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November 17th, 2004 Taylor Clark | News Stories
 

Almost Famous

How does it feel to be always one step away from the NBA?

     
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On a crisp late-October morning, the Portland Trail Blazers roam around a large gym near Interstate 5 in Tualatin. Today's practice is over, and the players crack jokes and hover around a row of fold-out tables heaped with memorabilia the team has asked them to sign--enough Blazers shirts, basketballs and posters to supply half a season's worth of fan giveaways.

One player walks by the tables, pauses, then continues on. It wouldn't be right for him to sign anything.

Within a few days, the team will trim its roster to 15 players for the beginning of the regular season. Geno Carlisle is number 16, the only one without a guaranteed contract. He has spent the past six years of his life trying to make an NBA team, and this is the closest he's ever come. But time is running out.

Carlisle is an immensely talented athlete; only a few hundred people on the planet are as good at basketball as he is. Yet his story is one of constant disappointment. He has focused his entire life on making the NBA--a club that's tougher to get into than the U.S. Congress. For six years, he has pressed his nose up against the window, with success and fortune waiting for him to break through.

If he were slightly less talented, the 28-year-old might have thrown his gym bag in the attic and given up by now, resigned to a career in coaching or a life outside of basketball. Instead, fate keeps dangling the carrot an inch away from his grasp.

"I feel like everything happens for a reason, but I had no idea that it would be this long a journey or that it would be so trying every year," he says. "Three or four times, it was that close. It seems like it's always that close with me."

Carlisle's quest has carried him around the world--to several American minor-league teams, NBA training camps from Miami to Golden State, and foreign leagues in Venezuela, Greece and even Kuwait. And though he doesn't know it as he heads out of the practice gym, history is about to repeat itself: In two days, the Blazers will cut him. But now, as always, he manages to hold out hope. This is the both the great strength and crippling affliction of Geno Carlisle: a relentless drive to realize his dream, even as the odds get slimmer and his financial debts loom larger.

There's always a sliver of light; this year, it's Blazers forward Qyntel Woods, suspended indefinitely for drug use and allegations of participating in pit-bull fights, who could leave the team at any time and create an opening for Carlisle. Geno is always just someone else's misdemeanor or torn hamstring away from a life-changing opportunity.

While those he beats in pickup games every summer make millions in the NBA, Carlisle is earning $1,500 a week in the Blazers' training camp and hoping fate will hand him a $620,000 minimum contract and the pride of playing in the big show.

"If this all pans out the way my heart desires, then I wouldn't have it any other way," he says. "I feel like I wouldn't come this far just to not make it."

The next evening, the Blazers play their final preseason home game against the Toronto Raptors. The loading dock in the back of the Rose Garden is filled with the Blazers' luxury cars--like Damon Stoudamire's Range Rover and Zach Randolph's enormous Cadillac Escalade ESV. Carlisle's car is parked in the corner: a rented Nissan Altima.

This isn't how he expected his life to play out. In 1999, as a sharp-shooting 6-foot-3 guard, Carlisle was considered one of the 30 best college players in the nation, a midseason candidate for the prestigious John R. Wooden Award. And he wasn't afraid to talk about it.

"It may sound cocky," Carlisle once said when he played for Northwestern University in Illinois, "but the only player in Chicago who is better than me is Michael Jordan."

This was a dangerous boast, but Carlisle could always back up the bravado.

A basketball scout's assessment of Carlisle would say he's a scorer--he puts points on the board quickly and in bunches, and can win games on his own. He's both a deadly outside shooter and a fluid ball-handler with a quick first step. When Geno's hot, you'd have to put a lid on the basket to keep him from scoring.

Even Sports Illustrated broadcast his talent, saying in a 1999 spotlight profile that Carlisle "has made a lot of fans lately with his flashy moves, late-game heroics and dead-on pull-up jumper."

