Zeroing in on the G League’s Birmingham Squadron and four of its players—Jared Harper, Joe Young, Zylan Cheatham, and Malcolm Hill—during the historic 2021-22 season, Life in the G details the relentless pursuit of the NBA dream. With anecdotes centered on past travel complications, this excerpt reveals just how chaotic and absurd the G League experience can be.
During the 2008–09 season, the Dakota Wizards were bussing from Bismarck, North Dakota, to Des Moines, Iowa, to take on the Iowa Energy. They left around 10:30 p.m., and two hours into the ten-hour journey, the bus started bouncing. The driver pulled over to investigate the source of the problem. Apparently, something was wrong with the vehicle’s axle—the primary suspension system. They were able to continue on, but the bus bounced the entire ride, like a low-rider with hydraulics. No one on the Wizards was able to get a minute of sleep ahead of the game.
A year later, the Reno Bighorns were supposed to fly home from Salt Lake City, but their flight was canceled due to a blizzard. So right after their game against the Utah Flash ended, the Bighorns hopped on a bus to make what was normally an eight-hour drive (given the conditions, it was more like twelve). Players hadn’t eaten dinner and were understandably starving. They searched, and searched, and searched for a place to get food off Interstate 80—there was nothing. It wasn’t until close to 2:00 a.m. that they found an open McDonald’s. Crisis averted… or maybe not.
“Half of us got food poisoning on that bus ride,” recalled Rod Benson, a forward on the Bighorns. “…It felt like I was just imploding from the outside in because I ate this McDonald’s on this dumbass bus ride.”
In 2015, the Bighorns were on a road trip in Texas, scheduled to face the Austin Spurs and the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. Following their game against the Spurs, the Bighorns boarded a coach bus for the five-hour drive to Edinburg, home of the Vipers. Their driver was not actually supposed to work that evening—a mix-up by the company had resulted in her being assigned at the last minute. Within a few hours, it became apparent to everyone onboard that she was far too sleepy to be operating a vehicle. The bus started swerving on the highway, so unnervingly that coaches insisted she pull over at a gas station. Even the driver had to admit that she was unfit to soldier on. Rather than be stranded in the middle of Texas, in the middle of the night, one of the Bighorns’ staff members took the wheel and drove the team to Edinburg.
Throughout the history of the G League, teams have frequently traveled on game days. Kevin Danna, a longtime play-by-play announcer for the Santa Cruz Warriors who used to travel with the team, recalled the Warriors playing on February 5, 2015, in Bakersfield, California, flying to Boise, Idaho, for a matchup against the Idaho Stampede on February 7, and then back to California to face the Los Angeles D-Fenders on February 8. To make matters worse, there was no direct flight from Boise to Los Angeles, so on the morning of the eighth, the Warriors flew to Oakland and then connected on to LA. They arrived in the city around 3:00 p.m. ahead of a 5:00 p.m. tip-off. That’s three games and three commercial flights in a seventy-two-hour span.
With teams traveling so hectically and being so understaffed, absurd mishaps were inevitable. One year, the Dakota Wizards flew to Colorado for a game against the 14ers, only to realize that they did not bring enough pairs of shorts. The jerseys were all there, just some of the bottom halves were missing. Getting more shipped out before the game was impossible, so players would have to share. Those on the bench wore nothing but tights and had towels wrapped around their waists. Whenever a player subbed out, he quickly removed his shorts, handed them to his replacement, and received a towel in return. “Only in the D-League,” said Wizards guard Maurice Baker, who appeared in that unforgettable game. “If you were going in for that guy, you better get his shorts.”
That wasn’t the only time the Wizards had to improvise their attire. They once traveled to Oklahoma for a matchup with the Tulsa 66ers and mistakenly checked the bag with all their uniforms. The flight was delayed due to weather, and when they finally arrived, their precious cargo was nowhere to be found. The game was still played as scheduled, but the Wizards had to wear Tulsa’s practice jerseys. To uninformed fans, it looked like an oddly competitive intrasquad scrimmage.
By 2021, those nightmare scenarios were far less likely to arise, though some crises could always be expected. Head coach Ryan Pannone used his long travel days to analyze film. Not just of the Squadron—of teams all over the world. He binged basketball games like they were episodes of Stranger Things, getting lost in the various clips and completely losing track of time. Sometimes so many clips were open on his computer that it looked like a glitch—just endless windows stacked one on top of the other. Pannone would shuffle through them on fast forward, his eyes scanning for anything worth saving: a good set, a botched assignment, someone not hustling or closing out.
During the two-and-a-half-hour layover in Atlanta, players ate the food available to them: Chick-fil-A, P. F. Chang’s, snacks from Hudson News. Coaches did their best to encourage healthy eating habits, but it was tough to enforce any rules. The Squadron didn’t have the budget for a team chef, and per diems on the road were modest.
Atlanta Hawks center Clint Capela, who hails from Switzerland and was formerly with the Houston Rockets, wasn’t even introduced to U.S. fast food restaurants until he was assigned to the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. “It kind of helped me discover about the not fancy side of the U.S. We used to eat at Denny’s, Applebee’s, Chili’s,” Capela said of life in the D-League. “I would have never known those places if I would’ve never gotten assigned to the D-League.”
When he was with the Vipers, Capela found it refreshing to be at a regular airport again, not taking off from some private runway. Troy Daniels, who was Capela’s teammate on the Rockets, played for the Vipers the season prior and remembered players racing to the gate to see who could get an exit-row seat.
In roughly twenty-four hours, the Squadron would be engaged in a physical, fast-paced, competitive game in front of NBA scouts. Right now, they were just a bunch of hungry travelers, munching on Chinese food and chicken sandwiches, navigating the chaotic crowd at Hartsfield-Jackson International.
Excerpted from Life in the G: Minor League Basketball and the Relentless Pursuit of the NBA by Alex Squadron by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. ©2023 by Alex Squadron.