You Don’t Get From The G League To The NBA By Being “The Man”
1:44 PM EST on November 24, 2023
Zeroing in on the G League’s Birmingham Squadron and four of its players—Jared Harper, Joe Young, Zylan Cheatham, and Malcolm Hill—during the historic 2021-22 season, Life in the G details the relentless pursuit of the NBA dream. This excerpt focuses on an early road trip to Frisco, Texas, when the team was visited by NBA veteran and former G-Leaguer Anthony Tolliver.
The 2-0 Squadron were in Frisco for a back-to-back against the 2-0 Texas Legends, the affiliate of the Dallas Mavericks. After morning shootaround at the Comerica Center, Birmingham got a visit from veteran NBA forward Anthony Tolliver. Squadron associate head coach T.J. Saint had coached Tolliver, a six-foot-eight sharpshooter out of Creighton, on the Detroit Pistons. Tolliver was also a former minor leaguer—he appeared in three G League seasons from 2007 to 2010 before sticking in the NBA for over a decade, earning $35 million in contracts.
In the visiting locker room, Tolliver addressed the team. “My story was definitely unique,” he began. “I didn’t get drafted. I came from a small school, so no one was expecting me to make it to the league. I was the only person probably on the planet that thought I was going to make it to the league, but that’s all you really need sometimes.”
Tolliver was never a flashy player; his game was more appreciated by the basketball savants than the casual spectators. He didn’t put up massive numbers during his four years at Creighton, averaging 13.4 points and 6.7 rebounds as a senior in 2006–7. Most notably, Tolliver wasn’t known as a three-point shooter in college—he attempted just 63 total threes in 124 games. He went to training camp with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2007, and head coach Mike Brown told him straight up: Tolliver had all the intangibles a coach could want—he defended, hustled, took charges, communicated, sacrificed his body. If he just became a great perimeter shooter, Brown said, then he would be around the NBA for a long, long time. That was the message Tolliver received… as he was being cut from the Cavaliers.
It changed everything. He started working on his shot relentlessly, trusting that his path to the NBA was through that precise role: do the intangibles and knock down threes. Tolliver didn’t try to model his game after the dominant forwards at the time, such as Kevin Garnett or Tim Duncan. Instead, he looked at the role player Robert Horry, a seven-time NBA champion from the Rockets, Lakers, and Spurs, for inspiration. Tolliver knew that he could do what Horry, a three-point marksman and versatile defender, did.
“Everybody here has been really good at basketball probably your whole life,” he said to the Squadron. “Probably the best player on your team. Probably could get busy, get 30 a game, whatever. That’s all good. But teams in the league don’t really need players to score 30 a game anymore. They got those. They got two of those, maybe three of those. They need guys who are gonna knock down shots, have great attitudes, move the ball, be unselfish, play great on defense, and not make a bunch of mistakes.”
So that’s exactly what Tolliver had focused on becoming. He recognized how the NBA was evolving and adjusted his game accordingly.
“You’re here for a reason, so continue to do those things that got you here,” he added. “But realize that the best path to the league is through a role. Wherever you go, whatever team you get called up to, you’re not going to be ‘the man.’ You gotta get that in your head. Maybe you look at somebody in the league and say, He’s about my height, about my athleticism, about my length. I can probably do that job. What is he doing? Go perfect that. Because clearly he’s doing something that got him to the league, right? Clearly he’s doing something that made him stick around for ten-plus years. That’s how I developed my skill set.”
Tolliver bounced around to 11 different NBA teams in 13 years, but someone was always interested in his skill set. He developed a niche and perfected it, hitting almost 900 threes over those 13 years. It wasn’t smooth sailing, though, and Tolliver didn’t want it to sound that way. The road tested him both mentally and physically. The beginning of his journey was a roller coaster; he was with G League teams in Iowa and Idaho, went overseas to Germany and Turkey, got cut by numerous NBA organizations. Tolliver just stayed the course, patient and disciplined.