After a stint at Northwestern (where he was an All Big Ten player despite his team's woeful 12-42 record over two years), Carlisle transferred to the University of California-Berkeley and led the Golden Bears to a National Invitational Tournament championship in New York's Madison Square Garden in March 1999. The next day, newspapers across the country featured shots of Geno icing the game-winning shot against Clemson.

Carlisle figured he was guaranteed a spot in the NBA draft that summer. Instead, he didn't get picked at all. Maybe scouts thought he was too short to play shooting guard in the big leagues; maybe he just got lost among all the other talented college players.

"It felt like there had been a death in the family," his mother, Camille Smith, remembers.

Dedication to basketball--and a foiled desire to make the pros--runs in Carlisle's blood. His father, Clarence, was drafted by the Detroit Pistons in 1973, but quit for good when the team cut him the day before the regular season began. Geno's uncle, too, was almost NBA-caliber.

"That's part of Geno's drive," his mother says. "He's trying to get where his father couldn't."

In his hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich., Geno had the traditional basketball upbringing: waking up at 6 am and spending entire days shooting alone at the YMCA, or staying up and watching old "Pistol Pete" Maravich tapes until his father caught him at 3:30 in the morning. Geno was an A student, but basketball was his life.

When the NBA overlooked him in the draft, Carlisle moved on to professional basketball's fragmented minor-league system. He started with the Continental Basketball Association's Rockford (Ill.) Lightning, but in 2000 the Venezuelan team Marinos de Oriente lured him away for a monthly salary of $7,500. It was the first of many trips abroad, where Carlisle has made as much as $22,000 a month. But for Geno, playing overseas is torture.

"It's like being in jail," he says. "I hate everything about it. I hate the character of the people in terms of basketball. I hate the TV. I hate the flight over there. I hate that they practice twice a day for the whole season. And the fans--I wouldn't even call them fans. They cheer for you when you win and literally hate you when you lose."

North American minor leagues like the CBA and American Basketball Association weren't much better. Players there make an average of about $10,000 per season, playing for teams most sports fans have never heard of.

In 2001, the Miami Heat gave Carlisle a chance, but he didn't make the team. For the next three years, he bounced between the minors, overseas and failed shots at the NBA--summer-league tryouts in Denver, Boston, Phoenix, Orlando and Golden State that always had the same result.

The Blazers beckoned in late September and the odds suggested that things would turn out the same, but effort, spirit and sharp shooting have kept him around. And back at the Rose Garden, tonight's preseason game is one of Carlisle's last chances to prove his skill.

Inside the arena, the usual semi-pandemonium reigns. As fans dive over each other for free Taco Bell chalupa coupons falling from a small blimp, Carlisle shoots around with the team. At the beginning of the game, there aren't enough seats on the bench for every player, so Carlisle sits on the floor and chats with the guys who mop up sweat on the court.

With 9:47 left in the second quarter, Coach Maurice Cheeks finally sends him in. The first time Carlisle touches the ball, he drives toward the basket and gets fouled on a shot attempt. He hits both free throws. On defense, Carlisle is solid, hustling for a steal and a rebound.

After five minutes, Cheeks takes him out. Carlisle spends the rest of the night sitting on the bench as the Blazers go on to win, 97-95.

The next morning, the team cuts him.

Back in Michigan, Carlisle's parents grapple with a question that vexes them almost as much as it does their son: What's keeping Geno out of the NBA?

"It's going to take a rocket scientist to figure it out," Clarence Carlisle says.

It's clear Geno isn't delusional about his talent; he's often just one spot away from making the team, as he was with the Blazers. Geno is like a finely tuned Formula One car that's just a couple of horsepower short of being able to race with the lead pack.

And it's certainly not his character that's holding him back. Carlisle has an earnest faith in God and a psychology degree from Berkeley. His most sinful excess is an addiction to red licorice.

One theory is that Geno's reputation for selfishness with the ball has hurt his chances. As the Chicago Tribune once put it, Carlisle "had three options every time he touched the ball: Shoot, shoot or shoot."

