It is summer and pro basketball is in aestivation almost everywhere but the gym at Cal State Los Angeles. There, although few fans know it, the NBA and the ABA seasons have already started. In only four years the Southern California Pro Basketball Summer League has passed New York's Rucker League and Philadelphia's Baker League to become the foremost off-season conditioner, rookie camp and basketball bazaar. Even scouts from Belgium and Finland are braving the San Bernardino Freeway to look over the talent.
Watched by almost no one else, the league operates four nights a week and includes eight teams. Two of them—Watts Summer Games and Direction Sports—are for players unaffiliated with professional teams; six represent pro clubs or leagues (Milwaukee Bucks-Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Lakers-Portland Trailblazers, Houston Rockets-Indiana Pacers, New Orleans Jazz, NBA Stars, ABA Stars). At first glance the Cal State operation seems to have all the accouterments of the big time: experienced referees, qualified trainers, a commissioner, a statistics crew, 30-second clocks and a public-address announcer. Under closer scrutiny that impression melts faster than a Fudgsicle in the steamy gym where the games are played.
The league's bouncer is an ex-featherweight boxer named Dick Marquis, who also happens to be its founder and president. The stat crew is very efficient but tends to get confused when Sidney Wicks, the fine Portland forward, insists on suiting up for two different teams. Bedlam prevailed at midseason when the Lakers-Rockets and Trailblazers-Pacers changed into the Lakers-Trailblazers and Pacers-Rockets and began quarreling over which should be where in the standings.
While the players may fume over the standings, they often seem less than charged up about getting to the games. Early in the summer the NBA Stars vs. the ABA Stars was to be televised over a local cable network. Just before warmup lime Marquis discovered that only three ABA players had appeared. He went foraging in the stands and found Jerry Pender, a 6'4" former Fresno State guard who had his equipment bag with him just in case absenteeism would give him an opportunity to prove he never should have been cut by Chicago and San Diego. His play on that and subsequent nights won him a contract with Portland.
Last summer Bernie Fryer of Brigham Young was impressive enough that Portland grabbed him; he averaged 20 minutes a game in the 1973-74 season. Swen Nater, a second-string center at UCLA, was the 1974 ABA Rookie of the Year for San Antonio, and many scouts credit his rapid development to his experience in the Cal State league.
The New Orleans Jazz, newest member of the NBA, has taken the unusual step of sending an entire team and Coach Scotty Robertson to California. The Jazz hopes to get an early line on such draftees as Aaron James of Grambling and Ed Searcy of St. John's and to reevaluate such veterans as Center Dennis Awtrey. In essence New Orleans is enjoying the longest training camp ever. Since the competition is so varied and good, it is also probably the best.
"It's an excellent thing for NBA teams, and more and more they're taking advantage of it," says Jazz General Manager Bill Bertka. "It gives first- and second-year men experience and it gives clubs a good look at rookies."
If a pro team wants half a roster, it must kick in $1,000 to help defray league expenses, which have exceeded income every year. The Jazz put up $2,000 plus the cost of transporting and housing its coach and players. Indeed, Phoenix regards the league so highly that it flies its players in for each game.
The league is owned by Marquis, ex-Air Force navigator Mike Betterton, Phoenix Forward Keith Erickson and Jerry Chambers, a free agent after six years in the NBA and ABA. They are not exactly hard-nosed businessmen. Tickets cost only $2 for adults and $1 for kids, but the gym has never been filled. The gate receipts, the proceeds from a yearbook that sells for a dollar and the money from pro teams is all the income there is. The rest is outgo. Cable TV pays nothing for broadcast rights. Marquis let four Boston Celtics join the league but has not demanded payment from the team. Revenue from concessions goes to charity. The championship team receives a $1,500 purse, even though proceeds from the playoffs are donated to the Southern California Kidney Foundation. Marquis estimates he has dropped about $20,000 in four years.
Mack Calvin of the Denver Rockets, an All-ABA guard and three-time Most Valuable Player in the summer league, has done something rare for an athlete. To help Marquis defray expenses Calvin has turned down money he has won in the league.
"The exposure has been great for me," he says. "There are so many NBA scouts who've never seen me play. In the ABA it's like I'm over on the other side of the Iron Curtain. I know of no other guy willing to work as hard as Marquis has to put the league together. It's amazing what he's accomplished, and he's done it by taking money out of his own pocket when he couldn't afford it."
Marquis, who has a wife and five children, dreams that his enterprise will pick up a sponsor, and that the NBA and ABA will merge and make the Cal State gym the official summer resort for every pro prospect in the nation.