The Greatest Minor League Basketball Player Of All Time Spent A Career Forgetting His Dream

The Greatest Minor League Basketball Player Of All Time Spent A Career Forgetting His Dream

Illustration: Elena Scotti (G/O Media), Photo: AP

Sitting in front of his locker at the Staples Center that night in January 2007, Renaldo Major hesitated. Earlier that day, the 24-year-old guard had signed a 10-day contract with the Golden State Warriors before promptly making his NBA debut in a road game against the Clippers, scoring five points and swiping two steals in 27 minutes off the bench. As he undressed, he thought about the moment’s significance: subbing in for Matt Barnes midway through the first quarter, he picked Sam Cassell’s pocket and then drew a charge on the 14-year veteran.

Major sloughed off his jersey, and for a moment, he considered taking it home. Stealing it. Of course he had dreamt of making the NBA, but really, it was his father, a Chicago police officer, who wanted most to see his son mixing it up with the world’s best. Major had already accomplished his main goal—he wasn’t a DNP. He was officially a part of the NBA—“in the books,” he says. But he thought how much the jersey would mean to his dad, and how easy it’d be to casually fold the No. 12 dark blue uniform into his bag and slip out into the L.A. night.

Eventually, though, he tossed it into the Warriors’ laundry bin. I’ll make another NBA team, he thought, and it won’t be on a 10-day contract. “And when I get a real jersey, it’ll be mine forever,” Major told me this past spring, recounting his first—and only—NBA game.

In the 12 years since that game, Major has had open heart surgery, and several years later emergency jaw surgery after a teammate sucker-punched him during practice. Major has also scored more than 5,000 points in the NBA’s Developmental League (now called the G League, for sponsorship reasons)—the most of any player, ever—and is the most successful player in that league’s existence. But he never went back to the Show. Never got another shot. Never another chance to get a real jersey.

“That man was supposed to be in the NBA,” says Corey “Homicide” Williams.

Williams was Major’s teammate on the D-League title-winning Dakota Wizards in 2007, and according to the streetball legend, Major “was the toughest one-on-one defender I’ve faced. I called him ‘The Detective,’ because he solves ‘Homicide.’”

“Renaldo is the ultimate competitor,” says Andre Ingram, who spent years playing opposite Major before being called up to the Lakers in 2018. “He’d tell opponents, ‘Whatever you do, you guys won’t be able to stop me.’”

Major, a 6-foot-7 wing, seemed like a sure thing—a prototypical 3-and-D player with a defensive skillset to slow down high-scoring opponents while providing spacing with his ever-improving perimeter shooting. But that Golden State call-up in 2007 was his lone shot at the league, and instead, he became the ultimate basketball journeyman, someone so ingrained in the fabric of minor league basketball that it’s long been rumored that Major is the model for the current G League logo, which was unveiled in 2017. (According to the NBA, it’s a composite of random players).

Somewhere along his journey, which took him from Bismarck to Bakersfield, Canada to Mexico, and Indiana to Finland, he frankly stopped caring about returning to the Show—now 37 years old, Major just finished his second year with the Yakima Sun Kings, a founding member of The Basketball League, a minor league mimicking defunct organizations like the USBL and the CBA, with teams in such locales as Albany, Kansas City, and Mesquite, Nev. For anyone other than Major, playing in TBL would be scraping the barrel—a brief stopover on the way to retirement.

Major represented the U.S. at the 2011 Pan Am games.
Major represented the U.S. at the 2011 Pan Am games.
Photo: AP

But Major isn’t chasing a dream anymore. He is well aware of his importance to a league that is striving for relevancy and legitimacy, one that wants to be the “G League for the world,” as David Magley, TBL’s president, puts it. “There are tons of players that slip through the cracks, and we want to expose those players.” For Major, that translates to serving as a mentor to his teammates and others in TBL, those who still hope to some day crack an NBA or a EuroLeague roster. “There’s definitely a need for Renaldo Major in the league,” says Jaime Campos, the SunKings’ owner.

It’s a role Major embraces. “I tell them, ‘I’ve done all you guys want to do!’” he says. “I have the skills, and I am good at what I do. I’m not acting like a big head, but I adapt.”