“If you’re here, that means there’s a chance,” he said. “There’s a possibility of you getting there. But the thing is, it’s going to take a whole lot of discipline and a whole lot of being humble. You gotta humble yourself.” The message wasn’t new—Squadron coaches had been preaching it since day one—but it struck a different chord coming from Tolliver, a player who had been in their position and made it out.
“I want to emphasize and make sure you guys really home in on what you can do to help this team win,” Tolliver continued. “When you win, you get noticed, you get paid—all of that.”
Cheatham sat near the front, nodding along, muttering “facts” under his breath. He could see himself in Tolliver: same height, same position, on similar paths. After playing more of an inside game in college, Cheatham had been working on expanding his range to the three-point line. He understood, as Tolliver did in 2007, that NBA teams wanted big men who could hit threes efficiently—role players who could space the floor for their stars.
When Tolliver opened it up for questions, Cheatham was the first to chime in. “What kept you professional even when things got tough?” he asked. “How did you maintain being professional?”
Being professional “is a choice,” Tolliver stressed. He had chosen every single day of his career to be a pro. That meant putting in the work, taking care of his body, knowing the playbook, watching extra film, maintaining a positive attitude—even when he wasn’t getting an opportunity to play. “I said this to myself probably every day for fourteen years: How many people would kill to be where I am? How many people would kill to even be in the G League? Y’all have to realize how blessed you are to even be here,” Tolliver went on. “And if you don’t understand that, you’ll never appreciate where you are, and you’ll never appreciate where you’re gonna be if you ever get there.”
He turned to face Joe Young. “I know that you’ve been to the league,” he said. The two had met several times in the NBA. In fact, one of Young’s best games as a rookie came against Tolliver’s Pistons, when he scored 8 points on 3-of-3 shooting off the bench. Tolliver nailed five three-pointers in that same contest.
“I know you appreciate [the NBA] now, right?”
“That’s exactly what happened to me,” Tolliver responded. “Being in training camp my first year, experiencing the league even for a month and then going to the D-League, I was like, Yo, I gotta work! That’s what it really comes down to, man. You just gotta make a decision to be a pro. There’s no getting around that. Because it’s not always going to go your way. There’s no doubt about that.”
Picture the scene at a first grader’s birthday party, or an understaffed day-care center, or a crowded Chuck E. Cheese, and then place a basketball court, with professional athletes, right smack in the middle of it. That’s the Comerica Center on game days.
Play zones were set up behind each basket. Kids twirled hula hoops, jumped on mini trampolines, scribbled on poster boards, learned how to spin basketballs on their tiny fingers, bounced around inflatable houses—all while the Squadron and Legends played a basketball game less than twenty feet away.
Some G League organizations focus solely on player development (PD), unconcerned with running a profitable business. NBA parent clubs view those organizations—and the expenses they incur—as a price worth paying to help their players improve. Other G League teams, like the Legends, concentrate on PD and business. Building a successful business in the minors is a huge challenge even if an organization chooses to make it a priority. Due to the transient nature of rosters, marketing players is difficult. Plus, the G League can’t sell stars in the same way the NBA does—because the G League doesn’t have stars.
The Texas Legends drew the most fans in the G League by offering a unique game experience, albeit somewhat bizarre. In the past, coaches had expressed frustration with the shenanigans happening around the court. But the business staff didn’t waver; their approach was working.
“For the most part, they’re committed to making money at all costs,” said Billy Campbell, who served as director of basketball operations for the Legends before joining the Squadron staff. “And sometimes that comes at the cost of the basketball experience. It’s all about fan experience, and that’s what sells. Their goal is to sell a family experience. Their goal is that no matter what happens on the court, you’re going to enjoy the experience you had while you were there, and that’s going to make you want to come back and spend money.”
