I’ll never forget the night I met “Sweet Lou” around midnight at a Shell station near my home in San Antonio.
He was ahead of me in line. We were the only two in the store and he had some kind of friendship with the clerk behind the counter. I kept hearing the man refer to him as “Sweet Lou” and then the clerk asked “Sweet Lou” how he thought his boys would do that year and Lou said, “We’ll be good. D’Antoni and Nash gonna work some magic.” That made me curious, so I did something I normally wouldn’t do—I followed the man to the parking lot.
He was about 6’3”, and somewhere in his late 50’s I thought. I asked him: “Did you play for the Phoenix Suns?” He smiled and the stories started. Evidently “Sweet Lou” played for Phoenix a few games during the Connie Hawkins era. His specialty? “I had a great ‘j’-I could hit from anywhere.” He showed me why his shot was effective—perfect form and a high release and high arc. “Most players today don’t know how to shoot at all,” he explained. “That’s basic basketball. All these guys today just want to be on Sports Center. All about dunking the ball.” He shook his head and frowned. “These kids today—they don’t know the fundamentals.”
“Sweet Lou” was a great shooter, so why didn’t he stick? Well, like most players, he had weaknesses. He admitted as much. His weaknesses? Well, to hear him explain it he didn’t take defense or instructions from the coach too seriously. “I was young and stupid. I didn’t care if my guy scored 15 on me because I knew I could drop 25 on him,” he explained. “And, coach would tell me to do something and lots of times I just did my own thing. I was a shooter. He wanted me to defer to the guys making more money with the bigger contracts. If I was open—I was shooting. Wasn’t going to pass.” Lou dropped 24 in one preseason game but sat on the bench the next. “Didn’t get along with the coach,” he said.
He blew out his knee in a practice game. His brief stint in the NBA was over. He tried to rehab and come back, but the quickness was long gone. “They didn’t have the ability to fix guys up back then like they do now. I could still shoot lights out.” This stranger talking to me in the parking lot explained how he then went overseas and jumped around from one team to another and kept playing, hoping to get back to the NBA. But that never happened. The legend of “Sweet Lou” was short-lived but his basketball career was not. He played until his body couldn’t play any longer.
He explained: “That’s what baller’s do-they ball,” he chuckled. We talked for about an hour—Well, he talked for about an hour. I just listened. I wondered as I drove off that night how many “Sweet Lou’s” there are out there in the world “Ballers ball.” Guys who love the game will keep playing, trying to make it to the NBA or play until their bodies won’t cooperate any longer.
Darius Washington is a baller. His journey is every bit as strange as “Sweet Lou’s” and the former Toro and Spur is still grinding, trying to get back to the NBA. Currently he’s playing in Puerto Rico for the “Pirates de Quebradillas”. Quebradillas is the city. Washington plays for the Pirates of Quebradillas (not the Pirates of the Caribbean). And, while Puerto Rico is geographically closer to the U.S. mainland than Europe, in NBA terms, European ball is a lot closer to the NBA than Puerto Rican ball. In other words, if the NBA is still the dream, it’s usually a better sign that a player is succeeding in Europe than Puerto Rico. Washington has played in Europe. He’s played in Greece, Czechoslovakia, Italy, Russia and Turkey, not to mention Austin and San Antonio. At 25 years old, Washington keeps balling, because that’s what ballers do.
Washington has been serious about basketball since he was a pre-teen. At the age of 10 he won his first national AAU championship. He was a star High School player at Edgewater High School in Orlando Florida. His senior year he played in a high school showcase game on ESPN. The sky was the limit.
Washington then signed his letter of intent to play basketball in college for the University of Memphis. He was an All-American as a freshman and Conference USA Rookie of the Year, averaging 15 pts and 4 assists per game. The basketball trajectory toward the NBA that had been set when he was ten years old seemed to be perfectly on track. Washington was playing as he always had—dominant. But his seemingly bullet-proof aura was shattered in one game. His story turned at the free-throw line of one game. Mention Washington’s name to fans of Memphis basketball and he is not remembered for his stellar prep career or how he produced at Memphis—he is remembered for this one incident.
