Sharpshooter Bader aims to prove he belongs in the NBA
It’s an early-February Horizon League game between Oakland and Milwaukee, and the Grizzlies’ Travis Bader, en route to an appointment with the NCAA record book, is perfectly executing a play his coach, Greg Kampe, learned from the great Chuck Daly.
The play is called “Atlanta.” Kampe can’t remember the year, maybe 1984, maybe ’85, he asked Daly, then in the early stages of building the two-time NBA champion Detroit Pistons, for a set that could get shooters open 3-pointers. Daly suggested one he’d seen used many times by the Atlanta Hawks that could be run high, along the free-throw line extended, or low, along the baseline. The goal is to set staggered screens to give a shooter a second’s worth of breathing room from a defender so he can squeeze off a 3.
There’s no telling how many times Kampe, whose Oakland teams have always used the 3 ball to good advantage, have run Atlanta over the years. But Kampe knows exactly how many 3-pointers Bader made at the end of that set in his four-year career—72. Just for kicks, Kampe watched film on every shot Bader took.
It was Bader, not Kampe, who called the play.
“It was baseline out of bounds,” Bader said. “Just four across high. I’m sprinting and coming across two staggered screens. When the ball went out of bounds, I looked at coach and signaled the play, and he was in agreement with it.”
“He went, ‘Atlanta?’ and I said, ‘yep, run it,’ ” Kampe said.
As the play unfolded, Bader sprinted by the first screen, set by 6-foot-10, 260-pound Corey Petros. The second, set by Joey Asbury, did the job, giving Bader a split second’s separation from Milwaukee’s Steve McWhorter. Oakland’s Kahlil Felder, spotted Bader as he was heading to the right corner behind the 3-point line and hit him with a perfect inbounds pass. McWhorter did well to catch up to Bader and contest the shot, but it was too late. Bader rose, fired, and the ball went through the net for his 458th career 3-pointer, breaking the NCAA record set by Duke’s J.J. Redick (2002-06).
“I knew right away that the shot was going in, and that I’d done it [set the record],” Bader said. “There was joy, happiness, but at the same time, relief that it was finally behind me, and I could focus on other things.”
Redick’s record had figured to stand for a while after the NCAA extended the 3-point line to 20 feet, nine inches in 2008. That Bader was even on a Division I roster, let alone able to smash Redick’s record, is one of the best stories in college basketball in the last decade. Oakland was the only Division I team to offer a scholarship—even military school The Citadel wanted him to walk on. Bader could walked on at Michigan State, where his father, Richard, was Tom Izzo’s director of basketball operations, and become that guy—the beloved walk-on that fans clamor for at the end of blowouts: “Bader. Bader. Bader.”
Because Izzo had known Bader since he was a little boy dribbling down the hallways of the Michigan State basketball offices, perhaps Bader could have built a slightly larger role than that. But he didn’t want to take a chance of languishing in obscurity. He wanted to go where he could make his mark, to defy the expectations of those who said he couldn’t play Division I basketball.
But D-I wasn’t Bader’s ultimate goal. His ultimate goal was the NBA, which he told anyone who would listen, to their utter disbelief. Even teachers, paid to encourage and support, dumped on Bader’s dreams.
“I actually wrote a paper in middle school Language Arts class,” Bader said, laughing at the recollection. “The teacher said to write about your career goal, but to be realistic. I wrote that I wanted to play in the NBA, and when I got the paper back, I had a pretty bad grade on it. At the top, the teacher wrote, ‘this isn’t realistic.’
“I guess I could see that. I was a short kid, 13 years old. But I thought she was going to critique my writing. Instead she critiqued my dreams.”
As Bader proved once he found a Division I school that would actually pay his way, critiquing his dreams only served to make him mad and spur him to greater heights. Sometimes, when he thinks about how close he came to toiling away for a Division II school, or worse, sitting at the far end of Tom Izzo’s bench as a seldom-used walk-on, he can’t believe his good fortune.
Neither can Greg Kampe and his assistant coach Darren Sorenson. In 2009, when Bader was a senior at Okemos (Mich.) High School, Kampe was just looking for a shooter to replace Erik Kangas, who finished his career with 348 3-pointers on 861 attempts. The 3 is a major component in Kampe’s offense.
“We’re not some freak show where we shoot 500 3s,” Kampe said. “But every year we want somebody that’s gonna shoot 300 or more of them, so that the defense has to make decisions on doubling the post or not. We want a kid that, we hope can make 40 percent of them and take 10 a game.”
Sorenson got a tip on where to find the next Kangas, but he accepted it cautiously, because it came from Bader’s father.
“He kept bugging me: ‘you’ve got to look at my son,’ ” Sorenson said. “At that time we were looking at two or three kids who could replace Erik, including a kid from Clarkston (Mich.), Brandon Pokley, who was right down the street and ended up playing for Western Michigan.
