So it’s 2011 and I’m sitting in the bed of a pickup truck rolling down a gravel road somewhere in rural Hawaii.
Our team trainer is driving — it’s his truck — and me and two other teammates are in the back. We’re headed to our practice facility, aka, a tiny high school gym outside of Honolulu.
Right then, flying down that road, the truck kicking up dirt, I was thinking to myself, Man, this probably isn’t the road to the NBA.
I was 18 years old, a freshman at Hawaii Pacific, which is a Division II school. For a kid with NBA dreams, it didn’t feel like I could get much farther away from them than where I was.
Maybe I’m getting a little ahead of myself here.
Let me back up: Right now you might be asking, Who is David Nwaba?
Fair question. No offense taken.
I don’t expect you to know who I am. I’m just thankful to have the chance to tell you.
My basketball career started in Los Angeles, where I grew up. I averaged 20 and 10 in high school. Then came college —I attended three different colleges (including Hawaii Pacific) in the span of four years, each school at a different level of competition. Then to the D-League, where last year I got two 10-day contracts with the Lakers. (I played in 20 games with L.A., starting in two of them, and averaged 6.0 points and 3.2 boards.)
This fall, I have a chance with the Chicago Bulls. But it’s just a chance — nothing’s guaranteed. I know there are other kids right now in the same position I was — feeling like they’re a million miles from playing in the NBA. Maybe they’re feeling overlooked. Maybe they’ve had some unlucky breaks. They need to know that every basketball journey looks a little different. Mine does
My story is about coming out of nowhere, more than once.
And now in the NBA I plan on doing it again.
My senior year of high school, I averaged pretty big numbers for public high school ball in Los Angeles — 22.3 points and more than 11.5 rebounds a game. But University High, where I went, is known for academics, not sports. It hasn’t produced a lot of college talent, so recruiters don’t think to look there.
In my mind, even though University High wasn’t a sports powerhouse, I had proven that I could compete with some of the best prospects in the area. So yeah, I expected to hear from D-I schools.
My high school coach was Steve Ackerman. Every week, I’d go into his classroom — he was also the health teacher — and ask him if he had any news.
“I haven’t heard anything,” he’d say every time.
No invitations for tryouts or summer camps. Not even letters about walking on.
I had good grades, so I was really trying to avoid junior college. Not only for academic reasons, but also that junior college was the path that my older teammates took. I wanted to be different. I felt that I’d earned the chance to get a scholarship and I didn’t want to settle for a junior college.
I guess was willing to consider it, if it came to that. But I was really hoping that it didn’t.
Finally, Coach Ackerman got some good news. A letter had arrived.
It was from Hawaii Pacific University.
Hawaii Pacific was Division II — not the big time — but it was something. The offer came with a catch: If I didn’t sign with them quickly, they would offer another other guy my spot. I put some thought into it, put my ego aside and decided to commit.
Hawaii is a nice spot, I thought. What could go wrong?
I used the opportunity out in Hawaii to grow mentally, rebuilding my confidence, which had slowly been chipped away by the recruiting process. While enrolled at Hawaii-Pacific, I made it over to see a couple University of Hawaii (D-1) games. When I saw those guys play, I just knew, deep down, that I could play — and needed to be playing — at a higher level.
And that put me back in the same spot I had been in as a senior in high school … looking for a place to play.
At that point, I reached out to a lot of D-I coaches, testing my luck to see if anybody would give me an opportunity. But no one was interested.
Junior college was the only option.
I landed at Santa Monica College, which was five minutes down the road from my parents’ house. SMC had recruited me out of high school, but I had thought I was too good for the Corsairs the year before.
I didn’t know it, but today I realize it was actually one of the most important stages of my career — and it had nothing to do with basketball. It was about humbling myself. People should know that not only is there nothing wrong with juco, but that it can actually be just what you need.
My year at SMC went really well — I averaged over 20 points and eight-plus rebounds, and I made first-team all-conference. But we didn’t qualify for the playoffs, which meant that D-I coaches who hadn’t seen me play yet probably weren’t going to get the chance. If coaches show up to junior college games at all, it’s during the playoffs.
It was a huge bummer, one that made the recruiting process way more difficult. I looked into transferring again.
My coach at Santa Monica got me in touch with a coach at Cal Poly–San Luis Obispo, a D-I school in the Big West. They hadn’t seen me play much, but my coach at Santa Monica gave me a rave review. (I’ll always appreciate that, Coach Jenkins.)
Cal Poly was a big break. Yeah, it wasn’t UNC or Kentucky, or even a Pac-12 school. But it got me on the level I felt I belonged. Cal Poly had an intense nonconference schedule — big games against Gonzaga, Arizona, and other major programs — which I was excited about right away. I always saw those big games as a major opportunity. I’d think, I might not have been recruited like any of these other guys, but I’m still on the same court competing with them. You never knew who might be watching.
So I went to Cal Poly in 2013 and played there my sophomore, junior and senior seasons. I had a really good experience. I played well. I had a good feeling that, once we got to end-of-season-awards time my senior year, I’d be looking at some all-conference honors.
But then, the Big West all-conference teams got announced.
