So crazy it just might work, part 2
Making power forward Tom Walkup into a point guard
BY BRETT KOREMENOS
Art by Mike McGrath, Jr. Instagram: @michaelmcgrathjr Twitter: @mikemcgrath
The winter wind snapped at my face as I walked through the dimly lit parking lot. I had forgotten how cold January nights could be in the Midwest.
My dad, a few steps behind me, couldn’t help himself. “Bet you don’t miss this,” he bellowed out, his words cutting through the frigid air. I just shook my head as I upped my walking pace toward the glass doors of the Sears Centre Arena—home of the Windy City Bulls.
I handed my dad his ticket as he trudged in behind me. The lobby was sparse—a few booths with games for kids and food dotted here and there. All around, black curtains flowed from the ceiling in an effort to hide the Sears Centre’s other life as a multipurpose arena. The outlines of a hockey rink protruded into view. It screamed minor leagues.
This was the home base for Tom’s first professional opportunity. His summer league had been a train wreck. Mediocre play compounded by a broken finger. The Bulls still offered him an Exhibit 10, the type of contract a player gets to come to the NBA camp as an affiliated G-League player. Without much else on the table, Tom took the deal, got a chance to spend a few weeks in camp with Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo, then set about trying to showcase his skills with Windy City.
The team was located in Hoffman Estates, about an hour from downtown Chicago and two hours from where my family lives in southeastern Wisconsin. So, during a visit home, my father and I headed down I-94 to support Tom.
I made a point of getting down there because Tom hadn’t been catching the luckiest of breaks. Spencer Dinwiddie, who had been traded to the Bulls over the summer, started the season with Windy City after failing to make Chicago’s team out of camp. In an effort to prove to NBA teams he deserved a roster spot, Dinwiddie had not been bashful about seizing an outsized role in the team’s offense.
Chicago didn’t mind that Dinwiddie’s presence marginalized Tom’s minutes. After all, Dinwiddie was a former second-round pick with NBA minutes under his belt. Tom couldn’t claim either of those things. It didn’t seem to matter much that Tom was an affiliate player for Chicago while Dinwiddie was not.
After nine games, the Brooklyn Nets signed Dinwiddie. His departure gave Tom his first real chance. He responded with a nice stretch as the team’s de facto point guard. But the G-League being the G-League threw another wrench into Tom’s point guard plans: Will Bynum.
A seven-year NBA veteran just off a season in China, Bynum was clinging to hopes of a comeback. He was also a Chicago high school legend, winning the city’s Public Player of the Year award during his senior season at Crane High School. Once again, Tom’s role was diminished and his positional evolution put on hold.
We settled into our seats just as the game against Westchester was starting. Bobby Portis and Paul Zipser—two draft picks on NBA contracts with the Bulls—were down on assignment. In a related note, Tom spent much of his limited first-half minutes as a ghost haunting the floor.
Thanks to Tom’s lack of involvement, I had time to focus elsewhere... and glean that the three men giving unrelenting support to Portis in front of me were not fans, but members of the Bulls front office. I introduced myself halfway through the second quarter. I let them know about my time working with Tom during pre-draft and asked their assessment.
“He’s been good in the weight room,” one of them, a member of the strength staff, tells me, “Just needs to get better at getting the bar quicker through the first phase of some lifts—explosive stuff.”
“We liked having him in camp,” a second chimes in. “He’s got a good feel. Nice guy too.”
I had been hoping for even just muted praise, some interesting insights about his potential. Naturally, I wanted these guys to think Tom was capable of the heights I foresaw. Nothing along those lines ever came up. The conversation wrapped up quickly once I realized any observations about Tom were just going to be polite but generic.
Even to the organization that had given him an Exhibit 10, Tom just seemed a means to an end—a guy there mostly to help fill out the G-League roster. Still wrestling with that dour epiphany, I slumped in my seat as halftime rolled around.
The second half began on the same depressing path as the one before it. Then with about nine minutes left to go in fourth quarter, Tom checked into a tie game.
He spent most of his time during that stretch acting as a conduit for Zipser and Portis. The ball would start with Tom but would ultimately wind up in the hands of one of those two. Portis was on his way to a 32-point game, which was certainly going to make Bulls management happy. Yet down the stretch, something interesting developed: It was Tom, not Portis or Zipser, making key plays.
With just a few minutes left in the game and Windy City nursing a small lead, Tom and Portis teamed up for a pick-and-roll in the middle of the floor. Tom glided around the pick set by Portis, his eyes scanning the weak side, hunting open windows to slip a pass into.
None emerged, but a pocket of space suddenly appeared between Tom and the big man trying to corral him. In the blink of an eye, Tom rose up for a jumper that dropped softly through the net. That instantaneous read, from passer to scorer, now that was a point guard play.
A couple possessions later, Tom authored a clever up-and-under finish that put the final nail in Westchester’s coffin. He had entered with the two teams tied. When the buzzer sounded nine minutes later, Windy City had won by 11.
My dad stood up and started putting on his coat as fans marched down aisles. “That team plays so much better when your guy Tom is in.”
We waited for Tom in the stands after the game. His girlfriend at the time, Taylor, had been sitting in another section but came over to join us. Tom strode up the steps a few minutes later and expressed his need for food. We decided on a place just a few minutes from the arena.
Tom beat us to a modern, Spartan-vibed bar, where he had a table in the back corner. We initially steered clear of basketball talk. My dad, a salesman his whole life and one of the most earnest people you will ever meet, quizzed Tom and Taylor on their relationship for awhile. Eventually, that night’s game came up.
“You need to be more aggressive out there.” my dad politely offered.
“I tell him that all the time!” Taylor exclaimed. “He’s too passive, and those other guys take his looks.”
Tom turned toward me with an exasperated look. “BK,” he said, almost pleading, “you know my game. Tell them that’s not how I play.”
Every basketball player on the planet, whether it’s Steph Curry or Tom, receives this treatment. Friends and family aren’t around to discuss the subtle nuances of winning basketball. They want to see points. And to score, you need to take shots. Tom had taken just four in a shade under 24 minutes that night.
“Tom needs to be a facilitator, not a scorer.” I explained. “Unfortunately, situations like this don’t always give guys who play the way Tom does a chance to show their value. But hopefully there are people out there who see that Tom makes a team better when he’s on the floor.”
Back at the car after the night wrapped up, I thanked my dad for coming. “I had fun,” he assured me. “I’m not sure how good of a player Tom will be, but he’s a really great kid.”
Great kid. That was hard to hear. Instead of becoming the next Delly, Tom had been reduced to being a “great kid,” wasting away in G-League obscurity.
There were those flashes, like that pick-and-roll in the fourth quarter, that showed me I wasn’t crazy. He was getting better. Unfortunately, more than halfway through his first professional season, circumstances in Windy City made it hard to see. Skills emerge when they’re matched by opportunities.
As I peered into the darkness beyond the headlights on the drive home, I couldn’t help but wonder: “Was Tom ever going to get his?”
Brett Koremenos is a writer, trainer and strength coach who has worked and written about athletes from high school to the professional level for over a decade. He has a newsletter of his own which we recommend. Part 3 of this series is coming early next week.