Back to the Basket's Jalen Thomas Keeps His NBA Dream Alive at Rip City Remix Open Tryouts
The Trail Blazers' new G League team held its first public tryout over the weekend, and the face of a popular local store was one of the participants.
Jalen Thomas thought his basketball career was over at 26.
After starring at Hillsboro's Liberty High School and playing junior college, Thomas played second-division pro ball in El Salvador and Armenia before COVID shut most professional basketball leagues—and most of the world—down in 2020. Needing to figure out a second act, and to make some money during the pandemic, he partnered with Troy Douglass to open a basketball-themed vintage-gear shop known first as Ball Was Life and now Back to the Basket.
Thomas made peace with his professional basketball dreams being in the past, and as the store and its social-media accounts, which he runs, grew a large following in Portland, he came to love his new career just as much.
But when the Trail Blazers announced this spring that they would be starting up their own G League team this fall, Thomas, now 29, couldn't pass up the opportunity to give the basketball thing one more shot.
As the Blazers were going through the process of getting a G League team up and running in an extremely tight window, a process that only began in earnest in April, they had more than just the basketball-operations side to figure out. The organization had to come up with a name, logo and identity, and hire an entire staff on the business side, in a matter of a few months. (They settled on the Rip City Remix, which they announced in June. Their inaugural schedule tips off in November at the Chiles Center on the University of Portland campus.)
When they first got in touch with Thomas, their conversations were focused on how the Remix could partner with Back to the Basket on social-media and marketing initiatives. But with the team set to hold a public tryout at the Blazers' practice facility, open to anybody who wanted to pay the $300 registration fee to sign up, Thomas had something bigger than a branding partnership in mind.
"When I was on the call, I made a joke [about trying out], but I was being serious," Thomas told me a few days before Saturday's tryouts, sitting in the back room of his store. "It could be a Cinderella story. I'm not looking for a handout. I want to prove myself. The tryout's only two hours. You can't show too much in two hours, but I want the chance to show them, if you pick me up, I'll show you in practice, I'll show you in games. I can produce."
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Thomas had already won the respect of many on the local basketball scene playing at various pro-ams, sometimes against seasoned professionals like former Grant High School guard and longtime EuroLeague star Mike James, who has had brief stints in the NBA with the Suns, Pelicans and Nets.
After graduating from Liberty in 2012, the 5-foot-10 Thomas played at Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham. His grades weren't good enough to be eligible to play in the NCAA, but he was holding his own in local pickup runs and pro-ams, and after working with academic advisors, came close to transferring to Portland State and walking onto their basketball team. Ultimately he decided that red-shirting and losing a year of playing experience wasn't in his best interests, since he was already behind the curve as far as getting noticed by NBA scouts.
"I was raised by my mom, and my dad played football, so they weren't really in the basketball world," he said. "So I didn't know what camps to go to. I was coming out of the suburbs, nobody knew who I was. People knew me vaguely, but I had to really start playing with pros and traveling to different camps to get my name out there. Once I got to these camps, I was top-two players in every camp and started to build up a reputation. But by the time I got to that point, I was already 26 years old, and a 26-year-old rookie … there are dudes in the league who are 18."
Instead of continuing in college, Thomas opted instead to play professionally overseas, where he earned about $1,500 a week plus room and board.
"It's taxing," he says of the travel in low-level European hoops. "A lot of people don't realize that if you get signed to one of those leagues and they fly you out, you have a game as soon as you get off the plane. I've heard stories where a guy has a game the night of his flight, and if you don't produce right away, you get sent home. The teams don't care. They don't take jetlag or travel into consideration."
Still, he stuck it out and started drawing interest in other countries, until COVID-19 hit in March of 2020 and forced him to move back to Portland.
Thomas met Douglass during the pandemic. To make money, he'd begun buying and reselling sneakers on OfferUp and Facebook Marketplace. When he sold Douglass a pair of shoes, Douglass surprised him by telling him he was aware of his basketball career. Desperate for employment, Thomas asked if he knew of anyone who was hiring. As it happened, Douglass was working on opening a basketball-themed store that would sell sneakers, jerseys and other memorabilia. The two continued to discuss the idea, and eventually went in as co-owners of Ball Was Life, securing a storefront on Hawthorne. (The name change to Back to the Basket came after a cease-and-desist letter from Ball is Life.)
In addition to working in the store, Thomas built their social-media following, leveraging his own local notoriety as a basketball player. He found success in his new career, but with it came accepting that his NBA dreams were probably never going to happen.
"Those two years where COVID was going on and leagues were shutting down and travel became harder, that was two years that I could have been playing," he said. "My dream was on the backburner, and then once [the store] got really popular here and I started building a basketball reputation here, it was more so on the social-media side of things."
Still, when the opportunity arose to try out for the Remix, Thomas couldn't pass it up. He's still shy of his 30th birthday, and he feels that if he doesn't go for it now, he'll never get to. There have been a handful of examples of players who made a G League team from the open public tryouts and eventually made it to the NBA, including Jonathon Simmons, Alfonzo McKinnie and Juan Toscano-Anderson. It's not a long list, but it's been done. And Thomas doesn't see any reason why he couldn't be the next one to do it. He calls himself "delusional" in his basketball ambitions, but he wears that label proudly.
"A lot of people hear that and think, 'Oh, you're delusional, you're crazy,'" he said. "But you're delusional until it actually happens. Only crazy people are going to be the ones that succeed because they're crazy enough to think they can do these things."
The tryout at the Blazers' facility in Tualatin featured over 60 players of varying skill and experience levels. Some, like Thomas, played low-level college and overseas basketball. Some had never played organized basketball at all. Michael Bibby Jr., the son of 14-year NBA veteran Mike Bibby, tried out (his father was in attendance). An employee of the Blazers' own marketing team took part.
Newly hired Remix head coach Jim Moran (who recently served as an assistant on Dwane Casey's staff in Detroit but was a Blazers assistant under Terry Stotts for several years before that) put them through drills and scrimmages. General manager Danny Connors (in his eighth year in the organization) and assistant GM Pooh Jeter (a former University of Portland star and until this spring a G League Ignite teammate of Scoot Henderson) took in the first major basketball event in their new roles.
The parent club's front-office staff, including general manager Joe Cronin, were all there too, but mainly for moral support. Cronin isn't going to have much input on which of these tryout players, if any, get training camp-invites with the Remix—he wants Connors and Jeter to have the experience of making those decisions themselves. A G League team is a developmental tool for young front-office executives as well as players. A second open tryout is scheduled for next weekend in Seattle, a much more proven basketball hotbed than Portland.
"I feel like I did pretty good," Thomas told me after the tryout. "Could have done better, but it is what it is. But that's everybody. I hold myself to a high standard. It's little stuff like missing layups, but that's going to happen naturally. I'm my biggest critic. But I had a good time. There's a lot of good energy coming out around this G League team."
Whether Thomas gets a camp invite or not, Back to the Basket will work with the Remix. And if he's on the team as well as the face of the store, so much the better.
"That's going to be my proposition going into the G League," he said. "Having a popular store and a presence and my face being known in the area, and I can hold my own. I've played against the best. But I can bring people to the stands. People know my name."