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Noel Felix: My Tribute Piece

I'm not sure how interested people will be in this piece, but I had to include it. I learned more about the underground business of basketball in two days with Noel Felix than I ever imagined. Wish the guy good luck.

When the Sonics honored Noel Felix’ request to be waived yesterday it was fairly small news on the basketball court. Felix, a player who at best would have slid into the #12 or #13 spot in the rotation. Perhaps injuries or a breakout season would have propelled Felix to a greater impact, but most likely his loss has little influence on whether games are won or lost.

On a personal side however Felix will be missed. I cannot claim to have known Noel well. We spoke a few times and developed a quick friendship in Salt Lake City during his stint with the SuperSonics summer league squad. During that period however I was struck by his intense knowledge of both the game and the business of basketball. Felix epitomized the type of “professional” basketball player whose lives are rarely documented and clearly underappreciated. A blue collar worker surrounded by superstars Felix struggled to achieve a dream as well as provide for his family. I found Noel and other like him to be fascinating.

There are players like Noel Felix at the bottom of nearly every roster. Former High School and College superstars who know that athletically they are far superior to any common person they meet, but possibly just a hair short of what is needed to make it on the NBA stage. Noel knows just about every one of these players. Walking with him through Salt Lake City was like attending a political rally with an aspiring candidate. Each and every person in the room was a friend to Noel who advised that he has known the ball boys at SLC’s Delta Center since they were toddlers. He shifted gears smoothly from hanging with a collection of players, almost entirely black and in their early twenties to discussing the business of basketball with coaches, general managers, and various other corporate attendees. In almost every case there was a story behind their relationship. He would say things like “That boy was my point guard in a Pro-Am league in Atlanta”, “That dude was an assistant coach for my CBA team but now he’s a scout for the Nets”, “That girl’s cousin was in my dorm at Fresno State.” as he methodically worked the room with a sincerity that was really amazing.

Player like Felix, Mike Wilkes, and all the other camp invitees deserve more credit than they receive because their story is so fascinating. Like many of his friends and colleagues Felix has never had his own apartment or car, he is too busy shuttling about city to city in pursuit of his NBA dreams. Over the last several years he has been shuttled off at his agents request to hotel rooms in locations as varied as Salt Lake City, China, Italy, Souix Falls, The Philippines, and now Israel as he has participated in various leagues, camps, and interviews along the way.

When talking about NBA it is extremely easy to stereotype the people involved and Felix is no exception. A product of Inglewood High School on the South side of Los Angeles it would be easy to stereotype Noel as a person whose idea of culture consists of rap music and gangster tattoos. Nothing could be further from the truth and to some extent basketball, along with a strong family and religious faith deserves a lot of credit for broadening Noels horizons. On the other extreme people associate the NBA and basketball professionalism with the “star” players they see on the news on a daily basis. Players with incredible wealth and a lifestyle unlike anything most of us can imagine. What fascinates me more than either the gangsters or the stars are the professionals like Felix. These athletes carry an enormous burden as they compete for one of the most prestigious jobs in the country. At 25 years old Felix, almost entirely on his own accord was responsible for navigating the tricky NBA culture, policing his own work ethic, and making career decisions with incredible stakes. Consider that had he made the Sonics roster this year his base salary would have been in the range of $640,000. A close call could easily relegate him to the CBA where last year’s base salary of $28,000 barely pulls him above the poverty line.

I find it amazing that, in the age of reality TV and people’s obsession over individual stories and struggle that more attention is not paid to the working class culture of semi-professional athletes. Behind the scenes these young men and women are shaped and molded under intense pressure and face long odds for survival. Many will spend their entire formative years chasing the dream, donning NBA uniforms each September only to wind up finding work as a construction worker as they approach their thirties. They will be chewed up and spit out by a process they cannot control. Others will broaden their horizons as they chase financial rewards overseas and still others will see the dream come true like NBA players Bo Outlaw and Charles Oakley.

I hope that Noel Felix realizes his dreams. In the meantime I’ll settle for the wonderful story that he represents.

See you soon brother.