In Basketball's D-League, Player Takes Long Shot At NBA Dream

May 21, 2016
Originally published on June 10, 2016 3:04 pm

The NBA is a league of millionaires, where even the lowest-paid benchwarmer earns more than $500,000 a season. But away from the spotlight, hundreds of players are striving to break in, grinding in the minor league basketball trenches of the D-League — "D" for development. They play for teams like the Canton Charge in Ohio, the Cleveland Cavaliers' affiliate. During a five-month season that stretched through cities like Bakersfield and Grand Rapids, there was one shot that stood out — for both the team and the player who made it.

The moment was a single, high arcing jump shot.

John Holland has made countless of them in his life: on playgrounds, alone shooting in gyms, in high school and college games, and playing overseas.

But none compare to the shot Holland took in Portland, Maine, on April 7 — the very last shot the 27-year-old would make for the Canton Charge.

'This Is The Grind, Chasing The Dream'

There are some things you should know about Holland. He was not groomed from early childhood to be a professional basketball player. His high school in the Bronx was known for its academics more than for sports. And he wasn't recruited by major college programs.

"Coming out of high school I didn't have any offers, Division I offers," he says. "I thought I was good. Nobody else really on the Division I level thought I was good enough."

Holland landed at Boston University, a Division I school but hardly a basketball powerhouse. After college, he signed with professional teams in France, Spain and Turkey. He made six figures, but the moves didn't get him any closer to the NBA.

He figured his best shot was to come back to the States, and that's how he wound up in Canton, in the D-League, making $19,000.

"Sometimes it's about more than money, it's about the dream," he says. "And this year, this is what it's about. This is the grind, chasing the dream."

Holland lives outside of Canton, about an hour's drive south of Cleveland. He shares a townhouse with a teammate, and his life is hardly what one would consider glamorous — especially for a professional athlete. There's practice, weight-training and film sessions at a nearby community center, and the games themselves. Beyond that, the guys spend a lot of their free time just hanging out at the complex where many of them live.

It's February, predictably cold and snowy. Mike Dunigan, a teammate, has come over to make a pasta dinner and watch a game with Holland and his roommate. But there's a mess in the sink, and Dunigan draws the line: "No way, I'm not doing those dishes." So the task falls to Holland.

It's a risk, choosing the D-League, when you can earn a lot more money playing overseas. Only a small fraction of D-League players get NBA call-ups. And for players at Holland's position, the competition is fierce.

"I'm a guard, dime a dozen," he says. "We'll see what happens when it's all said and done. But it's also a thing where it could end at any second."

As the season winds down, just one of his teammates gets a call-up, a player with previous NBA experience. Holland is just under the radar: not the highest scorer on the team, but consistently good, helping Canton to a 12-game winning streak and a spot in the D-League playoffs.

'An Amazing Moment'

Holland's pivotal shot for the Canton Charge comes during the second game of the team's playoff series against the Maine Red Claws, the Boston Celtics' D-League affiliate.

The game is close throughout. Holland makes two crucial 3-point shots to keep the pressure on the Red Claws.

With Canton up by one and less than a minute to go, the team's point guard passes to Holland. He's behind the 3-point line.

The 24-second shot clock ticks toward zero.

A defender — a former Celtics player who's 6-foot-7 — is draped all over Holland, who's 2 inches shorter.

There's no other option: He has to let it fly.

Holland goes straight up — his shot swishes through the net. It clinches the game, and the series, for Canton.

The excited play-by-play announcer compares the "unbelievable shot" to the dramatic basket by Villanova that won this year's NCAA men's basketball tournament.

"It felt good when I released it," Holland says later. "It was an amazing shot, an amazing moment. One that I'm going to remember forever now."

Amazing, especially, because of what happens next: Three days after the shot, as he's about to take a nap, Holland gets a life-changing call.

It's his agent: John, you're going to the NBA, to the Boston Celtics.

"I think I just sat back and screamed," Holland says. "I was just happy. I just screamed in happiness. Then I called my parents. Called my girlfriend. Called everybody."

Beating The Odds, For Now

It's impossible to know whether Holland would have been called up by the NBA if he hadn't made the shot. NBA scouts and officials regularly watch D-League games looking for players who can help their teams. But Holland was signed by the Celtics, whose D-League team Holland beat with his shot.

Mike Gansey is general manager of the Canton Charge.

"I'm sure that helped him with ... whoever from the Celtics (was) watching, and saying, hey, this guy beat us up pretty good, why don't we have him join us," Gansey says.

The call-up couldn't have come at a better time for Holland, because at age 27, the biological clock is ticking if you're trying to crack into the NBA.

"In basketball," Holland says, "life is short."

And the odds are long — but for now, Holland has beaten them. He made $25,000 with the Celtics for two games and the playoffs, more than his salary for the entire D-League season.

He has a contract to play for the Celtics for next season, though it isn't guaranteed.

The Celtics lost in the first round of the NBA playoffs. Holland played a grand total of one minute.

But that's one minute more than he'd ever played in the NBA. Next season, he'll have a shot at turning that single minute into many.

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