Impossible dreamer

The Lakers had just finished their first practice of the season and, one by one, all the big names disappeared into the locker room.

Steve Nash. Dwight Howard. Even Kobe Bryant, who ranks among the hardest workers in the game.

Only one man remained on court after they had gone. His body stretching to a perilous 7 feet 1, his long face framed by black hair and a beard, Ronnie Aguilar shot a steady progression of jump hooks.


When that was finished, he asked a trainer to run him through footwork drills that looked like something out of “Riverdance.”

“I’m just doing my job,” Aguilar said. “I want to show these guys that I belong.”

The 25-year-old center from Cal State Dominguez Hills had arrived at the team’s training facility with the intention of earning a spot on the roster. He said: “I know how hard I’ve worked to get here.”

But his chances appeared slim from the start. Passed over in the NBA draft, he had spent the previous year playing minor league ball and working out on his own -- “schools, city parks, wherever” -- in hopes of being noticed.

Three weeks ago, the Lakers signed him to a short-term contract as a “training camp invitee.” That was the polite term for it. Aguilar and his ilk are also known as “camp fodder.”

From the first day of camp, Aguilar showed up early to stretch, lift weights and shoot on his own. Preparing his body was only part of the challenge.

The new guys had to learn plays and terminology used by a team that plans to run a version of the complex Princeton offense this season.

“The first few days, they threw a lot of things at the rookies,” Aguilar said. “We were like, ‘Wow!’ ”

NBA teams carry a maximum of 15 players during the regular season. That is not enough to fill out a month of preseason drills and two-a-day sessions.

General managers bring in extra bodies to serve as opponents in practice, saving wear-and-tear on the starters and top reserves. These invitees tend to be young and eager. As Lakers assistant Darvin Ham explained: “There’s no one hungrier than a man who needs a job.”

Coach Mike Brown occasionally pulled Aguilar aside to explain finer points, wanting him to “pick up little things here and there that will make his game better in the long run.”

By week’s end, the rookie found himself going toe to toe with Howard. During one drill, he slid across the lane and stole a lob pass from Nash.

Other times he drifted out of position or rushed his shot. There were scrimmages when he lingered on the sideline with the rest of the invitees -- including former UCLA star Reeves Nelson -- watching as veterans got all the court time.

Another big rookie, Robert Sacre, fared significantly better. The second-round draft pick gradually earned more minutes by impressing the coaches with his consistent play.

“I try not to worry about it,” Aguilar said. “I’m just doing what they ask.”

It helped that Pau Gasol, a veteran Laker, gave him advice. And that fellow invitees offered encouragement.

Aguilar stayed after practice each day to shoot free throws and work with Ham on his post moves. He usually left about 7 p.m., exiting through a gated parking lot that safeguarded Ferraris and Porsches.

With no car, he walked down the street to a hotel where he had just enough energy to eat dinner alone, then watch TV in bed.

“I’m not really focused on anything else,” he said. “Just eating, sleeping and basketball.”

Determination had always been the best part of Aguilar’s game. He was a gym rat -- the kind who never stopped practicing -- and this tenacity fueled a boundless optimism.

“I’m not thinking about getting cut,” he said. “My goal is to make this team.”

But there was another reason to go all out: During the early weeks of camp, the Lakers allowed scouts from other NBA clubs and Europe to watch practice, sitting courtside on metal bleachers.

If Aguilar couldn’t make the team, one of them might be interested in a 7-footer who towered above the jumble of shooting guards and small forwards. Any pro contract would be a step in the right direction for an athlete who, by his own admission, had struggled through “ups and downs more downs.”

The son of Central American immigrants, Aguilar grew up in a tough neighborhood near downtown. He nurtured his love for the game at Marshall High.

“Ronnie was coordinated, but he couldn’t pick up his feet to save his life,” said Rod Tange, the retired Marshall coach. “He’d be running down the floor one way and the play would be going the other way.”

Under Tange’s guidance, the teenager improved enough to earn a scholarship to Colorado State.

Injuries marred his first two college seasons and, when the coach who recruited him was fired, a new staff brought in new players. Aguilar knew it was time to leave after getting into an argument with a teammate who pulled a gun on him.

With his eligibility running out, the best option was to return home and enroll at Dominguez Hills, which competed in the less-prestigious Division II. Coach Damaine Powell demanded that he focus on defense and rebounding.

“I told him that if he wanted to play in the NBA someday, that’s how he’d make his money,” Powell recalled. “He took a lot of abuse because people figured a 7-footer playing in our division should be scoring 50 points a night.”

Aguilar came around as a senior, helping the Toros to their best season ever. But his statistics were nowhere near impressive enough to get him drafted.

The Bakersfield Jam of the NBA Development League signed him for a few weeks in December.

After that, he played at recreation centers and playgrounds, anywhere he could find a decent pickup game.

There was no giving up. Like many athletes, Aguilar had conditioned himself to ignore doubt.

“All successful people have difficulties,” he said. “It only makes you stronger.”

His lucky break came last summer when he met former Lakers assistant Rasheed Hazzard at a barbecue in Marina del Rey. Hazzard became his personal coach and got him invited to off-season workouts at the Clippers’ training center.

Former UCLA star Mitchell Butler agreed to serve as his agent.

“He’s got size and skill, and he doesn’t have a huge ego,” Butler said. “I put him in front of a few NBA teams.”

The Lakers offered a per diem contract worth about $10,000 if Aguilar lasted for the duration of camp. He called it “a dream come true for an L.A. kid.”

It did not matter that the Lakers opened their preseason schedule in Fresno, far from the NBA’s bright lights.

It did not matter that the locker room at Save Mart Center was too small for 20 players, forcing Aguilar to dress at a folding chair by the bathroom door.

“Man,” he said, “all I’m thinking about is getting out there and playing hard.”

But when the game against the Golden State Warriors began, Aguilar remained at the end of the bench. Actually, the bench wasn’t long enough, so he sat on the floor.

More than three quarters passed before Brown looked his way. Aguilar stood, stretching his legs, then headed onto the court.

In those first moments, he took an entry pass and shot a quick hook. Airball. At the defensive end, he fouled a Golden State player.

“It’s hard after sitting all night,” he said. “I felt kind of stiff.”

There were nice moments -- a solid pick and an assist on a nifty pass -- but when the buzzer sounded, Aguilar walked off the court with his head down. Gasol stopped him at the bench.

“Don’t worry about it,” Gasol said. “Just keep working.”

But things did not go much better in the next games against the Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz.

While Sacre continued to flourish, Aguilar lingered at the bottom of the pecking order, playing scant minutes, recording a grand total of three points and two rebounds. He remained in camp only because the Lakers needed big bodies, with Howard limited by off-season back surgery and Jordan Hill nursing an injury.

Coaches wanted him to think of each day as a gift. Brown said: “The guy’s going up against Dwight Howard in practice. He’s got to be learning something, right?”

But as time passed, his hopes of making the team dwindled. By this week, with roster cuts looming, Aguilar had begun to consider an alternative ending to his fairy tale.

Maybe a team in the development league would give him a shot. Or maybe -- like so many other camp players -- he would end up overseas.