Hoop Dreams

Andre Ingram spent a decade toiling in the NBA's minor league. When the Los Angeles Lakers finally came calling in April, the 32-year-old rookie nailed his shot.


Photo­graphy by
Jeff Watts

The Ingram family at home in Richmond

Thirteen minutes and 10 seconds into a game he’d waited 32 years to play, Andre Ingram drifted behind the three-point line left of the lane, squared to the basket, and shot. 

The man who’s made a record 713 threes in the NBA’s minor league—an accomplishment only a few basketball savants knew about before the game but millions would learn after it—released the ball with textbook form. As it sailed through the air toward the basket, the newest and most unlikely of Los Angeles Lakers held his follow-through, perfectly at peace. 

“As a shooter playing so long, I could see it happening,” says Ingram, who became the oldest American rookie in the NBA since 1964 when he checked into the April 10 game, according to “Our guy made a drive and I could see I was about to have the shot. My only thought was, ‘You’re going to be open enough to shoot, so shoot.’ I would have been alright if I didn’t make it.”

That we’ll never know, because what transpired next could only have happened in, appropriately enough, Hollywood. Ingram’s first shot in his first NBA game, which followed 384 in the glamour-free development league—the second-most all-time—splashed through the hoop, tickling nothing but net. Just over a minute later, he drilled his second attempt. The penultimate regular season game meant nothing in the standings to the lowly Lakers, but inside Staples Center the atmosphere was downright electric. Ingram, CAS/BS ’07, seized his first opportunity on one of the sport’s biggest stages, scoring 19 points and whipping the LA crowd into a frenzy it hadn’t experienced in years. “M-V-P! M-V-P!” the fans chanted for Ingram, just as they had done in the past for Hall of Famers like Magic Johnson and Shaquille O’Neal. 

Ingram’s performance dominated the nation’s sports consciousness. “LOVE IT,” tweeted Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, who has scored 33,619 more career points than Ingram. After the game, the graying rookie walked across the street to ESPN’s studios, where he was interviewed live on SportsCenter. The Washington Post ran a piece, and so did USAToday and the New York Times. There he was on Good Morning America, wearing a T-shirt that read “ALWAYS IN PURSUIT.”

One reason the story crossed over from the sports world was the nature of the man starring in the fairy tale.

“He’s kind, he’s caring, he’s authentic,” says Jeff Jones, who coached Ingram at AU. “Those qualities always came through with him, regardless of who you were or what the situation was. That’s who Andre is, and he’s that way every day.”

Much of the coverage took on a familiar arc: scrappy, undersized athlete with an outsize heart never gives up, finally accomplishes dream. In a basic sense that narrative’s not wrong, but to pigeonhole Ingram as Rudy-in-high-tops would be a grave mistake. Ingram has long had plenty of game; all he needed was a chance. 

Crash Davis might be a more apt comparison. The weathered but wise catcher in the 1988 baseball film Bull Durham yearned to make it to “The Show” as he approached the minor league record for career home runs. But Davis, played by Kevin Costner, was a salty, often jaded (albeit amusing) character who frequently griped about his predicament. Ingram, unfailingly positive in his outlook, plays with the joy of a child.

“There are certain guys that are ‘basketball guys,’” says his friend and former teammate Romone Penny, Kogod/BSBA ’08. “They don’t care about the money or fame side of things as much. Dre is a basketball guy. He truly loves the game.”

For most of his career, that love manifested itself in relative anonymity. He wasn’t necessarily happy about that, but he was at peace with it. 

One month after everything changed, Ingram is recounting his story from a place that barely has. He’s sitting on a folding chair in the living room of his parents’ modest three-bedroom house in Richmond, Virginia. It’s still home, although his childhood bedroom is now a playroom for the grandkids. During offseasons he and his wife, Marilee, and their daughters Maliyah, 6, and Navi, 5, live there with his dad and mom, who still cooks his favorite baked chicken and sweet potatoes.  

“It’s been a bit overwhelming for us because we’re quiet people,” Ingram says of his instant stardom, a hint of southern drawl in his voice. “We’re homebodies. An eventful day for us is taking the kids to the playground, and maybe going bowling. We don’t have social media, except for a shared Facebook account. But what position would you rather be in? If this comes with it, we’re going to enjoy it.”

Ingram dreamed of playing in the NBA since his earliest days as an eight-year-old baller at the Chickahominy YMCA, just a few miles from here. He made the varsity team at Highland Springs High School as a freshman, but barely saw the court. It wasn’t until his junior year that things took off, and recruiters became interested. But Ingram was oddly ambivalent about college ball.

