When people in Newport talk about "the season," they're referring to the part of the year when the rest of the world peers into their seaside mansions and takes Instamatic pictures of their sleek yachts. These people use only Bain de Soleil spray to achieve their perfect tans; they take an equally dim view of Claus von Billow and loud radio music; and when the season ends, they all go to Palm Beach to rest their seersuckers. When Newporters talk about "the season," they are surely not referring to the schedule of the new United States Basketball League and its highly visible Newport franchise, the Rhode Island Gulls. The Gulls, whose season began May 25 and runs until the middle of August, have generated a lively following among both the tourists and the townies, but there is some doubt whether the true blue bloods have been making it to the games. "They be too busy sailing, I guess," sniffs Spud Webb, the Gulls' top scorer.
It is probably fitting that little Rhode Island should be the biggest name in the down-sized USBL. Although there are only seven teams this year, the league plans to add as many as 15 next season, selling them like fast-food franchises. "We're the McDonald's of professional sports," says league founder Daniel Meisenheimer III of Orange, Conn. No one knows yet if the fledgling league will embrace the popular drive-through window concept, but there's already a move afoot to offer a free shake and a large order of fries with any purchase of a season ticket.
The Gulls have a little bit of everything that makes the USBL what it is, including a center who is very big and, at the same time, Manute; a guard who is minute but plays very big; and a high-revving forward named Hot Rod, who these days is living his life minute to minute. At center is 7'6¾" Manute Bol, the Dinka tribesman from the Sudan who has Newport opponents dancing a nervous two-step every time they come into the lane. Webb, a 5'7" guard from North Carolina State, leads the team in scoring (21.3 points per game). The Gulls' best all-around player is forward John (Hot Rod) Williams, late of Tulane and the police blotter, who is awaiting trial on two counts of sports bribery and three of conspiracy to commit sports bribery in New Orleans.
The 6'10" Williams is being paid $15,000 this season by the Gulls, which, depending upon how you look at these things, may not seem like a lot of money, but is $5,000 more than he has told authorities he once received from a booster to play at Tulane.
"I was looking for playing ball anywhere," Williams says. "I didn't care where. I had in my mind to go to the first place that likes me and lets me play ball this summer."
The Gulls have had their own leadership problems. The team's first owner was a 27-year-old Boston financial planner named Phil Stillman, whose operation of the franchise forced the league to step in and take control of it a month before the season started. Stillman then disappeared. "I don't know what ever happened to him," said Kevin Stacom, the ex-Celtic player who is the team's coach and general manager.
The team is playing its games in Newport not as part of any grand design but because Providence seemed too big. "We figured, why not put it in Newport, where you've already got a summer community, and build on that," says Stacom, who played for Providence College in the early 1970s. For the first several months of the franchise's existence, it was run out of the Dockside Saloon, a bar Stacom co-owns. Stacom says he has never even watched a complete episode of the TV show Cheers—upon which his life is based in part.
The Gulls had only five days of training camp before their first game, and Stacom had to miss half of those practices because he had to tend to the team's tangled business affairs. The roster has been such a revolving door that two players who were starters in the Gulls' first game were later cut. Forward Martin Clark is the team's second-leading scorer at 20.3 points a game and is playing a lot of minutes. In 1984 Clark was temporarily suspended from Boston College's team when his frustration over a reduction in playing time erupted into a shoving match on the bench with coach Gary Williams late in a game with Syracuse.
Bol has been the biggest addition to the league, in every sense of the word. He signed his $25,000 USBL summer contract in a locker room just minutes before the league's historic opener at Springfield on May 25, then went out and blocked 16 shots. After Bol renounced the remainder of his college eligibility in April, the USBL's attitude toward him was that if you could ink a Dinka dunker, do.
Bol had played creditably in his only season at the University of Bridgeport, but he made an ill-advised appearance in an all-star game between New England Division I players and those from Divisions II and III. He wasn't sharp and he allowed himself to be pushed around. "There were some scouts there, and the book on Manute after that was that a bunch of guys had muscled him around," says Stacom. "I think playing with us has helped him prove he can handle himself against big, strong guys."
