Vander Blue has one goal: to stick with Lakers
G League MVP gets his first training camp invite in four years with franchise
MIAMI — It’s midmorning, and the sky is angry and dark. It’s trying to give way to light, but the early traces of a tropical storm headed this way prove a worthy foe. But the light is remarkably resilient. Patches across the sky open up and the light breaks free with abandon. Dark curtains give way to giant puffs of white cotton against a blue canvas, bringing the ephemeral light. But they close as quickly as they open.
Bulbous drops of rain crash into the swimming pool far below and disappear into the choppy water. The blue-green pool water rises and cascades over the clear glass walls of the pool. The man in the water, face grimacing, muscles aching, struggles against the turbulence. He is causing the chop that’s being used against him.
The exquisite struggle high above continues. Then the light finally succumbs to the dark swirls, the sky empties and walls of water cascade. His struggle just got tougher, more uncertain. He’s used to this.
Vander Blue, reigning G League MVP, the South Bay Lakers’ all-time leading scorer and often described as one of the best players not in the NBA, is on the brink of his dream and at a crossroads at which he always knew he would arrive.
“I’m done with that D-League stuff,” he said.
Blue is adamant that he’s played his last game in the development league. Asked whether he thinks he could repeat as G League MVP, his answer is as quick as the lightning strikes touching down in the distance.
“I’m not going back. I’m a Laker.”
The 6-foot-4, 200-pound slasher, undrafted out of Marquette in 2013, is not quite big or long enough and has a suspect outside shot, the scouts say of his inability to stick.
But earlier on this August day, Blue signed a partially guaranteed contract with the Los Angeles Lakers that ensures him the opportunity to prove he’s worthy of a permanent roster spot. Beginning his fourth year with the storied franchise, this fall marks his first training camp invite.
“He had a terrific summer for us, so that’s why we’re bringing him in to camp,” Lakers head coach Luke Walton said of Blue’s play at the Las Vegas Summer League. “But he’s still gotta make the team.”
So under the turbulent summer skies of Miami, Blue put his head down and embarked on a thrice-daily workout regime that he hopes will have him in the best shape on the team by day one of training camp, which starts Sept. 26, significantly improving his chances and rescuing him from life on the fringe.
He’s turned down seven-figure offers to return abroad, smiled when his D-League roommate got called up, fought off the fear and frustration that come bundled with rejection, all to suit up for the only NBA team for which he’s ever wanted to play.
“I feel like I’m closer than I’ve ever been,” said Blue. “Everything I’ve done brought me this far. I’m close. I can see the light.”
As the water rocks him like a corkscrew, trainer Haseeb Fasihi runs him through a series of drills with various large rubber bands: yellow, green, blue and black. The darker the color, the more resistance the band provides.
“You ready for Poseidon pulls?” asks Fasihi. “Three sets, let’s go.”
Blue comes to the edge of the pool and Fasihi hands him the end of the yellow rubber band, the longest of the four. Sticking his arms out straight, he moves them across the front of his body from left to right and holds for 10 seconds once his hips have fully rotated, which tests his core and obliques. Next he stands in the middle of the pool and explodes out of the 5-foot-deep water as high as he can. He’s got three sets; instead, he does five. After high-stepping the length of the 30-foot pool, it’s time for the dreaded thick black band. He places the 6-inch band around his ankles and sidesteps the entire length of the pool and back three times.
“Hate pool workouts,” he cries in anguish after the last rep of his last set. His hands are on his hips, and his body is burning. “But watch me come down the lane! I’m gonna put it on somebody!”
Blue starts to jump up and down, splashing about with a huge grin. “You’ll see!”
The pool is in the backyard of a 10,000-square-foot white marble mansion that sits behind a gate along a cozy section of Miami Beach’s ritzy Golden Beach, where residents live behind 10-foot hedges and have their own private slice of beach. The house is being rented by Cleveland Cavaliers forward Jae Crowder, Blue’s former Marquette teammate.
After the pool workout, Blue heads past a waterfall and into a cavernous all-white foyer that merges into a living room with 30-foot ceilings and a maze of staircases with an M.C. Escher vibe. In the center of a room there are several white leather pieces of furniture, including an ottoman the size of a merry-go-round.
