Dreams were for sale on the floor, while up in the stands clusters of potential buyers looked over the goods and jotted notations in preparation for next month's NBA draft. The pro basketball world can be a flesh market at times, and last week in Cincinnati the marketplace was humming.
The 17,900 seats in the Riverfront Coliseum were deserted, save for the scattered men with their omnipresent note pads—the emissaries of the NBA, as well as representatives from the Harlem Globetrotters and several minor leagues. The casting call had been made by Ron Grinker, a Cincinnati lawyer. "Schleppers," he calls the auditioning players—that is, guys who are good, but not good enough to rate a star on an NBA shopping list.
Most of the 32 players were Grinker's clients and had paid their own expenses, although one, Tony Price, of the University of Pennsylvania, was sponsored by two unspecified NBA teams. Price led Penn to the final four in the recent NCAA basketball tournament, but because his airplane connections were fouled up, he didn't play in the Aloha Classic, one of the major postseason all-star games in which many pro prospects receive their final marks. Forward Sam Drummer of Georgia Tech also was in Cincinnati. In Hawaii he had played so poorly that he was looking for redemption. Drummer is from Muncie, Ind., also the home of Ron Bonham, who starred for two NCAA championship teams at the University of Cincinnati in the early '60s. Bonham returned to Muncie after a short career in the NBA and took a job with the town's recreation department. "He ran a swimming pool," says Drummer, hoping for a better fate.
There are other showcase camps around the country, but none is on the scale of Grinker's, which features seven different workouts over a four-day period. There were free uniforms and shoes for the players, the Riverfront Coliseum didn't charge rent and NBA referees Mike Mathis and Blane Reichelt worked without a fee. The players were split into three teams and had their own coaches: Rick Pitino of Boston University, Gene Littles of North Carolina A&T and Stan Evans, a former assistant coach at Indiana State.
May 20, 1979
The coaches in the stands included Gene Shue of San Diego, New York's Red Holzman, New Jersey's Kevin Loughery and Tom Nissalke of Houston. Vice-President Wayne Embry of Milwaukee and General Managers Pat Williams of Philadelphia and Charles Theokas of New Jersey also were there, joining an array of assistant coaches and scouts that included Al Menendez of Detroit, Boston's K. C. Jones, and Chicago's Gene Tormohlen. Seventeen of the 22 NBA teams were represented, although they know that third- or fourth-round draft choices rarely contribute to building a winner. But as Shue said, "You never know where you'll find a player."
You surely don't. Randy Smith of San Diego was a seventh-round choice nine years ago; Bob Dandridge of Washington was a fourth-round pick in 1969; Steve Mix of the 76ers was a fifth-round choice the same year; and Mickey Johnson of the Chicago Bulls went in the fourth round in 1974.
This was the fifth year that Grinker conducted what he rather immodestly calls "The Ronald L. Grinker Showcase of NBA Prospects." And together with the collegians, also present were free agents such as Derrek Dickey, Randy Ayers and borderline NBA players such as Detroit's Andre Wakefield and Denver's John Kuester, who may be shopping for new teams next season.
Grinker's showcase can be productive. Tommy Green, a guard from Southern University, was impressive at the 1978 camp and was drafted by New Orleans early in the second round. "He was the 30th guard in the country before the camp, and afterwards he was rated the third best," Grinker says, fudging his figures a bit.
Grinker is 39, the object of gentle jokes about his short, portly body, and a basketball fanatic who didn't play on his high school team. In college he wore the Bearcat head as a mascot for the University of Cincinnati. Now he is one of the game's leading gossips, represents about 40 pro basketball and football players—Boston's Cedric Maxwell and Chicago's John Mengelt are among his best-known basketball clients—and also does legal work for coaches and general managers.
Grinker hesitates to call himself an "agent," insisting on the designation of attorney. "I don't do this for a living," he says. "Of course, my wife wants to throw me out of the house when my phone rings at 1:30 a.m. But I like it. I guess it's the action." One of his law partners is Gerald Springer, a Cincinnati councilman and the city's former mayor. The firm handles malpractice suits.
