One & Done: Tyson Wheeler sinks a ‘3’ and makes NBA history, of sorts
In the world of sports, athletes often dedicate their entire lives to reaching the pinnacle of their profession, but for many, life at the top can be short-lived. Sometimes all a player gets to experience at the highest level is one minute on the court, one trip to the plate, one shot on goal or one checkered flag, but more often than not, that fleeting moment in the spotlight is a story all its own. This is One & Done, a FOX Sports series profiling athletes, their paths to success and the stories behind some of sports’ most ephemeral brushes with glory.
This Thursday, 60 basketball players from around the world will realize a dream when they hear their names called in the NBA Draft, but for some, simply being selected on draft night does not signal the start of a lengthy career — or an NBA career at all.
Eighteen of the picks in last year’s draft never stepped on the court during the 2014-15 season. Twelve players from the 2013 draft class have yet to check in for NBA action, as well. The same applies for five players chosen in 2012, seven from 2011, 11 from 2010, 10 from 2009, and the list goes on.
In total, 189 of the 1,178 players taken in the last 20 drafts never saw — or have yet to see — a second of NBA play, and while much of that 16 percent fail rate can be attributed to teams taking fliers on international prospects who may never make the jump to the U.S., there’s more than a fair share of former college stars who either never pan out or simply never get a chance.
Tyson Wheeler was nearly part of that statistic himself after being selected by the Toronto Raptors in the 1998 second round, but thanks to a preseason trade to the Denver Nuggets and an early season blowout loss to the Houston Rockets, Wheeler was able to accomplish a lifelong goal and retire as the only player in NBA history to shoot 100 percent from the field and from "3" for his career, instead.
"I only played once," Wheeler said in a recent interview with FOX Sports. "But at least I was perfect."
Most who remember Wheeler at all know his name from the University of Rhode Island, particularly the Rams’ run to the Elite Eight in the 1998 NCAA Tournament. That March, Wheeler served as the floor general for a No. 8 seed that knocked off No. 1 seed Kansas (led by Paul Pierce and Raef LaFrentz) and nearly did the same to 2-seed Stanford before choking away a trip to the Final Four in the final 30 seconds of the Midwest Regional final.
Spurred in part by the momentum of the tournament, Wheeler was one of two Rhode Island players taken in the draft that June — the other was Cuttino Mobley; Lamar Odom was selected out of URI the following year — and while Wheeler was thrilled to go to Toronto with the 18th pick of the second round (47th overall), that feeling only lasted until the 1998 NBA lockout began seven days later, putting his rookie season on hold indefinitely.
We just knew there was going to be a lockout and it was going to last a long time, and it seemed like it was never going to end.
"It was kind of disheartening," Wheeler said. "We were ready to play, but we didn’t know when we were going to play. We just knew there was going to be a lockout and it was going to last a long time, and it seemed like it was never going to end."
Still, Wheeler was eager for the chance to prove himself and felt he’d have a good opportunity to do that alongside fellow rookie Vince Carter with a Toronto team seemingly in need of point guard help.
"I didn’t have any sense that they were looking to trade me," Wheeler said. "I thought I was going to play there. Damon Stoudamire had been traded the season before (in a deal with Portland that netted the Raptors the pick they used on Wheeler), and I was kind of excited because I thought I was kind of a Damon Stoudamire clone. He had success there, so I was ready and pumped to play for Toronto and try to have the same success."
However, shortly after the lockout was lifted in January 1999, Wheeler learned his stint in Toronto was over before it started. Wheeler was sitting in his hotel room during the rookie transition program when he got word that he had been traded to Denver, where he’d be playing under first-time NBA coach Mike D’Antoni.
"I really didn’t have any idea (what the trade meant for him)," Wheeler said. "I was a rookie and didn’t know how the business really worked. I just knew I got traded along with Chauncey Billups, who was also a point guard, and then they had Cory Alexander, who’d just gotten a new contract, and he was also a combo point guard, and then they had Nick Van Exel, as well."
The numbers didn’t look good for Wheeler in Denver, and D’Antoni didn’t waste much time letting him know as much, either.
"I knew, as a second-round pick, it would be tough playing behind all those veterans, and during camp — it was a short camp — Mike came up to me and said, ‘Tyson, we didn’t expect you to make it this far because we basically have three All-Star guards, but you’ve done so well, and we’re really surprised by how good you are, but we may still have to make some changes,’" Wheeler said.
"It was really hard to hear that, because I knew I’d been playing well, but I also knew there was only a certain number of guys you could have on the roster, so I sort of knew I wouldn’t stick."
Wheeler’s fears would ultimately be confirmed when he was cut by the team on Feb. 19, 1999, waived along with Monty Williams nine games into the 50-game season. Fortunately, Wheeler’s release didn’t come before he got a chance to take the floor in a regular-season NBA game.
On Feb. 8, 1999, with the 0-2 Nuggets trailing the Rockets 91-68 with 3:08 left in the fourth quarter, Wheeler checked in for Van Exel at point guard. Fourteen seconds later, Wheeler assisted on a Johnny Taylor jump shot, and after drawing a foul on Brent Price two possessions later, Wheeler stepped to the free-throw line with 1:38 to play, hoping to score his first NBA points.
"I almost broke the backboard I shot it so hard," Wheeler said of his miss on the first of his two attempts, a shot bad enough to draw a jeer from his ex-teammate. "Cuttino (then a rookie guard for the Rockets) was standing right next to me when I was at the line and he said, ‘Damn, Tyson, relax!’"’
Wheeler went on to make the second free throw, but the highlight of his NBA debut — and ultimately, his NBA career — came on the next Denver possession, when he hit a 3-pointer from in front of Scottie Pippen, Charles Barkley and the rest of the Houston bench to cut the lead to 97-77 with 1:15 left to play.
"I remember Hakeem Olajuwon," Wheeler said of the shot. "Every time I shot a 3, I’d yell my last name, ‘Wheeler,’ and I remember making the 3 right in front of the bench and Hakeem heard me do it and started laughing, so it was pretty exciting.
"After the game, I remember feeling like, ‘I fit in here, and I can play at the next level,’" Wheeler added. "It was always a dream of mine, coming from New London, Connecticut. I knew it would be tough, being 5-foot-10, but they gave me a chance and I wasn’t scared when I went in there."
You always want to play in the NBA and there’s nothing like it, but I got to play the game I loved and get paid for it …
However, Wheeler’s NBA career would begin and end that February night in Houston, as he was released by the Nuggets less than two weeks later without ever playing again. Wheeler would go on to get summer league invites from the Cavaliers, Mavericks, Clippers and SuperSonics over the next couple seasons, but none of those opportunities ever turned into a permanent NBA job.
The closest he came to returning to the NBA came in 2000, when Seattle made him one of their final three cuts before the regular season began. After that, Wheeler spent nearly a decade playing both stateside, in the ABA and CBA, and around the world, with stints in the Dominican Republic, Israel, Italy, France, Portugal and Romania among his stops.
"It was still kind of living my dream," Wheeler said. "You always want to play in the NBA and there’s nothing like it, but I got to play the game I loved and get paid for it, and I played for many years. So it was a great experience and something I always wanted to do. I got to see the world and I think I’ve played in like 25 different countries, and you can’t beat that experience."
And while some may look at Wheeler’s perfect but short-lived NBA career as a negative, Wheeler, now an assistant basketball coach at Fairfield University, said he’s just happy to have had the chance.
"I think it’s important," Wheeler said. "I’m on the stat sheet for a real game, so I can always say to my kids that I played in the NBA. Obviously, I would have loved to have played more games, but I’ll take the one that I got."
You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.