This role also allows Major to further evolve his game, which he believes will enable him to keep playing into his 40s—it doesn’t matter for whom or in which city. He has told those around him that he has—at a minimum—two years left. The grind drives him now, instead of the dream. “When I was a rookie, my goal was to keep trying to make the NBA every year until I retired,” he says. “But I’m happy where I am, and my skills are still at my peak.”

In his first game of the 2019 season, the lone game he played for the Kansas City Tornadoes before being essentially loaned to Yakima for the remainder of the year, he scored 30 points with four steals and three blocks. According to those familiar with the transfer, Major initially wanted to play closer to his family in Chicago, but upon arriving, he didn’t gel with his new team. He then abruptly requested a return to the Pacific Northwest, a move with which both the TBL and the SunKings were more than happy to comply (neither Magley nor Campos would confirm any financial arrangement between both clubs, but as Major is the league’s most marketable player, there was a clear incentive to keep the star vet on the court to better draw crowds).

When asked, Major demurs, saying, “I don’t have beef with Kansas City, but it wasn’t the same. In Yakima, they are my real brothers, and any more years I have left, I’ll be in Yakima.” He then helped will the SunKings to its second consecutive title game appearance this spring (the team lost to Albany in a best-of-three playoff). And now, on the cusp of a third season in Yakima, Major is weighing whether he wants to return to TBL or step away from the game for a year, to better get his mind right for the final push of a pro career of nearly two decades.

Major believes he’s the best player he’s ever been. If his confidence had been at that level in 2007, he might’ve hung on in the Show. “I feel so good and so flawless on the court,” he tells me. “I don’t compare myself to Michael Jordan, but I’m from Chicago, and if Michael did it, I can do it. Dead serious with you. I’ve reached a level where I have no weaknesses. I wish I could have reached that level at age 26.”

Steve Green didn’t need to mince words. He had just been named the head coach at South Plains, a junior college 40 minutes west of Lubbock, Texas, days after the previous coach had abruptly resigned just five months on the job following an allegation that he had assaulted a player. Green was stuck in an unenviable position—the 2000–01 season was about to begin, and Green was having a come-to-Jesus meeting with his new players. As the team gathered in the locker room, Major recalls Green bluntly assessing their potentials: “‘You’re going to be mid-major. You’re going to be low-level.’”

As for Major, the coach “put me on a pedestal, and said I was going to be a high-level Division I player.” It was the first time Major considered basketball anything more than a game. He had played at Carver high school on Chicago’s South Side, but a tumultuous home life—his parents hosted foster children, and the four-bedroom apartment was continuously cramped with more than a dozen people—coupled with a lack of focus meant that shortly after graduating high school, Major saw just two options: get a job or join the Army. College basketball seemed out of the question. But now Green, who had been a DI assistant at Arkansas and Houston, was praising the skinny, long-armed guard. “Maybe I am that good,” Major recalls thinking. “Have I been cheating myself?”

When I called Green a few months ago, the coach, who is still at South Plains, didn’t remember that conversation—“it makes a good story, though”—but he did recall Major’s diamond-in-the-rough skillset. “He could do things a lot of kids had never even been taught. He could run tight curls, or take two dribbles, pull up and then elevate. He was so skinny that I didn’t think he could even guard me, but I came to appreciate his game, which was extremely athletic and quick.”

After two seasons in west Texas, during which Major averaged nearly 16 points per game and Green decided to hang a photo in the team’s dressing room of his wing unfurling his textbook jumper (“It’s still up, and it’s still the most beautiful shot I’ve seen,” says Green), Major transferred to Fresno State. The program was in disarray: following coach Jerry Tarkanian’s 2002 retirement, the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions was building a case that would ultimately result in a four-year probation and acknowledgement of rules violations during Tarkanian’s tenure. Incoming coach Ray Lopes didn’t have high expectations. He just needed as many bodies as he could find—“A mishmash of a team,” remembers then-assistant Bob Burton—and stumbled upon Major while recruiting a teammate at South Plains. “I knew he’d play a lot of minutes,” says Lopes, “But I was pleased to see how fast he grew.”

