Quicken Loans Arena is rocking.
It’s the 2014-15 Cleveland Cavaliers home opener, which means it’s the first time the folks in Cleveland can fully embrace LeBron James’ return to the city.
The Cavs jump out to early double-digit lead and the fans inside “The Q” are going crazy, giddy with hope and excitement.
With one minute and 30 seconds remaining in the first quarter, unheralded rookie Travis Wear checks into the game to replace franchise cornerstone Carmelo Anthony.
Wear’s defensive assignment? A guy named LeBron James.
Wear holds his own, as the Knicks end up spoiling James’ homecoming party by beating the Cavs. Wear finishes with two points, two rebounds and two assists in 13 minutes. More impressively, he limits James to 0-for-4 shooting from the field when he is LeBron’s primary defender.
Considering the predicament Wear found himself in a couple of months ago – or even just a couple of weeks ago – securing a spot on an NBA roster seemed implausible. Playing important minutes in an NBA game and guarding James would have been nothing more than a pipe dream until recently.
The road to the NBA wasn’t supposed to be this rocky for Wear.
He was a five-star recruit in high school. He was selected to compete in the 2009 McDonald’s All-American Game his senior year, playing alongside future NBA stars such as DeMarcus Cousins, Lance Stephenson and Derrick Favors. Wear accepted a scholarship to University of North Carolina (playing alongside his twin brother, David), but transferred to UCLA after an unfulfilling freshman season at UNC. Wear, a California native, played well under coach Ben Howland after arriving in Los Angeles. Wear was the team’s second leading scorer in 2012. However, last season, his final at UCLA, he got off to a slow start. Wear missed the first three games of the 2013-14 campaign after undergoing an appendectomy. He came off the bench in his first six games back under new coach Steve Alford and Wear never seemed to find his rhythm. He finished the year seventh on the team in scoring, averaging 7.2 points and 3.2 rebounds as a senior. It was an inauspicious end to his college career.
As a result, Wear wasn’t even invited to the NBA’s Draft Combine, denying him a valuable chance to prove his worth to the assembled scouts and executives.
Undaunted, Wear continued to work out relentlessly and was hoping to be selected in the second round of the 2014 draft. Draft night ended without his name being called.
Still, Wear kept the faith.
Last Sunday, prior to the Knicks’ home game against the Charlotte Hornets, Wear thought about his arduous and unlikely journey from undrafted afterthought to NBA player.
When asked about his thought process before and after the draft, he admits he was disappointed, but he believed it all happened for a reason.
“Yeah, we thought the (the second round) was a possibility for sure and that’s what I was hoping for,” Wear told Basketball Insiders. “Obviously that didn’t happen, but I mean I honestly wouldn’t change anything.”
Wear also acknowledges that some people advised him to seek employment overseas, but he remained committed to his NBA dream.
“Yeah, overseas was definitely an option, but I thought I could play here,” Wear said. “I thought I could play in the NBA. I thought my skill set would translate into this league.”
This is the crux of why Wear truly felt confident he could overcome the immense odds. Plenty of players rise to national prominence playing college ball, but flame out in the league. Some guys who put up undeniably impressive numbers in the NCAA, can’t cut it in the NBA. For others, the opposite is true.
“Being bigger and being athletic I thought I’d probably be able to play a little more on the perimeter at this level,” Wear explained. “It’s a little bit more fast-paced game, I thought with my athleticism and the way I shoot the ball, it would be valuable to an organization.”
Still, Wear was keenly aware that he would have to put in a tremendous amount of work (and receive a little bit of luck) just to secure an invite to an NBA training camp, let alone a guaranteed NBA contract.
Fresh off the disappointment of draft night, Wear got on his grind.
“I just showed up in the gym everyday; myself, my brother and our trainer, a guy that’s been training me forever (former University of Arizona star guard) Miles Simon,” Wear said. “He knew the player I was. I knew the player I was. I knew if I kept my head down and kept working that someone was going to see how good I am, and what I could do and how my skill set could benefit a team at this level.”
Wear was eventually invited to play for the Atlanta Hawks in the Las Vegas Summer League. However, after just one game with Atlanta, Wear’s agent informed him that another team was interested in his services. That team was the New York Knickerbockers. Wear and his agent decided to immediately join the Knicks’ contingent out in Las Vegas.
“I mean, yeah, (the Knicks) showed interest in me through the draft process, and they basically had their eyes open towards me,” Wear said. “It just so happen to work out that I was able to get picked up halfway through summer league. We switched to New York and it’s seemed to all work out since.”
Wear played sparingly in Vegas, averaging just 2.5 points in 5.7 minutes of action over two games.
However, thanks in large part to his hard work and promising play in practice, Wear piqued the interest of the Knicks’ coaching staff. On September 9, the Knicks extended training camp invites to Wear and fellow undrafted free agent Langston Galloway.
Still, it was tough for Wear to be overly optimistic. The NBA is a numbers game, and the Knicks already had 15 players with guaranteed contracts. The odds of Wear securing one of those precious roster spots were still very slim, at best.
