NBA Hopefuls Who Don't Get Drafted Have Another Option: The D-League Basketball players hoping to break into the NBA sometimes play first in the D-League. On this episode of Embedded, we follow two players through the highs and lows of the season.
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For Some NBA Hopefuls, A Timeout In Basketball's Lesser-Known League

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For Some NBA Hopefuls, A Timeout In Basketball's Lesser-Known League

For Some NBA Hopefuls, A Timeout In Basketball's Lesser-Known League

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

I'm Kelly McEvers, and this is EMBEDDED, an NPR podcast where we take a story from the news and go deep. Every year, this happens.

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ADAM SILVER: Good evening, and welcome to the 2014 NBA Draft at Barclays Center.

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DAVID STERN: With the first pick in the 2003 NBA draft, the Cleveland Cavaliers select LeBron James.

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STERN: The Chicago Bulls pick Michael Jordan.

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STERN: Kobe Bryant.

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STERN: Tim Duncan from Wake Forest...

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STERN: Kevin Durant.

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STERN: Stephen Curry from Davidson...

MCEVERS: The NBA draft - it is a spectacle. All these young players who know they're going to get called in the first round are there - fresh haircuts, big smiles, designer suits. And then there's the commissioner calling out picks in front of a national TV audience. And in that moment, these guys - most of them are 19, 20, 21 - go from being really good players to being really good, well-paid, NBA players. Some even become huge superstars who get the big money, like $20 million a year.

So for the 2015 draft, there's this player named Quinn Cook. And he's sure he's going to get called in the second round. He's just helped Duke win the national championship. He's already talked to two NBA teams.

QUINN COOK: Well, the night before the draft they told me that if I was available there, they would draft me. Two teams told me that.

MCEVERS: So he gets a bunch of people together to watch the draft on TV at his mom's apartment. His aunt, his sister, his mom, their friends, one of Quinn's best friends from childhood who he calls his brother - they're all sitting around the TV watching the draft. And the names start getting called.

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STERN: The Philadelphia 76ers select Jahlil Okafor from Duke University.

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MCEVERS: Quinn's good friend and Duke teammate Jahlil Okafor is picked third. Two other Duke teammates get drafted in the first round. And Quinn is happy for his friends. But as they get into the second round, he's worried he's not going to get called. And if he was going to get chosen in the second round, he probably would've already gotten a phone call from his agent.

Q. COOK: You know, when you start seeing the names go by, that's really the time where I was like, man - him? Him? That guy? I destroyed him in college. I did that to him at workouts. But that's really the only time in my life where I could remember me doing that. Like, just - I had a little animosity to those guys because I was anxious to hear my name.

MCEVERS: That doesn't happen.

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SILVER: With the 56th pick in the 2015 NBA Draft...

MCEVERS: His name does not get called.

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SILVER: The New Orleans Pelicans select Branden Dawson from Michigan State University.

MCEVERS: And then Quinn still has to deal with all those people at his mom's apartment.

Q. COOK: I thanked everybody who came, about 20 people that came. And my mom knew I was about to break down. Went outside, broke down in my brother's car, and it was painful. It was painful just because I've had this vision in my head how I would celebrate it, and, you know, the scenario was perfect. I knew my mom would be next to me, my sister, just - my brother would be there. And it just was perfect, but it never happened.

MCEVERS: So now what? What happens to all these guys who are good players, but don't make the NBA through the draft? Turns out, there's a place for them. It's called the D-League. The D-League is like the minor league system for the NBA. D stands for development. If you play in the D-League, you make as little as $13,000 a year. And you live in places like Erie, Pa., Fort Wayne, Ind., or Reno, Nev.

You're part of a team. You play a whole season. But you and everyone around you - your teammates, your coaches, even the PR people, are all really just hoping to get to the NBA. And we wanted to know - what's that like? What's it like to get so close to this elite club with the best basketball players in the world and know that you could be next - or not?