His best friend Darrell Williams, an NBA hopeful who played with the Golden State Warriors’ summer league team, is in the kitchen washing dishes. Six-foot-eight and lean, he’s quick with a joke or motivational quote, and their chemistry is easy. The Atlanta rapper Lil Duke, Young Thug’s protégé, arrives, pulling luggage, and quickly makes himself at home.
Blue lies down on a carpet between the furniture as Fasihi stretches him, one of three times today, for 15 minutes. Baltimore rapper YBS Skola’s “Shinning” is blasting from speakers behind the bar connected to Blue’s iPhone.
He stares up at the ceiling so far away as his quads are being worked. He thinks about his contract, his impending membership into a club his famous friends have belonged to for years. A baller in the center of all this glam. It’s a stunning backdrop.
But it is an illusion.
Blue isn’t much of a morning person, but the sweet air off the Pacific Ocean would help wake him up, so he didn’t mind walking. He’d usually get up around 9 a.m. at the Residence Inn in El Segundo, California, where he stayed. He’d slam the door to Room 111 behind him and make the sunny, nine-minute, half-mile walk to the Lakers’ practice facility in time for treatment before practice. But first he’d stop at a breakfast joint called Farmer Boys and plunk down $7 for a Daybreak Sandwich — 750 calories of sausage, bacon and eggs on a bun — and a bottle of water and polish it off on the way up Nash Street.
At the gym he’d get in 20 minutes of stretching since his muscles were naturally tight, with particular focus on his back. Then a quick lift and shots before practice. He’d hit the cold tub afterward and then get more treatment.
“He’s the type of guy who’s in the trainer’s room even if he doesn’t need treatment,” said South Bay Lakers head coach Coby Karl. “He just likes being there.”
Then usually at 4 p.m. it was back down Nash Street for a pit stop at Popeye’s or Chipotle before heading home to FaceTime his mom, Rita Blue, and play NBA 2K, FIFA or Call of Duty until the NBA games came on. After he’d fire up old-school ’hood classics such as Paid in Full, Belly and Friday.
Blue earned a G League salary of just under $22,000, so he had to be extremely frugal to make it last. He managed his phone bills and bank account with apps on his phone. He didn’t have his own apartment (the team covered his hotel room) or own a car, so there was less temptation to drive all over town and spend money — which, thankfully for him, made gas and insurance bills nonexistent. Uber became his transportation of choice.
While he was in the back of a Prius, his NBA brethren would tool around in $250,000 exotic cars. To fend off the jealousy and envy that can come with being in such close proximity to peers who have so much, he conditioned his mind to simply not want for anything.
“It’s never been about money,” he said. “I don’t play just to get those kinds of things. I don’t really like to drive that much anyway.”
When he was a high school freshman in Milwaukee, a relative loaned him a beat-up Chevy Malibu. He told himself he never wanted another car until he could afford it himself. But if he’s ever able to, he thinks he might get a Porsche 911.
As a 17-year-old playing for USA Basketball’s U18 National team, he roomed with Kyrie Irving. The pair became good friends, and Blue honors that friendship by wearing only Irving’s signature model shoe in games. Sometimes he gets them from Irving, and other times he buys them himself from Foot Locker.
He’s as into fashion as any high-profile NBA fashion plate who has his own line and is able to employ a stylist. But he has to operate on a strict budget, which he says he prefers.
“I’m not the kind of guy who needs $1,000 jeans,” he said. “I just buy cheap jeans. I’m good buying the cheapest sweater, so it doesn’t matter. The cheaper it is, the more swag I can give it.”
His one indulgence is the occasional foray to Mastro’s Steakhouse in Beverly Hills, California, where he’ll spring for a well-done steak (“I’m scared of that blood. I ain’t a tiger.”), mac and cheese and sweet corn. That’s his life for now, so even the $50 per diem on the road can help.
He wants to get a dog but thinks he’ll wait until he has a nice place with a yard. He had three pit bulls in high school: Goldie, Rosay and Dough Boy. (He’s allergic to cats — if he touches a feline, his eyes seal shut.) He’ll pay down some credit cards and put some money away. Maybe pump up his sneaker collection.
“I’m just going to save,” he said. “I know how quickly things can change. My mindset about money is still going to be the same.”
He wants children, but that will have to wait, he said, until he’s more financially secure and can give them the life they deserve.
“I want to spoil them,” Blue said, “but right now I’m still dream-chasing.”