Although NBA training camps start in early October, a month prior to opening night, most teams have informal workouts with most of their players in the weeks and months leading up to camp.
This is where Travis Wear stamped his NBA ticket.
New players talented enough to gain entrance into the highest league in the land earn their NBA credentials in a variety of ways. Some star during March Madness and parlay their NCAA excellence into the first or second round of the draft. Other impress at the combine in Chicago. Still others, who may have slipped through the cracks, dominate summer league action in Las Vegas.
For Wear, it was in a mostly empty gym in sleepy Tarrytown, NY where he first truly served notice to his future teammates and himself that he belonged, and actually had a chance to crack the Knicks’ opening night roster.
“When I first got here, and we played open run for a couple weeks, some of the things I was doing on the court, I just thought I was playing really well,” Wear said. “I thought, ‘I think it’s going to be a stretch right now, but I’m giving myself a chance. I’ll give myself a chance just by showing up and playing well and working hard and doing what I’m supposed to do.’ After a couple weeks I definitely thought that it was a possibility.”
When asked if there was a specific moment, a play, or one particular day that changed the odds from highly improbable to possible, Wear explains that it was more an accumulation of progressively positive plays and days over a number of weeks.
“When I first showed up and we were playing pick-up, there were some days where I played very well, and I would call back home, and be like ‘You know what, I played very well today…’, and they were just telling me to keep doing that, give yourself an opportunity, a chance,” Wear said. “Again, I was just taking everything day-by-day honestly. I don’t look too far ahead, I don’t think about the past, I just kind of stay in the present.”
When he finally got confirmation he had made the roster (the Knicks ended up trading away swingman Travis Outlaw to clear a roster spot), Wear felt a jumbled combination of excitement and relief, but quickly adjusted his mentality to begin preparing himself for the next task at hand: proving he deserved his roster spot and that he could help his new team right away.
Feeling privileged to have the opportunity to showcase the skill-set that had impressed the Knicks’ coaching staff, Wear made his NBA debut at Madison Square Garden, playing a few minutes in New York’s home opener versus Chicago. But his most significant playing time of the season came the next night in Cleveland.
Surprisingly to some, Wear seemed unfazed by the bright lights and the daunting task of guarding the greatest player on earth.
“Playing at this level, you want to come in with the correct mindset that you belong,” Wear said. “So I sit on the bench every game and just evaluate matchups. I’m expecting to go in, but if I don’t get in, I’m thankful to be here at the same time. So it definitely is a little bit eye opening but at the same time you take it as, it’s just competition. New York vs. Cleveland, New York vs. Chicago, that’s all it is, you’re just trying to win.”
Still, entering the league as a rookie and being matched up against the players you had only seen on TV is obviously an adjustment. Asked if there was one player that he was most looking forward to sharing an NBA court with, Wear responded: “Honestly, if you would have asked me that question a week ago, I would have said LeBron James. After having that happen already, you see a new guy every night that you’re like, ‘Oh wow, we get to play against him tonight!’ So every night is basically just so exciting and so fun.”
The Dallas Mavericks game is another date Wear will have circled on his calendar.
“I used to be a big Dirk (Nowitzki) fan when I was little,” Wear said. “You know, I haven’t even seen him in person, and I’d like to watch him play in person, and hopefully, at some point, guard him. And growing up in LA, I can’t wait to play the Lakers and the Clippers.”
Obviously, Wear is not content to just stick around and eat up a roster spot. His objective is to continue improving and finding ways to help the Knicks win games. In order to do that, Wear fully understands he has to make significant strides on the defensive end of the floor.
“I think that offensively I have a skill set to be at this level; obviously there’s stuff that I need to refine, and things like that, but defensively it’s an adjustment,” Wear said. “Guys at this level are so much bigger, stronger and faster, that you’re going to have to work to play your angles a little bit better, and adjust to the physicality, adjust to the arm bars. On the perimeter you can’t use your hands as much, so just adjusting to all of that will take time.”
Right now, the toughest off-the-court adjustment for this California kid is missing family and friends and also dealing with the blustery winter weather on the East Coast.
“It has been little cold, and winter is gonna get me a little bit, but the transition hasn’t been bad at all,” Wear said. “The hardest thing has been trying to talk to family sometimes because of the time change. But I also have family out here, which has been great. I’ve been able to spend a lot of time with them, and it’s been fantastic.”
As he settles into his new role on his new team, Wear still pushes himself to improve on a daily basis, but recognizes how fortunate he is to have traversed a road less traveled and end up in the NBA. As result, the humble rookie has very modest expectations when asked about any individual objectives he hopes to accomplish during his first season in the league.
“I don’t have any personal goals, to tell you the truth,” Wear said. “My goal is probably trying to put on this uniform for every game, honestly; that’s basically the only personal goal I have.”
Considering the odds and obstacles Travis Wear has had to overcome to earn the right to wear that jersey, it’s not surprising to learn he’s determined to keep it on.
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