But Earl Cureton, a former NBA player and Carlisle's coach last year at the ABA's Long Beach Jam, says Carlisle's been cured of this problem. With the right prodding at his ego, Cureton says Geno proved he was a complete player--and helped lead the team to an ABA championship.

"He was a selfish, shoot-the-ball type of guy, so a lot of the minor-league players didn't like playing with him," Cureton says. "So when Geno got here, the first game I walked into the locker room and said, 'We all know Geno's here because he can only do one thing: shoot. He can't pass, he can't dribble, and he can't defend. So when he's in the game, you just give him the ball.' And I walked out. Geno spent the next month trying to show me he could defend and pass."

Antonio Harvey, a former NBA center who played with Carlisle during the Miami tryouts and who now coaches the ABA's Portland Reign, has another theory.

"I think Geno's skill set dictates that he should be in the NBA," Harvey says. "What's keeping him out? Luck. It's the one part of the equation he can't control."

It may seem counter-intuitive, but the NBA isn't a complete meritocracy. With so many similarly talented players vying for a few spots, little fluctuations of chance can tip the scales.

Indeed, fortune has toyed with Carlisle. Just this past July, he got a chance to play in the Orlando Magic's summer league, but when he flew to Florida from his home in Los Angeles, the airline lost his luggage--and his shoes. Playing in borrowed shoes, Carlisle developed such painful blisters on his feet that he had to go to the hospital to have them sutured. The injury kept him on the sidelines for weeks, killing his chances with the Magic--and later the New Orleans Hornets, who called when he was still out of commission.

Carlisle himself has a different theory about why he's never broken through.

"It's God," he explains. "There's some lesson I haven't learned yet. He's trying to teach me something."

Carlisle, raised a nondenominational Christian, feels that all of his struggles are part of God's plan for him.

"Maybe there's something inside of me that makes him keep testing me until I feel I can't go anymore," he says. "I'm just mentally drained. I'm tired of saying I'm mentally drained. Tired of hearing myself saying it and tired of people telling me, 'You just got to keep your head up and eventually it's going to work out.' When?"

The afternoon Carlisle gets cut, Chic's "Good Times" plays on the radio in the lobby of Tualatin's Century Hotel. In a single room on the third floor, Carlisle lies on his bed, still wearing Blazers sweats, and tries not to think about what's happened.

"I feel like I just lost a huge upset where I was supposed to win," he says. "After so many heartbreaks and upsets, you just become defiant."

An open box of Red Ropes licorice sits on the floor, next to a desk lined with greeting cards featuring life-affirming messages. Tonya Newman, Carlisle's girlfriend of three months who works as an aesthetician in Los Angeles, reads a fashion magazine next to him. A palpable sense of exasperation floats through the room. Tomorrow, Geno and Tonya fly back to Los Angeles, where he will face the aftermath of his choices.

The consequences of Geno's decision to pursue the NBA are many, and the most immediate of them is that he's broke.

Carlisle's dream has led him into a financial junkyard. He'll have to move into Tonya's apartment soon to avoid more debt. Even worse, Carlisle admits that his real car--a 10-year-old Mercedes sedan--is hidden somewhere in his L.A. neighborhood. He is three payments behind on it and worries it will be repossessed.

Then there's the embarrassment. Carlisle says that other players don't treat him with less respect because he doesn't have a contract, but his position leads to awkward situations. A week earlier, when the Blazers were in Toronto, he went to dinner at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse with the guys he was closest to on the team: Damon Stoudamire, Darius Miles and Sebastian Telfair, none of whom will worry about money for the rest of their lives.

"I asked Darius, 'Do you think this is going to be expensive?'" Carlisle recalls. "And he said, 'Don't worry, somebody will take care of you.' Usually the guys who make the most money will pick up the bill."

The dinner came free, but for Carlisle, it's just another instance of punctured pride--a time when his talent isn't paying the bills. The worst moments for him come unexpectedly, like when he flips to SportsCenter on ESPN and sees people he knows in the limelight while he waits to be called up.

