- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 6, 2009

One day in late June, Derrick Mercer received a baffling piece of news via text message. Kieran Donahue, one of his former basketball coaches at American University, told Mercer he had been drafted - not by the NBA or any other professional league, but by the Harlem Globetrotters.

Oh.

What?

“I was confused,” Mercer said. “I texted him back. I was like, ‘Huh? I don’t understand.’ ”

Mercer missed a subsequent call from the team, and the message did little to clear things up. He called back, but no answer. He knew of the Globetrotters, the world-famous ambassadors and entertainers of basketball for the better part of a century, but had no specific knowledge.

“I know them from doing tricks,” he said. “I thought, ‘How did I get to be a part of that? I’m not one of those guys that spins the ball on his finger.’ ”

Mercer himself was spinning. He didn’t know what to say or think - a point guard caught off-guard.

“I had no clue,” he said. “I had no idea what was going on.”

He went to the Globetrotters’ Web site and, sure enough, saw his name. The team conducts an annual one-team “draft,” and this year it picked Mercer among five players, including Oklahoma’s Taylor Griffin, the brother of Blake Griffin, the No. 1 pick in June’s NBA Draft. They also took U.S. national soccer team goalie Tim Howard.

At AU, Mercer was listed at 5-foot-9, but he’s really closer to 5-7. Because of his size and his modest college competition, no NBA team drafted him. He got only one free agent tryout, with the New Jersey Nets, and failed to land a spot on an NBA summer league team.

Adding to the long odds of a 5-7 guard making it, the sagging economy also hurt, said his agent, Matt Brown. Teams simply are spending less money to look at players. It’s been so tough that Brown’s connections haven’t helped. His father is Charlotte assistant Herb Brown. His uncle is Hall of Fame Bobcats coach Larry Brown, one of the biggest names in NBA circles.

“We talked to NBA teams about him, but it was a very competitive climate,” Matt Brown said. “Some teams didn’t even have summer league teams. There were large-group workouts, a very heavy point-guard draft, and those factors made it difficult. I spoke to a multitude of NBA people.”

Mercer still believes he can get there. Toward that end, his first choice is playing abroad.

“I want to go overseas and make a name for myself, hopefully have a good year and maybe attract some NBA scouts,” he said. “That’s definitely the dream. It’s been my dream since I was little, and I’m not gonna let up on it.”

Brown said he has contacted teams in Poland, Germany, Israel, Argentina and Turkey, and is optimistic. But, again, the economy has had an impact.

“Everything’s happening at a much slower pace,” he said. “Budgets are way down.”

Meanwhile, Mercer said he is open-minded about the Globetrotters and plans to attend their tryout in New York on Aug. 11.

“It’s a great opportunity,” he said.

All this started when Brown brought Mercer to the attention of James Ryans, a legendary figure in the New York City summer league circuit. Among those coached by Ryans over the years were former and current NBA players Mark Jackson, Anthony Mason, Mario Elie, Rafer Alston and Washington Wizards guard Mike James. It also happens that Ryans is the Globetrotters’ head personnel man, which Mercer did not know at the time.

After returning home to Jersey City, N.J., with a degree in audio production, Mercer got to spend more time with his 3-year-old son, Julius Isiah.

“I’m working with him on his dribbling already,” Mercer said. “It looks like he’s gonna be left-handed.”

He also traveled across the river to play for one of Ryans’ teams and immediately flashed the skills that helped fuel an AU basketball revival.

Ryans thought he had a potential Globetrotters player.

“We need a short little guard who can push the ball and make shots,” he said. “The big thing about him is that he has good penetrating ability on the dribble, and he finishes. And he can pull up and shoot jumpers. He can create shots. With the Globetrotters, we like athletes who can finish, make shots and make good decisions.”

‘Short little guard.’ That’s Mercer. But he also has a rock-solid body. He earned Patriot League player of the year honors in 2009 by running the Eagles’ offense, playing solid defense and showing all the intangibles coaches love. AU coach Jeff Jones liked to describe Mercer as a “throwback.”

“He’s got all the necessary skills, but he doesn’t do the flashy stuff,” Jones said last spring before the Eagles lost to Villanova in their NCAA tournament first-round game. “He makes the play that needs to be made. And he is extremely competitive. That, I think, is his biggest strength.”

Now based in Phoenix as Harlem Globetrotters International Inc., the organization has experienced several ownership changes and incarnations during the 83 years since Abe Saperstein founded the team. Its popularity has waxed and waned during changing times. They even started playing “real” games, and more than one team plays under the Globetrotters umbrella. But the comic antics and dazzling basketball skills - the flair, showmanship and sense of fun - remain intact.

If he ends up with the Globetrotters, Mercer, who returned to the District on Sunday to play in Georgetown’s Kenner League, will have to show some of the flashy stuff. Ryans said 40 percent of the games are “competitive basketball.”

Mercer can handle that; it’s the other 60 percent he needs to work on. He might even have to learn to spin the ball on his finger. As tough a competitor as he is on the court, he is generally laid-back off it.

“He’s not the most talkative person,” Ryans said. “That will come.”

Otherwise, Ryans said, Mercer fills the bill.

“The Globetrotters is family entertainment,” he said. “I want people with integrity. We won’t jump on anybody who gets into trouble. We want people who are self-motivated. When you get on that tour and get on the bus and get on the plane to get to the next city, you’ve got to be driven, motivated. Every day.

“Our creed is: ‘The Globetrotters want to entertain people every day to the maximum.’ Whether a player has a headache or a backache or whatever, he’s got to play with a smile.”

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