MCEVERS: All right. So I'm going to hand this story off to two awesome NPR reporters. Tom Goldman is a longtime sports correspondent, and Uri Berliner is a longtime sports editor. And the two of them spent an entire season falling one D-League team, the Canton Charge. We'll start with Uri, he started out in Canton, Ohio, when the team was first picking some of its players. The D-League has a draft, too. But it looks very different from the NBA's. And just a quick word of warning, there is a cuss word or two in this episode. Here's Uri.

URI BERLINER, BYLINE: So remember the NBA Draft, that big spectacle on TV - all those fans cheering? At this draft, there are no crowds, no TV cameras. The D-League draft is a conference call.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Bakersfield. Gordon Pang, are you on the line?

GORDON PANG: Gordon here.

MAN #1: Thanks, Gordon.

BERLINER: I'm in a meeting room where the Canton Charge play. And it's Halloween today so there's all this candy on the counter - Kit Kat, Twix, Snickers. And I'm squeezed in there with coaches, scouts, interns, team executives. We're all huddled around a speakerphone. There are 19 D-League teams around the country doing this.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Canton Charge, we're ready to select. With the 15th pick of the first round, the Canton Charge selects Antonio Barton.

MAN #1: Canton selects Antonio Barton.

BERLINER: The players they're drafting and the other ones who are joining the team - these guys are really, really good at basketball. Some might even be good enough to be play in the NBA. But it's different here in this parallel universe, really different.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Kearney (ph) - does Kearney have a car?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Yeah, Kearney has a car.

BERLINER: I keep hearing them talk about this, whether a player has a car. So I asked the team's coach about it. And he says yeah, it helps if a player has a car so he can drive his teammates to practice. This is clearly not the NBA.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: OK. So this is Tom, and here's the deal. We're going to be following two players in this season. One is Quinn Cook. Remember, he's the guy at the beginning of the story who had that excruciating night watching the NBA draft when he didn't get drafted. If you know college basketball, you probably know about Quinn Cook. He's a 6-foot-2-inch guard who is actually in the starting lineup when Duke won the 2015 national championship. We are sitting on a wooden bench in a Canton Civic Center locker room. And I ask Quinn Cook about getting ready to play in the D-League.

How do you feel your first professional game?

Q. COOK: I'm ready. I'm ready to go. You know, I'm taking a little different route than I would've thought. But, you know, I'm taking it in stride, learning every day. And I'm really anxious to play with my teammates tonight.

GOLDMAN: Quinn Cook is a smart guy. He's an honest guy. But when he says he's taking his little bit different route in stride, I wonder if I'm getting a little too much athlete speak. At some point, this guy must be thinking - what am I doing here playing in the D-league? I mean, consider where he was just a few months before - playing for Duke, charter flights, five-star hotels, a national championship, almost getting to the NBA.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Let's give it up for the national champion Duke Blue Devils.

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GOLDMAN: And then he gets to go to the White House.

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OBAMA: Quinn Cook provided senior leadership setting a school all-time assist to turnover record.

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GOLDMAN: At the time, Quinn was beaming. Now he's in the D-League. He didn't think this was the way it would go. But he's a really good player. And he still has a good chance to get to the NBA.

BERLINER: Now, the second player we're following is a guy named Mike Dunigan. He's more of a long shot than Quinn Cook. He's 26. That's not ancient for a player trying to break into the NBA, but it's not young either. But Mike's got stuff going for him. He's a really big guy, even by professional basketball standards.

And you are how tall?

MICHAEL DUNIGAN: Six-ten.

BERLINER: Let's see how tall you are. Can you just stand up for a sec? Mike isn't just tall. He's big. He weighs 270 pounds. He's a powerfully built guy. And that's got to help him on the court. Before coming here, Mike played a lot overseas in Israel, Estonia, Ukraine - he hated Ukraine, too cold - Australia, Italy - loved the food - South Korea and the Philippines.

DUNIGAN: That's about it, really.

BERLINER: So that - but that's a lot.

DUNIGAN: That's a lot. It's...

BERLINER: That's a lot of your world traveling, right?

DUNIGAN: It's a lot in six years. I've come a long way in six years with a lot more to go.

BERLINER: Players go overseas because the money can be really good. Mike says he's made more than $250,000 in a season over there. But when you play overseas, it's not the best way to get noticed by the NBA. To do that, Mike says, he's got to be back here playing in the D-League, where a call could come at any time from an NBA team. This is his year, he says, to get called up.

