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It's playoff time in the NBA, a league of millionaires where even the lowest-paid benchwarmer earns more than $500,000 a season. Hundreds of players are striving to break in, grinding away in the trenches of minor league basketball. It's called the D-League - D for Development.
We followed the Canton Charge this season. NPR's Uri Berliner explores the impact of a single play on the team's fortunes and one player's career.
URI BERLINER, BYLINE: It's a long shot, this D-League thing, especially for players who never got drafted, like John Holland. Holland grew up in the Bronx. And in high school, he was on an academic track, not a straight path to professional basketball.
JOHN HOLLAND: Coming out of high school, I didn't really have any offers - Division I offers.
HOLLAND: I was good. I thought I was good, but...
HOLLAND: Nobody else really on the Division I level thought I was good enough.
BERLINER: So he played for Boston University, hardly a basketball powerhouse. After college, he signed on with pro teams in France, Spain and Turkey. He made six figures, but that didn't get him any closer to the NBA. So now at age 27, he's in an apartment just outside of Canton, Ohio, taking a big chance on a single season, a season where he's making $19,000.
HOLLAND: Sometimes it's about more than money. It's about the dream, you know? This year, this is what it's about. This is the grind - chasing the dream.
BERLINER: The first time I meet Holland is one of those unglamorous moments. A Canton teammate - Mike Dunigan - has come over to make dinner and watch a game with Holland and his roommate. But before Dunigan will make the pasta, there's this mess in the sink.
MIKE DUNIGAN: Yo, Man, these dishes ain't clean, Bro. You got to wash these dishes or something, Bro. I ain't going to be cooking and washing dishes.
BERLINER: The task falls to Holland. The next day, I catch up with Holland at practice. Only a small fraction of D-League players get NBA call ups, and for players at his position, the competition is fierce.
HOLLAND: I'm a guard - dime a dozen. We'll see what happens when it's all said and done.
BERLINER: As the season winds down, just one of his teammates gets a call up - a guy with previous NBA experience. Holland's a bit under the radar - not the highest scorer on the team. But he's consistently good, helping Canton to a 12-game winning streak and a spot in the D-League playoffs. We're in Portland, Maine, for game two in playoff series against the Red Claws.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Number 10, guard, 6-5 from Boston University - John Holland.
BERLINER: The game's close throughout. Holland makes two crucial three-point shots to keep Canton's chances alive - and then this play with Canton up by one and less than a minute to go.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Cook running the clock down, now drives in, spins, spins back the other way, kicks it outside to Holland, fakes the three, one on the shot clock, has to take a contested throw. And he nailed it.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: Oh, my word.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: What a shot.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: Unbelievable shot.
BERLINER: That shot seals the game for Canton and clinches the playoff series against the Red Claws, the Boston Celtics' D-League team. And in the locker room after the game, Holland finds himself the center of attention. He gets a shout out from assistant coach Damon Jones who had a reputation for making big shots in the NBA.
DAMON JONES: You are now officially a part of the family.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hey.
JONES: You are now an honorary Jones. Your name is John Jones.
BERLINER: Later, I ask Holland to relive the shot.
HOLLAND: It felt good when I released it, and it was an amazing shot, an amazing moment, one that I'm going to remember forever now (laughter).
BERLINER: I mean, that shot could have changed your life.
HOLLAND: Yeah, it definitely could have. It definitely could have, but...
BERLINER: So many things could've knocked Holland off stride. The game's on the line. The 24-second clock is ticking down to zero. The defender who's 6-foot-7 and a former Celtic is draped all over him.
HOLLAND: Maybe he'll jump, but he didn't jump. And he closed out on me hard.
BERLINER: There's no other option now. He has to shoot. Holland goes straight up, and the high-arcing shot falls through the net. Three days after that shot, as he's about to take a nap, Holland gets a life-changing call from his agent. He's going to the NBA. I meet up with Holland a few days later.
So tell me what you're wearing right now. What's that say?
HOLLAND: Oh, this is just a practice shirt - says Boston Basketball.
BERLINER: Boston Celtics Basketball.
HOLLAND: Boston Celtics Basketball.
BERLINER: We're in a hallway in TD Garden a few hours before his second game with the Celtics. Holland's called up for the last two games of the regular season and the playoffs. He makes $25,000, more than his salary with Canton for the entire D-League season.
In the NBA, you get paid even if you're not in uniform. And tonight, Holland's on the bench in street clothes. After the game, as we walk through the same hallway, Holland's absorbing exactly what happened. The call up couldn't have come at a better time.
You're 27, right?
BERLINER: So this was the year for you to make a move?
HOLLAND: Yeah, this was it. This was it. I mean, basketball - life is short.
BERLINER: Holland's going back to his hotel and offers to give me a ride. And we climb into the car the Celtics have given him to use - a really nice car.
Is this a rental?
HOLLAND: Yeah. Life is different. I mean, they got it for me.
BERLINER: Driving a Mercedes - they got it for him.
BERLINER: The Celtics wind up losing in the first round of the playoffs, and Holland barely gets on the court. He plays a grand total of one minute. But next season, John Holland has the chance to turn that one NBA minute into many. Uri Berliner, NPR News.
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