Practice was scheduled for 11:15am. The team was coming off a victory at home the night before. The gym was practically barren. Fifteen minutes before Coach Joey Meyer would officially start practice, players were readying themselves.
On one end of the court, Adam Harrington had already worked up a sweat. He was catching passes from Coach Meyer, launching one jump shot after another. He jogged from one baseline to the other repetitiously.
Several players were laughing and shooting jumpers on the other end of the court. Players slowly filtered onto the court.
"I think we're doing the right things," said forward Mike Hall as he sat courtside admiring his teammates' pre-practice efforts. "Everybody is coming together."
Marking their third campaign in T-Town, the Tulsa 66ers sat at 4-4 one month into the season. Their once promising 2-0 start was long gone and a serious gut check was straight ahead.
The .500 start quickly turned into a six game losing streak. The 4-10 record had them looking up at every team in the D-League.
Such a fall from grace draws many questions to the forefront. Does the coaching staff have control of the situation? Will the players still buy into the team's first mantra? Will the city embrace mediocrity?
"We're starting to get a feel for each other, which is huge," continued Hall. "Everybody is playing well and working hard and enjoying each other."
Now, a feverous stretch in which the 66ers won nine out of 10 games has them back in the thick of the D-League's Southwest Division. In case you are curious-Austin, Colorado, Albuquerque, Rio Grande Valley and Tulsa comprise the aforementioned Southwest Division.
The National Basketball Developmental League or NBDL commenced play in the 2001-02 season.
The league was originally home to a modest eight teams, with all affiliates located in the southeastern U.S.
Tulsa's franchise came to pass after the Asheville Altitude went belly up. To date, eight cities have lost their minor league basketball teams.
However, NBA commissioner David Stern has shown unwavering support for the D-League. His backing goes a long way toward determining the success and longevity of such ventures. How else could one explain the TV contract and unrelenting backing of the WNBA?
D-League contains a built-in negative connotation. Thanks to our school system, we equate "D" with borderline failure. Our other minor league teams face the same issues. Minor league typically means not quite at the "level."
The premise is simple--to build a true minor league system for the NBA. Players are called up to the NBA and sent down to the D-League as NBA franchises see fit.
The 66ers have benefited this season from the system. Several players on the roster have NBA ties. Ramon Sessions and David Noel are both assignees from the Milwaukee Bucks. Nick Fazekas is on borrowed time from the Dallas Mavericks.
The challenge at any level of professional basketball is the same. How to maintain team chemistry while satisfying individual egos?
"You're trying to get them all better individually and better as a team. The real thing you have to get across to them is when you're helping your team win--you're doing what's going to help you get better," said Head coach Joey Meyer.
Again, it's easier said than done. When the game ends, the calls start coming in from agents, girlfriends and buddies. How many shots did you get? How many minutes did you get? These are the typical questions players are faced with that lead them astray.
"If you're trying to do what's best for you, those NBA guys are going to see it. That's why they're in the NBA. They're smart. They're going to be looking for the same things I'm going to be looking for. They are going to want to see you learn how to help your team. Get a rebound, get a loose ball, be competitive. All those kinds of things," said Meyer.
"It's hard," he admitted. "The players are in a fantastic situation. In years past, their options outside of the NBA consisted of playing ball overseas or in an offshoot, poorly run CBA type of league."
Now, they are part of the NBA landscape. Those lucky enough to play in Tulsa can lean on Meyer's vast experience in the game. He's seen everything in the realm of basketball. College coach, Team USA assistant and professional experience give his a huge advantage over his counterparts most nights.
A couple of years ago a family was seen leaving a 66ers game at halftime. The father, who was likely pulling his family away from the action against their accord, was overheard bad mouthing the play.
He felt the quality of on-court action was sub par to what took place in the NBA. To a point he was correct. The talent level is high, but there is no LeBron James or Kobe Bryant emerging from the 66ers roster. However, to summarily dismiss the quality of play is disingenuous.
The majority of players coming through the Expo Square Pavilion were once the go-to guy on their college squad. Some will take the next step.
Coaches, Coach and Players
If someone asked you to construct a basketball team from scratch, where would you begin? It doesn't matter the level of basketball either. Grade school, college or world championship caliber. You better have a damn good point guard--the quarterback on the court.
The hometown boys have just the man. Ramon Sessions just earned his second Performer of the Week honors. The Bucks assignee is averaging 21 points per game, six rebounds and seven assists.
"If they need me to score 30 or they need me to get 30 assists it doesn't matter. As long as we are winning I'm happy," said Sessions. He's been much happier as of late.
He is shooting 46 percent from the field. Most of those are in close proximity to the bucket. Scouts love his game. A defter outside shot and he'll garner big minutes on an NBA court near you.
His collegiate running mate Nick Fazekas is on loan as well. The 6-foot-11-inch forward has the innate ability to take big men off the dribble. He could use a little extra bulk on the blocks to defend those same post players on the other end.
