American Reality

If you ask Chante Hood, there is no way her family’s story can have a fairytale ending at this point. Not after everything she’s been through with her husband, Antoine. Not after all the sleep they’ve lost and the time spent apart. The sacrifices they’ve made. The tears they’ve shed. A happy ending, yes, but even a guaranteed contract with an NBA team won’t erase the memories.

“Perfect is so gone,” she says.

Antoine Hood, now 32, has been through more in his 32 years on this earth than most people can handle in a lifetime. He beat cancer when he was a teenager, served his country with honor and saw the world in his 20s. He’s a devoted father, husband and mentor.

And it’s not like he can’t play. After an all-conference career at the Air Force Academy, one in which he led the Falcons into the top 25 and the NCAA Tournament, he played 50 games in the D-League with the Colorado 14ers in the 2006-07 season. But Air Force grads are required to serve as active duty officers for five years after graduation. The Department of Defense has an out for athletes with professional aspirations: they can apply for a waiver for an early release from their commitment as long as they serve for six years in the reserves.

Hood — unlike Air Force grads Chad Hall and Ben Garland, both of whom played in the NFL, and Hood’s former teammate Jacob Burtschi, who graduated a year after him — could not get excused from his commitment. Instead, he was given 300 days of leave, giving him the opportunity to attend camp with the Denver Nuggets and suit up for the 14ers for a season. He was not allowed to receive a call-up to the NBA, however, and when those 300 days were up, he did his duty and served more than three years of active duty. That ended six years ago. He’s now a reservist, able to sign a pro contract and play full-time, professional basketball. He’s been to the Czech Republic, to Venezuela, to a handful of camps with NBA and D-League teams.

Hood last played for a team in Canada’s NBL nearly a year ago, but he still works out two to three times a day on his own, despite having a day job, a wife and two sons. He traveled to New Mexico and Los Angeles in the last month to try and showcase his game to NBA scouts. He recently worked out with John Lucas in Houston.

He’s still doing all the right things, but journeyman 32-year olds who can’t find any professional team to latch onto rarely, if ever, land an NBA contract. “Lots of people want to be NBA players,” one NBA executive told me. “Most don’t get to be.”

In other words, it’s not an ideal world. Antoine Hood probably isn’t going to get the chance he’s earned.

At what point do you give up on your American Dream and live your American Reality?

* * *

The Hoods now live in Shreveport, La., where Antoine works for the Air Force Strike Command Reserve and Chante is a freelance marketing director for local non-profits.

But their story began 400 miles to the east, in Mobile, Ala., where Chante met Antoine at a Mardi Gras party. When they met, Antoine had graduated from the Academy, played a season in the D-League — he averaged 8.0 points and 2.5 assists in 50 games with the Colorado 14ers in 2006-07 — and was serving his mandatory active duty with the Air Force. Their first conversation involved Antoine proudly talking about his time at “The Academy,” which Chante, the daughter of a police officer, couldn’t wrap her head around. Where she’s from, the Academy is the school where the troublemakers, the “kids that didn’t do the right things,” were sent.

Antoine was able to clear that up, and since then, they’ve spoken every day. They were married later that year and now have two sons, ages five and two.

In 2009, Antoine had finished his active duty requirement and was enlisted in the reserves, meaning that after three years out of the game — three years of putting himself through two-a-days while on military bases everywhere from Alabama to Germany — he was once again free to chase his dreams.

He got into training camp with the Miami Heat in 2009. That didn’t pan out, but he did manage to land a contract with a team in the Czech Republic, averaging 16.8 points per game during the 2009-10 season. But when he got back stateside, the playing opportunities once again dried up.

That’s when the real grind started, as Hood did not play a second of professional basketball during the 2010-11 season.

“There were nights where we don’t know where our next meal is coming from,” Chante said. “Having to wait on food stamps, for an academy grad? I just don’t understand it. People don’t see that. People aren’t willing to work after hard knocks. We are still willing to work for it.”

Antoine eventually got a job selling tires for Michelin in North Carolina, but he was still chasing the NBA dream — only now, instead of pregnant Chante helping rebound for him, she was doing it in between dirty diapers. That’s how it worked for the Hoods. Chante was unwavering in her support of her husband’s dream — “I married into this,” she likes to say — but at this point, even her faith was being tested.

It wasn’t that she didn’t believe in him.

She just couldn’t take the heartache of another promise being broken, of seeing her husband crushed when a tryout fell through or a roster spot didn’t pan out.

“I remember one night, I had it set in my mind to tell him, ‘Look, I can’t be one of the supporters, I can’t do this anymore emotionally,'” Chante said. “‘It’s too much. It’s too much on you, it’s too much hoping for something that’s never going to come.'”

She decided to wait, going to work the next morning while mentally preparing herself for a discussion that she was dreading. That evening, a chilly December night, on the way home from work, her phone rang. It was Antoine.

“Coach Popovich called me,” he said, “and he’s flying me out on Wednesday.”