DUNIGAN: Like, this year, I don't plan on going anywhere. So I'm riding the whole year out. I've told my agent, like, this is it because I want a call-up. I've never had a call-up. I don't know what a call-up feels like.

BERLINER: Mike grew up in Chicago. He's an only child raised by a single mom. She played basketball, too, at Cornell. But Mike never really thought he was a sports kid. He says he was more into cartoons and Pokemon.

DUNIGAN: Some people was born into the game. I adapted to the game. Like...

BERLINER: What do you mean by that?

DUNIGAN: Like, people are born, like, out of the womb - here, here goes a ball. You're going to play basketball. You're going to play baseball. You're going to play tennis. I wasn't like that. I was just one of those kids who was just small here and then one day just - whoop. Mom says, well, I know how you're going to college, here you go (laughter).

BERLINER: In the seventh grade, he had this crazy growth spurt - grew about 8 inches in a year. It was time to play basketball. He played for the University of Oregon for two years and went overseas. Mike's bounced around pro ball for six years, but he's never made an NBA team. And now he's here in the D-League, hoping for his big break.

GOLDMAN: It's the first game of the season for the Canton Charge. I watch Quinn Cook as he moves around the court in his gold uniform with burgundy trim. He doesn't have blazing speed, but he's quick and always seems to be in the right spot. He scores on a drive to the basket. It's the team's first points of the season. But the rest of the game is rocky. In the end, his team, the Canton Charge, lose. In their next game, a referee gives Quinn a technical foul for complaining about a call. In another early loss, he misses 14 of 17 shots. Quinn later tells me he was in a funk - didn't want to be here. Maybe that's why he's not playing well.

BERLINER: Our other guy, Mike Dunigan, starts the season really strong. He's leading the defense and has some good scoring games, too. At one point, he's got the fifth best shooting percentage in the entire D-League. His coach tells me if Mike can get in tip-top shape, he should make it to the NBA.

GOLDMAN: Still, as a whole, the team is not playing well. A month in, they have one of the worst records in the D-League. I go join them on a road trip to another game in Bakersfield, Calif. It's a four-hour bus ride from their last game in Santa Cruz. It's not a bad bus. It's one of those coaches with the small TV screens and tinted windows. But it is a bus, not a plane. The bus finally pulls into Bakersfield. Sean Wyatt is the PR guy for the Charge.

SEAN WYATT: Yo, make sure you're taking you're trash off with you.

GOLDMAN: Packing out your own trash? Can you picture LeBron James doing that? I can't.

Next day is the game against Bakersfield. And let me just say, the arena is tiny, not even as big as a high school gym, more like a middle school gym. There are 550 people here tonight. When a player's at the free throw line, it's really quiet - sounds more like a practice than a pro basketball game. Mike doesn't play. He hurt his ankle. But Quinn is looking pretty good. And when you watch him play, you can't help but notice this thing he does, this gesture. When Quinn's inbounding the ball or starts dribbling up the court, he taps his chest, kisses his hand, then points to the sky. Turns out, it's for his dad. Ted Cook died when Quinn was 14. Now, Quinn says, he still thinks about his dad every day.

Q. COOK: He was my best friend. And he taught me how to play baseball, basketball, football. He was just a great dad. And he took me to school everyday, took me to practice everyday. He did everything a great dad does.

GOLDMAN: Quinn says his dad actually liked baseball the most. But by the time Quinn was in middle school, he told his dad he wanted to go all in with basketball. His dad got Quinn a strength and agility coach and hired someone to video all of Quinn's eighth grade games. Quinn says he and his dad both loved the NBA. His dad was a huge Lakers fan and would let Quinn stay up late to watch, but only the first half. They actually talked about what they'd do when Quinn made it to the NBA one day.

Q. COOK: He used to tell me, like, I want you to fly me on your private jet to one of your games. Like, he used to always talk about that and him coming to Phoenix to watch me play and just going everywhere. He said he'll buy a RV or something and just drive to Golden State and watch me play. Just, you know, he was very adventurous. And we talked about that a lot.

