The door closed and the room grew suddenly quiet as coach Denny Hovanec turned from the blackboard to face his Las Vegas Silver Streaks. He looked pale and agitated, and his voice rose like the hot summer wind blowing off the desert floor outside. "Consider yourselves very fortunate," said Hovanec. "We haven't done anything for 20 minutes of basketball, and we're down only five. We haven't played basketball at all. It was ugly out there. This Illinois team is going to bust your ass for a whole 20 minutes more. They ain't laying down."
It was halftime of a recent game against the Illinois Express, and the Streaks were down 61-56 and looking for all the world as if they were ready to call it a night. The two teams, each with a 12-5 record, were tied for first place in the World Basketball League, a five-team professional venture—the Calgary 88's, the Worcester (Mass.) Counts and the Youngstown (Ohio) Pride are the other three—that has been struggling through its second year of play, but surviving. The 1989 season, during which each team will play 44 regular-season games, began on May 5 and will conclude in early September.
This particular summer league has some intriguing wrinkles, the most significant of which is that all players must be under 6'5". To be exact, no one can stand taller than 6'4‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬™". Players near the cutoff height are measured lying down—on their backs, with their knees locked—to discourage slouchers. The height limit does not apply to the six foreign teams—from the Soviet Union, Italy, Greece, Holland, Finland and Norway—that were invited to play a handful of games as touring members of the league this summer. In the league standings, they are lumped together as the Internationals.
Not that their formidable advantage in altitude has done them any good; the U.S.S.R. and Greece each went 0-10 in their recently completed tours, and the Italians won only one of five games before they went Alitalia. Through July 16, the foreign visitors had a collective record of 1-26—the Dutch are 0-2—leaving behind a message for the Finns and Norwegians, who are scheduled to arrive later: Don't bother to bring the big, slow-moving 7-foot guys, around whom the Americans run rings. Instead, bring along your fast-breakin', shot-makin', lane-drivin' runners and gunners and dribblers and leapers.
Gas drives the game in this league. "The foreign teams have not been able to keep up with the speed of the North American teams," says WBL commissioner Steven Ehrhart. "The speed eventually wears them down. The big guys can't keep up."
"These smaller guys are like antelopes," says Bob Griggas, the Streaks' assistant coach. And at times they look just as disorganized—as the Streaks had in the first half against Illinois at UNLV's Thomas & Mack Center. On that Sunday night, Hovanec, a former graduate assistant at UNLV, scanned the locker room until his eyes found 6'2" Freddie Banks, who had contributed only four points and one assist before intermission. This was the Freddie Banks who in 1987 had helped lead UNLV to the Final Four in New Orleans, where the Runnin' Rebels lost 97-93 in the semis to eventual champion Indiana. Banks had 38 points against the Hoosiers, 30 on three-pointers. He was drafted in the second round by the Detroit Pistons but was cut and then failed to make the Denver Nuggets. Last year Banks joined the Streaks.
"If I weren't doing this, I'd be working as a slot host at Bally's casino," says Banks. "Just walking around and trying to get people to play the slots."
On this night he looked as if he were playing with one arm himself. "Freddie, I need you to start shooting, son!" said Hovanec. "If you don't start shooting, you're absolutely useless to me. Take over! Start knocking the ball down. Have fun with the game."
Banks averted his eyes, and Hovanec turned to 6'3" Daren Queenan, a Lehigh grad and the school's alltime leading scorer (2,703 points) and rebounder (1,013). In the final two minutes of the half, Queenan had committed an offensive foul under the boards that had Hovanec grimacing in the locker room. "Q!" yelled Hovanec. "That was a great call the official made against you. You're dipping your body. Just lay the ball up. Nobody can stop you inside, Q. Get your deuce and get out."
Queenan nodded. "Kenny!" cried Hovanec. Kenny Wilson, a 5'9" guard and Villanova's career assist leader with 627, raised his head. "You can't be playing half-speed in this league. You can't be cute with these guys, Kenny. They'll bury you. Everyone: Set good screens and move. Move. Move. Create good shots for yourself. Keep your heads in the game. This is for first place. You're in for a battle. They'll try to come at you and hurt you."
The players huddled in the middle of the room, clasped hands, bellowed, "Streaks," in unison and pushed out the door. The 1,202 fans that greeted their return to the arena looked like stragglers waiting for the traffic to clear after a UNLV game, the sparse attendance underscoring the WBL's major problem. The crowds in Vegas have ranged this season from the 1,450 who saw the Streaks whip Calgary 142-133 on June 4 to the 4,920 who witnessed their team's 119-108 victory over the Soviets 10 days later. The annual budget per team ranges from $750,000 to $1 million (players make between $12,000 and $20,000 per season), and each franchise is losing several hundred thousand dollars a year.
