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The Brotherhood of the Traveling Socks

5/20/2009
Courtney Lee naps on his flight to Indy. Jesse Garabrant/Getty Images

TORONTO
Lee's first audition is with the Raptors. He'll be working with Wayne Ellington and Danny Green (UNC), Jamont Gordon (Mississippi State), Shan Foster (Vanderbilt), and Malik Hairston (Oregon)—eventually. Travel snafus have delayed the 9 a.m. start. The six invitees make this the largest perimeter-oriented scrimmage of Lee's mini-tour. He's heard the Raps may be trading down, and this crew of projected second-rounders gives credence to the buzz. After trainers take quick measurements (height—in and out of shoes—standing and running vertical leap, wingspan), it's on to situational matchups: full-court one-on-ones, fast-break two-on-twos and sideline-inbounds three-on-threes. With no bigs to set screens or throw to in the post, games devolve into shooting sprees as coach Sam Mitchell and GM Bryan Colangelo watch. Lee shows he's a fluid sniper who can create space with his first step. Plus, he has the best range. When Colangelo invites them to lunch, the guys wish they'd packed a more varied wardrobe. Except Lee. "I'm Polo up and down, Sperrys all day," he says. At the meal the players mumble one-word responses to Colangelo's psyche-probing queries about their families and Toronto's offense. Gordon seems the least engaged, barely looking up from his Sidekick. Then Lee is off to catch a flight to Orlando. Clearly, the Magic want to see how he plays tired. The ticket they've issued includes an Atlanta layover and doesn't get him into town until 11 p.m.

ORLANDO
Recent interest from GMs picking as early as the end of the lottery has Lee's agent, Jason Levien, thinking his client need not run with second-round rabble anymore. From here on in, Levien will schedule workouts that get Lee the best exposure with the right teams. Today's grouping with Kansas' Brandon Rush and Memphis' Chris Douglas-Roberts, guys who figure to be Lee's main comp, fills the bill. Orlando supposedly has its eye on those two guys.

Still, Lee is confident; he held his own against CDR at last summer's Nike camp. No one is thrilled about the 8:30 a.m. wake-up, but at the practice facility, a nice surprise awaits: chef-cooked omelets and blueberry pancakes. Prospects chat with trainers and assistants for an hour, until it's time to take measurements—again. (Players who were at the NBA's predraft camp in Orlando in May have measurements that all teams accept. The rest have to get sized up at each team visit.) Lee checks in at 6'4", 197—he's grown an inch and lost three pounds in 24 hours. On the floor, Rush, Lee and CDR compete in shooting drills (15-footers, threes, shot fakes). As Lee and Rush ace the test, CDR's face twists with each clang. "There it is!" Rush shouts, as his rival finally heats up. Baseline, three clipboard-toting coaches scribble away. After the 90-minute workout, Lee benches 185 pounds 12 times, tops in the group. Then, $50 per diems in hand, the guys hop a van and head to the airport. Except Rush and CDR haven't checked out of the hotel. During the schedule-busting detour, Rush peruses the itinerary his agent has set up. He stops on a visit to New Jersey. Everyone knows how tough the Nets' session is, heavy on sprints. (Word is, the Bulls and Rockets make you sweat too.) At the airport, the players dart from the van and race to their gates. Lee is too late. He spends the next hour in an Outback Steakhouse, alone.

INDIANA
An autograph hound stalks the Embassy Suites lobby, asking players to sign his notebook. He's interrupted by a Pacers rep, there to collect today's workout crew, like a foreman picking up tall day laborers. Lee and Ellington are paired again. Both have lost the jitters they had when they changed for their first pro tryout. On the downside, they have to add a little extra stretch time to liven airplane-cramped legs. The Pacers, with their 11th pick representing the highest slot in Lee's current tour, have promised a light workout. Yeah, right. At least Lee gets to skip the measurement station after the team agrees to believe the digits the Magic faxed over. Here, the half-court two-man drills pit a wing and a big (Notre Dame's Rob Kurz or Alabama's Richard Hendrix), so Ellington and Lee can show off more than they did in Toronto. But the impression left is no different. "He's a tough player," Ellington says. "It's hard standing out against a player so similar to you." Magic assistants told Lee to body up to slashers, and he listened. "The first time, they're going to use their best moves against you," Lee says. "After that it becomes routine, and you start to make counters." It's the plus and minus of scrimmaging repeatedly against the same guys. Later, during an unscheduled full-court one-on-one, Hendrix gets in a bone-rattling dunk over Lee, and Ellington lacks the burst he had two days ago. The Pacers provide sloppy joes and a sit-down with Larry Bird. Then the players are on the road again.

BOSTON
So long, suckers! Rush has pulled out of today's workout, because his agent is convinced he'll be off the board by the time the C's make their pick at 30. Lee would have made a similar withdrawal from tomorrow's workout in Detroit (29th) if he wasn't already scheduled to have his mandatory physical administered by the Pistons staff. To be honest, he'd like to miss today too; he was on the road until 2 a.m. Then he gets a pick-me-up. Levien calls to say the Celtics trainers will do the physical. Suddenly, Lee's only concern is whether they'll be able to find a vein in his dehydrated body for the blood work. Last night, an 80-minute layover in Philly gave him a chance to watch the second half of the Celtics' Game 1 Finals win. The game has GM Danny Ainge in high spirits for this 9 a.m. workout. And one hack-laden, hour-long scrimmage later (Nevada's Marcelus Kemp can't seem to keep whomever he's guarding in front of him), Ainge excuses Lee from a Q&A. "We like your character—get out of here," he says. A grateful Lee files off for his blood tests and to get old injuries x-rayed.

EPILOGUE
Carrying gear from the four teams he visited, Lee flies to IMG Academies in Bradenton, FL where he will refuel for three days and huddle with Levien. During the next two weeks, he'll span the country from DC (18th pick) to Portland (13th) and hit a 24-player workout for late-first-rounders in Oakland (17 teams will watch). He'll face CDR and Rush at least three more times, and he'll have tried out for 24 teams by the time his journey ends in New York City on June 26.

BEHIND THE SHOE DEAL

by Ian Gordon

Rookies know the really big bucks don't come from that first contract—at least not the one their team offers. The real money is stored in a shoe box. Problem is, there's less of that cash to go around.

First, Reebok and Adidas decided they're no longer willing to go toe-to-toe with Nike in the megabucks sneaker wars. Then Sebastian Telfair shattered the street-cred-sells myth. Just like that, what was once a nearly bottomless pool of endorsement money evaporated to a puddle.

So just 20 of June's draftees, give or take, will be getting checks off their kicks. And while Nos. 1 and 2 will reap millions, only lottery picks can hope for six figures. Within that group, where a guy ends up on the map will matter more than where he goes on the board. "O.J. Mayo could go sixth to New York and make more in shoe money than the guy going third to Minnesota," says former shoe don Sonny Vaccaro.

Especially if the third pick is, say, Stanford center Brook Lopez. There's a whole big-men-can't-sell thing. A flashy guard, like Russell Westbrook for instance, tends to stick in a consumer's mind, no matter how inept his team might be. For Vaccaro, that stickiness was always the No. 1 reason to pay a player to wear your shoes.

It all makes Derrick Rose the golden child of this draft. Even if he goes second to Miami, he should still land the top shoe deal, as much as $5 million a year.