Published: October 4, 2013
Dan Nwaelele was about as far from his NBA dream as possible, three years removed from the Air Force Academy and spending six months in a war zone.
"There are no scouts in Afghanistan," Nwaelele said.
But here he is now, a guard practicing in preseason training camp as a member of the San Antonio Spurs. And as a bonus that would make him the envy of any long shot trying to crack an NBA roster, he gets to practice for four days on what was once his home gym.
"I've played here for five years," Nwaelele said. "I kind of know the gym and how to shoot the ball in here a little bit. Hopefully it works out."
Nwaelele earned his shot after playing in the NBA's Developmental League last year, averaging 7.4 points and 18.3 minutes as a reserve for the Santa Cruz Warriors.
At Air Force, Nwaelele averaged 14.3 points as a senior and left as one of the program's most accurate shooters with a 42.6 3-point percentage and 83.4 free-throw percentage.
Nwaelele graduated in 2007 and served on active duty until May 2012.
As a contracting officer in Afghanistan he had about 200 teams underneath him that would go outside "the fence" to purchase necessities that Nwaelele would outline. He would then audit the transactions.
It's not the G.I. Joe image some might have of a war zone, but Nwaelele said it was certainly enough to keep his mind off of basketball.
"You've got to think about surviving, obviously," he said Tuesday, "just being alert all the time."
Now, Nwaelele can think only about trying to prolong his basketball career. To do it would mean making the cut for one of the most consistent winners in major American sports over the past few decades.
At least he's got the advantage of sharing an Air Force background with Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
"I thought he deserved a shot to play with these guys and see how he does," Popovich said. "He's a fine young man and he's a hard worker. He's paid some dues and we'll see how he does."
Nwaelele practiced in front of the Air Force men's basketball team on Tuesday night, which gave coach Dave Pilipovich an opportunity to show his players what could be waiting for them one day.
"It's pretty neat to see him in a Spurs uniform," Pilipovich said. "Obviously there's a very small percentage that would have an opportunity like Danny to play - maybe like a Mike Lyons from last year. So it is neat that they have those opportunities, but they know why they're here."
Lyons also attended practice on Tuesday evening. He's serving as a basketball coach at the prep school and is nearly fully mended from a knee injury suffered near the end of last season.
This is Nwaelele's first trip to Colorado Springs since an alumni game in 2008. He took in all the sights he could on the way in, reminiscing about doing pushups in the end zone of the football stadium as a freshman and many other things he hadn't thought of in years.
He even fell back into an old habit of setting his alarm at a familiar time.
"I woke up at 6:30 today to catch breakfast," he said. "So some things haven't changed."