“The number one goal I had was to play in the NBA,” he says. “Number two was, I wanted to win a state championship.”

Even after he accomplished the latter his senior year of high school, the former seemed out of reach for a player being recruited by just two schools, William and Mary and AU—neither of them exactly known as NBA pipelines.  

“We thought he was a steal,” says Jones, now the head coach at Old Dominion University. “He could score the basketball. You combine that with the character piece and the fact that he was a terrific student, and it was a no-brainer for us. He had an unorthodox shot, and sometimes you’d scratch your head and say, how the heck did that go in? But he was able to score points.”

That’s exactly what he did at AU. After being named Patriot League Rookie of the Year, he started his sophomore season by pouring in 38 against Virginia Commonwealth beforea hometown crowd in Richmond. 

“I led the nation in scoring for one day,” he jokes.

Ingram ended his career with a degree in physics and 1,655 points—fifth-most in AU history. Still, the NBA wasn’t knocking down his door. 

“I distinctly remember an email from someone with the San Antonio Spurs along the lines of, We don’t expect him to be drafted,” Ingram says. “It was clear to me what I was going to do: I was going straight to the D-League.”

The NBA’s development league (today it’s called the G League) doesn’t occupy the same storied place in America’s sporting history as baseball’s minor leagues do. For one, it’s relatively new (it was founded in 2001), and unlike in baseball, the biggest stars and prospects go directly from college to the big show. Those that do suit up in the G League tend to do so for only a season or two before moving on to modest (or fleeting) success in the NBA, pro leagues in Europe—or new careers entirely. 

One reason is financial. During his first year with the Utah Flash, Ingram made $13,000 for the five-month season. But for him, playing basketball has never been about the money. If it were, he’d have taken one of the several overseas offers he received early on, which would have padded his bank account but put him farther from the eyes of NBA scouts. 

At six foot three, Ingram is on the small side for a pro guard, but not fatally so. His game is well rounded, perhaps too much so for NBA general managers, who tend to tap only the most prolific G League scorers for promotion.  

So over the course of 10 years, he toiled in places like Rio Grande Valley, Texas, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota. His storybook debut for the Lakers actually wasn’t his first game at Staples Center. When he played for the Flash against the Los Angeles D-Fenders, the 21,000-seat arena would have 15 spectators on one side of the court and 15 on the other. The squeak of sneakers on the hardwood echoed off the rafters. 

Throughout his basketball journey, life intervened. But even after taking part of a season off to look after Maliyah while Marilee finished her pharmacy technician degree, and sitting out a full season after Navi was born, Ingram never thought about retiring. Money was tight, for sure, but the Ingrams are savers. The 2007 Chrysler Sebring he got after graduating from AU is still parked in the driveway. The odometer reads 165,000.

“It’s still rollin’,” Ingram says.

Marilee worked several jobs, while Ingram tutored kids in math and mentored children struggling with mental health issues at a residential treatment center. Still, after each hiatus he’d be lured back to the D-League by the possibility that, someday, the NBA might come calling. But he refused to compromise his game to get there. Unlike some stat-sheet stuffers hoping to get noticed, he’d always make the extra pass, hustle back on defense, try to take a charge. 

Not that doubt didn’t creep in. Some friends told him to quit. Others—including Coach Jones—urged him to find a better payday overseas. 

“Sometimes I’d sit here in the summer and think, ‘You’re 30-something, you’ve got gray hairs going on—maybe I should dye my hair,’” he says. “But all that stuff went out the window. Every time I was ready to jump off that ledge something pulled me back, whether it was in training, when I’m hitting every shot I take, or in the weight room getting encouraged by the guys. My story is to let that voice, let that encouragement, pull you back in.”

Which is why, when he walked into his exit interview with the South Bay Lakers in early April, he planned to tell the coach and general manager that he wanted to return for another year. But when he got to the conference room, he could sense that something was different. With just two games left in its lost season, LA had decided to reward Ingram for his hard work and perseverance. 

“We started talking about the season, and I could hear the GM’s voice changing a bit,” Ingram says. “Then Magic Johnson and [LA Lakers General Manager] Rob Pelinka walk in. Now I’m shaking. They said, ‘You’re being called up to the LA Lakers.’ All I could say was, ‘Thank you.’ Magic said, ‘You deserve it.’”

After signing a contract for the year’s final two games that would pay him more than he made for his entire first season in the D-League, the first call Ingram made was to his family back in Richmond. 

When Marilee answered her phone, she thought he was calling to tell her what time his flight landed in Virginia. 

