Photograph by Nick Lovejoy

Getting a Sign

Gardner made a beeline back to California. He hung out in Oakland for a while, but then decided to head to Southern California, where he had some mentors he had connected with at Westwind. He admits that, at least in respect to his basketball career, if not life itself, he had hit rock bottom. “I was not happy with the game,” he says. His two shots at college ball had both gone south. He was done with it.

Gardner enrolled in a couple of classes at Santa Monica City College (math and English, he says), riding a bus each day from downtown Los Angeles to West L.A., on which he had plenty of time for some serious soul searching. “I needed to find myself,” he acknowledges. He began working out each day at a nearby gym—”I had to rebuild my basketball confidence,” he says— and started to envision a way back into the game.

Gardner was on a mission. With only nine games of junior college basketball under his belt, he set his sights on the NBA’s Development League. He participated in open tryouts for a half-dozen D-League teams—Los Angeles, Idaho, Fort Wayne, Bakersfield, Reno and Santa Cruz—where he played “damn well,” in his words, but no one signed him straight to a team. Finally, in the seventh round of the D-League draft on All-Saints Day, November 1 of last year, Kiwi Gardner was the Warriors’ final selection.

He was hanging onto his dream by the skin of his teeth.

The NBA D-League is unlike any other in professional sports. Weyermann, who came to the Warriors by way of serving as President and CEO of the San Jose Giants before assuming his position with Golden State, points out that while there are “167 teams in minor league baseball, there are only 17 in basketball.”

The vast majority of guys who play minor league baseball never make it to The Show. The D-League is a different story. More than half of the current league has NBA experience (127 players, to be exact) and a half-dozen players appearing on the Santa Cruz roster this season have had a taste of NBA time. And that’s not counting the Golden State “assignment” players who occasionally come down for Santa Cruz games.

The 10-man active rosters in the D-League are like a convention of fruit flies, always in flux. There are no guaranteed contracts. Moreover, D-League salaries are microscopic compared to the NBA. D-Leaguers are paid at three different rates: roughly $13,000, 19,000, and $25,500 annually. Players can make much more overseas. They play in the D-League in the hopes of getting that call up to the NBA, a la Jeremy Lin who grew up in Palo Alto, had a celebrated run with the New York Knicks and currently starts for the Houston Rockets.

Once players realize that the NBA is beyond them, they head for greener pastures. Two of Santa Cruz’s most popular players from last season—Travis Leslie and Stefhon Hannah— are currently playing in France and Italy, respectively, for significantly higher salaries than they made in Santa Cruz.

At least for now, Gardner likes his proximity to not only the NBA—but to NBA talent. He isn’t chasing the bucks, he’s chasing a dream.

Career Builders

Gardner got lucky in catching Hill at the Warriors. They provide an interesting mix: Hill the scion of NBA royalty; Gardner a kid from the streets. Both are looking to make basketball their careers.

After serving as an assistant coach with the Warrior’s D-League franchise the last two seasons, Hill assumed the head coaching position in Santa Cruz this past year. His father, Bob Hill, served as a longtime NBA coach for the New York Knicks, Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs and, finally, the Seattle SuperSonics, and the younger Hill worked under his father for two seasons as assistant coach of the Tokyo Apache in the Japanese professional league.

The Warriors D-League team is one of the strongest franchises in the NBA—the Warriors’ attendance and income generation was tops in the league last year—and they seem to be sailing beyond that in the 2013-14 campaign. Many in basketball circles consider the Santa Cruz franchise “the best in the league.”

It’s both a blessing and a curse for Gardner. He gets to be around a constant supply of NBA-quality talent, but that same talent often takes his game time away from him.

I checked in on a Warriors’ practice recently, and watched as Gardner engaged in a quiet conversation with assistant coach Phil Hubbard, a former star with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Detroit Pistons, who brings a considerable amount of NBA credibility to the Warriors’ coaching staff.

“He obviously wants to play more,” Hubbard says. “But I’ve been very impressed by his team support. It’s a cliche, of course, to tell him to be patient, but what I encourage him to do is to make the most of every second of practice and of every game. He needs to trust his coaching staff and work on ways to improve his performance.”

For all of his moments of greatness this season—and they have been delightful—there have been more than a few instances of frustration and signs of holes in Kiwi’s game, particularly careless turnovers and missed scoring opportunities. Gardner is the first to admit it. “I’ve got lots to work on,” he says, “lots of room for improvement. No doubt about it. I know it.”

While his defensive game is surprisingly solid—”defense is my strong suit,” he says—Gardner’s biggest challenge has been learning the tempo and rhythms of the professional game. In high school (and on the playgrounds of the East Bay), Kiwi set the tempo. At the professional level, he needs to find it.

“You simply cannot try to force the game at this level,” says Weyermann. “Great players learn to let the game come to them.”

Hill concurs.

When I liken Garner to a diamond in the rough, the coach nods his head. “My job is to polish him.” For all of his talents, Hill says, Kiwi needs to understand “the flow of the game, what it means to be at point during a valuable possession.” Hill concedes that it will take “plenty of game action” for Gardner to get there.

His biggest task with his 20-year-old student, Hill says, is helping Kiwi “to stay humble.” With all of the attention on the Internet and his name being chanted by fans at home games, it’s no small order. “He needs to focus his attention on the court.”

Hill says he has no idea whether Gardner will ever make it to the NBA, but with the professional game continuing to explode internationally, he says that he hopes to groom Gardner for a long-term professional career. “The opportunities will present themselves.”

Gardner masks none of his ambitions about playing in the NBA. “I want to have a long career there. And I intend to work hard to get it.”

As my conversation with Gardner winds down, Coach Hill swoops by, playfully pulls off one of Kiwi’s tennis shoes and tosses it out onto the basketball court. Everyone smiles. Hill turns to look back on his way out the Arena, and our eyes meet for a brief moment. We all know the prank was his way of trying to keep Kiwi humble.

“I’m super, super humble,” Kiwi says to me, smiling. “But I’m super, super hungry, too.”


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