I wasn’t on the first team.
I wasn’t on the second team.
I was honorable mention.
Listen, my dream had always been to play in the NBA, but during my college career I started to get realistic about my basketball future. I think I was trying to prepare myself emotionally. With no NBA draft workouts or summer league invites, I decided on playing pro overseas.
A modest goal, I thought, but reachable.
I attended four overseas showcases — two in L.A. and two in Las Vegas. I played well. But after that I had to play the waiting game. I hoped some decent overseas offers would come through.
While I was waiting, the general manager of the L.A. D-Fenders — the Lakers’ D-League affiliate — invited me to a closed-door tryout. He had been at one of the overseas showcases. I had heard so many horror stories about the D-League that I wasn’t sure if I should attend. It also doesn’t pay much — the average contract is about $19,000 a year. But, then again, it was an opportunity so I had to take full advantage of it.
When I started receiving extremely low overseas offers, the choice got easier. I got a handful of overseas offers, but none of them paid more than $700 a month. And they all were halfway across the world.
I thought to myself, There’s no way I’m going overseas for that kind of money. I could make more driving an Uber.
So it came down to the D-League or finding a regular job. I left the D-Fenders tryout feeling pretty good about my performance. And I had just heard about another tryout. The Reno Bighorns were having one — but you had to pay $150 to enter.
I had a simple goal: to find a job playing basketball. The closer I could play to home, the better. I wasn’t delusional about what might happen.
So I slapped down the $150.
I gave that tryout everything I had. In both the L.A. tryout and the Reno tryout, I saw a lot of guys out there that had gone to bigger schools than I had, the UNCs or the Arizonas, and I thought, Well, we’re all in the same place now.
The Bighorns signed me after my tryout and invited me to their training camp in November. So I drove eight hours out there from Santa Monica, only to learn after I had arrived that the D-Fenders had traded for me during the D-League draft a week or so earlier — which meant that I had to turn right around and drive back.
It was wild. But the whole drive back I had the biggest smile on my face.
That year’s training camp went great and when it was over, Coby Karl, the D-Fenders’ coach, gave me the good news that I had made the team. Initially, I was so happy that I wasn’t thinking about a call-up or anything like that. That was the most stressful summer of my life, but all my hard work paid off. I got a job!
Everyone in the D-League is laser-focused on the NBA. Everyone’s goal is to get a call-up, but by the middle of the season, there wasn’t much call-up action happening. My teammate Vander Blue, who was a top D-League prospect, couldn’t even get one. Personally, I was just doing what I could to help my team win games. My main goal was to build relationships with coaches and hopefully get invited to make a Summer League roster. As the season went on, I started improving my game and playing a lot better. I even scored at least 20 points in four straight games.
Around that time, in late February, I got an unusual phone call.
It was Coach Karl. He asked me to come up to his office on my day off. I was like, Why?
I thought, Oh, he probably just wants me to work this kids camp he mentioned. But why couldn’t he just text me?
Then I had another thought. Maybe I’m getting traded. Honestly, an NBA call-up was the furthest thing from mind.
When I got to the facility, everyone from the front office was seated around a table with serious looks on their faces. Something was up.
“David, it’s the Lakers,” Coach Karl said. “They’re offering you a 10-day contract.”
I’m going to be honest here: After that, I don’t remember what Coach Karl said — or what anybody else said, for that matter. I was just thinking about my parents. I was thinking about my siblings. I was thinking about calling each one of them individually to tell them the news and hear their reactions.
Mom, I’m a Laker.
Only a few years earlier, I had been in the back of a pickup headed to practice in Hawaii with Division II basketball team. That’s pretty much the opposite of a chartered team flight or a luxury bus. Now I was about to get a shot with the Lakers, my hometown team.
It was the greatest feeling in the world.
I got two separate 10-day contracts with the Lakers, then eventually signed for the rest of the year. This past summer, I played for the Lakers in the Summer League only a couple of miles away from where I had played in an overseas showcase just the year before.
After my call-up, I was all about taking advantage of the opportunity as best I could. It was toward the end of the year when they were resting a lot of guys, and that put me in prime position to get some real NBA burn.
The rush of hearing my name called on the P.A. the first time I checked into a game — I’ll never forget that. I’ll also never forget what happened next. As I checked in, Coach Walton says, “You’re on Kemba.”
Thrown to the wolves in my very first game! But I was so grateful. I only played about five minutes — five insane, adrenaline-fueled minutes. It may have been brief, but my NBA debut showed me something that I had always believed.
That I belonged.
With training camp for next season only a few weeks away, I’m taking stock of my situation. I’m a member of the Chicago Bulls now, but nobody really knows about me. But my objective has changed now that I’m a Bull — I don’t want to just make the team, I want to stick around. And I know that if I get the chance, I’ll make it count.
A year ago at this time, I was looking for a job — any job.
I had the faith that it would work out, but I had to be patient. I had to — as they say — trust the process. So if you take anything away from my story, I hope it will will be this: No journey is a straight line — every single one looks a little different. Trust yourself and go to work. If it’s truly what you want, never let the dream die.
You might just surprise yourself.