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Portrait of Portsmouth

The journey begins at an upscale condominium complex in North Jersey. Dick Kaner is already standing outside, ready to roll, ready to embark on his 37th consecutive trek down the Atlantic coast for the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament (PIT).

Like many in his profession of professional basketball scouting and representation, Kaner has just returned from the Final Four. Throughout the basketball spectrum, Portsmouth, Virginia is the next (and most out of the way) stop on the flexuous road that will end in New York for the NBA Draft on June 26.

Each year, 64 elite seniors from around the country are invited to partake in a four day tournament and showcase, which is attended by representatives from every NBA team, as well as scores of hungry, competing agents. Only a few players will be drafted, but all will be ostensibly coveted. “It’s a feeding frenzy down there,” says Stephen Percudani, an up and coming agent who is letting me accompany him. “The first time you get there, you feel it.”

I’m already feeling it—the sensation in your legs as they fall asleep, that is–laid out in the backseat of Percudani’s Volvo, listening as Kaner makes preliminary contacts and “Perc” further details the swarm of basketball bees simultaneously converging on the southernmost point of the Chesapeake Bay.

As we head down the New Jersey Turnpike and into Delaware, Kaner has only one thing on his mind — surprisingly, it’s not basketball. “Chick-fil-A,” he states with purpose. “Best chicken sandwich you just can’t get up north.”

After we locate the notorious poultry stop and chow on tasty chicken and seasoned waffle fries smothered in honey roasted barbeque sauce, it’s back to the road. The last leg of the trip entails shooting down the Eastern Shore of Virginia and over/through the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.

Kaner touches base with the European clubs he is scouting for at the tournament. Perc, meanwhile, opines on the pilgrimage-like nature of the trip. Portsmouth holds sentimental value to him, as it was the last place his father, Dick Percudani—a revered basketball mind and director of scouting for the Phoenix Suns—watched a game.

———————-

Marty Blake, director of NBA scouting, steps to center court of the Churchland High School basketball court. “Will Richard Percudani please report to the scorers’ table?” he asks over the public address system. Stephen Percudani knows that’s his cue and heads down to the floor to hand out the award for excellence in basketball scouting that is given in his father’s name each year.

With that, the 56th annual Portsmouth Invitational Tournament signs on.

Churchland is easily the only venue you’ll ever see containing as many familiar faces as fans. On one baseline sits scouts row, a three-tiered hub of operations for all the major representatives of NBA teams.

Larry Bird, general manager of the Pacers, arrives in a cream colored button up shirt and takes his seat in the second row. He’s flanking his old partner in hardwood crime and fellow GM, Kevin McHale.

Moments after the opening tip of the first game, in walks Danny Ainge. Wearing a backpack and attired in a white long sleeved T-shirt with a green vest, Ainge spots McHale. Lighting up like a kid on the street court who sees his superstar friend arrive to join the team (We got Kevin!!!!), the Celtics GM does a beeline to his former teammate and recent trading partner.

He gives the Timberwolves’ general manager a playful pat on the back and the two exchange fraternal pleasantries. I wasn’t close enough to hear their conversation, but given Ainge’s animation (and the Celtics’ 66 wins), I would imagine it went something like this:

Ainge: (patting McHale on the shoulders) Who’s the man??

McHale: I am, Danny. I’m the man.

Ainge: You are THEEE man!!

McHale: You were right, Danny. Jefferson’s dropping 21 and 11. And Gomes is pretty good too.

Ainge: Told you it would look fair!!

The two buddies continue to mirthfully shoot the breeze, but they are the exception. Save for a bit of idle chit chat amongst evaluators, most of the scouts show they have long ago mastered the art of the poker face. Good play or bad, they exhibit no discernible change in demeanor or mood. Their most identifiable actions are the intermittent relocating of pen hands from underneath their chins to their notebooks in order to record an observation.

The vibe in the stands is quite different. The way Percudani had forecast it (“a feeding frenzy”) is apt. After a few jump shots and fast breaks, the intermingling of agents—engaging in a discourse that can best be characterized as hawkish—commences.

American agents (of which there are roughly 400) are scoping each other out; identifying and targeting the big shots (of which there are roughly 15-20), who may or may not also be their competition.

European representatives are numerous as well; their mission at Portsmouth is often times more important than the Birds and McHales. Since the PIT traditionally produces a handful of second round picks, NBA guys are evaluating everyone, but seeking out few. European agents, on the other hand, look at the PIT and see dozens of players ready to compete professionally overseas.

