Renaldo Major has been a professional basketball player for over a decade, his entire working life. He has played in leagues that don't exist anymore, like the Continental Basketball Association and the United States Basketball League. He has played around the world, from Mexico to Puerto Rico to Finland, which he calls his personal favorite. When he became the all-time leading scorer—for the second time in his career, no less—in the history of the NBA Development League in December of 2014, there was no elaborate celebration. It was another milestone on a career path with enough inversions and switchbacks to impress M.C. Escher.
The league in which Major has spent the least amount of time is the one that matters most—the NBA. After going undrafted out of Fresno State in 2004, Major bounced around, playing for various minor leagues before taking the gig that would eventually land him on an NBA roster. The Dakota Wizards had just ended their affiliation with the Continental Basketball League and joined the D-League in April of 2006. A month later, they announced the hiring of Dave Joerger as their head coach. In the fourth round of the D-League draft that year, the team selected Major. At the age of 24, Major still had time to make an impression for NBA scouts. He did, and they noticed. In 17 games with the Wizards that season, Major averaged 18.5 points, 5.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 2.0 steals. He ranked in the top five in the league in steals, and was among the top twenty in scoring. The Golden State Warriors noticed.
In January 2007, Major was signed to a 10-day contract, a moment that he still remembers. "I can't put it into words," Major says. "A dream come true, not only me but my whole family." The NBA had been Major's dream since he was 11 years old—baseball had been his first love, "[But] then I saw Michael Jordan play," he says. "After that, I knew I wanted to be a basketball player"—but it was not only his. He talks about people in his family who had the talent to make it this far, but for one reason or another, didn't. Roy Major, his cousin, was an All-State player in Chicago. None of them made it as far as Renaldo Major did, even for the brief time that he made it there.
The Warriors were coached by Don Nelson, a coach never known for his openness to playing unproven players. Major credits Baron Davis and Stephen Jackson for making sure he was comfortable. They told him to not be afraid and just play his game, and gave him rides to and from practice. When Major joined the team, they were 19-20, and something of an afterthought. Just a few months later, after wrapping up a 42-40 season, the Warriors would become the NBA story, upsetting the top seed Dallas Mavericks in six games in the first round.
After years in the basketball wilderness, Major soaked up the NBA. The travel was luxurious, down to the quality of the food on the plane. More than that, there was the sense of the moment. Just going to the gym felt meaningful. "The scene felt so big at the arena," Major said. "You didn't want to let anybody down."
On January 17, Major played in his first career NBA game. "I was nervous from the start," Major says. "But once I got into the game, I was okay. It's just basketball." He played 27 minutes and shot 2-for-10 from the field, scoring five points and added two steals and a couple of rebounds. The Warriors lost on the road to the Los Angeles Clippers. A little more than seven years later, it remains the only game Renaldo Major has ever played in the NBA.
Still going. Definitely still going. Photo by Williams Aquije, Bakersfield Jam
When his contract was up, Major went back to the Wizards. He was still young, and surely other opportunities would arise. Anyway, there was business to attend to, and Major attended to it. The Wizards won the D-League championship that year, and Major won Defensive Player of the Year. There was reason to be optimistic. "I got a lot of notoriety," Major said. "We were winning, and coach Joerger let me play freely, play to my strengths."
At 6'6", 210 lbs, with a reputation as a strong individual defender, it was not hard to envision Major carving out a role in the NBA, perhaps something similar to the one that fellow Chicago product Tony Allen has made for himself in Memphis. The next season, that opportunity came when Major was invited to Denver Nuggets training camp. Once he passed a routine physical, he would have his chance to stick.
Major did not pass the physical. In October of 2007, that physical discovered that Major had a loose heart valve. He underwent successful open heart surgery, but was sidelined from basketball activity that entire season.
"Honestly, I wasn't scared at all," Major said. "I think my family was more worried." He spent his time off with family and friends, and watched a lot of basketball in the basement. The fire was definitely blazing, he said. He couldn't wait to get back, but waiting was all he could do. The next season, Major was back with the Dakota Wizards.
Almost a decade removed from heart surgery, Major is back in the D-League, now as a veteran reserve on the Bakersfield Jam. He's played 35 games coming off the bench this season, averaging around 20 minutes and six points per game. He's 32 years-old now, and without an established NBA pedigree—and with the wealth of younger players with higher upside in his league and others around the world—it's likely that Major has played his last NBA game.
Which is not the same thing as saying he has any plans to stop playing. "I love winning," Major said. "Whether it's in the NBA, in the D-League or overseas, I just want to win." Major calls himself a basketball lifer, and he lives it; he'd like to transition into coaching once there are no more games to play. His preference would be to coach at the high school level, and teach fundamentals to a generation that, he says, is overly concerned with flash and cutting personal highlight reels.
Until then, Major has done his best to do what Jackson and Davis did for him during his NBA stint. "He's an unbelievable leader," says his Bakersfield coach, Nate Bjorkgren. "He's great for the young guys on this team. When guys come out of a game, he'll be the first one to stand up and encourage them. I see him talking to guys about situations on the court. He's very smart. Renaldo has a lot of basketball left in him, but there's no doubt he would make a great coach. I'd love to have him with me if he decides to coach some day."
Major is in no rush. "I'm still fast. I'm still quick. I'm still athletic," he says. "My jump shot is getting better. I'm not declining. I can play anywhere. I'm always going to have this type of energy and passion, and love for my teammates and coaches. I eat, sleep and breath basketball. I really love it." He plans to play another five years.
A trip back to the NBA isn't what drives Major anymore; maybe it never was. For Major, playing basketball outweighs the what-ifs and passport stamps he's piled up during his career. He's still playing the game he loves, and he'll do it for as long as he wants to, which will be as long as he can.