North Carolina Tar Heels alumn David Noel was scheduled to join the team at the start of the season. A bum wrist shelved the move. Now recovered, he joined the crew and has blended perfectly.
The 6-foot-6-inch swingman is a stat sheet stuffer. Steals, assist, rebounds and point. You name it and Noel delivers.
Don't forget about Mike Hall. The George Washington product is in his second season with the 66ers. He tasted the NBA late last year as a member of the Washington Wizards.
If you like basketball, you will love Hall's game. He brings a level of passion to the game that everyone can appreciate.
"It's not difficult for me because I enjoy the game of basketball. To be playing a sport for a living--something I've been doing since I was three years old--I enjoy every day that I'm out here.
"I just try to make it contagious--bring other guys along," explained Hall.
When you team up Hall with Jeremy Kelly, watch out.
"When we're in there, we're full court pressing. It looks like chaos because we're running all over the place, high-fiving, trapping--that's just the type of players we are and that's the type of players every team needs."
And that's the type of players fans want to see.
For the Love
Make no mistake about it. These players compete daily for one goal. They all aspire to reach the NBA. A packed to the rafters Expo Square Pavilion may not help but it certainly couldn't hurt.
The Tulsa 66ers averaged 2,013 paid attendance through the month of January. The numbers show a 24.5 percent improvement during the same time frame a year ago.
"I think it's more important to get loyal fans," said Hall as I asked him about the half empty home court. "These first few rows get filled," as he pointed behind him, "no matter if it's a Sunday night or Thursday evening.
"That's who I like to build relationships with and I thank them for coming every night. I've been here for two years and there are a couple of people I know who haven't missed a single game. We notice that and we greatly appreciate it."
For comparisons sake, let's look at the team in Bismarck North Dakota. The Dakota Wizards average 2,640 paid attendance during the same stretch. They are actually down 5.2 percent from a year ago.
One huge difference is longevity. The Wizards have been around in one form or another since 1995. Plus, just a guess, there is probably a little more to do in Tulsa than Bismarck. Let's hope so.
"I feel like the Tulsa community is coming around. I feel like if we continue to win I'm sure it'll be easier for them to come on out," said Hall.
One argument every minor league franchise in town uses just doesn't fly. Each organization talks about the average Tulsa family picking and choosing how to distribute their entertainment dollar.
For a man, he competes against movies and other forms of entertainment. Not just the other Tulsa sports franchises. Bollocks.
I can't imagine a scenario where Joe T. Worker sits his family down and makes them choose: 66ers game or the PAC. It just doesn't jive.
"We're starting to win. It'd be nice if we could get some more people out," said Fazekas.
Perhaps the organization should shoulder some blame for the 40 percent gym capacity.
"If we have to win in front of 100 people instead of 5,000 people then hopefully we can get it done," Fazekas continued.
Here's hoping there is a middle ground to make the players, fans and league happy.
Here are some team tidbits that may only interest me.
If you want to know which players are on NBA contracts, visit the parking lot. It's amazing to see the difference in vehicles. I'd love to do an episode of pimp my ride with the team.
Ramon Sessions and Nick Fazekas played college ball together at Reno, Nevada. They hook up during downtime to play NBA Jam Tournament Edition on an old Nintendo console.
Mike Hall's brother is a doctor. Hall would have followed in his footsteps if the basketball thing hadn't worked out. We need to come up with a nickname.
"All the pressure is on you," said Hall at the prospect of nicknaming him.
The family I mentioned earlier, the ones leaving at halftime criticizing the play, it's unlikely they had ever seen an NBA game in person. The difference between college and NBA is paramount. The D-League provides a nice in-between.
E-mails concerning the D-League and the 66ers pile into my inbox more than any other entity.
They work out at Aspen Athletic. So did the Tulsa Oilers last time I checked. Talk about a complex. Imagine walking on a treadmill between a 7-foot basketball players and a 6-foot-4-inch hockey forward. That's pressure.
Center Keith Closs is 7 feet, 2 inches. It is impossible to overstate the massive size of these guys. Seeing them in person is vastly different from seeing them on TV.
NBA TV has a running ticker. You can catch up to the minute D-League stats, scores and news at any time. The channel also advertises those basketball videos made by everyone from J.J. Redick to Earvin Magic Johnson.
Former Oklahoma State Cowboy Daniel Bobik is the Tulsa 66ers Director of Ticket Sales. Bobik was your quintessential hustle guy at O-State. Stout defense and long range threes were his trademark. You wonder how that translates to ticket sales.
The Tulsa 66ers Dance Team was selected to perform at the NBA All-Star in New Orleans. These ladies deserve the recognition.
Aaron Swinson is the assistant coach of the 66ers. His wife? TU women's basketball coach Charlene Thomas-Swinson. Tulsa's first family of basketball.
If these facts or just good ol' fashion basketball excitement have you interested, give the team a chance.
Visit www.tulsa66ers.com for more information regarding the home team.
See you at the court.
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