From Spain, France and other parts of Western Europe to Eastern European countries like Serbia and Montenegro and Bulgaria, scouts and agents from abroad are trying to strike deals with their American counterparts to increase the flow of ballplayers overseas. The growth of the sport in Europe has opened avenues for many ex-college athletes to make a living playing the game they love.

Walt Szczerbiak, father to Wally of the Cleveland Cavaliers, is plopped down in the bleachers, balancing an evaluation sheet on his right leg. He takes the time to shake hands with acquaintances during timeouts while telling me about his expansive basketball background.

As one of the earlier pioneers in bringing the sport to Europe, Szczerbiak played in the PIT in 1971 before going to Spain and winning three Euroleague titles with Real Madrid (1974, 1978 and 1980) in the country’s highest league, the ACB. He is now the official US representative of the ACB, and has been scouting talent at Portsmouth since he undertook the position in 1986.

He has seen things change over the years.

“In the old days you had a lot of guys that got to their senior year, but now since so many guys are leaving, you’re not getting that level [of talent],” says Szczerbiak. “They’re either in the NBA or they have potential to be a lot better than the kids that are here.”

Taking into consideration that trend, a lot of the time Szczerbiak’s task is to monitor the throng of agents and make sure the teams he is representing are getting a fair shake. “You know, agents are selling one thing,” he says. “My job is to utilize my contacts and put things in better perspective.”

Szczerbiak’s Portsmouth roots–like his array of contacts–run deep. In fact, when he participated in the PIT, there was only one person from the NBA there to evaluate him; a guy who opened the flood gates and helped turn Portsmouth into an annual destination for anyone associated with the league.

———————-

“If you’re with Dick Kaner, I don’t wanna talk to you,” Bob Ferry informs me. He pauses before looking up from his spot in the first row of the bleachers at center court. “I’m just kidding,” he says through a blank stare.

“But I’m not telling you anything.”

Ferry, twice the NBA Executive of the Year (1979 and 1982), was also the architect of the 1978 NBA Champion Washington Bullets. When he discovers I’m only probing his knowledge on the history of the PIT—and not trying to finagle sensitive player info out of him—he opens up.

“I came down here, I think it was about 1971. I heard about the tournament. I drove in from Baltimore. Then I drafted Kevin Porter, a very good player, and kept it secret. Then a couple of years later I drafted a kid by the name of Chuck Robinson, who was really a good player. And then the word got out that I was coming down here, and word went out to all these scouts.”

“It gradually just got bigger and bigger, more people found out about it and more scouts came, and a better quality of players started coming in and before you knew it, it basically worked its way to what it is today.”

While Ferry enjoyed having his own “pickins” for a period of time when the tournament was still a niche, he speaks with a justifiable sense of pride when detailing the evolution of the event. His one time diamond in the rough ultimately served as one of the launch pads to greatness for the likes of Rick Barry, Earl Monroe, Dave Cowens, Scottie Pippen and John Stockton.

As we watch one of the consolation games– this one pitting former Tennessee teammates Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith against one another—Ferry talks about how the tournament has turned into a “job fair” of sorts. Watching the two ex-Volunteers go at it, matching threes while playing tight, aggressive defense, you can tell they are teammates no longer; only competitors vying and competing for the same looks.

Ferry sums it up: “These kinds of tournaments are it. These tournaments leave a strong impression on people. And for some of [the players], it’s the last one they got.”

———————-

The final buzzer sounds. A team led by Jamar Butler of Ohio State has just won the championship by a breezy 23 points. However, Butler, the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, is not even one of the three athletes from Portsmouth that NBADraft.net projects to have their name called by David Stern in New York.

There are whispers that this year’s tournament is collectively one of the weaker fields in recent past. For many—even those who excelled over four days—the dream may be fading. There are only so many jobs to be had in the NBA, after all (450 to be exact). But for those kids willing to take a chance and head overseas, a career is waiting for them.

As I’m wrapping up, the European agents are desperately trying to make some final lasting impressions with the athletes. I find Percudani, and just as we are preparing to exit Churchland one more time and hit the road back to the Tri-State area, I see someone familiar walking toward us.

After breathing all things basketball for four days, it feels like we picked up Dick Kaner from his condo a month ago. We talk briefly about Lofton and Smith, and the upcoming Orlando Pre-Draft camp. Kaner’s taking off with a friend later on, so won’t be riding north with us, but he does have some parting advice.

“Chick-fil-A,” he reminds us.

“You won’t get it in New York!”

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