In September, David Nwaba stood sweat-soaked in a gym in Reno, Nevada. He had paid $150 and traveled from his parents’ home in Los Angeles to attend an open tryout for the Reno Bighorns of the NBA D-League. He played his heart out, knowing that if he failed, he might not get another chance.
Fast forward to Tuesday night, when Nwaba stood under the lights at the Staples Center as the newest member of the LA Lakers. He was only hours removed from signing his first NBA contract, which will span 10 days. As he looked up at the 16 championship banners hanging from the rafters, he wondered if maybe he had finally made it.
— NBA D-League (@nbadleague) March 1, 2017
To understand what this moment meant to Nwaba, you first have to understand who he is and where he’s come from. He is singularly focused. He wants nothing more than to be a successful NBA player. He didn’t even want his parents attending his first game. If his parents came, Nwaba might worry if they had made it to the arena safely, or if they were comfortable in their seats. In fact, he didn’t invite anyone to witness the most important moment of his life. He was only there to do one thing: Play his game.
Nwaba was born in Los Angeles 24 years ago. He’s practically spent his entire life in the City of Angels. He’s always loved the Lakers, but only had the chance to attend a few games. He liked Shaq, but Kobe was always his favorite: “[Kobe] played with a passion, … with so much love for the game. He gave 100%,” Nwaba said.
At University High School in Los Angeles, Nwaba tried to do the same. His senior season, the 6-4 guard averaged 22 points and 11.5 rebounds per game. Nwaba wanted to play college ball, that was always his plan, but he didn’t receive any offers. His confidence plummeted and he contemplated life without basketball. “I just wanted to go to school,” he said. “At that point, I was just trying to get a degree.”
Nwaba had visited the Hawaiian Islands several times growing up. Sometimes when he went, he’d go to watch basketball games at the University of Hawaii. Now with no D-I scholarship offers, he decided to return to the islands of his childhood and attend Hawaii-Pacific. Nwaba joined the basketball team, but red-shirted, believing he was better than the competition and knowing that the extra year of eligibility could prove more valuable down the line. After his freshman year, he transferred to Santa Monica Junior College.
Transferring entailed more than just a change of scenery and new teammates. He had to retake classes and max out his schedule every semester in order to make up for the credits that didn’t transfer. Sure, he wanted to be eligible to make the jump to Division I, but the doubt also remained. Just in case it didn’t work out, he wanted to make sure he’d still be able to get a degree. “I didn’t have too much time to work on my game. It was basically focusing on school, taking maximum [classes] every quarter, and still trying to put up the numbers to go to the Division I level. It was a struggle, but I made it work.”
Nwaba’s next stop was Cal Polytechnic State in San Luis Obispo, Calif. There he finally was awarded the D-I basketball scholarship he so badly coveted. He helped the team make its first ever NCAA appearance that season. The Mustangs defeated Texas Southern in the first round but lost to the No. 1-seeded Wichita State Shockers in the round of 32.
Nwaba majored in sociology while at Poly. He worked hard to balance classes with basketball. He hoped to continue playing the game he loved once he graduated, but knew that he might not get the chance. It looked like that might be the case at first.
Nwaba didn’t hear his name called during the 2015 NBA Draft. He didn’t receive offers to play internationally. He began attending international showcases in Los Angeles hoping to catch the attention of a coach, scout or agent. By chance, some of the L.A. D-Fenders’ coaches attended one of those showcases. They noticed Nwaba hustling up and down the court. They noticed his 6-11 wingspan. They noticed his hunger. In turn, they offered him a spot in a closed-door tryout for the team.
At first, Nwaba didn’t even know if he wanted to play in the D-League. For someone with NBA aspirations, coming to terms with playing in the Development League can be a tough pill to swallow. “The opportunity presented itself,” Nwaba said, “so I gave it a shot.”
“The first time I saw him was at the tryout,” D-Fenders rookie head coach Coby Karl said. Coby, the son of legendary NBA head coach George Karl, was presiding over his first tryout as coach of the D-Fenders.
“There were about 60 guys there. He didn’t stand out. He was good, but he wasn’t great.”
When Nwaba didn’t get the call to join the D-Fenders, he decided to pursue other opportunities in the D-League. He started cold emailing coaches. His big break came at the Reno Bighorns’ tryout, for which he paid the customary $150 fee. Nwaba was invited to join the Bighorns for training camp. Before he could, however, he was traded during the D-League draft… to the D-Fenders.
“We liked him and I thought we had a need at that position,” Karl said. “So our GM was able to get him as a throw-in in the trade.”
Karl saw something in Nwaba, a raw potential: “He reminds me a lot of Tony Allen. He’s tenacious and he’s very cool-headed. He’s always playing, always pursuing. I think any coach wants a player like David.”
Nwaba started the D-League season out fairly well, but picked up steam as it progressed. As his offensive game began to catch up to his lockdown defense, the Lakers began to pay attention.
Nwaba’s story reached its climax when he received a call from Karl on Monday morning. The D-Fenders had an off-day and Nwaba was at his parents’ house, 30 minutes from the practice facility that the Lakers and D-Fenders share.
“Coach Karl wouldn’t tell me why he wanted me to come into his office. I thought he wanted me to attend a Boys and Girls Clinic but I was confused why he couldn’t just tell me over the phone,” Nwaba said.
When he got to the facility, he received the surprise of a lifetime.
“We wanted to be the people to deliver the news in person because we’re really proud of what he’s done,” Karl said. “We asked him if he could come in. And he’s just that type of a kid — he’s a no nonsense type of guy — that he just said okay without really asking any questions. He’s like, ‘I’ll be there in an hour.’ And we sat him down and our GM broke the news to him, and he was just smiling from ear to ear.”
— L.A. D-Fenders (@DFenders) February 28, 2017
Nwaba couldn’t believe that his dream was finally coming true, that he would be suiting up for the Lakers, at home no less, in just over 24 hours. The first thing he did was call his mom.
“I made it seem like it wasn’t a big deal. Like it was just any other day. I call my mom every day, was just checking up on her and seeing how things are. And then I threw in a, ‘Oh, by the way, I signed a 10-day contract with the LA Lakers,’ and she was like, ‘What did you say? Don’t mess around with me about that! What’s going on?’ It was just the greatest feeling. She just stopped, and it sank in, and she was thanking God. It was just a great moment and it was full of smiles.”
Nwaba didn’t know what his emotions would be like before his first-ever NBA game Tuesday night. He checked into the game with 10:51 remaining in the 4th quarter.
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) March 1, 2017
A basketball career marked by adversity, doubt, struggle and hope had culminated in this glorious moment. Nwaba ended up playing a total of five minutes, grabbing a defensive rebound and missing a jump shot. More important than his statistics, however, is the fact that he had made it to the hardwood of his childhood dreams. Not too shabby for his first day on the job.
Nwaba knows that his path has been anything but ordinary for an NBA player. But he truly believes in himself. He believes he can make an impact. He believes he can carve out a niche on this Lakers roster.
“I started at Hawaii-Pacific, went junior college, went mid-major, and worked my way up to the D-League, and now I get an opportunity to play in the NBA. It’s just the path I took. It took motivation and a supporting cast to get me where I am. I have a plan… Just playing the game… I’m just focused on playing my game.”