Resilient G League vet Ingram sees NBA dream come true
Los Angeles Lakers guard Andre Ingram, right, passes the ball while under pressure from Houston Rockets guard Gerald Green during the first half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, April 10, 2018, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
By David Aldridge, TNT Analyst
Come on -- who else did you think I, who rides or dies with American University, was going to write about this week?
My beloved alma mater has many great things going for it -- world-class schools of international service and communication, extensive ties to the political and journalism worlds both locally and nationally. Oscar winners went to AU. Pulitzer Prize winners taught at AU. And, Judge Judy went there, too!
But … sports … not so much.
AU’s moments in the athletic sun are few and far between. Our soccer team reached the NCAA national championship game in 1985, but lost to UCLA, 1-0, in a game that ran eight overtimes. Eight. We currently play in the Patriot League, not a hotbed for notable sports figures -- though C.J. McCollum (Lehigh) and Mike Muscala (Bucknell) have broken through in recent years, joining Adonal Foyle (Colgate) as Patriot League players turned NBA players.
AU’s only NBA player had been Kermit Washington, a rugged power forward in the 1970s who was the last NCAA player to average 20 points and 20 rebounds in one season. We love Kermit. Unfortunately, he is more infamous outside AU for hitting Rudy Tomjanovich during a fight in 1978 than famous for his good works with players as a trainer and union rep and charity work with kids in Africa.
AU just doesn’t register on that side of the athletic street.
When one of our own has a magical, very good week, you can be I’ll be next to the rooster, crowing in the dawn’s early light.
Step into the spotlight, Andre Ingram, Class of ’07, physics major, part-time math tutor, all-time 3-point leader in the G League -- and, finally, after 10 years in the minors, NBA rookie, at 32.
It’s so rare, in our hot-take, quick-to-outrage world, that there comes a story that everyone can feel good about and not carp about on Twitter. It’s not that you’re a cynic about these things, but people, being people, are human. They’re fallible. They make mistakes in judgment that can be disappointing. But Ingram produces similar reactions in everyone -- genuine joy at his accomplishment, given the work he put in over a decade to get here.
Called up by the Lakers from their G League affiliate, the South Bay Lakers, to play the last two games of the NBA season, Ingram didn’t just show up. He thrived as if channeling Roy Hobbs. Against the best team in the league, the Houston Rockets, he scored 19 points on 6-of-8 shooting, including 4-of-5 on three-pointers. The next night, against the LA Clippers, he didn’t shoot it as well, making just 2-of-9 shots. But he had six assists, three rebounds and two steals, finishing with a +23 in 35 minutes on the floor.
And he handled all of it the same way he’s handled everything since his days at AU (2003-07), where he’s still fifth on the school’s all-time scoring list and was a three-time all-Patriot League selection.
“I listened to myself when I was interviewed by somebody about him,” said his coach at AU, Jeff Jones, on Sunday (Monday, PHL time). “I’m sure there are people out there who will read it and go ‘okay, right.’ But it’s one of those things. He’s special … he’s just one of those people who, he’s a better person than the rest of us”
Jones, now the coach at Old Dominion, invited Ingram to work his camp last year to speak. “Of course, he comes early,” Jones said. And afterward, Ingram didn’t want to be paid for his time.
“When we met with Andre, he’s a person that’s kind of represented by gratitude and appreciation,” Lakers General Manager Rob Pelinka said Saturday (Sunday, PHL time). “Being in the room when we kind of surprised him -- he thought it was an exit meeting -- and we made an offer to wear the Lakers jersey, you could just see the emotion hit him, and then when he called his family. He’s a terrific person. And in the building, all of a sudden, we’re playing against the Rockets, and our crowd is chanting MVP when Andre Ingram’s at the line. It as kind of a surreal moment.”
Ingram has carried himself the same way for years -- dedicated to his craft, but also to helping when he can. That’s taken many forms, including tutoring kids in math to supplement his basketball salaries and his young family, and being a mentor to his young South Bay teammates.
“The value of him off the court for our G League team is something that has to be mentioned,” South Bay General Manager Nick Mazzella said by phone Sunday (Monday, PHL time). “We rely on developing young players. To have a guy in the locker room who can put an arm around a young guy going through a tough stretch, to show them good practice habits, that’s invaluable to us.”
He was a star the moment he stepped on campus at AU, earning Patriot League Freshman of the Year honors, helping the Eagles reach the Patriot League championship game in 2004. He shouldn’t have ever wound up there, having starred for Highland Springs High in Richmond. But Ingram was one of those talents that, for some reason, was barely recruited.
“VCU was his local team,” Jones said. “He wasn’t recruited there, or [the University of] Richmond. We knew. We absolutely knew that we were getting a steal. This was a kid that was better than his recruitment … we were holding our breath the hold time. He played AAU the summer before, because he was young. He was playing, maybe, in Orlando. And I was down there, and I was worried. He was averaging 30 a game. And all it took was somebody to persuade him to play at Fork Union for a [postgraduate] year, and then our NLI [National Letter of Intent] would be over. We never did talk about it. And I mentioned it this summer and he said ‘I wasn’t going to do that.’”
He played the exact same way he does now -- no wasted motion on the floor, constantly finding the soft spots in opponents’ defenses, leading by example.
But Ingram went undrafted in ’07. He felt he could get to the NBA, though, and started the grind, beginning with the Utah Flash, which selected him in the seventh round of what was then the D-League Draft. After four years there, Ingram was the franchise’s all-time leading scorer, making 328 3-pointers. (The Flash ceased operations in 2011 and was resurrected across the country two years later in Delaware; the team is now the Philadelphia 76ers’ G League affiliate, the Delaware Blue Coats.)
