BOWIE — Travis Hyman is used to the questions he has been asked ever since he showed up at the NBA's annual pre-draft showcase in Portsmouth, Va., back in mid-April.
“They'll say, ‘Where's that?' or they'll say, ‘Boise State', and I'll say, ‘No, Bowie State, in Maryland,'” Hyman said with a laugh as he sat in the school's gym one recent afternoon. “They'll say, ‘What division is that?' They'll look at me like ‘Oh, he's probably not that good.'”
Hyman, a 7-foot, 240-pound center who grew up in Annapolis and played at Old Mill, said he uses it as motivation.
“At the end of the day, when I play somewhere, they might not me know when I get there, but I'm trying to get them to know me when I leave,” Hyman said.
After finishing a college basketball career that began at Anne Arundel Community College and was nearly derailed several times by academic problems, Hyman is no longer under the radar. His performance in Portsmouth, and a subsequent one at a similar showcase last month in East Rutherford, N.J., has resulted in several more auditions leading up to the NBA Draft on June 28.
Hyman, 24, already has worked out for the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers last week. Corey Dean, Hyman's Florida-based agent, said there are also scheduled workouts with the Los Angeles Clippers and the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Despite averaging a little more than 10 points a game as a senior at Bowie State, Hyman has been called one of the “sleepers” among big men by NBA.com columnist and TNT analyst David Aldridge.He even made it onto a mock draft list as a second-round pick by the Los Angeles Lakers.
It is a long way from where Hyman started on the playgrounds of Annapolis, Glen Burnie and Baltimore, trying to emulate his big brother, Gerard, who played on a state high school championship team at Annapolis High during the 1989-90 season.
The younger Hyman didn't play organized basketball until his freshman year at Old Mill.
“I played but it was more for fun,” recalled Hyman, who averaged 8 points a game in high school.
It changed a little when Hyman had a growth spurt between the end of his junior year and the end of his senior year at Old Mill, shooting up eight inches from 6-4. He landed at Anne Arundel Community, but made it through only one semester before losing his eligibility. It was a pattern that continued for a couple of years.
Luke D'Alessio, then the coach at Bowie State, remembered Hyman from Old Mill and recruited him at Anne Arundel, where he once blocked 16 shots in a game. He saw Hyman's size and hoped to team him with Duke Crews, who had transferred in from Tennessee. But D'Alessio, the only college coach to offer Hyman a scholarship, knew that academics would be an issue.
“It took me two years to get him eligible,” recalled D'Alessio, now an assistant coach at Loyola. “He was immature and he didn't take it seriously. He had slipped through the cracks in high school but I always thought if he figured out the academic part he had a chance to be a pro. I had never seen a guy with the timing he had blocking shots.”
When D'Alessio told Hyman that he couldn't play his first year, Hyman said, “it kind of messed me up. I kind of slacked off. I said, ‘What am I here for, I'm here to play basketball. If I can't play basketball, what am I going to do now?' They told me if you don't have this amount of credits you can't play next year, that's when I really started to buckle down.”
Hyman said he is now “one or two classes” short of a degree in communications.
Like D'Alessio, current Bowie associate head coach Larry Stewart also thought Hyman had the makings of a pro.
“He can run like a deer, and his defensive presence is something that is very rare,” said Stewart, the former Coppin State star who played six years in the NBA and another 11 in Europe.
Stewart is credited by current Bowie State coach Darrell Brooks and Hyman with Hyman's development, but it wasn't easy. Along with the academic issues, Stewart said Hyman was hesitant to buy into the coaches' approach of turning him into more of a defensive star than an offensive one. The argument got more difficult after Hyman averaged 15 points a game as a junior.
“It was a lot of fighting with Travis — not physical fighting — but going back and forth, when you have new coaches coming in, you sort of listen to people who say, ‘You should be doing this…you're 7 feet, you should be able to score,'” said Stewart, who came in with Brooks. “My whole thing with him has been, ‘If you're trying to make money (as a pro) and that's your ultimate goal, then you have to change as a player.'”
There was also a question about Hyman's work ethic.
“You have to become a gym rat,” Stewart said. “Just because you're 7 feet, don't mean you're going to play in Europe or in the NBA. You're here in Maryland. There's 7-footers in Philadelphia, there's 7-footers in Virginia, South Carolina, Illinois, they're everywhere. There are basketball players everywhere. How are you going to separate yourself? A lot of these kids don't realize how good they are or that they can be good.”
Hyman began to realize how good he could be one night last summer, playing in a Goodman League game in Washington against a team led by NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant. Though most left Barry Farms talking about one of the Oklahoma City star's typical 50-point outputs, Hyman proved something to himself by scoring more than 40 and getting nearly 20 rebounds.
“Once I started getting better, I noticed a change in my game and how — I wouldn't say how easy it was — but the better I was playing against higher level competition,” he said. “It was something in me that day that I wanted them to know who I was when I left that court.”
Gerard Hyman, who was at the game, said “It was pretty wild. He was the only big man on his team and he was playing against Durant and some of these other NBA guys. He had a rough start banging against them, but as the game went on he started to make some shots and you could see his confidence go up. After the game, Durant went on Twitter and gave him a shout out.”
Hyman's growth on the court, where he also averaged 10 rebounds and five blocks as a junior, was mirrored by his progress off of it. The youngest of four siblings by 10 years and 14 years younger than his big brother, Hyman had trouble staying focused after his father was killed by a drunk driver when he was about to enter high school.
“I stayed in his ear and kept him away from a lot of things I had run into,” said Gerard Hyman, who had his own scrapes with the law as a young adult.
Focused on hoops
While he wouldn't mind one day being among the world's tallest ESPN anchors, Hyman's focus right now is on basketball. He has been working out several days a week with Rashawn Blakeney, a former college player and pro player in Europe who spent one year at Bowie State in the early 1990s.
“He's like a sponge,” Blakeney said of Hyman. “He's absorbing everything I'm teaching, so at the offensive end, he's become a lot more assertive. Teams really haven't seen his offensive ability. He's a great defender, he's very explosive. To me, I think he's a sleeper, especially offensively. He can do it.”
Along with the workouts, Hyman's growth also has been helped by watching as much basketball as he can — particularly big men.
“Honestly I watch the movement off the ball, find ways to better my game,” said Hyman, who has attended only one NBA game in person. “Of course I watch what they do with the ball in their hands. I try to pay attention to detail. When the games come on replay, I watch them too to see what I missed.”
NBA scouts who have watched Hyman play see an athletic big man who can run the floor and block shots. Blakeney said Hyman has made his biggest strides in the weight room. At the camp where the Nets and Houston Rockets invited 44 players to New Jersey, Hyman bench-pressed 185 pounds 17 times. Only one player did more repetitions.
Gerard Hyman said he is still amazed to see the progress his brother has made.
“He's come from a long way, dealing with life in general,” Gerard Hyman said. “To be honest, I didn't see it coming. It's shocking. But he's worked hard to get where he is. When I sit there and think about it, it puts a smile on my face.”
The next few years might be determined by the next few weeks. Though he is still considered a longshot more likely to start his career overseas than in the NBA, Hyman said of the workouts he has completed “I had nothing to lose and everything to gain.” As for where he might end up playing, Hyman is pragmatic.
“Wherever the best is for me,” he said. “If a team drafts me and tells me I have to go overseas first, I'll do it. I'd rather stay here and get the work in and prepare myself for a year or two with the people I'm surrounded with and will be surrounded with guys I'll be playing with, but I will do whatever it takes.”
In many ways, he already has.