"I feel bad for Geno, he's such a wonderful kid," says Larry Fox, Carlisle's agent. "There are people making millions of dollars out there who he outplayed in college."

The other major consequence for Carlisle is that he has no backup plan, no safety net. He hasn't worked outside of basketball since college. He refuses to go overseas again, and after his saga of disappointments, he says he's on the cusp of just giving up the game. But like many in his position, he can't conceive of a life outside of professional basketball.

"It's more serious for me now, because my livelihood is at stake," he says. "People say it's just a game, but for me, where I've been striving for six years to get there, it's really not a game."

For Geno Carlisle, it's all or nothing: the NBA or abject failure. Playing in the preseason is little consolation; the games don't count. If he can't be on an NBA roster, he'll always consider his life a waste. At the edge of quitting, he tries to make sense of this.

"Someone told me this story about a little boy," Carlisle says. "God showed him this big boulder that was in front of this cave, and God's plan for him was to move this boulder. He started pushing at the boulder and he just wouldn't leave it even though he got exhausted or fell down sometimes. After many years, he finally gave up and dropped to the ground. He started asking God, 'Why have you had me waste all these years when I could have been doing other things with my life?' God told him, 'Take a look at yourself.' And the boy was all cut up and muscled from trying to push that boulder."

He pauses.

"So the boulder made him a man."

Two weeks later, Geno is back in L.A., and the offers from minor-league teams are rolling in.

"The Long Beach Jam has already called five times," his agent reports. "They love him to death."

Carlisle finds these offers depressing, but he has to get to work, and do it quickly.

"I'm basically living out of my bags," he says. "As bad as I want to get back into it, my heart is just limp."

Geno worries his window is closing. He's in his physical prime right now, but as he gets older, teams might frown on him. Carlisle talks about dropping out of shape for a while just so he can have a new challenge. He still contemplates giving up.

Then, lightning strikes. On Nov. 11, while working out, he gets a call from his agent. Blazers guard Richie Frahm has torn a tendon in his right foot and will be out for two to three weeks. The team asks Geno to join the team until Frahm recovers. No contract, no guarantee that he'll even see a minute of playing time, and no assurances that he won't be dumped the minute Frahm heals. Still, Carlisle is so fired up that he has to run laps around the gym to calm down. On the verge of having his car repossessed, he's suddenly about to earn better than $3,000 a day.

Last Saturday, Carlisle joined the team for its home game against Toronto. He didn't play. But at least he suited up for a real pro game--the roaring arena, the eight-dollar beers, and the flops and fire of authentic NBA play. Not on that night, but maybe soon, he'll finally have the opportunity he's been waiting a lifetime for. Then again, maybe not.

For now, Carlisle laughs off the uncertainty: "I guess the story got a twist, huh?"


In four preseason games with the Trail Blazers, Geno Carlisle played 16 minutes, scored six points, and grabbed two rebounds.

The most highly paid Blazer, Damon Stoudamire, will earn $15,750,000 this season. Shareef Abdur-Rahim is the next best-compensated, at $14,625,000.

In college, Carlisle's nickname was "En Fuego," thanks to his hot shooting. He wore red underwear during games to match.

Carlisle wears a black sleeve on his left shin that's supposed to help with tendinitis--"but I'll be honest," he says, "Michael Jordan used to wear one and I just thought it looked cool."

Before every game, Carlisle recites Muhammad Ali quotes to himself in the locker room to get pumped up.

American Basketball Association teams include the Oklahoma City Ballhawgs, the creepily named Reigning Knights of Georgia, the Gwinnett Gwizzlies (that's not a typo), and the new Portland Reign, which hopes to kick off its season Thursday (see Winners & Losers, page 9).

When Carlisle won an ABA championship earlier this year with the Long Beach Jam, he played alongside legendary NBA ne'er-do-well Dennis Rodman, who's trying to make a comeback.

 
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