Ingram then started with the Lakers’ organization, with the D-Fenders, always grinding toward his ultimate goal of making the NBA. As he kept making three-pointers, and the NBA started turning toward small ball and wings who could shoot it from deep, a callup seemed in the cards. But it never materialized. A brief stop in Australia in 2016 lasted all of two games, and it was back to the G League and the Lakers, whose affiliate was relocated and renamed. As Ingram’s hair turned gray, he kept making three-pointers with that funky, Michael Adams-like release, becoming the G League’s all-time leader in made three-pointers.
He was a testament to getting in the lab and perfecting the craft. But no call came from the parent team, which was dealing with the death of patriarch Jerry Buss in 2013, a cascading series of bad personnel moves and the end of Kobe Bryant’s career. There was just too much going on.
But Jeanie Buss assumed control of the team last year, firing her brother Jim Buss and general manager Mitch Kupchak, and chose Magic Johnson and Pelinka to run the franchise. The Lakers vowed to start doing things differently and be more patient, building through the Draft and giving Luke Walton a real shot to grow into his role as coach.
When the end of the Lakers’ 2017-18 regular season approached, with several players out with injuries, the team made one of its longest-serving employees’ dreams come to fruition.
“A lot of the credit on this goes to our head of South Bay, Joey Buss,” Pelinka said. “They approached Earvin and I with the concept. It’s interesting; Jeanie Buss’ driving philosophy is under this new leadership we have, is to do what’s right for people, and always make the best choice. There’s been times this year when we had to do that, and it was hard, like with Corey Brewer. We knew he wasn’t playing and we could let him go and he could be on a playoff team (Brewer signed with Oklahoma City after the Lakers released him). If you do enough of the right things for people, it kind of comes back into how your franchise and your culture is viewed.”
It was several weeks in the making.
“Throughout the year, Joey Buss and I would meet with Rob and Magic and Luke about guys in the G League that we thought could be potential callups, guys that we would recommend,” Mazzella said. “Andre was a name that always came up. As much as it’s a feel-good story, he plays the game the right way. He’s the best shooter in the league. He’s an underrated defender.”
The Lakers tapped into the G League throughout the season, bringing Nigel Hayes in from Westchester in February, and Travis Wear and Alex Caruso from South Bay. Finally, after a rash of injuries hit the parent team after the All-Star break -- Josh Hart broke his hand; Brandon Ingram strained his groin; Kyle Kuzma banged up both ankles; Kentavious Caldwell-Pope sprained his right shoulder, and on and on -- it was Andre Ingram’s moment.
Walton, who had been an assistant on the D-Fenders before going to Golden State Warriors to join Steve Kerr’s staff, was all for it. South Bay and the Lakers both practiced in the franchise’s new UCLA Health Training Center. All the coaches knew each other. It was like having a 27-man roster, basically.
The conceit was that Ingram was being brought in for his exit interview after South Bay’s season ended in the G League semifinals, and that everyone’s interviews were being filmed for an end-of-season videography. “We wanted him to be the first to know,” Mazzella said. “It would be great for Andre to show his family. And, it would be great for South Bay Lakers Twitter.”
No one expected what happened next. Something in Ingram’s story touched people -- not just NBA fans, but fans of anyone who doesn’t give up on their dream.
“Obviously, I was happy,” said Ingram’s business manager, Romone Penny -- also a former AU player. “And then I said, all this boy needs is a few minutes, and he’s going to shine -- he’s going to show them what he can do. He’s going to show them that he belongs.”
Which is when this got ridiculous.
“Andre took it and made into something even bigger,” Pelinka said, which is about when The New York Times, ESPN, "Good Morning America", the Los Angeles Dodgers and 96 other people that have blown up Penny’s phone in the last week came calling. Which is why Ingram retreated to Virginia this weekend for some R and R before he starts to think about what’s next.
It’s not easy to answer once the glow of last week starts to wear off. Here stands a 32-year-old rookie with exactly two games of NBA experience under his belt. That’s not disqualifying by any means, but it’s not exactly the resume of a Lottery pick. Ingram could go back to South Bay, one supposes. But once they’ve seen the lights of Broadway, it’s hard to go back to Summer Stock, not that there’s anything wrong with Shakespeare in the Park.
Could the Lakers have two Ingrams -- Andre and Brandon -- in camp next fall?
“The other big philosophy of Jeanie Buss is once a Laker, always a Laker,” Pelinka said. “We had our [real] exit meetings and we just said ‘we want you around here. We want you in our building, continuing to work. Your spirit is so inspirational to all of us, the way you work.’ We’ll kind of let it unfold and see how happens, but definitely want him to stay close.”
I’m too old to believe in fairy tales. But Andre Ingram can play somewhere in the NBA in 2018-19. Maybe it’s not with the Lakers, who have a lot of young mouths to feed and dreams of bringing in some big-time free agents in July. But you can’t tell me there isn’t room on someone’s roster somewhere for a no-excuses, hard-working, great teammate who may come into a came and drop five threes on a team that doesn’t close out on him hard.
I’d believe that even if we hadn’t gone to AU a decade apart.
But it makes believing easier.
“He showed at 32 years old, he fits,” Mazzella said. “Everyone’s career path is different. He’s the first guy in the weight room. He’s always taking care of himself. I don’t look at him as a guy past his prime getting a chance at the end. I think Andre still has something to prove.”
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