaires with massive operations built up around their success, fame and fortune. As a second round draft pick, Sacre’s minimum contract isn’t even guaranteed. The Lakers don’t owe him a cent if they cut him. A second round draft pick is the furthest thing from a sure lock, when it comes to making the team who drafted him. A second round pick battles against every veteran free agent out there, some who have prior relationships with the coaches. Every International Player is also looking for their chance to jump to the NBA, along with the top college players who went undrafted. Ironically, all of these have the advantage of potentially being a better fit for the specific needs of the team, as free agency can completely eliminate the role a player was drafted for.
Robert Sacre faces all of these challenges. The Lakers have four or five guys seriously competing for the last spot. One of those fighting is… nobody. This is because it can be advantageous to keep a 15th spot open until later in the season when an injury demands a specific type of role player be brought in. Luckily for Sacre, the Lakers want another big center on the roster, though they would not hesitate to go without one if smaller players looked great in preseason play and practice. So far, the player, though who has looked great, is none other than Sacre. It is no surprise to those who know him best, starting with his mother.
Robert Sacre’s mother played basketball in college and Robert’s father was in the NFL so he had the promise of athletic genes. The couple divorced when Robert was young and his mother took Robert from the American South to the confines of her native Canada. To her credit, Robert flourished in British Columbia where he became the top high school player in Canada. For college, he went to the perennially dark-horse powerhouse, Gonzaga. Though they are now known as a top twenty-five program, the Zags somehow keep the underdog appeal that they first had when they burst upon the national scene with a Sweet Sixteen run, in 1995. Perhaps, partly because of the ever-legendary tournament fame of WCC running mate, LMU. Their run and gun philosophy, and other-worldly Hank Gathers saga, captivated a nation back in 1989 and forever connected the concept of dark-horse with the WCC.
Fighting one’s way into the big time is thus part of Sacre’s institutional DNA. And make no mistake, that is what he is doing now: fighting. The Lakers have 13 players with guaranteed contracts and there are only 15 spots on a roster. The Lakers signed players break down as follows: four point-guards, two 2-guards, two 3’s, one 3/4, one 4, one 5 and two 4/5’s. Competing with Sacre for the remaining two spots are two other centers, two shooting guards and a combo forward, and of course that empty spot known as “no one.”
One of those players vying for a spot was drafted ahead of Sacre, and the Lakers paid about $500,000 to buy that pick. Another played all last year, with the Lakers, after being a 2nd round pick himself. Working in Sacre’s favor is the fact that big man Jordan Hill hurt himself in the first week of training camp, Dwight Howard is coming off of back surgery and the high-flying Earl Clark, who the Lakers acquired with Dwight Howard, strained his groin. Thus, one of the two open spots is expected to be filled with a big man, and right now that big man looks like Sacre. Sacre’s strong play in practice has won him time with the starting unit and he has made the most of it. He’s finished when given the chance, he’s hit his free throws and shown surprising agility and strength. In other words, he looks like a player who could turn out to be touted as a “steal.”
After the first two pre-season games, Kobe Bryant told a reporter that he thought Sacre would make the team. “Most definitely,” were the specific words he used. Three games later and Sacre seems to have only fortified his position. If this remains the case, Sacre will soon be watching Lakers games, while sitting next to Jack Nicholson. It also means he will be but an injury away from being an actual part of the rotation. Thus, if he is on the roster, he could see real playing time. Extending this out further, Sacre’s minutes on the most watched team in the world will give him a new level of notoriety, especially back home in Canada, where an entire nation will be tuning in to watch favored son, Steve Nash, go for his first championship. And one of the player’s Nash could be throwing the ball to in a crucial moment in the playoffs, could be Robert Sacre. And if that moment comes, Sacre will have a chance to hit a shot or make a pass that gains him global stardom and multi-generational wealth. Unless he doesn’t make the team of course, then he will be on a D-League bus headed to Bakersfield.