The league received some financial relief this season by signing a three-year, $2.1 million contract with SportsChannel America, a national cable network. Twenty-seven games—including the July 12 All-Star Game in Las Vegas, which was attended by 10,550 fans, and 12 games involving the foreign clubs—are being televised.
The WBL is hoping that its international flavor will appeal to American audiences. According to Ehrhart, Soviet officials, seeking stiffer competition for their players, recently proposed installing a team in an American city for the entire WBL season next year.
At least, reasons the commissioner, with the Soviet government behind it, the team would be unlikely to fold. Two clubs from last season, the Vancouver Nighthawks and the Fresno Flames, packed it in over the winter, and the Silver Streaks, without an owner this year, are being supported by the league.
The league is getting its money's worth. WBL players bound through each game as if it were their last, and though games are only 40 minutes long, scores routinely soar into triple digits. "Basketball wasn't set up for guys 7'1" or 7'2"," says 6'4" Jamie Waller, who as of Sunday was the league's leading scorer, with a 23.2 average. "If it was, the basket would be 12 feet high. The game was invented for guys my size."
Unlike most players in the league, Waller, who played college ball at Virginia Union, made it to the NBA—he played for the New Jersey Nets for two months of the 1987-88 season—and he thinks often, and wistfully, of getting the call again. "I lift weights every other day," he says. "I have a good shot. But if push comes to shove, I'll get out. I'll work with little kids who need me."
Nearly every WBL player shares Waller's dream of playing in the League, as they call the NBA, and they see this summer game as another gymnasium for honing their skills and hanging up numbers that might get them noticed. Since leaving college, many WBL players have recycled themselves through the Continental Basketball Association, whose season roughly coincides with the NBA's. The Streaks' 5'10½" point guard. Cedric Hunter, who attended Kansas, will go that route again this fall. He played in the CBA two years ago, the WBL last summer and the CBA again last winter. He believes that the WBL has made him a better player.
"When I went to the CBA after summer ball, I felt fast running the break, faster making decisions," he says. "It seemed like the game got easier. When you're playing around quicker guys, you learn to make quicker decisions. It keeps your game fine-tuned."
No Streak has been tuning his game longer than 6'4" Zack Jones, who, at 28, is the oldest player on the team. Jones's journey through basketball's minor leagues has taken him from Pensacola in the CBA to New Zealand, where he played for two years. "It was like playing in paradise—or San Diego," says Jones, who starred at San Diego State.
But no Las Vegas player has quite trotted the globe like 6'4" Johnny Brown. 26, who has played in nearly as many places as Hamlet: the Philippines, Cincinnati, England, France, Taipei, Tokyo, Italy and Qatar. Brown, who went to New Mexico, even played in a basketball tournament in Casablanca. "I scored 49 points the first night," he says. "I also went into a piano bar in Casablanca, and I told the piano player, 'Play it again, Sam,' but he just smiled."
Now Brown is playing hoops in Las Vegas, but no one was smiling on the Streaks' side of the scoring table in the waning seconds of the Express game. After trailing throughout the third quarter, the home team came back in the fourth. With six seconds left, the Streaks had a 118-116 lead, when former New York Knick guard Sedric Toney dropped a jumper for Illinois to tie the game and send it into overtime.
The ending was quintessential WBL. Under league rules, the first team to score seven points in OT wins. Las Vegas jumped out to a 4-0 lead, but the Express closed to within one, at 4-3. Then forward Marty Simmons, from Evansville, sank two free throws to put Illinois in front 5-4.
After the Streaks blew three chances to score, Banks went up for a three-pointer and Toney fouled him. The play invoked another wrinkle in WBL rules. A player fouled on a three-point attempt gets three free throws. That meant that Banks had a chance to win the game at the line. This was his kind of moment. In college he was known as Fearless Freddie for winning games in the clutch. Alas, Banks's first shot lipped out of the rim, and he missed the second. He sank the third to even the score at 5-5, and the Express took the ball out of bounds.
"We don't deserve to win this!" Hovanec told his troops. He was correct. Illinois got the ball to 6'4" Alfrederick Hughes, who left Loyola in 1985 as the fifth-leading scorer in NCAA history. Hughes had been unstoppable all night, having completed regulation play with 33 points and 18 rebounds, and he was unstoppable now. His baseline jumper gave the Express a 7-5 victory.
"An exciting game, wasn't it?" Hovanec said in spite of his frustration.
Play it again, guys.