Nate Miles was stabbed in the chest nine months ago and both of his lungs collapsed. He hasn’t played competitive, organized basketball since.
Dave Johnson lost a starting spot and a captaincy over a coaching change as a college senior, and was left with only one post-collegiate opportunity at a Chicago camp. He’s still waiting on a call three years later.
Kwan Waller went overseas looking for a job during the NBA lockout, the worst possible time. He plans to tryout for the NBA’s D-League for the first time this fall.
And Jon Solomon spent his college career fuming at the end of his school’s bench. On senior night, he got in for 30 seconds in a blowout.
You could say SMAA, which stands for Self Motivated Athletic Agency, was built on the backs of underdogs. That’s true. But it was also built on the game’s ugly undercurrent: there are deserving players everywhere who aren’t getting a shot. The game nowadays is all fucked up. You need a name to make your game. It used to be the opposite. At least now we have someone, something, to set it straight.
This is a new Hoop Dreams.
“What we’re doing, we’re not limiting it to two people,” Solomon says. “We’re limiting it to anybody who wants to try to make it, who’s willing to sacrifice their lives. That’s what these players do when they come to Philadelphia, they sacrifice their lives with workouts and coming on these trips to try to make it.”
Solomon started his agency, SMAA, as a business plan at Full Sail University. He didn’t realize how big it really was. It was just an idea. But he did know he wanted to pursue it. Anyone who asked, he said, Yes, this is going to be serious. This is something I am actually gonna do.
Solomon loved the game. He played and practiced all the time. He learned from Sam Rines, the same AAU coach who taught Kobe and Rip Hamilton. He hooped in the legendary Sonny Hill League. Then, he ended his career sitting on the sidelines behind lesser-talented players. Between his own misfortunes and those of his friend Jason Hall, the only three-fingered basketball player in the world, Solomon thought the game needed a spark.
There were too many guys around the country with ability but no opportunities. There were too many players getting by on a name rather than talent. Players were getting picked off a resume rather than actual production. Solomon decided to create an agency for the players like him, the underdogs looking to beat basketball’s politics.
“This is the barrier that we are working slowly but surely to break, and I think that’s the main aspect of the story, of the business,” Solomon says. “And it takes time.”
After starting his agency, Solomon began bringing in players to Philly to workout. Some drove 12 hours to be there. They’d sleep on the floor at his father’s house (who’s also been a huge SMAA financial supporter), sometimes six or seven at a time, and they’d all get up at 4 a.m. and head over to the local World Gym to workout. No sponsors. No money. That’s how it all started.
Then people began taking notice.
Anthony Collins, who’s a mentor for Solomon, and Collins’ father, a former coach at Virginia State, liked what they saw, and started directing players like 6-11 Lester Ferguson, a former Robert Morris player, to Solomon. They introduced Solomon to Gary Hughes, who knows Kevin Durant’s brother, Cliff Dixon.
SMAA eventually connected with U-Hoops.com, a networking website for players. They provided the players; Solomon provided the exposure.
Solomon also met Sid Sharma, an up-and-coming basketball engineer from Arizona (profiled in Dime #68) who specializes in athletic training.
Eventually, SMAA went on basketball tours and trips to Spain, Las Vegas, Mexico and China, where they started making a difference.
By traveling to play basketball across the world, clubs could see their talent in person. Ferguson landed a job playing in Mongolia. Brandon Siskavich, a 6-8 Division III prospect out of Potsdam State, is close to getting a deal in Spain’s fourth division. Kwan Waller, a former D-II player at Kentucky Wesleyan, got a gig with a Mexican team. Even Aundra Williams, who played no higher than JUCO, is getting interest from a team in Lebanon.
And on Sept. 7, SMAA is leaving for a long tour in China. Solomon is bringing everyone from Miles, once thought to have NBA potential, to Tyreek Graves, who, while talented, only played in high school.
“I think guys are going to start to come off the board more and more quickly,” says Solomon. “I think it’ll slowly but surely put a change into the way the game works. But everything takes time.”