SMAA Is The New “Hoop Dreams”

Nate Miles was stabbed in the chest nine months ago and both of his lungs collapsed. He hasn’t played competitive, organized basketball since.

Dave Johnson lost a starting spot and a captaincy over a coaching change as a college senior, and was left with only one post-collegiate opportunity at a Chicago camp. He’s still waiting on a call three years later.

Kwan Waller went overseas looking for a job during the NBA lockout, the worst possible time. He plans to tryout for the NBA’s D-League for the first time this fall.

And Jon Solomon spent his college career fuming at the end of his school’s bench. On senior night, he got in for 30 seconds in a blowout.

You could say SMAA, which stands for Self Motivated Athletic Agency, was built on the backs of underdogs. That’s true. But it was also built on the game’s ugly undercurrent: there are deserving players everywhere who aren’t getting a shot. The game nowadays is all fucked up. You need a name to make your game. It used to be the opposite. At least now we have someone, something, to set it straight.

This is a new Hoop Dreams.

“What we’re doing, we’re not limiting it to two people,” Solomon says. “We’re limiting it to anybody who wants to try to make it, who’s willing to sacrifice their lives. That’s what these players do when they come to Philadelphia, they sacrifice their lives with workouts and coming on these trips to try to make it.”

Solomon started his agency, SMAA, as a business plan at Full Sail University. He didn’t realize how big it really was. It was just an idea. But he did know he wanted to pursue it. Anyone who asked, he said, Yes, this is going to be serious. This is something I am actually gonna do.

Solomon loved the game. He played and practiced all the time. He learned from Sam Rines, the same AAU coach who taught Kobe and Rip Hamilton. He hooped in the legendary Sonny Hill League. Then, he ended his career sitting on the sidelines behind lesser-talented players. Between his own misfortunes and those of his friend Jason Hall, the only three-fingered basketball player in the world, Solomon thought the game needed a spark.

There were too many guys around the country with ability but no opportunities. There were too many players getting by on a name rather than talent. Players were getting picked off a resume rather than actual production. Solomon decided to create an agency for the players like him, the underdogs looking to beat basketball’s politics.

“This is the barrier that we are working slowly but surely to break, and I think that’s the main aspect of the story, of the business,” Solomon says. “And it takes time.”

After starting his agency, Solomon began bringing in players to Philly to workout. Some drove 12 hours to be there. They’d sleep on the floor at his father’s house (who’s also been a huge SMAA financial supporter), sometimes six or seven at a time, and they’d all get up at 4 a.m. and head over to the local World Gym to workout. No sponsors. No money. That’s how it all started.

Then people began taking notice.

Anthony Collins, who’s a mentor for Solomon, and Collins’ father, a former coach at Virginia State, liked what they saw, and started directing players like 6-11 Lester Ferguson, a former Robert Morris player, to Solomon. They introduced Solomon to Gary Hughes, who knows Kevin Durant‘s brother, Cliff Dixon.

SMAA eventually connected with U-Hoops.com, a networking website for players. They provided the players; Solomon provided the exposure.

Solomon also met Sid Sharma, an up-and-coming basketball engineer from Arizona (profiled in Dime #68) who specializes in athletic training.

Eventually, SMAA went on basketball tours and trips to Spain, Las Vegas, Mexico and China, where they started making a difference.

By traveling to play basketball across the world, clubs could see their talent in person. Ferguson landed a job playing in Mongolia. Brandon Siskavich, a 6-8 Division III prospect out of Potsdam State, is close to getting a deal in Spain’s fourth division. Kwan Waller, a former D-II player at Kentucky Wesleyan, got a gig with a Mexican team. Even Aundra Williams, who played no higher than JUCO, is getting interest from a team in Lebanon.

And on Sept. 7, SMAA is leaving for a long tour in China. Solomon is bringing everyone from Miles, once thought to have NBA potential, to Tyreek Graves, who, while talented, only played in high school.

“I think guys are going to start to come off the board more and more quickly,” says Solomon. “I think it’ll slowly but surely put a change into the way the game works. But everything takes time.”

