Before Robert Upshaw had his D-League contract with the Los Angeles D-Fenders terminated today for a violation of the league's anti-drug policy, he was still optimistic about his prospects of turning his career around.
"I feel like my success is still to come," Upshaw told Silver Screen and Roll last weekend. "I'm just trying to change the perception of who I am now."
After violating a third organization's drug policy, it's unlikely that perception is ever going to change. Upshaw expressed a desire to prove his doubters wrong with his play on the court and by being a good citizen with the team, but it now looks like he will get to do neither.
Upshaw's season and road to the NBA was a bumpy one, but it's a story he wanted to finally tell in his own words, starting with his time at Fresno State, the local college he chose to attend in order to stay closer to home. In the end, Upshaw regretted that decision.
"I'm a hometown kid, everybody knows me, so I thought it would be cool and I thought it would be fine to have a little fun and go on about my business and have a good experience, but I kind of took it to another level," says Upshaw. "I tried to be normal, I tried to be like everybody else. Like be a normal student, and go to parties, and have fun."
"I wanted to party because growing up, my parents were so protective of me, and they went everywhere I went, I had 9 o'clock curfews as a senior, and I didn't really get to experience it ... I was immature, I wanted to have fun. I wanted to experience my college experience."
That desire to experience student life led to Upshaw's first positive drug test and his dismissal from Fresno State, where he says he never felt fully supported.
"I just felt like they didn't really care, they didn't really care to help me there, and that's just where it fell off, and what really tore my relationship with the head coach apart," said Upshaw. "I take full responsibility for my actions with that. I can't blame anybody else. But one thing I can say is that they weren't any help. So for them to try and speak out, and talk about some things, they have no right to. That's how I've always felt. They have no right to say anything."
As difficult as things ended at Fresno State, Upshaw's recollection of his time at the University of Washington was much more positive. When speaking about his head coach, Lorenzo Romar, Upshaw's tone turns reverential, and it was clear he regretted letting him down with his failure to stay clean.
"I got to Washington, fresh out of Fresno State, and you know, I was dealing with some problems but being the great man that Lorenzo Romar is, he broke his back for me," recalls Upshaw. "I stepped all over his back. [He helped] me get to a point where I was able to manage again, to be able to work hard and focus. I was locked in. And he helped me with those problems."
Despite this support, Upshaw was unable to fulfill his end of a contract he signed with Romar and the school the summer before to stay away from the off-the-court problems he ran into at Fresno State.
"I lost sight of the ultimate goal and everything that we were working toward and I kind of just had an off day," said Upshaw. "That was a big downer because everything I had worked for was crushed because of my one mistake."
"So I was removed from there. That was one of the toughest ... second to third toughest thing that I've ever had to do in my life was that, because I really felt home there. I really felt good with Romar, I really felt good with the team."
Even taking into account the difficulty of being removed from a second school he enjoyed attending and being pushed away from a coach he clearly still respects, Upshaw said nothing could hold a candle to the adversity he had to overcome during his pre-draft process, which began promisingly enough.
"I went to San Diego to seek some help [and] good mentors," remembered Upshaw. "Bill Walton was really key. I got to go sit down in his house, and sit with him and talk with him for like four hours. Just about the process and everything."
"Once I finished with that, I got to pre-draft in Santa Barbara, with BDA, my former agent Bill Duffy and his staffing agency. We were down at P3 in Santa Barbara. It was just up and down. I had worked that whole time to put myself in a position to be successful in Summer League."
Upshaw's work was all undone when pre-draft evaluators discovered a heart issue in one of his numerous medical examinations. The health concerns brought about by this left him unable to work out for teams, or work out at all.
"I was running from hospital to hospital doing heart tests, and getting opinions, and all this, so I wasn't doing much of anything," describes Upshaw. "So I just kind of fell off. I kind of expected to still appear at the top, but it just didn't work out like that."
The heart issue was found to be benign, which left Upshaw optimistic he would still be drafted. Instead, he would tune in to hear sixty names called on draft night, none of which were his. It was another setback for Upshaw in a career full of them, who would now have to attempt to make an impact in NBA Summer League despite only getting in "four or five" workouts in before draft night. This left his own body as both his literal and figurative biggest obstacle to making his NBA dreams come true.
"I was overweight again," says Upshaw. "I wasn't in shape to play. The three days before we went out to Las Vegas and started playing, I trained, but I mean that didn't really do much for me."
In a career that may end up becoming defined by promise in small sample sizes but without true consistency, Upshaw again had a few notable sequences in Las Vegas but, due to the conditioning issues he acknowledges, he was unable to play for more than a couple of minutes at a time.
The Lakers still liked what they saw enough to bring Upshaw into training camp in Hawaii, an opportunity he was excited for, once again describing how he lost 25 pounds going into the preseason. Even with the weight loss,Upshaw was ultimately one of the team's last cuts. It was widely reported at the time that Upshaw was let go for a lack of work ethic, something he disputes.
