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Entertainment Grizzled rookie was a long shot for the big time

“Just lettin’ it fly and not thinking too much.”

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andre ingram

(South Bay Lakers/YouTube)

Those were the words Andre Ingram said at center court after he easily beat Jimmer Fredette in the finals of the NBA development league’s 3-point contest in 2016.

Before this week, that contest, in which Ingram sank 39 of his 50 shots in a half-empty arena in Toronto, represented one of the high points of a long and consistent career for one of the mainstays of a league that rarely gets romanticized in the way that baseball’s minor leagues often are.

But after years of hard work, and a development-league record 713 career 3-pointers, “lettin’ it fly and not thinking too much” paid off when Ingram, at the grizzled-by-NBA-standards age of 32, was told on Monday that he had been promoted from the South Bay Lakers to the Los Angeles Lakers for the final two games of the regular season. He was in uniform for a home game Tuesday against the Houston Rockets and, according to Basketball-Reference.com, became the oldest American rookie in the NBA since at least 1964.

It is not hard to identify the differences between the 6-foot-3 guard and a typical rookie. His hair has more than a hint of gray, and he once took nearly an entire season off from the pro game so he could care for his first daughter while his wife finished her college degree. He has spent more time in the development league than all but one player in the league’s history, and as a result he becomes a rookie who is only six months younger than Chris Paul, the Rockets’ 13-year veteran point guard.

The icing on the cake is his having received a degree in physics from American University in May 2007. One of the injured players he is helping fill in for (Lonzo Ball) was in third grade at the time.

But no matter how unusual his circumstances, Ingram is trying to keep things simple, just like he did in that 3-point contest.

“They know me very well, they’ve seen me the last couple years, so they know what I do and they know how I play,” he said of the Lakers in a telephone interview shortly before the game. “That’s the goal: Be who I am.”

Ingram’s call-up comes at the tail end of a fifth consecutive playoff-less season for the Lakers, a team of promising young stars that is patching a roster together after a slew of injuries. But that hardly takes away from the fact that, after 384 games in the NBA’s minor league and a brief stint in Australia, Ingram is going to ascend to basketball’s highest level.

When the news came out that Ingram had been called up, Jeff Jones, who coached Ingram at American and is now the head coach at Old Dominion, immediately began receiving texts from a large network of former players and coaches, each of whom had come into contact with Ingram over the years. Jones said the group, which includes the NBA veteran Cory Alexander, was in disbelief that Ingram’s day had finally come.

“It couldn’t happen to or for a better person,” Jones said in a telephone interview. “I don’t think I could adequately describe what a quality human being Andre Ingram is, and has been, going back to when we were recruiting him when he was a high school kid in Richmond, Virginia.”

Kieran Donohue, who was an assistant at American before joining Jones at Old Dominion, raved about Ingram on and off the court, and summed up the group’s feelings in three words: “Everybody loves Andre.”

For two games, or a “cup of coffee” in the old parlance of minor league baseball, the Lakers will be treated to an aging gunner who owns a remarkable career mark of 46.1 percent from 3-point range (Stephen Curry’s career mark is 43.6 percent). Ingram, who developed into a shooter at the pro level after having been a more traditional scorer in college, can be streaky, but he has a tendency to catch fire from outside, as evidenced by his win over Fredette in that 3-point contest in 2016 — which included a stretch of hitting 13 consecutive 3-pointers.

Ingram’s other statistics have been fairly modest, but he said he should not be labeled as just a shooter.

“If we get some daylight we’re going to let it go,” he said with a laugh. “But if there’s too hard of a close-out I have the ability to make something out of that.”

Ingram will not be the oldest rookie in NBA history — that distinction most likely belongs to Pablo Prigioni of Argentina, who played his first NBA game at 35 years 169 days — but he is an anomaly even among his minor league peers, who tend to bounce from league to league, because he has stayed remarkably loyal to the NBA-run development league. His only professional experience beyond that league came in a two-game stint with the Perth Wildcats of Australia’s National Basketball League in 2016.

Jones said that he was one of numerous voices in Ingram’s life over the years encouraging the player to seek more money by playing overseas rather than in the development league. But Ingram’s persistence was something to be reckoned with and he believed staying as close to the actual NBA as possible was his best way of eventually playing in the league.

“He’s one of the most determined individuals that I’ve ever met,” Jones said. “This is the path he wanted to take, and he’s made it work for him.”

Now that he has finally realized his dream, Ingram is trying to enjoy the moment. The bigger thoughts on what this means for his career can come later.

“I’m most looking forward to just getting up and down a couple times,” he said. “After that, it’s basketball. Everything else is what you’ve been doing your whole life.”

But he did add that any thought of this being some sort of a career capper for him is unfounded.

“In no way do I look at this as the end of something,” he said. “Quite the opposite.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

BENJAMIN HOFFMAN © 2018 The New York Times

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