Bol has never backed away from a worthy adversary. When he was 15 and still living in the village of Gogrial in the Sudan, a lion slaughtered one of the cows in the herd Bol was tending. Manute was frightened after he found the carcass, so for the next several days he carried a spear with him when he went into the bush. After nearly a week he came upon the lion, asleep in a thicket. Bol hurled his spear at the lion with all of his strength, then hid under a bush—a very large bush—until the beast was dead. "If it was not sleeping," says Bol, "I cannot do it because that lion might kill me."
Don Nelson, the coach of the Milwaukee Bucks, who recently spent five days in Newport scouting Manute and his teammates, was often as dumbfounded by what he heard as by what he saw. "We have the number 22 pick in the draft, and we have to consider him very seriously," Nelson says. "But when you talk to him, you suddenly realize that this kid hasn't been out of the jungle very long. I mean, people just don't go around killing lions with spears anymore. Things he has done are supposed to only happen in the movies."
Bol always has the slightly bemused look on his face of the bewildered bushman in the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy, and like the bushman he is very much a stranger in a strange land. There are remarkably few 7'6¾" black shepherds living in Newport, which confers upon Bol a considerable notoriety. Like most of the Gulls players, Bol has no car and is stuck out in a student apartment complex 20 minutes from downtown Newport, but he still manages to get around.
"Manute is everywhere, and nobody knows how he gets there," says Webb. "You go to practice, he's already there. You go to the game, he's already there. So you ask him how he got there, and he'll say, 'Little man, I get here. Telephone, don't walk.' Then he just laughs. Nobody knows yet what that last part means. Manute talk all funny like that."
Bol actually speaks English quite well, and is at ease jabbering away with strangers who approach him on the street. Even in an era when 7-footers are becoming increasingly commonplace, Bol's height is so phenomenal he's frequently gawked at and studied as if he were a sideshow attraction. And yet through it all he remains engaging and surprisingly serene, almost regal—his royal highness. "You don't have to bother yourself," Bol says of his height, "because God give it to you. I don't get mad."
The only occasions upon which Bol usually does get upset is when other teams try to shove him around under the basket, which, because of his skinny frame, is most of the time. Bol has a flat-footed reach of 10'3", and from fingertip to fingertip his remarkable wingspan measures almost eight feet. Not only can Bol dunk a ball without jumping, but he can stand beneath the basket and grasp both sides of the backboard at once. However, he weighs only 190 pounds.
"I'd be afraid that if somebody in our league hit him, he'd break like a grasshopper does," says Dallas Mavericks coach Dick Motta, one of about a dozen NBA types in Newport last week as they made last-minute inspections of potential choices in this week's draft. "An arm here, a leg over there."
An arm here and a leg there is precisely what Bol shows any shooter reckless enough to try to penetrate the Gulls' zone defense. "In 23 years in the game," says Nelson, who played on three championship teams with Bill Russell in Boston, "he's the most amazing shot blocker I've ever seen.
"I imagine Russell might have done some of the things Manute can do when he first came into the league, but I never saw him block more than five or six shots in a game. This kid is averaging just under 13 blocked shots a game," says Nelson. "If you called any general manager in the NBA and told him you had a player who could block 10 shots a game if he played 40 minutes a night, I guarantee he'd take him, sight unseen. Manute could do that. Of course, you might lose every game, because he wouldn't be a factor otherwise."
"Manute affects a game in a way most people can't even conceive until they actually see him," says Stacom. "There's never been anyone like him, so there's no frame of reference for a player like Manute. For instance, one of the first things you learn in sports is that if what you're doing is successful, you keep doing it. So guys are taking 15-foot jump shots against us, and he's blocking them. They just keep right on taking the same shots because in their minds they don't believe it's possible for him to be doing what he does.
"What people tend to forget," adds Stacom, "is that Manute is to a 7-footer what a 7-footer is to a player 6'4". He doesn't have to go for fakes, he just waits for the shooter to come to him. And he's not like a lot of American players who want to swat a shot into the stands as a macho kind of thing. He's not interested in embarrassing anybody. He blocks the shot in a way that puts it right into transition for our running game."
And every time that happens, another notch goes up on the Manute block board, which the Gulls keep at each end of the Rogers High School gym floor during home games. Karolyn Walsh was diligently working one board last week. "Nobody tells us when to put one up," Karolyn said. "It's just something you know, you know?" But with two boards and no formal communications link, how do they keep the Block Boards in sync? "We just, like, signal to each other and say, 'Was that one, or what?' "
All the signals out of Newport say, "Is this a wild and crazy team, or what?"