“So I went to see Travis play. And the difference between him and Pokley was that Pokley looked like he’d already grown into what he was gonna be (6-4, 182). Travis’ dad said he was going to grow to 6-5, and that he works hard in the gym. So I began to think maybe the kid had some upside.”
And then one night, the first time Sorenson saw Bader play in a high school game, he made a play that sealed the deal for Sorenson. Ironically, it was not a deep 3-pointer with defenders draped over him.
“The thing that sold me is he went down the lane and dunked one,” Sorenson said. “I thought, ‘wow, he’s got a little more to him than we thought.’ I’m not going to tell you I thought he would be the best shooter in the history of the game. I just wanted to come close to replacing Kangas.”
Just as Richard Bader said, his son grew to a shade under 6-5, but he needed a redshirt season to gain strength. Even after a year on the sidelines, Oakland coaches still weren’t sure what they had, but Bader erased all doubts in his first game. The story will go down in the school’s basketball lore.
It was Oakland’s 2010-11 season opener, and the Grizzlies were playing at West Virginia, which was coming off a Final Four appearance. Oakland guards Reggie Hamilton—who would lead the country in scoring in his senior season—and freshman Ledrick Eackles, No. 1 and 2 on the shooting guard depth chart, were a minute late boarding the bus for the game.
“It was the first game of the year,” Kampe said. “If it had been 10 games in, I might have said, ‘C’mon Reggie, you’ve got to be on time.’ But it was the first game. I had to make a statement.”
The statement was to start young Bader, who scored 10 of Oakland’s first 13 points. “After that he never looked back,” Kampe said.
Bader made 94 3-pointers his first season, which led the Summit League, the Grizzlies’ long-time conference affiliation before they left last season for the Horizon. He shot 44 percent from 3, ninth in Division I. The number of his 3-pointers rose dramatically every season, from 124 as a sophomore, to 139 as a junior, and finally, with Redick’s career record in his sights, 147 in 2013-14. He finished with 504, a record that will be hard to break.
Was that gaudy number in part attributable to Kampe’s system? Of course. But make no mistake, Bader is a shooter, and best of all, he became one through hard work.
“People always ask me how did I get this incredible gift to shoot the ball,” Bader said. “There’s absolutely no gift when it comes to me and shooting. It was 100 percent hard work. When I was young, because of my size, I didn’t have the strength to get the ball to the rim, so I developed a little two-hand push. It wasn’t very pretty.”
Richard Bader, an old swim coach familiar with the importance of technique, took his son to the gym and forced him to shoot left-handed. “That was a little weird,” Travis Bader said. “I thought maybe he wanted me to become a lefty.”
“I just wanted him to focus on perfect form,” Richard Bader said. “And to be able to shoot with his off hand, he had to have perfect form.”
Bader’s high school coach Dan Stolz had a trick or two to try, as well, including making Bader wear a softball pad on his left hand so his left thumb wouldn’t come anywhere near the ball, where it might impart the wrong kind of spin.
With all that help, and his gym rat’s mentality, Bader became a deadly jump shooter. In retrospect it seems strange that Kampe and Sorenson were the only Division I coaches to commit a scholarship, but it worked out for all concerned.
“I’m so glad I listened to Travis’ dad,” Sorenson said.
Kampe knows his system allowed Bader to hoist 1,246 3s, yet another NCAA record, but he bristles if you call Bader a volume shooter, a term that has become sort of a backhanded compliment. Bader shot 40 percent from behind the arc for his career, despite the fact every opposing team considered it imperative to shut him down. And he made them from deep, too. Watch enough game tape of Bader and it’s apparent he neither looked down to see where the 3-point line was, or particularly cared.
“He can make it from the parking lot,” Kampe said. “I’ll put him up shooting 100 shots from anywhere against anybody. Anybody. He’s the best there is.”
The question now becomes, is there an NBA general manager who thinks the same thing? Can Bader—who is refining his skills working out under the watchful eye of former UCLA scoring machine Don MacLean and competing against certain No. 1 picks such as Kentucky’s James Young, Michigan State’s Gary Harris, Michigan’s Glen Robinson III, NC State’s T.J. Warren and Louisiana’s Elfrid Payton—slip into the second round of the draft?
Those who know him best believe he has a role in the NBA.
“He’s Steve Kerr,” Kampe said. “Put him out there with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, and he’s gonna knock down every open shot. They can’t go double. He’ll shoot 45 percent or better from 3.”
After Bader impressed NBA scouts in the Portsmouth Invitational, where he made the all-tournament team, a buddy of Sorenson’s, ESPN recruiting analyst Mike LaPlante, called with as accurate a take on Bader as any.
“He told me Travis probably wasn’t going to average 12 points a game in the NBA,” Sorenson said. “But he’ll allow your star player to go from averaging 17 points a game to 22 points a game. Travis will open up the floor and give your No. 1 option more room to work, because you can’t double-team him. He’ll make you pay.”
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