Vander Blue has 200 teammates

by longformphilly

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Eli Saslow | ESPN The Magazine | May 2014

THE LAST ROAD trip of the season is an eight-hour bus ride through the night on an aging charter. Vander Blue sinks into the worn upholstery and tries to sleep. At his feet sits a small duffel bag stuffed with the few belongings he has left: an Xbox, stereo headphones, three pairs of luxury sneakers and a few changes of clothes. At some point during the blur of the past nine months, he had grown tired of lugging a large suitcase from one city to another, from one efficiency apartment to the next. “Easier to move light and then buy a new wardrobe,” he had decided, and by now he has left behind clothes at Goodwill drops across the country, marking the long trail of his rookie year.

He has played 49 games in 27 cities; for 10 head coaches on eight different teams; in four professional leagues on three continents. “Helter-skelter crazy” is how he describes the year, and lately his mind has become scattered too.

On this April evening, Blue looks out the window of the bus and tries to determine his location. San Antonio? McAllen? Somewhere in Texas; that much he knows. He is a top guard prospect for the Idaho Stampede in the NBA Development League, but he wears socks from a stint with the Boston Celtics and a T-shirt from the Israeli Super League. He tries to remember which team he is playing against next. In what arena? And what is the name of his teammate sitting near the front of the bus, the backup center he has been referring to as Big Lanky?

“I’ve probably had like 200 teammates this year,” he says. “It gets hard keeping track.”

In moments like this one on the bus, Blue feels as if he is always in transit — always on the way somewhere but never quite arriving. He was almost an NBA regular, but not quite. He is almost getting paid what he calls “silly money” but still being lectured by his mother for spending $600 on sneakers. He is almost a top-tier professional, but he still occasionally answers to the nickname Kid.

The beginning of his career has unfolded in an endless string of transactions — not in blockbuster deals but in agate small print, the place where most professional careers quietly live, then die. Acquired and released. Acquired and released. He spent nine days on the Boston Celtics, then a day and a half on the Maine Red Claws; a month as a Philadelphia 76er, then a week as a Delaware 87er.

“I’m pretty good at keeping optimistic,” he says. “But I’m just so damn tired.”

The Stampede’s bus finally pulls into a budget hotel on the outskirts of Dallas, and Blue checks into a room he has been assigned to share with a teammate. They are both hungry, so Blue volunteers to order a pizza. He calls to place the order and gives the clerk his credit card number.

“Sorry,” the clerk says. “That card was denied.”

“Again?” Blue says. The credit card company had blocked his account for suspicious activity at least half a dozen times in the past year; his moves are so incessant that the company often believes his card has been stolen. He had been declined when trying to buy dinner for a date at an Applebee’s in Delaware. He had been declined again while buying shoes at a mall in Israel.

“Hello,” he says, when a representative from the credit card company finally answers. “You all blocked my card again.”

Writer bio: Eli Saslow is a feature writer and reporter for The Washington Post who regularly contributes to ESPN The Magazine. Saslow, a graduate of Syracuse University, won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for his year-long series about food stamps in America. He was a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing.

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