GOLDMAN: Even though he's gone, it's clear that Quinn's dad is a huge presence in Quinn's life. There's the tap-kiss-point gesture on the court, which Quinn says he does maybe 30, 40 times a game. There are the Facebook posts that end with R.I.P., Dad. And then there's the fact that Quinn's father was born and raised in Canton, Ohio. A lot of relatives still live there. Quinn tells me everything happens for a reason. Playing for a team that's based in Canton, he says, could've been God bringing me closer to my family.

GOLDMAN: So I'm still at this game in Bakersfield, and it's a close game. One of the Canton players hits a key 3-pointer. And without thinking, I celebrate. I shoulder bump the PR guy, Sean. He's sitting next to me. And this is kind of a problem for me. I've been covering sports for a long time. And I've trained myself not to react, even when really exciting things happen. But here I am rooting for these guys. Spending all this time with them, I have to admit, I want to see them win. And I want to see them make it to the NBA.

BERLINER: I want them to get there, too. The D-League is so gritty. And the players are so close to the top that I can't help but root for them. But I also want a reality check. And that's what I get when I talk to Joel Abelson about our guys, Quinn and Mike. Joel scouts for the New York Knicks.

Mike Dunigan...

JOEL ABELSON: Mike Dunigan, of course - yeah, big guy. He's finally getting healthy. You know, he needs to get into a little bit better shape where he can sustain playing hard. Mike Dunigan is probably an overseas player if I can be so bold as to say that.

BERLINER: Saying he's an overseas player comes as a bit of a surprise. I mean, Mike has already played overseas. But what this guy is saying is maybe that's the best Mike's going to do. In other words, maybe he's not going to make it to the NBA.

BERLINER: And Quinn Cook who played at Duke last year?

ABELSON: Yeah, Quinn Cook, you know, he's a typical rookie. He's got some talent. You know, you come and you win a NCAA championship, you don't think the next step is the D-League. It's just not what you think happens. So, you know, it takes some time. And he's a big name. So he thinks it's going to be easy, and it's not. Now he seems to be playing more consistently at a high level. And I would look forward to that continuing. And if he does, I would - I would think he will get a chance at the end of the season with somebody.

GOLDMAN: Turns out, Quinn gets interest sooner than that. Halfway through the season, he gets a call from his agent telling him several NBA teams are interested. But that interest does not turn into a call-up. What does happen, though - the Canton Charge start killing it.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTS COMMENTATOR #1: Marching down the lane - good feed to Dunigan, who scores the basket.

GOLDMAN: Fort Wayne, Ind. - Charge win their fourth in a row.

BERLINER: Sixteen days later, Ontario, Canada.

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTS COMMENTATOR #2: Right down the middle of the paint.

GOLDMAN: The winning streak is at nine and keeps growing.

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTS COMMENTATOR #2: Knocked away, stolen by Holland, gets it in to Quinn Cook. And we've got a final at the Canton Civic Center - 12 in a row for the wine and gold.

BERLINER: Twelve straight wins, not a single loss in an entire month. For Mike and Quinn and their teammates, there was this transformation. They went from being really bad to being essentially unbeatable.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, and we watched it happen. They started playing beautiful, unselfish ball, making the right passes, helping each other on defense.

BERLINER: And away from basketball, the players are starting to hang out and get along. This is the thing about the D-League. So many players could just be in it for themselves. But these guys realize that the better the team does, the better the prospects are for all of them. And one guy who's helping them come together is Mike Dunigan.

BERLINER: Penne pasta. There you go.

BERLINER: So I'm with Mike and Quinn, and we're at Wal-Mart. Mike decided to make dinner for some of his teammates.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Pasta, pasta.

GOLDMAN: Mike Dunigan's buying some frozen shrimp. Is that going in the pasta?

BERLINER: While they're shopping, Quinn gets recognized by fan who wants to know how he can get a ticket to see Quinn play.

Q. COOK: You just go on the D-League.com, Canton Charge. We got a lot of home games left.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: I won't keep you. I appreciate the time.