Still, those sanctions kept the team out of back-to-back NCAA tournaments, and even an all-newcomer nod from the Western Athletic Conference didn’t help Majors gain much pro notice. At that point, a 6-foot-7 small-ball 4 that could double as a 3 wasn’t all that enticing to NBA general managers.

“He was so skilled that he was a hard matchup, and because of that, he was ahead of his time,” says Burton. Major moved back to Chicago and set on working with his cousin at a Chevy plant when he received a call from the CBA’s Gary Steelheads, inviting him to training camp. “I was told that I had to beat out seven other people,” recalls Major,” all of whom were drafted, so I said I’d beat out everyone.”

Once a season ends, Major assesses himself, noting his ups and downs while critically considering his next move. He doesn’t ever have any set expectations on whether he’ll suit up for the same team again, or, given his experience with leagues of varying security, whether that team will even exist the next seasons. He only signs one-year contracts, and he enjoys the freedom of not knowing if the previous season was in fact his last. “I need time to think, and feel if my body can go again,” he says. Major typically waits until around Labor Day to make a decision. Only by then, he thinks he’s had the “time to get ready.”

The one constant is his training routine, which hasn’t varied for the past 14 years, abstaining from any sort of basketball during the summer. He’ll work out, but in the way that a 37-year-old works out, chasing his toddler around his central California apartment in between push-ups and calf raises. “No basketball games, no strenuous workouts,” he says. But once he signs that contract, “I push myself to the point where I can’t breathe.”

“I’m a basketball player—I can adapt to anything.”

Major throws it down for Team USA.
Major throws it down for Team USA.
Photo: AP

According to Ingram, Major’s workout regimen is intense but not wholly unique for a player of his age: “Earlier in my career, the season never ended. You always kept training, but when you play a while like we both have, you learn your body and what it needs, and you need that hard break.”

That sort of contractual freedom and asymmetrical training schedule explains why Major has spent much of his career in North America, rather than branching out and exploring what are frankly more lucrative opportunities overseas. Why he didn’t piggyback two successful seasons in Gary with stints in Israel, Turkey, or Abu Dhabi, and instead spent years in Sioux Falls, SD and Dodge City, KS. “I never wanted to go overseas,” he says. “People think the minor leagues aren’t as prestigious, but I’ve brushed shoulders with great people. I was born in America, and I want to play in America. I’m the first of my kind, and it gave me an identity.

“I would have made more money, but I wouldn’t have this legacy, so that when people hear the last name Major, it holds weight. I am always thinking ahead. Your career can end with the snap of your fingers, but a legacy lasts forever.”

What, then, is Renaldo Major’s legacy?

By the fall of 2007, relatively fresh off his tryout with the Golden State Warriors and an all-D-League first-team nod, Major was playing at his peak. He had been invited to the Denver Nuggets’ training camp, and according to Major, then coach George Karl called him the team’s “secret weapon.” “He’d tell me every day after practice, ‘The NBA is going to notice you,’” Major remembers. During a routine physical, though, the team’s doctor revealed that an aortic valve in Major’s heart was loose. The player asked whether he would need to take pills, not truly understanding the condition’s severity: “The doctor told me, ‘We normally don’t find out about this until people are already dead.’”

An open heart surgery was scheduled, and as the 25-year-old prepped for the eight-hour operation, he was optimistic that he’d quickly return to the Nuggets’ roster: “I was still young, so I just thought I needed to do whatever I could do to get back to the court.” It wasn’t that simple. Major recovered for nine months, and missed the entire 2007–8 season. And when he did finally pick up a basketball, he felt broken.

“I’d sit and cry with my dad,” Major says. “I wasn’t the same after the surgery. Certain plays I used to make, I didn’t have the explosion to get that steal anymore. It was hell. My body was getting older, and it would hurt when we’d be on the road in cold weather states. My chest would crack.”

And even though Major averaged 17 points and five rebounds the next season for the Dakota Wizards, the NBA had moved on. “Teams were scared of the risk after my surgery,” he believes. No matter what he accomplished from that point forward, no NBA team was going to sign a player with his health history. So Major adapted.