The Mandarin Oriental Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip, with its gold and glass trim, is a towering ode to Vegas’ showy opulence. On a 111-degree Tuesday in July, future NBA stars milled about in the lobby like kids on a high school campus. Stars such as Ben Simmons, Brandon Ingram and Markelle Fultz casually passed one another while heading out to lunch or returning from shopping.
Blue sat in a nearly empty third-floor restaurant called MOzen Bistro that overlooked the activity. He reflected on his journey.
“When I was young, I used to get upset and worry about the numbers game,” he says of his early professional days. “I’d worry about who’s on a roster and who got called up. I’d say, ‘Why not me? I’m better than him.’ But that leads to a bad attitude, bad body language, bad days. When you have a guaranteed contract you can have a bad day, but in the D-League you can’t afford to even have one bad day. Very risky to have a bad day.”
He had made a decision: There was nothing left to do in the G League. He wouldn’t go back. Blue was nearing a significant and dreaded milestone on the journey of a hopeful. In six days he would turn 25. At that age, the likelihood of sticking with an NBA team drops significantly.
While rookies and 19-year-olds with ceiling-high potential get the benefit of the doubt if they play poorly, summer league can be perilous to someone in Blue’s position, particularly with an MVP award under his belt.
But Blue had long since let go of the things he couldn’t control. He developed a motto: Don’t Eliminate Yourself. He made sure he was always presentable and on time. He didn’t go out in Vegas. Hardly socialized. Took special care to keep his social media clean. No cuss words or negativity. Definitely no Instagram pictures from the club. Don’t eliminate yourself.
“If you don’t produce, they’ll just look right past you,” says Blue. “At this stage, you probably won’t get another shot.”
For Blue, this was it.
Things started badly. In the second game of the summer, Blue was effectively benched and played just three minutes. He sat on the sidelines with a worried look, trying to be aware of his body language while seething inside. In the locker room afterward he was never given a full explanation.
Back at the Mandarin Oriental that night, he paced in his hotel room as his girlfriend, a Los Angeles native from a family of boxers, tried to soothe him.
“I was shook, I can’t lie,” Blue recalls nervously. “I’m fighting for my career and I’m not even playing?”
After a bout of restlessness, he decided to head to a local Las Vegas high school at midnight to get up some shots and burn off some nervous energy. He and Lonzo Ball, who quickly developed fine chemistry on and off the floor, ran through a dozen drills with an assistant before returning to the hotel around 2 a.m.
Blue saw Ball in his workout gear the next day, only to learn Ball had gone back to the gym in the morning.
“That’s when I knew I had to put in even more work,” said Blue. “If a rookie puts in that much work? That just motivated me even more.”
“It was just me pushing him and showing support,” said Ball. “He’s a great player and can really score. I told him to just be himself.”
After the pool workout on his first day in Miami, Blue heads for Gibson Park Recreation Center downtown for a two-hour practice with Williams, former Los Angeles Clipper Branden Dawson (a college teammate of Draymond Green’s) and onetime McDonald’s All-American and former North Carolina point guard Dexter Strickland. The workout, devised by Fasihi, is competitive, intense and exhaustive. Blue strolls onto the floor with a purple shooting sleeve sans shirt and his beloved Kyries on his feet.
Underneath the basket next to a chair on the floor is a dog-eared, yellow college-ruled notebook labeled “Physiology Notes” leftover from Fasihi’s days as a human behavioral major at Central Florida. There are a dozen pages of drills scrawled in pen. There’s an old three-ring binder from his time at IMG Academy with sample practice session details, all the way down to the five-minute water breaks.
After some warm-up stretching, suicides and full-court ballhandling drills, it’s go time. The pace is furious as Fasihi coolly barks out both encouragement and direction. Crossover to finish. Between the legs change of direction. Behind the back to pull up. Stutter-and-go step-backs. In-and-out to pullups. Off-balance left-hand finish. Hesitation in transition. Finish strong after backdoor cut.
The most entertaining drill of the session is an alley-oop drill where Fasihi stands in the middle of the lane and bounces the ball to the rim, with each player going after it and finishing with the dunk. After each slam the player sprints along the baseline, touches the corner and comes in for another attempt. Blue throws down his first three attempts. By the eighth he can barely get the ball over the rim.