Three days later, Antoine was gone, off to training camp with the San Antonio Spurs.

He’d last eight days before getting cut, playing in one preseason game. He saw 3:07 of action, scoring one point and committing one turnover. That game came against the Rockets, who counted a then-little-known Harvard grad on their preseason roster, a point guard by the name of Jeremy Lin. Lin would eventually wind up playing for the New York Knicks.

Hood was cut on Dec. 18th of the lockout-shortened season. Exactly two months later, Linsanity was gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated for the second straight week.

“Why couldn’t I wind up in New York?” Antoine wonders. Lin’s success only further drove home the idea that all he needed was a chance, was one team to believe in him. “We were on the same court. How did he outperform me?”

“The emotional toll of it all has been unreal,” Chante said. “I just don’t know anybody that would be able to stand by their husband through this.”

Hood is still waiting for that chance. After he was cut by the Spurs, Antoine spent a month playing for a team in Venezuela. He played 17 games, averaging 3.1 points, for the Idaho Stampede in the D-League in 2013-14. He lasted a handful of games with the Mississauga Power in the NBL (Canada) last season.

“You have to be a good player in a non-NBA league to have a shot to make the NBA,” another NBA executive said. In other words, you have to prove your worth. Antoine hasn’t had the chance to do that, not recently.

His dedication, however, has never wavered.

“When our younger son (was born),” Chante says, “‘Toine only stayed for a day because he was playing for the D-League in Idaho.”

“I had a C-section, so it (was) unbelievably tough,” she added. “I had to recover without him and have our (older) son there because I wanted to see (Antoine) succeed in this. I didn’t want him worrying about me back at home. I wanted him to be focused on what he set out to do.”

If you were to call the Hoods crazy for the way they’ve chosen to live their life, you wouldn’t be the first to do so.

“If I had a dollar for every time that someone told me I’m crazy, I’d be a billionaire,” Antoine said. “That’s how often people shake their head in disbelief.”

* * *

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Antoine Hood is an unusually determined man, even in the face of nearly insurmountable odds. It’s because he’s been there before. His drive comes from something deeper, something older and more elemental.

Something that isn’t a happy memory for him.

When he was 13, he woke up with a knot the size of a golf ball on his head, next to his ear lobe. He was diagnosed with malignant lymphoma. Doctors told him his life expectancy was four months.

“The days were terrible,” he says, but he wasn’t about to sit there and let cancer ravage him. He had no plans of sitting around, waiting to die. “I am a survivor. I’ve been through chemo. I’ve been through radiation. I’ve had spinal taps. I’ve taken a million drugs and been pissing blue and green. I’ve been sleeping all day and just to have the energy to get up and walk around is something that you long for. The smell of hospitals, I’m so cool on the smell of hospitals.”

“I could lose everything I have today and be on welfare, and I’m still going to find a way to make it,” he added. “Because I’ve been to a place where I was physically unable to do anything.”

The memory that is seared into Antoine’s mind from that time, more than anything, is how often he went through roommates while he was at the Children’s Hospital. It wasn’t because those kids kept getting better, which is a harsh reality to face when you’re a 13-year-old kid with a cancer fight of your own.

“I think that’s why my outlook on life is not similar to others,” he said. “I don’t want to be too presumptuous to say that your attitude is directly tied to your treatments, but I think history has proven there is a serious, strong correlation to that.”

If he’s not going to fight for himself, if he doesn’t believe in his ability to beat the odds, who will?

* * *

“Everything I’ve been told since I was a kid was the American Dream,” Hood said. “Go to school, get good grades, work hard, and you’ll get everything you want. But is that the truth? Because I’m not living it right now.”

He’s grinding out a 9-to-5 paycheck while paying his own way to fly around the country, paying out of his own pocket for workouts with people that maybe, just maybe, will have influence enough to bring up his name with someone that might be able to give him a shot at getting into a training camp.

He doesn’t have teams knocking down his door. He doesn’t even have an agent.

And he doesn’t understand why that’s the case.

“I’ve served my country to protect the freedom of every general manager and player. I’ve done that,” he said. “I’ve made the ultimate sacrifice to lay down my life for this country. I went to one of the top schools in this country. I got the good grades. I’ve not been in jail for drugs or domestic violence or DUI. I’ve got a family. I’m a husband, a father, a mentor. I go to church. I’m doing everything you’re supposed to do as a person, as an American, and yet, I’m still coming up short. Why?”

“What is it that I don’t have that I need?”

Sports are big business. Winning pays. And while we’d like to believe that the quality of an athlete’s character matters as much as their ability on the court, it’s just not true. Being a good person will increase marketability, but being a bad person isn’t going to cost a player their job, not if they’re good enough.

In the sports world, good things happen to bad people when they’re talented. Every single day.

There are great people that happen to be professional athletes, but the one thing that every pro with a contract has in common is that their talent outweighs their off-the-court issues. That’s what matters. That’s capitalism at its finest.

And the result is that good people like Antoine Hood are forced to come face-to-face with that American Reality.

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