“How was that one?” I ask the “director” of the “commercial” I’m shooting.
“Brandon’s head got cut off, so we have to do it again,” she replies.
I turn around to see the tall, gangly giant—who’s donning a Blue Devil-blue Speed Stick windbreaker two sizes too small—smiling with a hand covering his forehead. He’s half-humored by his abnormal height, half-embarrassed.
To Brandon’s left, Kris, wearing that same windbreaker, is hysterical.
I’m at Lightbox Studios in midtown Manhattan for the NBA Speed Stick Combine, similar to April’s NFL Speed Stick Combine, and I have the opportunity to step into the mammoth shoes of Brandon Ingram and Kris Dunn, two projected lottery draft picks Thursday, and understand what it’s like to be preparing for the NBA limelight.
For Ingram and Dunn, it doesn’t mean just working on their games. They make appearances (like this one), sign endorsement deals, shoot commercials, and are forced to deal with members of the media trying to pry any little tidbits of information to use for a story. Guilty as charged.
Dunn wouldn’t budge when asked, three times, if Boston, not far from his New London, Conn. home, would be his preferred destination.
College basketball and every level prior to it is just basketball. NBA basketball is a business. It’s basketball in job form with all these odd non-basketball engagements you have to partake in on the side, especially if you’re a top prospect.
I learn that right off the bat. My first activity in the combine course is to star in a commercial. The director has me slip on one of the windbreakers and stand next to a table that has a single tube of Speed Stick Gear Overtime on it. Cameras and at least 20 pairs of eyes are trained on me. Brandon and Kris stand quietly off-stage to my left, giving me confident nods as I shoot them a glance.
“You remember the script?” asks the director.
“Oh yeah, definitely,” I reply, realizing that I’m going to have to freestyle it, Sway in the Morning style.
I begin by saying something like, “Hi, I’m future NBA star Macklin Stern, and I’m here to talk to you about Speed Stick antiperspirant.” In my head, I’m thinking that this is the greatest opening line ever delivered in deodorant commercial history, and that’s where things start going south. I’m so caught up in feeling myself that I totally forget what it is I’m actually talking about and stumble like a wounded animal through the last couple of lines.
If only planning on enrolling in improv classes for years (as I have) could produce the same effects as actually taking them.
The director yells “Cut!” and informs me that the teleprompter is working again. Awesome.
As the clapperboard dude claps his board, I see tiny white blurry letters flash on the teleprompter and my heart sinks into my stomach. I wear reading glasses, which I conveniently forgot at home. If only the spirit of Horace Grant could swoop down and lend me a pair of his goggles.
As I squint and struggle to get through each word, Ingram and Dunn jump into the frame (scaring me in the process) and say, “Welcome to Speed Stick!”
It probably goes without saying at this point, but I’m no actor. Other than that brief moment of euphoria when I thought I was killing it, I felt uncomfortable the entire time.
Depending on their sponsorship deals, high-profile draft prospects, like an Ingram or Dunn, may have to become actors. Some are good (see the entire State Farm Hoopers cast or LeBron James in Trainwreck), but for others, it’s clear why they chose basketball as a career path.
After busting through a Speed Stick tunnel banner and meeting my teammates—Ingram, Dunn, and two other enormous random dudes decked out in Speed Stick gear—for a fun but totally awkward (on my part, at least) dance sesh, I head off to the bar area where I interview the future pros.
Kris, a 6’4”, 195-pound four-year point guard out of Providence who’s projected to go in the top 10 (many have him as high as top three), sits adjacent to me on the couch. His frame reminds me more of a football player than a basketball player, and he insists that if he continued to play football through high school and college, he would have been selected in the 2016 NFL Draft.
“LaRon Landry,” he responds when I ask him who his NFL equivalent would be. “[I’d be] better at guarding, but we hit the same.”
The two-time Big East Player of the Year tells me that it’d be cool to play for the Celtics, his must-have pre-game snack is fruity candy, and that his favorite Friends character just changed from Chandler to Ross. He even weighs in on the Chef Curry lows, describing them in a way I don’t think anyone has before: “Awesome.”
In stature and personality, Ingram couldn’t be more different than Dunn. While Dunn is outgoing, naturally funny, and very comfortable in front of the camera (as I noticed when he and Ingram were shooting their own legitimate Speed Stick commercial earlier that day), the 6’9” lanky Ingram is soft-spoken.
The 18-year-old explains the meanings behind his tattoos, many of which are religious, and describes the strong bond he has with AAU coach, mentor, and former NBA player Jerry Stackhouse. He even tells me he’s more of an M.J. guy than a Kobe guy, a potentially “dangerous” comment to make for two reasons; namely Ingram went to Duke while M.J. attended rival North Carolina, and he’s widely projected to be drafted by the Lakers.
They both play NBA 2K and enjoy all the basketball movies that I do, like Space Jam and Love & Basketball. At the same time, though, I could tell they were guarded and calculating in their answers.
Dunn wouldn’t budge when asked, three times, if Boston, not far from his New London, Conn. home, would be his preferred destination. He just said it would be cool.
Ingram was probed for any hilarious or ridiculous Stackhouse stories, and while he did admit those existed, he said that he didn’t want to get into them.
If you’re a draft prospect, especially a highly touted one, it’s important to construct a clean image. Ingram and Dunn have to be very likable guys with strong moral compasses who say all the right things. At the same time, they’re expected to shoot commercials and make appearances where they stand out as unique, even funny. Of course, they can’t be too unique or outlandish because they run the risk of rubbing NBA management and/or sponsors the wrong way. It’s a difficult happy medium to find.
Having to constantly do and say all the right things certainly isn’t easy, but it’s necessary. In a way, it forces NBA draft prospects to transform into young politicians—athlete politicians. Lucky for them that come Nov. 9 while one candidate is licking their wounds, Ingram and Dunn are just getting started.