“He said, ‘I’m going to be staying here a little longer because they called me up to play the last two games with the Lakers,’” she says. “I just screamed, ‘Are you kidding me?’”

Before his debut, Lakers coach Luke Walton told him he would play, but he wasn’t specific about how much. When Ingram emerged from the locker room for pregame warmups, wearing his favorite number 20 for the first time since his AU days, the floor seemed “brighter” than he expected. 

“Of course there were some nerves, but when the ball goes up and people start playing, it all goes away,” he says. “The moment I was waiting for wasn’t the first shot, or seeing my jersey; it was simply running up and down the court in the game. That was the signal to me that you’re part of it.”

Among the 18,997 fans in Staples Center that night—slightly more than during his D-League games at the arena—were Marilee and their daughters, who the Lakers flew in for the week. 

“Maliyah’s like, ‘I have to go to the bathroom,’” Marilee says. “I said, ‘Let’s hurry and go before Dre goes in.’ I was standing there waiting for Maliyah to come out, watching on TV, and I see Dre go in. I’m like, ‘Hurry!’ He shoots it and he makes it. I’m standing there clapping at the TV. I hear this roar come from the arena. We went back and sat down, and everyone was like, ‘Did you see your husband make it?’ It was so amazing just to hear that roar for him.”

Two thousand six hundred miles across the country, a similar cheer emanated from the living room of the house on Thornhurst Court in east Richmond, where Ingram’s dad, Lucious, sat on the love seat while his mom, Eva, watched from the sofa. 

“We were probably more nervous than him,” says Eva, who saw each and every one of her son’s games in person at AU. A basketball inscribed with “68,280 miles traveled” rests on a trophy case near the fireplace. “When he hit that first three it sounded like there were 20 people in there, but it was just me and my husband. We were cool with that one three. We said, ‘Okay, he’s on the books.’ When he went on and on my husband looked at me and I looked at him and we said, ‘Is this really happening?’”

It was. When the final horn sounded, Ingram had made six of his eight shots. His 19 points were the fourth-most by a player in his first game with the Lakers since the franchise moved to Los Angeles in 1960. 

“The power of focus and persistence is real!!” tweeted nine-time all-star Chris Paul, whose Houston Rockets beat the Lakers 105–99 despite Ingram’s heroics. “Congrats Andre Ingram on your NBA debut. Well deserved!”

A more modest performance the next night in the season finale against the Clippers did nothing to dim Ingram’s star. He couldn’t go out in LA without being recognized. He threw out the first pitch at a Dodgers game. Offers for speaking engagements and product endorsements, and even feelers from movie producers about a film based on his life, have been rolling in.  

“What I’m seeing is that this story is so much bigger than basketball,” says Penny, Ingram’s old AU teammate who also serves as his business manager. “Not just because he made a handful of baskets in a few games—but his drive, his passion, his perseverance inspires people. That’s what we want to share. This couldn’t have happened to a better person.”

Ingram is trying to embrace his newfound stardom, but it’s a somewhat unnatural process for a naturally humble family man. He’s quick to say that he won’t allow any business opportunities to interfere with his preparation for next season or to change the core of who he is as a father, husband, son, and brother. 

“The 100 percent goal is to stay in the NBA, but if those are the only two NBA games of my career, sitting here now I would be able to accept that,” he says. “I’ve always felt that I could play with those guys, but if it never happened, I was going to be fine with it.”

Most mornings he’s still practicing his shooting, dribbling, and sprinting for 90 minutes at a rec center near the house. He’s still tutoring kids in algebra and geometry, still taking his daughters to the playground, still hitting the weight room for up to two hours, three times a week.

“He’s the epitome of somebody that’s worked hard in everything he’s ever done,” says Mike Craven, who’s been training Ingram for 16 years. “Unlike a lot of gifted athletes who come into the weight room and slack a little bit, he was always a young man that would listen intently and then give his best effort. There’s tremendous respect when you see somebody that has worked hard and long, and then good things happen to them.”

Ingram’s a restricted free agent, and it’s not clear whether the Lakers or another NBA team will sign him for next season. Fortified by his faith and his family, he isn’t sweating it. Come this fall, he’ll be back on the court somewhere, playing the game he loves.

“A lot of people that are trying to live the basketball dream probably would have given in,” said Walton, the Lakers coach, after that magical night in April. “You don’t make a lot of money when you’re in the minor league system. You’re playing a crazy schedule, you’re in small towns, and you’re constantly waiting for other people to think you’re good enough.”

Andre Ingram’s wait is over.