"I worked hard during that process. Came in every day. I outran the bigs. For the most part I was running with the guards," says Upshaw. "I blocked Kobe's shot like three times in one practice. Like I said, that doesn't mean anything, granted, but I just felt like I had a really good showing at training camp. I feel like I put in 110 percent effort, and I do feel like I was snubbed. I do feel like I'm able to play, being able to be put in the right places and work with guys that are all on the same page, I do feel like I would be able to be successful."
Upshaw even claims to have seen the reporting of his lack of putting in extra work and received denials that it was true from the team.
"I actually took that to Mitch Kupchak's office after training camp, and I sat down with him and Byron, and I got it straight right after training camp. I came into the office, and it was just like 'most of these reports say Mitch Kupchak and the Lakers organization,'" recalls Upshaw. "And he was like 'whoa, whoa, whoa, Robert, that's nothing we said, nothing we speculated, those are all speculations because you didn't make the team.'"
"I don't remember getting talked to, I don't remember Mitch Kupchak going on the record and his words coming out of his mouth or Byron Scott doing it. I remember some reporters giving every reason in the book why I didn't make the team."
"It was off of speculation," Upshaw continues. "I came in running with the guards in sprints, the stuff I couldn't make in Summer League practices I was destroying in training camp practices, and I worked hard. I put it all out there, and that's my honest opinion. That's honestly the way I feel. I feel like I put it all out there and left it all on the table, and not being able to take care of things off the court I feel like plagued that."
Multiple observers of Lakers training camp disputed Upshaw's account of events, with the consensus being that the original reporting about his lack of extra work was accurate.
After the Lakers cut him, Uphsaw says he agreed to play out the year with the D-Fenders rather than take offers overseas because of the better prospects of an NBA call-up.
"The D-League, it's okay, but I had a lot of debt built up, [from] going and getting help and stuff like that after Washington, so I had to get those things taken care of," says Upshaw. "And I knew going into the D-League I wouldn't get much help [financially], but I was going to stick to it, play this one-year, potentially be with the Lakers, you know just finish out the full season, get the experience, workout, you know three months, three-and-a-half months before Summer League and just go out there and put it all out on the court."
Just like at Fresno State, the University of Washington, and the Lakers' Summer League and preseason rosters before it, Upshaw had strong games and even stretches of play with the D-Fenders. But ultimately the pace of play was never the best fit for a player his size, and when speaking to Silver Screen and Roll last weekend after mostly falling out of the D-Fenders' rotation, Upshaw did not sound content with his relationship with the coaching staff.
"First thing's first, coaches are always right, regardless of whether they're wrong, regardless of whether they're dead wrong, just flat out, just don't know maybe what they're talking about, but coaches are always right," says Upshaw when asked about what he described as miscommunication with coaching staff.
"But besides that, no, there's no frustration at all. You see me on the bench during the games, I'm up dancing, winning or losing, swinging towels, getting my teammates into it. That's what I do. I mean we're winning games! There's no frustration," said Upshaw, before allowing "there definitely would be frustration if we were losing games."
Upshaw was seemingly able to stay positive most of the time around his teammates, and no one around the D-Fenders had anything negative to say about him. And even if his relationship with the D-Fenders coaching staff was strained at times, he had nothing but positive things to say about the help the Lakers organization had given him both before and after cutting him in the preseason.
"One thing that's been really great about the Lakers organization is that I've had a lot of the Hall of Famers, and the vets, and the guys in the back room around, and they're very [generous with their time]," says Upshaw. "They've intervened when I'm in there working out before practice or something. They'll intervene and we'll go through drills building repetition and consistency with moves and working."
Upshaw described working with legends of the hardwood like Bill Bertka and James Worthy during practices and beamed about the opportunity to talk with A.C. Green (who works as the D-Fenders' color commentator) before games. Upshaw expressed gratitude for the tutelage, especially the advice he received from Worthy.
"He kind of told me 'look how much money you've lost already. You lost money before you even got to the NBA'" quotes Upshaw. "He just kind of said from the things that I was doing ... that doesn't define who I am. What I did before doesn't define who I am."
Still, it evidently wasn't enough to keep him from once again falling prey to the same demons that plagued him during college.
Last weekend, Upshaw told Silver Screen and Roll that he had a desire to finally sit down and go on the record and tell his story. "My name has been kind of drug around even though it's just all talk," said Upshaw. "Nobody's gotten to know the real me or at the very least tried to put a full story together."
That full story may be told now, both by Upshaw's positive drug test and his canceling and then declining further interviews. Last weekend, Upshaw explained why despite his setbacks and describing his D-Fenders stint as his "last shot," he was still optimistic about turning his career around by saying "I've got nothing but time, Harrison. I got nothing but time."
Basketball is secondary now for the troubled but talented seven-footer, and at just 22-years old Upshaw is right about having plenty of time, should he get the help he needs.
When reached, the D-Fenders declined comment at this time.
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