BERLINER: But even though the team is playing well and they're bonding, Quinn and Mike are each having very different seasons. Quinn's riding high these days. He's shooting well and just played in the D-League All-Star Game. For Mike, the season that started out really well has gone a bit south. He's hurt both his ankles and isn't getting much playing time. Away from the game, Mike's as gregarious as ever. At Wal-Mart, he's goofing around, wearing one of those Russian hats with the ear flaps. Though when it comes to basketball, he sounds exasperated.

DUNIGAN: You know, I've just been battling injuries. You know, things I guess can't control. I can't control coming down on somebody's foot. I can't control people throwing their [expletive] ass into my knee. I can't control, you know, just - some things just out of my control.

BERLINER: Mike is 26. That's middle age for someone trying to make it to the NBA. He could keep hoping for that call-up, or he could just head back to Asia, where, remember, he would make a lot more money than he does in the D-League.

DUNIGAN: It's tempting every year, you know. They come down here and make 19 a year (laughter). You sit here like - what are you thinking? They say chasing the dream, you know. Then they say it's a difference between dumb and stupid.

BERLINER: He's wondering if this will be as year after all. But when it comes to the team, he's still focused on them being a solid group. And this dinner is part of that.

Q. COOK: (Yelling) John, John.

BERLINER: We all go back to Quinn's townhouse just outside of Canton. And Quinn's yelling for his new roommate John Holland. All the players live in the same complex, two to an apartment. John joined the Canton Charge later in the season - actually, just about the same time everything turned around. It's the first time I meet John, and Quinn makes the introduction.

Q. COOK: You know, this Michael Jordan. We call him Michael Jordan.

BERLINER: You do?

Q. COOK: He's the Jordan of the team, you know. You know how the Chicago Bulls franchise - they were struggling when - you know, before he got there. And he took the organization to another level. Canton Charge was struggling. He got put into the starting lineup. And we haven't looked back since.

BERLINER: This is all kind of funny because John's never been a well-known player like Quinn. John didn't get recruited by any big colleges.

JOHN HOLLAND: Coming out of high school, I didn't really have any offers, Division I offers.

BERLINER: Really?

HOLLAND: I thought I was good, but (laughter) nobody else really, on the Division I level, thought I was good - enough.

BERLINER: So now, John's here in the D-League, hoping he is good enough to get to the NBA. After dinner, they all sit around and watch basketball. Quinn's old school Duke against their rival North Carolina. Even when they're not playing basketball, they're watching basketball.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEPHONE RINGING)

BERLINER: A few weeks later, I give Mike a call.

DUNIGAN: Hello?

BERLINER: Mike, it's Uri.

DUNIGAN: How you doing?

BERLINER: Hey, how are you?

DUNIGAN: I'm all right.

BERLINER: Yeah. Hey, I haven't talked to you for a while. I just wanted to catch up. I know there's a lot been going on.

DUNIGAN: Yeah. Well, for me, the season's over.

BERLINER: A few games back, Mike got a concussion. He got elbowed in the jaw twice. Now he won't be playing for the rest of the season. Mike won't travel with the team. He'll stay in Canton to recuperate. He won't even pick up a basketball.

MCEVERS: Coming up after this break, more disappointments - and some good news.

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MCEVERS: This is EMBEDDED. We are back now with Tom Goldman and Uri Berliner's story about two guys who are trying to make it to the NBA.

GOLDMAN: Mike Dunigan is now out for the season with that concussion. But at the same time, Quinn Cook is on a roll. Their team - remember, they were not playing well at the beginning of the season. Now they make the D-League playoffs. The playoffs are the guys' last chance to show off for the scouts. And Quinn is playing better than ever. He makes the winning shot in Game 1.

BERLINER: Game 2 of the playoffs is in Portland, Maine. It's the team's biggest game of the season.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: Number 11, guard, 6-2 from Duke - Quinn Cook.

BERLINER: The team's counting on Quinn and his roommate John Holland to do a lot of the scoring. You can hear Quinn urging his teammates during a timeout.