‘“The game is so easy to me now, which I’m thankful for because I can’t move the way I am used to,” says Major, during our last phone interview. “I play the angles more, and the ball finds me wherever I am on the court.”

Much of Major’s basketball career has been spent stringing together successes, of adjusting to the situation he faced, not the one he dreamed. A juco coaching change that led to Major first understanding his potential. A lack of draft interest allowed him to learn how to enjoy a limelight-less basketball career. A routine physical saved his life.

“I’ve just always adapted to whatever the team needed, whatever team I was on,” Major says. “You have to have the mindset to keep going through all the bad days, to see it all the way through. I was able to maintain, at times in which a coach could have easily let me go home. I’m just good at what I do—no matter my injuries.”

Like the broken jaw Major suffered in early 2017 while playing for the Reno Bighorns, the result of a sucker punch. The injury sidelined Major for the rest of the season, and for months into the offseason. Major had been brought in to mentor the team’s “young boys,” and an old head, a veteran who didn’t like Major’s hands-on approach, decked him from his blindside during a break in practice. “The middle of my jaw was cracked,” says Major. “My mouth was wired for six weeks, and then I took six months off.” When Major was rushed to emergency surgery, he says the oral surgeon told him that it was the worst break he’d ever seen, and as he recovered, Major experienced not only the aches of rehab, but also depression and vertigo—and, for the first time resentment. “I didn’t press charges against the Sacramento Kings [Reno’s NBA affiliation], and I could have made it ugly. I just thought I’d retire.”

Major in 2017 with the Reno Bighorns.
Major in 2017 with the Reno Bighorns.
Photo: AP

But then he was contacted by Paul Woolpert, the head coach of the newly formed Yakima SunKings with a proposition: take all the tools and lessons he’d learned from a decade-plus as a pro, and become the face of The Basketball League. “Paul told me to just come down and check it out,” says Major. “And I told guys from day one that I was here to lead, and compete every day, to win a championship and nothing less.”

Like Major, Woolpert had long coached in the D and G Leagues, bouncing between the NBA and its minor leagues, and he knew that his newcomer’s guidance could be a boon for teammates that will, whether they know it or not, have career tracks similar to Major’s.

To have a player like Major on a TBL roster was also a boost to the league, which has struggled to find its footing—the TBL has shed at least one team each offseason since launching in 2018. “He’s too old for the G League, which now ages guys out, but Renaldo gives credibility to our league,” says Magley, TBL’s commissioner.

Major isn’t sure whether he will return to the TBL for the 2019-20 season. Days before the deciding game of the finals last May, Woolpert was fired. (For financial reasons, his assistant coach and several players were reportedly advised not to travel to Albany for that game, and after Woolpert posted a message on Facebook asking for sponsors to pay the flight’s cost, figuring he might need those players off the bench, he was canned.) Major was tapped as the team’s interim coach for that title game, which has given him yet another unexpected potential branch in his career. Major is still mulling if now is the time to move into coaching, or if his heart is still on the court—according to Campos, Major’s spot on Yakima’s roster is guaranteed if he wants it.

(Whether Yakima even fields a TBL team in 2020 is another question: Campos, upset with the league’s direction, which included a reduction of eight games from each TBL team’s schedule, spoke with TBL commissioner Magley in mid-September, telling me that he has considered pulling the SunKings, which would effectively end the franchise. When asked whether there was a resolution, Magley confirmed the SunKings will play in 2020, but Campos was less sanguine—the SunKings’ owner said in a text, “Final decision has not been made…but [Magley] didn’t not [sic] provide me with any news to stay in the league.”)

Whenever Major does retire, it’ll be the end of an era that most basketball fans never noticed. The iron man of minor league basketball doesn’t mind that. “I’m never going back to the place where I was stressed, or looking for my next meal.”

Lost opportunities, career regrets? That’s for other people to worry about, not him. “It’s about these young boys. I’ve been playing for 14 years, and I keep track of all the valuable pointers I’ve learned to share. How to respect the game. How to deal with adversity. There are no older heads left anymore. I’m it.”

Matt Giles is a writer for Longreads, and he also freelances for several other publications, including the New York Times, New York magazine, the Washington Post, Bleacher Report, and FiveThirtyEight.