To make the next step as an agency, SMAA needs a well-known player. Enter Nate Miles. You may know him as the former 5-star recruit who was caught up in a recruiting scandal at UConn. Now after spending time in the Premiere Basketball League, Miles is taking the trip to China to test himself. He was recently stabbed in the left side of his chest, right above his lung. At first, doctors weren’t sure he’d make it, and Miles was on a breathing machine for a week. He spent nearly a month in the hospital as both of his lungs collapsed. It cost him an overseas opportunity.

For the last couple of months, the 6-7 swingman could only run up and down, and didn’t play anywhere besides a few local summer leagues. Now, he wants to let the world know he can still play.

“I’m going to go out here and play my ass off so after this, the doors should open back up for me,” Miles says.

Miles has no clue how Solomon even got his number. But the two connected almost immediately because they love the same things, and both understood each other: helping you will help me. SMAA is about helping talented players who fell through the cracks. No one personifies that more than Miles.

“What excites me about a guy like Nate Miles is he has a name,” admits Solomon, “and being able to revamp his career is something that can put SMAA really on the map to not only help Nate, but provide opportunities for other guys like Kwan, Dave, Lester.”

Miles agrees.

“All I gotta do is put the work in,” he says. “I think the sky is the limit as long as I put the work in and just keep my head straight and don’t worry about nothing but basketball.”

Dave Johnson had years to worry about how basketball could help him, or rather, how it didn’t. In college at Southeast Missouri State, he says he averaged 12 points a game as a junior, started and was a captain. He was a 6-4 athletic monster who played nearly every position.

Then new coach Scott Edgar came in, and benched him.

As a senior, Johnson played four minutes a night, and grew so frustrated he asked himself why he was even playing. Even the school president felt bad.

“He knew I was getting screwed,” Johnson says. “He knew it, the fans knew, and it wasn’t like I was the type of player to digress. I was always a hard person in the weight room, at practice, classroom, everything. I don’t know. I couldn’t tell you to this day what happened.”

He went through a lot over the next three years. Now, he’s on his way to China with SMAA, and doesn’t plan on coming home without a job.

“They’re really progressive,” Johnson says of the Chinese. “They love the game of basketball. I know for a fact I can impress somebody out there.”

This could finally be his break. Solomon thinks so.

“Dave is one of the most athletic guys you’ll ever see,” he says.

China has its own politics. But if they see exceptional talent like Miles and Johnson, they’ll show interest. The fans, who don’t get to see Americans often, will pay money to come to the games. The Chinese clubs can sell 10,000 tickets for a game against 10 players from the United States. The trip will benefit everyone.

Kwan Waller knows this as well as anyone. While he is using this China trip as mostly a way to gain exposure and game film before he tries out for the D-League this fall, Waller did get a past job through a trip to Mexico with Solomon. He knows the benefits, and knows what SMAA is all about.

The 5-11 point guard first met Solomon while at school in Kentucky. Not surprisingly, they connected in a gym, and clicked from day one. They shared the same dreams, and were relentless in their pursuit. After Waller spent two up-and-down years at Kentucky Wesleyan, he reconnected with Solomon and SMAA. Now, he’s been with the program as long as anyone.

“I try not to go into anything expecting too much because nothing really goes as planned nowadays, man,” Waller says. “I’ve learned to just learn and get better. We’ve been progressing along. I got my first job overseas in Mexico my first year out of school. It took a year, and I think that’s progress for having no looks coming out of school.”

Looking ahead to the future, no one is quite sure what SMAA has. There’s some talk about a reality show. There are possible plans to move out to Arizona to collaborate with Sharma for their own gym space and facilities. There are also possible trips to the Philippines, Brazil and back again to China to play a few NBL teams. But as Solomon says, “Everything is talk until the flights are booked.”

Ultimately, the goal is to secure a season-long worldwide schedule, so all the underdogs can make their name using their game. For the immediate future, everyone is excited about going on tour in China. They’re hopeful it goes so well some of them get a job and don’t even come back.

Either way, 16 months in, and SMAA’s Hoop Dreams are just getting started.

“When you are pursuing a dream, you gotta be willing to make your moves in any way you can to get there,” Solomon says. “That’s the biggest thing with what we’re doing. These guys are willing to make any move they can to try to better their opportunities.”

Have you ever had politics keep you from making a team?

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