The day’s workouts complete, Blue and Williams jump in a rented Audi and head up Interstate 95 back to Golden Beach. Ten minutes from home, Blue wants to take a detour to a nearby Publix grocery store to hit the Western Union and do some grocery shopping for the week. He fills out a form with a pencil and returns with a small stack of crisp $100 bills. He grabs a lime-green grocery cart with a wobbly front left wheel while he and Williams discuss taco fixings.
“This ain’t my lane, but I ain’t gonna starve,” says Blue.
The list of items grows as Blue scoops whatever strikes his fancy into the cart. Soon they’ve hit nearly every aisle and the cart is overflowing, making it hard to turn.
This list is complete: flour tortillas, 90 percent lean ground beef, chopped iceberg lettuce, frozen chicken fingers, turkey kielbasa, white cheddar popcorn, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, loaf of whole-wheat bread, six Gatorade Frosts, two pounds of cut watermelon and pineapple, a green drink, two Mandarin orange fruit cups, six alkaline waters, Golden Oreos, a gallon of orange juice and 30 grade A eggs.
“This should last about a week,” Blue says matter-of-factly. He begins unloading his items onto the belt. The total comes to $163.77. Blue peels off two of his new hundreds and hands them to the cashier as Williams heads out the door talking on his phone.
“You owe me a bean and we’ll call it even,” Blue calls out to Williams.
Back at the car, Williams talks on the phone as Blue struggles to find room in the trunk. He takes his Lakers gear bag and throws it on the ground.
“Why you not helping me?” asks Blue, annoyed.
“Bro! When have I not helped you in six years?” exclaims Williams. “I always help you.”
“But you’re just standing there,” Blue snaps back. “I don’t know what’s going on.”
“If I’m not helping you, don’t you think that something is up?”
“I don’t know what you’re doing. You just standing there. Are you going to help me?”
“Yes, bro, f—!”
The argument is loud and perplexing, and it escalates quickly. Williams gets in the front passenger seat after the bags are loaded. Blue wheels the green shopping cart across the shaded lot to an empty parking space, partially to regain his cool.
Back in the car the mood is awkward for several blocks until Blue’s barber calls to say he’s waiting at the house. They make fun of his eccentricities, and the mood has returned as if the argument never happened.
“Sometimes I have my ways and I have my days,” Blue says sheepishly.
“Bro, why are you like that?” replies Williams.
They laugh it off. It’s how these best friends apologize.
Williams looks at his phone.
“I gotta fly on Monday,” he says. He’s got a tryout with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“Next Monday?” asks Blue.
“You better not come back,” Blue replies.
“What do you mean?”
“Be so good they won’t let you leave.”
Vander Lee Blue II’s NBA career has consisted of exactly five games, 89 minutes and 27 points. And a mountain of uncertainty.
“The toughest part about the D-League is never knowing when your break will come,” Blue laments. “It could come tomorrow. It could come next year. It’s the unknown.”
Two weeks after the 2014-15 D-League season ended, Blue was in Dallas visiting his mother. He got a call while playing video games at New York Giants wide receiver and kick returner Dwayne Harris’ house nearby.
“Need you on a plane now,” said Blue’s then-agent Happy Walters. “Lakers called you up. You’re gonna play against Kings tonight.”
He didn’t have time to pack and wore the same clothes for two days straight. When he arrived in Sacramento, California, he signed a contract in the airport terminal for $20,000 to play in the final two games of the season before Lakers security whisked him to the arena. Time was so short he had to use inactive Wayne Ellington’s jersey after the team slapped on a crooked “1” next to Ellington’s “2” just in time for tipoff.
But his biggest break to date came by signing his current deal for a shot at the big show. After Blue’s benching in Vegas, he exploded to average 20.2 points in the final four games, drawing raves for his ability to get to the basket, clutch shooting and good attitude while playing an integral role in leading the Lakers to their first summer league title.
In the postgame celebration he stood at center court, positively beaming, swallowed by his teammates with the championship trophy held high above his head.
“It felt like a movie,” Blue says dreamily. “Just like I was on my way. It was perfect.”
It was his 25th birthday.
To watch Blue is to see the delicate ambient flicker of a dream. But the light is remarkably resilient.
“I’m not going to play like a 15th man. I’m a Laker, and I’m going to be one until I excuse myself. I’m destined.”
For Blue, there is only light.