PRO BAS­KET­BALL

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY CAN­DACE BUCK­NER can­dace.buck­ner@wash­post.com

So you think you have game? The Cap­i­tal City Go-Go’s lo­cal try­out at­tracts hoops dream­ers big and small.

Stephan Ben­nett will soon en­ter the real world. He has been out of col­lege for two years, and he has since jour­neyed around pro­fes­sional bas­ket­ball’s in­ter­na­tional out­posts with lit­tle suc­cess. While he played in French gym­na­si­ums hid­den in barns, most of his friends grew into adults, in­vest­ing in 401(k)s and hav­ing chil­dren. Ben­nett be­lieves it might be time to join them. Just not un­til he chases his dream this fi­nal time.

On a hu­mid Satur­day af­ter­noon, Ben­nett stretches his 6-foot10 body on a curb, wait­ing for a con­fused Uber driver try­ing to nav­i­gate the one-way streets and gravel road to the newly con­structed St. El­iz­a­beths East En­ter­tain­ment and Sports Arena. Ben­nett has just com­peted for hours at the Cap­i­tal City Go-Go’s lo­cal try­out for the slim chance to earn an in­vi­ta­tion to the up­com­ing train­ing camp of the Wash­ing­ton Wizards’ new G League team.

“This was like the dead­line for me, though,” Ben­nett, 25, said. “I de­cided this was the last straw for me. If I make it, then I’ll keep go­ing. If I don’t, then I’m done.”

As Ben­nett took his last shot, he wasn’t alone. In all, 93 play­ers showed up for the one, maybe two, avail­able in­vi­ta­tions to the GoGo’s train­ing camp. Regis­tra­tion be­gan at 7 a.m., and by then, a line had al­ready be­gun to form.

“It was great to see some guys at the door wait­ing when ev­ery­body showed up,” Gen­eral Man­ager Pops Men­sah-Bonsu said.

Some showed up wear­ing their ré­sumés — sev­eral play­ers ex­changed the ap­parel from their Divi­sion I alma maters for a blue and white rev­ersible Go-Go prac­tice jer­sey — while oth­ers wore the re­sults of too many years off the court. One par­tic­i­pant, who was go­ing bald, couldn’t hide his paunch un­der­neath an XXL-size jer­sey as he dropped beads of sweat dur­ing five-on-five play.

“You can tell some guys are a lit­tle bit out of shape,” said Go-Go Coach Jarell Chris­tian, who, wear­ing a Wizards shoot­ing shirt and Nike shorts, looked fit enough to get on the court him­self if only he shed his smart­watch and black wed­ding band.

But Chris­tian, like the other GoGo staffers and coaches, only ob­served the ac­tion. Men­sah-Bonsu, who worked as an NBA scout for three years, watched while hold­ing two sheets of pa­per that listed the play­ers’ names and uni­form numbers. When­ever he saw some­one tick off the qual­i­ties he is look­ing for, he cir­cled that player’s num­ber. By 11 a.m., Men­sah-Bonsu had 21 cir­cles on his pa­pers.

The portly player’s num­ber wasn’t cir­cled, but he paid his $150 en­try fee just like ev­ery­body else. A small price to keep dreaming.

“No mat­ter where you’ve played, no mat­ter how long it’s been since you’ve played,” Chris­tian said, “to­day’s a great op­por­tu­nity for ev­ery­body.”

That held true, es­pe­cially, for 29-year-old Orion Palmer, and the mes­sage of bas­ket­ball equal­ity he came to share. Palmer, who is deaf, brought a free­lance in­ter­preter named Mia Engle to the work­out. While Palmer played a pick-and­pop game that he cul­ti­vated at Gal­laudet Univer­sity, Engle stood on the side­line and con­veyed com­mu­ni­ca­tion from his team­mates or coaches through sign lan­guage.

“It’s high-level com­pe­ti­tion. I re­ally wanted to show that a deaf per­son, in­clud­ing me — any deaf per­son — could play bas­ket­ball,” Palmer said through Engle. “It’s re­ally not a has­sle to have a deaf per­son on the team. And so I wanted them to see that, to kind of cre­ate that space.”

While Palmer was on a mis­sion for the deaf com­mu­nity, 5-foot-11 Daniel Day wanted to spread the gospel of the un­der­dog.

Be­fore Day and friend Mau­rice Whitehurst left their car and walked into the gym, they said a prayer. Day, a re­cent Mary­land grad­u­ate, never played in col­lege. An­kle in­juries from high school wrecked his play­ing ca­reer, and he spent his col­lege years as a scout player on the Ter­rap­ins women’s team and a per­for­mance trainer as­sis­tant with the men’s team. Still, Day showed up in South­east Wash­ing­ton on Satur­day be­fore head­ing to Sil­ver Spring for Bi­ble study for a higher call­ing.

“It just builds a greater tes­ti­mony . . . . I like the un­der­dog role,” Day said. “Re­gard­less of your phys­i­cal cir­cum­stances, in­juries, peo­ple telling you what you can’t do — that’s why I do it. Not for my­self but to make God big­ger.”

Day still had some time be­fore head­ing to Bi­ble study, so af­ter the work­out he sat out­side eat­ing one of the sand­wiches that staffers handed out as play­ers ex­ited the build­ing. Ben­nett was there, too, pa­tiently try­ing to nav­i­gate his Uber driver to his lo­ca­tion. But Ben­nett knows his des­ti­na­tion.

Ben­nett played high school bas­ket­ball in Gary, Ind., com­peted in col­lege ball in Pitts­burgh and Hous­ton and spent parts of last season in France and even China. But he hasn’t played in the top in­ter­na­tional leagues and af­ter con­sid­er­ing his sit­u­a­tion fol­low­ing a bout with the flu, life as a bas­ket­ball vagabond might be com­ing to a close.

Though he flew in from Den­ver solely for this work­out, on Fri­day morn­ing on his way to the air­port, Ben­nett had a phone in­ter­view for a job. When he re­turns to Den­ver, Ben­nett plans to sit down with the per­spec­tive em­ployer. He has a de­gree in or­ga­ni­za­tional lead­er­ship and is work­ing to­ward his mas­ter’s de­gree. He still loves the game — so much that he will still bor­row money from his mom for a plane ticket and an Airbnb in North­east Wash­ing­ton, just so he can con­tinue pur­su­ing bas­ket­ball. But there’s life af­ter the dream.

“I feel like there’s def­i­nitely some­thing out there for me other than bas­ket­ball,” Ben­nett said. “This isn’t the end for me, I don’t think. If bas­ket­ball’s done, it’s okay.”

JONATHAN NEW­TON/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

The Cap­i­tal City Go-Go held open try­outs Satur­day morn­ing, and 93 play­ers showed up hop­ing to earn a spot in the team’s train­ing camp.

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