Birmingham aspired to be like Texas—to establish a strong PD program and an effective business. Back in the Magic City, the sales team was hard at work preparing for the home opener in a few weeks, when Legacy Arena’s $125 million renovation would finally be complete. Creating an enjoyable, family-fun atmosphere was crucial. So, too, was something out of the staff ’s control: having a winning team.
To that end, the Squadron faltered, losing both games to the Legends in ugly fashion. Ahead of the second matchup, Dallas assigned two NBA players: center Moses Brown and guard Josh Green. Both practiced with the Mavericks in the morning and then made the short drive to Frisco to join the Legends—an advantage of having such a nearby affiliate. Squadron coaches discovered the news just hours before the game and started to rethink their strategy. They shared scouting reports of Brown and Green with the players.
“Should we start James?” Saint asked in the coaches’ group chat at 3:52 p.m., an hour before the bus was set to leave for the arena, referencing Banks.
“Malcolm or Z sits?” assistant coach Perry Huang responded.
“Idk. Just a thought to put out there. We could go opposite and start Petty to go super small.”
Time was not on their side. Decisions and adjustments had to be made fast in the G—rosters changed daily, and teams were not required to disclose who was playing for them until an hour before tip-off.
Amid the many transactions, organizations sometimes forgot to activate their players. It happened to Cheatham when he was on a two-way contract with the Pelicans and got transferred down to the Erie BayHawks. After going through warm-ups, Cheatham was informed that he couldn’t play. Someone on staff had neglected to officially activate him—a process as simple as pushing a button on a computer.
Birmingham was fortunate to have a little more time to prepare for the new-look Legends. Head coach Ryan Pannone ended up sticking with the same starting lineup. Cheatham, the tallest of the bunch, was dominated by the seven-foot-two Brown, who notched 23 points, 15 rebounds, and 3 blocks to lead Texas to a 117–102 victory. Green also pitched in 20 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists.
More than five thousand people attended each game. Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd and general manager Nico Harrison were in the building for game two, along with several of their players, including All-Star Luka Doncic. Also present were scouts for the Denver Nuggets and Indiana Pacers. Campbell was aware beforehand that the scouts would be there and asked Saint whether they should inform the players. It might, Campbell reasoned, motivate them further. Saint didn’t see it as necessary. “There are always going to be scouts at our games,” he responded. Drawing attention to their presence would suggest it was an anomaly.
At the Squadron’s next film session, Pannone criticized his team’s effort in the back-to-back defeats. He showed clips of players not sprinting back on defense and turning their backs to the ball in transition. Saint went through more humiliating footage—lapses on defense, mental mistakes, “non-negotiables,” guys jogging instead of running. (He would later come up with a nickname for the last of those gaffes, calling it the “Sammy Sosa,” a reference to the baseball slugger’s signature slow trot after belting a home run.)
“Imagine you’re Jason Kidd, sitting courtside, evaluating,” Pannone said. “What do you see? Who do you want to pay a million dollars to here?”
Campbell suddenly chimed in from the back of the locker room. He was always present at film sessions but seldom spoke. When he did, though, his words held weight. “Everything you put on tape matters,” he said. It was all bound to get analyzed, dissected, blown up, broken down. As Campbell stressed, people were always watching, not just the big names like Jason Kidd and Nico Harrison who were front and center: the scouts hidden in nooks around the arena, the coaches who would study the film—the same film they were currently panning—later on. So every play did matter. All the my-bad and whoops moments would get noticed. In the G League, not sprinting back on defense could be the difference between someone liking you and dismissing you, between a call-up and a season in the minors, between millions and $37,000.
Excerpted from Life in the G: Minor League Basketball and the Relentless Pursuit of the NBA by Alex Squadron by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. ©2023 by Alex Squadron.
Alex Squadron is a writer from New York. His byline has appeared in SLAM, the New York Post, The Athletic, Sports Illustrated and SB Nation. His first book, Life in the G: Minor League Basketball and the Relentless Pursuit of the NBA, was released in October 2023.