Q. COOK: A lot of actions - it's a lot of actions. Whatever we say, just do it.

BERLINER: The Charge go into halftime with an 8-point lead. In the second half, I go sit with Quinn's mom, Janet, a few rows up from the floor behind the basket. She's driven all the way from D.C. suburbs for the big game. We talked for a while and then the conversation turns to Quinn's dad who died when Quinn was 14.

BERLINER: Let me ask you a serious question. When his father died, what effect did that have? Does he - how did he deal with - handle that?

JANET COOK: We come from such a strong community that everyone kind of, you know, galvanized around us. And everyone, like, just - they grabbed him. He was blessed because a lot of kids don't have that. If they lose a father, they're, like, out there in the weeds. They, you know, he - that's why he's the person he is honestly.

BERLINER: As the game winds down, it's really close. Canton is up by 1 with 52 seconds to go. They need to build on the lead or the game could slip away. The coaches trust Quinn in these situations. Quinn gets the ball, drives to the basket, but he can't get an open shot.

BERLINER: Looking for someone, he's got John Holland.

So he passes to his roommate, John Holland. The defender's draped all over John. And the shot clock's almost run out. He's got to shoot.

Shoots a really long three - and he nails it, A long 3-pointer. What a shot by John Holland, unbelievable.

The shot seals the game for the Canton Charge. Back in the locker room, everybody's celebrating. The team will now move on to the next round of the playoffs.

GOLDMAN: Quinn is the guy who set up the shot that won the game. A few days later, Quinn gets some great news. He's been named D-League Rookie of the Year. LeBron James tweets Quinn his congratulations. Keep going little homie, Lebron says, hashtag #StriveForGreatness. Then, finally, a call-up comes from the NBA. But it's not for Quinn. It's for John.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GOLDMAN: When I hear the news about John, I instantly think about Quinn. This is what Quinn has wanted desperately for so long. You know, when he was a kid, he wrote a letter about what he wanted to be. In it, he simply wrote NBA. Quinn says he and John used to joke about what they'd do if one of them got called up.

Q. COOK: I told him that, you know, when I get my call-up I was going to cry. He was like, no, I ain't going to cry. And he was trying to be the big, tough guy. You know, he didn't cry. But he damn near did. Excuse my language. He damn near cried. And he just - was smiling from ear to ear.

BERLINER: So there's no part of you that's, like - damn, that could have been me?

Q. COOK: No, that's not me. You don't want him to be in the D-League his whole career. You want him to get his dream. And he got it. And I was happy. There was no animosity or nothing from me.

GOLDMAN: This might sound really hard to believe. But you have to understand these athletes are different than we are. They've built this muscle to deal with disappointment. It's how they get where they are. They have to put aside negative things and keep going. As they say, they learn how to just flush it, whether it's a loss or an NBA call-up that wasn't you. Flush it and move on.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BERLINER: All right. So John's just been called up to the NBA. And this is what Quinn and Mike have been hoping for all this time. But it's not their moment. It's John's. John's joining the Boston Celtics for the last two games of the regular season and for the NBA playoffs. I have to see John in the NBA. And I meet him in a hallway at TD Garden. That's where the Celtics play. It's a couple of hours before the game.

BERLINER: So tell me what you're wearing right now. What's that say?

HOLLAND: This is just a practice shirt. It says Boston Basketball.

BERLINER: Boston Celtics basketball, right?

HOLLAND: Boston Celtics Basketball.

BERLINER: John will make $25,000 playing for the Celtics. That's more than his salary for the entire D-League season.

BERLINER: So what's the first thing you did? You got off the phone. Your agent said you're going to the NBA, John Holland. And what'd you do?

HOLLAND: I think I just sat back and just screamed. And...

BERLINER: (Laughter).

HOLLAND: It was just happy. I just screamed in happiness. Then I called my parents, called my girlfriend, called everybody, you know.

BERLINER: Right.

HOLLAND: And I was just - I was just happy, yeah.

BERLINER: You still look happy right now.

HOLLAND: I am happy.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD AND MUSIC)

BERLINER: The Celtics game is loud and intense. John sits on the bench. He's in street clothes. He's not even in uniform. He's not going to play. That's how it goes. You get called up. You get paid, but you still might not play. After the game, John's headed back to his hotel. I walk him out, and we climb into the car the team's given him to use, a shiny, white Mercedes.

