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If you wandered by the Gauchos gym in the Bronx last month, you might have seen a gangly six-foot-seven man named Julius Hodge working doggedly on his jump shot, one attempt after another, alone in the gym with the man who coached him when he wasn't yet 10 years old.
Hodge, 25, a former NBA first-round draft pick from Harlem, returns each year to the gym—a legendary piece of basketball hardwood that has trained dozens of top college and pro players—to work out with Coach Russell Smith, as part of his never-ending quest to return to The League. Hodge first played in the gym when he was just seven years old. When he wasn't playing, he says, he would run the clock during high-level youth tournaments like Gauchos Roundball.
"I played in that gym growing up, and I always go back to Gauchos and work out," he says. "Coach Smith was actually my first coach, and he lets me get back in the gym. I do a lot of shooting."
Hodge's workouts run to about five hours a day in the off-season: a 35-minute morning run, an hour of weight-lifting, 90 minutes of catch-and-shoot, and then another 90 minutes or so of shooting on-the-move, post moves, and freethrows.
"It's very tiring," he says. "This is tough, but if you want to stay on top of your game, you have to do it. Everyone knows the formula for success. It's pretty much whether you are going to do it or not."
Back in 2001, Hodge was a McDonald's All-American at St. Raymond's High School in the Bronx. He played in the top-rated Catholic League.
Highly touted, with a smooth all-around game, he went on to a standout career at North Carolina State, where he averaged 16 points per game, was named first-team all-ACC and, in his senior year, led the team to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament.
In 2005, he was drafted by the Denver Nuggets with the 20th pick in the first round. But he played in just 14 games in the 2005–2006 season.
In April 2006, Hodge left a Denver nightclub and was driving on I-76 when another car came up alongside him. Someone inside it opened fire. He was injured, but the motive for the shooting remains unclear and no suspects have yet been arrested. Police said that nothing that happened at the nightclub could have motivated the crime. It's an "unsolved mystery," as Hodge puts it.
He says now that the shooting put things in perspective for him. "One inch farther, and I wouldn't be playing anymore," he says. "I see it as a blessing. I was 22, and I was thinking the worst thing in the world was being on the bench with the Denver Nuggets. It definitely makes you look at things in a whole new light."
Once he healed from his injuries, Hodge started one game for the Nuggets in 2007, but was traded a week later to the Milwaukee Bucks for guard Steve Blake. The Bucks soon placed him on waivers. He had played in just 23 games and scored 28 points in all in the NBA.
As a first-round draft pick, Hodge was supposed to be a can't-miss prospect. The choice conferred that expectation upon him. Now, some considered him a draft bust. He had a suspect jump-shot, they say, and not enough bulk to play inside. There were even questions about his attitude.
Then began a journey which has taken him from the NBA's D-League to professional basketball leagues in Italy (Varese and Scafati), where he had difficulty getting his salary, Australia (Adelaide), and France (Besançon).
At the end of each season, he returns to the U.S. to try and catch on with an NBA team. In 2008, it was the New Jersey Nets. He made the preseason roster, but was cut that October.
He moved on to Australia, where he averaged 27 points a game with the Adelaide 36ers. But he fell into a financial dispute with the team and boycotted a game, claiming the club owed him money. The club claimed otherwise. He left the league in December 2008, and returned a $25,000 advance to the team to obtain release from his contract.
Last summer, he attended the Chicago Bulls mini-camp, but didn't get signed. For three years now, he has been on the same cycle: winters overseas, summers working out and trying to catch on with an NBA team, and then back overseas again.
"With the Bulls, it was a situation where they were going in the direction of their younger guys," he says. "As a veteran player, I would have had to take limited playing time. I opted on not going. I decided to take a step back from the NBA and really sharpen my game, so when they see me again, they'll be impressed."
Early this month, Hodge signed with the Melbourne Tigers of the Australian professional league. In his first game Saturday, he almost had a triple-double—scoring 22 points, snaring 9 rebounds, and dishing 7 assists. The team lost the game, however.
Hodge still believes there's a spot for him in the NBA. "I feel it's definitely where I belong," he says. "I feel like with my talent and my skill set, if I continue to work on my jump shot and get it to the point where it will be consistent, I'm good. It's tough to watch NBA games and point at four to five players that I know, hands-down, I'm better than, but you have to be a piece to fit on the team."
Does he mourn the fact that he didn't live up to his first-round billing? Not really. "It's not really a horror story to go overseas," he says. "There are a lot of perks to it. It actually makes it easier for me to come out here every day and work my butt off on the court."