Last week Grinker wore either a Boston Celtics shirt or a Pony warmup suit. He was delighted when Jack McMahon, an assistant coach with the 76ers, presented him with a framed menu from a restaurant in which they had dined in Hawaii during the Aloha Classic, and many nights he was up until 2 a.m. or later visiting with the pro people. Grinker expansively refers to himself as "one of the top three honest people in the league" and is proud to note that Red Auerbach, who rates agents a despicable species, smokes nine-inch cigars that Grinker sends him. "Red is one of my best friends," says Grinker.
Grinker works hard on his image. In this respect, he likes to bring up the case of Rick Apke of Creighton, who once was at Grinker's camp although vacillating between a pro career and medical school. Grinker, as well as the player's father, Jerry, tried to persuade Rick to go to school. "Dad, I have to see if I can play," Apke said. The New Jersey Nets gave him a tryout last fall, and after rookie camp he felt he had a chance to make the NBA. "Thanks," he told the Nets. "I'm going to medical school." Says his father, "Once he found out he could play, that was it."
Not knowing would be the worst of all, which is why Pop Green was in Cincinnati last week. Green is a 6'3" guard from Southern University who earned his nickname as a child because of a fondness for Rice Krispies. "It stuck in basketball because I was always popping those nets," said Green, a good outside shooter with speed. He was one of the last players cut by the Knicks last year and since then has worked out every day at his home in Baton Rouge, "trying to improve all aspects of my complete game."
Green is almost plaintive about his desire to play pro ball. "I wish that I could get a chance to prove myself. My friends and family have encouraged me to keep on because maybe someday I could become a great basketball player and an inspiration to people," he says.
In Cincinnati Green's budget was pitifully thin. He couldn't afford a return airplane ticket to Baton Rouge, was staying in a cheap motel, ate $2 meals at local diners, and walked back and forth from his room to the early workouts at the Jewish Community Center a mile away. He spent his free time contemplating his complete game. After a few days, he had only $3. "I don't know how I'm going to get home," he said. He made it back after his parents wired him the money.
Not surprisingly, the free agents showed to the best advantage. Dickey played four and a half seasons in the NBA and was making close to $175,000 before becoming a free agent at the end of last season. He went to camp last fall with the Lakers, was cut again and wound up in the Western Basketball Association. He and Ayers, a WBA teammate, excelled in Cincinnati.
Pat Cummings, drafted last year by the Milwaukee Bucks—he eventually decided to play his senior year at the University of Cincinnati—also was impressive. He was in Grinker's camp so Don Nelson, the coach of the Bucks, could check out his property. Cummings strained an Achilles tendon in one workout, but played well enough so that the Bucks offered him a contract, which he signed.
As the days passed, several other collegians distinguished themselves. Among them were Greg Deane of Utah, the Most Valuable Player in this year's coaches' all-star game in Salt Lake City; Lew Massey from the University of North Carolina-Charlotte; Tom Channel, a former minor league pitcher who scored 35 points for Boston University against Rhode Island last season, and Tiny Pinder of North Carolina State. "Pinder's school is the only one in the country that doesn't reserve tickets for scouts, so he made a good move coming here," Menendez pointed out.
On the court, frivolous behavior was out. The floor was littered with players diving for loose balls. During one scrimmage, Pop Green was shaken up and sprained an ankle. Writhing on the floor, he slapped the court in anger. He limped off to the dressing room, shaking his head bitterly.
Ten minutes later he was back, his ankle taped. "He wants this badly," said Carl Stewart, his college coach who was on the sidelines because five of his former players were in camp. "He knows this is his last shot."
Up in the stands, a more dispassionate observer assessed Pop Green's chances. "I thought he looked a little faster when I saw him last year," the man said. Later, Dickey was asked what the camp would mean to most of the players. "It means," he said, "that it will be the last time they play basketball."