In the 2005 Conference USA Tournament, in a game against Louisville, Washington had the opportunity to win the game (or send it to overtime) at the free throw line. Down by two with a few seconds left, he had three shots. A 72% free throw shooter, statistically, he would at least make two. Fans held their breath as Washington sank the first to pull the Tigers within one. Washington looked tight and tense at the line as he released the second shot. The fans groaned as he missed that second shot. The full weight of making that third shot was obvious on Washington’s face as he tensed up and the third shot rimmed out. Fans stared in disbelief. Guys like Washington come through in the clutch. They don’t disappear. Washington wasn’t the first star to collapse under pressure and he won’t be the last. But for Memphis fans, Washington is remembered for this—and for something else: A decision.
Washington returned for his sophomore year. He led Memphis to an Elite 8 appearance where the Tigers lost to eventual runner-up UCLA. During his sophomore season, Washington was named All Conference USA First Team and was an earned honorable mention All American by the Associated Press. Washington was still growing as a player. He needed to return for his junior season and continue his development as a point guard. He needed at least another year of experience, needed to work on his handle and on his floor generalship.
But Washington was confident he was ready for the Big Show and that he would be drafted, so he hired an agent and in doing so was declared ineligible to return for his junior year. The 2006 draft came and went, and Washington was not drafted. Every team passed on him. The 10-year-old national AAU champion, the 18-year-old high schooler playing on ESPN was now the 20-year-old with nowhere to go. Undeterred, Washington did what any baller would do: He balled.
Washington played summer league ball. He tried to land a spot on different teams during training camp until he was finally drafted by the Austin Toros. Still confident he had more to offer than toiling in the D-League, Washington signed with PAOK Thessaloniki of the Greek League. The stay was short. From Thessaloniki, Washington left PAOK and signed with ČEZ Nymburk in the Czech Republic League and led that team to the Czech title.
Back to the States. On August 23, 2007, Washington signed a contract with the Spurs and was assigned to the Toros in November. After less than a month of playing for the Toros, Washington was called up by the Spurs. His moment had come. The Opportunity arrived when Tony Parker went down with an injury. In 18 games with the Spurs, Washington averaged 3 pts, shot 43% in 8 minutes per game. Parker returned, and Washington was waived by the Spurs on December 28, 2007. So close, yet so far.
But remember: Ballers ball. Washington signed a 2-year contract with Aris Thessaloniki in the Greek League. He played one season for the team and was released.
Back to the U.S. Again. This time Washington lands in Chicago. He played for the Bulls in the 2008 pre-season but was waived before the season started. Another door opened. Another door shut. If Washington was listening to the voices from the NBA and from Europe, the message was clear: You have peaked as a player and are not good enough to play in this league—whether it’s the NBA or Greece.
But Ballers ball. After Chicago Washington landed in Russia. In October 2008, he signed with Ural Great Perm of the Russian Super League. The story doesn’t end there: In July 2009 he signed with Galatasaray Cafe Brown in the Turkish League. In April 2010 he signed with Lottomatica Roma of the Italian League and from there went to Puerto Rico. Washington is the quintessential globe-trotter.
And, along the way on this wild journey, Washington applied for and was granted Macedonian citizenship and plays for their national basketball team. In Macedonia he is known as Darius Vašington (Дариус Вашингтон in Cyrillic). Is all this clear now? At 25, Washington has, to borrow from Johnny Cash, “been everywhere, man.”
Why does he put himself through this? Why keep playing? Why doesn’t someone tell him “You had a good run, but you’re not going to make it to the Big Show. Come home. Settle down and find a normal 9-5 job. It’s over.” Simple: Even if someone were to tell Darius Washington ‘it’s over’—in his mind, it’s not. He’s one break away from getting one more chance which is all he wants.
And besides, he’s a baller. His body can still take the punishment and the passion is still there, so he’ll keep grinding. He does what he has to do, what all ballers do—he still believes and he still balls. I think “Sweet Lou” would approve.