BERLINER: Is this is a rental?

HOLLAND: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF IGNITION CHIME)

HOLLAND: Life is different (laughter). I mean, they got it for me.

BERLINER: John says he's excited to be here. But he misses Quinn and his teammates in Canton.

HOLLAND: And I still believe in the guys back there. But, you know, it's a situation where I'm gone now. I'm a Celtic now. So - my heart's with them. But my heart's also over here.

GOLDMAN: So at this point, the Canton Charge are still in the D-League playoffs. They've actually made it to the D-League final four. But they've lost both John Holland, who's now been called up to the NBA, and Mike Dunigan, who's out with a concussion. For Quinn Cook, this is a last chance to make an impression on those in the stands watching like hawks - NBA scouts, team executives. He's already done so much this season. Now he's leading the undermanned charge against the most dominant team in the D-League. A great performance tonight could send Quinn's stock even higher.

GOLDMAN: I go to the game in Sioux Falls, S.D. That's the team Canton is playing, the Sioux Falls Skyforce. The game gets started.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: Rodney McGruder.

GOLDMAN: The Sioux Falls Skyforce score the first 8 points. And pretty soon, the game gets out of hand.

There's about six and a half minutes in the first half. It's 49-27. This is a pretty thorough shellacking by Sioux Falls.

The Canton Charge looked the way they did early in the season when their coach would scream at the players for not trying. Quinn is having a miserable night. He gets hit in the mouth early in the game. He's thoroughly frustrated by the Sioux Falls defense. He finally comes out of the game for good after the third quarter.

Quinn has gone to the end of the bench. Shoulders are slumped. He doesn't look happy. It's not a good way to end a season that had a lot of ups. But now he along with his teammates are getting flattened in their last game of the season.

GOLDMAN: In the end, they lose by 32 points. And that's it. It's the end of the Canton Charge season. Most of those guys who were hoping for that call up - they didn't get it. Back in the locker room, Quinn sits staring at the floor. His lower lip's a little puffy from that smack in the mouth. And he drapes a white towel over his head. You can imagine a jumble of things going through his mind - the disappointment about the game, the year that delivered so much, but, ultimately, not enough. The coaches remind the team it was a hell of a season, especially after the bad start. But really, everyone's ready to go. And we will all get an early morning flight back to Ohio.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: All right. Good luck, brother.

Q. COOK: Thanks, man.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: Hope I run into you soon.

Q. COOK: Yeah, no question. Be safe.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: Holler at me if you need anything.

Q. COOK: Appreciate it.

GOLDMAN: So the last thing that happens for Quinn and the rest of the team is they do exit interviews with the coaches in Canton. Quinn Cook is the last exit interview of the day. We go meet up with him at the community center where the team practiced during the season. Players show up. They mill around the court, talk, shoot baskets, scribble final autographs.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #10: Appreciate it.

GOLDMAN: And Quinn sits down with us to talk about his last few months.

So you were the leading scorer on certainly the hottest team in the D-League in February and, you know, arguably the team playing best of anyone and D-league All-Star, Rookie of the Year. You won a playoff game single-handedly. You didn't get called up (laughter). Did any part of you go - what more do I need to do?

Q. COOK: Yeah. I mean, a lot of times I would call my best friends and my mom and vent. But it's not in my control. I mean, it's just not my time yet, I don't think. You know, it's not my time. I feel like timing is everything.

GOLDMAN: Quinn says he's still laser focused on getting to the NBA, even if that means playing in the D-league again next year and even if it means more disappointments like the times this season when his agent told him NBA teams were interested but, ultimately, they didn't call him up.

Q. COOK: I had three times this year where it was between me and this guy - between me and that guy, me and that guy. You know, sometimes they took the other guy because he was older than me, because he had some NBA experience or the other guy was a bigger - he was bigger than me. Other guy, you know, he was a vet, so...

GOLDMAN: So Quinn says he isn't bitter. But it's hard to be the one who didn't get picked.

Q. COOK: Yeah, the last time - like, I found out that I didn't make it. I knew I was going to get called up last Wednesday, so six days ago.

