NBA Summer League features the most lavish tryout an aspiring professional athlete will ever go through. Airfare is covered and they stay at five star hotels, spend nights and extravagant dinners out on the town paid for by team executives, and receive per diem to pay for individual meals and/or use as pocket change along the way. It’s an all expenses paid for vacation, with the opportunity to prove they should be earning even more while playing the game they love. The games are broadcast on ESPN and NBATV as athletes rise to summer stardom while crowded arenas full of eager fans cheer them on in UNLV.
Alas, not everyone gets that opportunity. In lieu of NBA Summer League, there are a handful of secondary showcases across Las Vegas for players hoping to secure international gigs. Participants stay at discounted hotels off the strip and often pay their own way through meals and sometimes travel as well. At the Worldwide Invitational, the venue is a student recreation center across campus where family and friends complement the scouts across a mere few rows of bleachers while games begin early in the morning.
Such conditions still aren’t enough to scare hungry and determined athletes off. Upon entering the gym, one could find Robert Upshaw dunking over opponents and then sprinting down court to block a shot on the other end.
For those keeping score at home, this is indeed the same Robert Upshaw who was widely heralded as a potential first round NBA Draft pick back in 2015. Considered an elite shot-blocker likened to DeAndre Jordan, Upshaw appeared to have a bright future ahead of him, despite getting kicked out of Washington — his second college stop. He went undrafted, but caught on with the Los Angeles D-Fenders after spending training camp with the Lakers. Unfortunately, a downward spiral filled with drugs, disobedience, and depression derailed hopes of making his mark in The Association. The big man’s journey on the wrong path began in college and he continued to follow it as a pro. The G League terminated his contract for violating the league’s Anti-Drug Program in March of 2016.
In the two plus years since, Upshaw has attempted to put together a good body of work and repair his reputation along the way. He knows it won’t be easy and because of his past, extra steps are required to regain faith from those in the basketball world. He recently completed his second season in Lebanon, where he averaged 12.8 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks. Upon returning home, received a call from an old friend.
Former D-Fenders assistant coach Paul Woolpert, who experienced the ups and downs with Upshaw while still recognizing his potential, asked the 24 year old to join the Yakima SunKings of the NAPD, for whom Woolpert serves as head coach. Upshaw joined former NBA player Cedric Jackson and fellow G League vets Renaldo Major and Mac Koshwal to help secure a league championship by season’s end.
“Coach Woolpert has been so inspirational in my life, especially in the last six months. He allowed me to join his team and we secured a championship. He’s helped me succeed. He was my guy in Los Angeles,” Upshaw said. “He knew who I was there and understood what I was going through. He still took a chance.”
Following such success, he has a revitalized spirit and is more dedicated to showing scouts he’s on his way back up.
“I haven’t been around in the spotlight the last two years or so. I’m coming off a really good season in Lebanon. I’ve gotten better every year. I was at [the 2017 Worldwide Invitational]. I wasn’t taking it seriously. I wasn’t interested,” he told RidiculousUpside.com. “But as I’ve matured, my focus is to run the floor, block shots, and be a good teammate. I’ve always been a high energy guy.”
Beyond the glitz and glamour of being a professional athlete are the negative temptations that accompany such a lifestyle. Upshaw wouldn’t go into specifics, but alluded to the fact that while he’s righting the ship, such temptations are still there, nonetheless. He’s focused on not turning down that road again.
“This was my third year as a pro. I was in so many situations where things could have gone wrong. But I’ve learned and have changed things. I didn’t have a good attitude last year,” he said. “Sometimes you take things for granted, but life is full of opportunities and you never want to pass up on them.”
While his friends and former competitors fought for NBA gigs, Upshaw dominated his smaller stage across campus. He used his physicality to rack up easy buckets inside, maintained strong position on defense, and looked like a man among boys.
With three seasons of pro ball under his belt, he’s more equipped in his athletic prime than ever. While the potential for an NBA career boasts a higher ceiling, Upshaw’s success overseas has given way to more stable earnings. After averaging 7.3 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks in 15.6 minutes through 28 games, he displayed promise before his minor league ousting in 2015-16. The G League still has a way to go in increasing its salaries. Even so, Upshaw’s success came well before the progressing income amounts and two-way contracts. One could argue that he would have been motivated to head overseas at that point anyway. Perhaps everything worked out for the best.
“I’ve made a lot of money overseas —- more than most people dream of making. But that doesn’t matter. The game of basketball is about leaving your heart on the floor,” Upshaw insisted. “When I started playing overseas, I began making triple the amount of money I was making in the G League. But that’s because you get what you put into this experience. I was changing.”
At the same time, the potential for an NBA future and the lost opportunities to this point may still haunt him. Upshaw is hungry for more and eager to build upon his progress. He believes he’s more of an NBA player in 2018 than he was coming out of college as a potential draft choice. League sources tell RidiculousUpside.com that despite his terminated contract he could return to the G League, if the league wants to open its door and Upshaw chooses to take that avenue again.
“I was at the lowest point in my career [with the D-Fenders]. “I changed my attitude and my energy. When things were going well, I was at a high level,” he said. “But I lost myself along the way and now I’m getting back to that previous point.”