GOLDMAN: Damn.

Q. COOK: Yeah. No, it sucks. Next year, like, if that happens, I can't get so excited because I just got so excited, you know, just to hear bad news. And I just, you know, get let down.

GOLDMAN: He says maybe it's just bad luck. Sure, he's been to the White House. But a lot of other times, from high school onward, people told him he wasn't going to make it.

Q. COOK: It's been a story my whole life. That's why I know how to handle it. Like a couple of my teammates told me, I don't know how you're so positive. You're so calm. You should've been gone - blah, blah, blah. But it's been a story my whole life. It's just my size or - I don't know. I just always was overlooked growing up. You know, everywhere I went, you know, I was always doubted. And I overcame it. And, you know, that's what my agent was telling. I mean, you've had this happen before. You've just got to do what you do. Do what you do. Go to work. And show everybody that, you know, you belong in the NBA.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BERLINER: We also see Mike Dunigan one last time. His bags are already packed and lined up in a corner of his living room. He's ready to go home. The last few weeks have been hard for Mike - the concussion, the lightheadedness, being cooped up in his apartment watching "The X-Files."

BERLINER: I know when we first met you said this is the year I'm going to stick it out. I'm going to chase the dream this year. Was it worth it?

DUNIGAN: Not for me, you know. I wouldn't say it was a bad thing. It just probably wasn't my year. You know, but as I get older, my window obviously gets shorter and shorter. And it's become one of those things where you have to figure out which direction you're going to go.

BERLINER: Deciding to stay in the D-league this year really cost Mike. He could've been making six figures playing somewhere in Asia. Instead, he chose Canton and made $19,000. But that's over and done with now. Mike's used to moving on, chasing the next opportunity. Mike tells Tom and me that just this morning, he heard from a team in the Philippines.

DUNIGAN: I woke up just out of my blue, just had a message on Facebook? And she just went into details. I was like, oh, OK. That's nice. So I just heard about that so...

BERLINER: An offer?

But going to the Philippines and staying there probably means he won't have another chance at the NBA. The next morning, Mike's girlfriend, Tiki (ph), is there. We meet them outside while they're packing the car.

DUNIGAN: She has to be at work tonight, so I'm driving all the way.

BERLINER: Where are you going?

DUNIGAN: Straight back to Chicago.

BERLINER: Wow. How long is that?

TIKI: About five and a half.

BERLINER: They put everything in Tiki's silver Mustang - a couple small suitcases, his electronics, a bigger bag with his clothes. It's not much, really, for an entire season.

The plan is for Mike to head back to Chicago with Tiki and see what happens next.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR STARTING)

BERLINER: Since we reported this story, Mike Dunigan's offer in the Philippines did not pan out. He's in Chicago trying to get into shape. And he still hopes he can play in the NBA. After his big break, John Holland played one minute with the Boston Celtics. He'll go back to Boston and hope to get more playing time. But his spot on the team isn't guaranteed.

GOLDMAN: Quinn Cook went back to his home outside of Washington, D.C. Pretty soon, he'll go to what's called a minicamp with the Brooklyn Nets. It's another audition, another chance to show that he belongs in the NBA. Now when I watch an NBA game - and I watch a lot of NBA games - I see familiar faces, the few guys I saw in the D-League who made it. And I think of all the players I saw who tried and didn't make it. People like to say you can achieve anything if you work hard and put your mind to it. After a season with the D-League, I'd add one more word to that - maybe. Remember, these athletes are different than the rest of us. They've built up this muscle to deal with disappointment. So for them, sometimes maybe is enough.

MCEVERS: This episode was reported by Tom Goldman and Uri Berliner and produced like a boss by Becky Sullivan, Chris Benderev and Brent Bachman. It was edited by me, Kelly McEvers, Steve Drummond and Sean Coal with help from Yowei Shaw, Neva Grant, and Denice Rios. Big thanks to Vickie Walton-James and Neal Carruth. Digital production is by Alexander McCall, research help from Camille Salas. Original music in this podcast is by Colin Wambsgans and Ramtin Arablouei.

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