Long after the game, the professional basketball players were commingling, as is their way. The visitors, some late of the Boston Celtics, the New Orleans Jazz and the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, were still dressed in the uniform of the Reno Bighorns, waiting for the van back to the motel. The home team, represented by Guard Brad Davis and his fiancèe, Michelle Baylos, paused at the door of the arena. Davis, late of the Los Angeles Lakers and the Fabulous Forum but now of the Montana Sky and the C. M. Russell Fieldhouse, and Baylos were all the rage in their closely matching boots, mittens, scarves, sweaters, parkas and woolen caps. Just the same, they were pausing at the door because mere clothes might not be enough outside in Great Falls, Mont., where it was approximately 800° below zero and the grizzlies were dropping like flies.
"Hollywood to the Arctic, Hollywood to the Arctic. Right, Brad?" a Reno Bighorn called as Davis peered into the snowdrifts.
"You got it," Michelle said. "Ferrari to four-wheel drive. L.A. to nowhere. Great Falls? This isn't a town. This is a jail term."
Actually it was not a jail term, either, but simply the end of another wonderful evening in the WBA, which is not to be confused with the NBA or even the ASPCA, although sometimes you can't tell the woofers without a program. WBA stands for Western Basketball Association, the newest and most ambitious of the minor leagues to spring up around the National Basketball Association.
Wait a minute, a person of reasonable sanity might exclaim. The NBA. Isn't that the league that is losing spectators, losing TV ratings, losing interest, losing, losing, losing and just held an all-star game without Bernard King for goodness sakes? Right. And now, there's a minor league just like it? Right again. Only the WBA has it all over the NBA in bizarreness. Bush-league NBA beginnings? Chicken feed. The WBA wasn't one game old when Billy Martin, who was in Reno to pump up attendance for the Bighorns' opener, instead pumped up his famous right fist and attacked a sportswriter. Instant notoriety.
NBA coach quits at midseason? Nothin'. WBA players quit at halftime. What about that NBA corporate fiasco starring Roy Boe? Why, compared to the WBA guys, he's merely a low-class bungler. Last week in the WBA, James Speed, a 6'7" blind man who originally owned the Las Vegas Dealers, terminated his involvement, folding the Dealers, in a manner of speaking, whereupon the league quickly came up with some "potential" new corporate blood, including Steve Huffaker, the Clark County assistant public defender, and "Panama Bill" Armstrong, who wears a Panama hat. Don't ask why.
Last Wednesday, after Speed had canceled the Dealers' game with the Washington Lumberjacks, the team went ahead and played anyway under the league's guardianship, charged no admission, won 126-125 and drew 250 people despite a sudden snowstorm that closed everything in Las Vegas except Wayne Newton's mouth.
Then on Friday, Panama Bill huddled with WBA President Neil Christiansen under a keno scoreboard in a hotel coffee shop to discuss a possible investment. That night, for a game against Reno, Huffaker, the public defender, took over the PA duties, announced the 24-second countdowns in lieu of a shot clock (which Speed kept) and then used the mike to introduce buxom cheerleaders, infant ball boys, puzzled journalists and practically everybody else in the "crowd" who was breathing. Afterward, President Christiansen went on the radio and called the WBA "the second-greatest league in the entire world."
Buffoonery, naivetè and attendance figures aside, in just a few short months the WBA has done what its executive director, Larry Creger, says it set out to do, namely, "position itself in the market." Not as a rival of the NBA. thank heaven. Not even as a new ABA—although the league has revived the old three-point basket and no-foul-out rule. "We're a bare step down from the NBA." says Creger, a former assistant coach in both the NBA and ABA.
What this means is that the WBA, which has a 60-game schedule and seven franchises—Tucson, Salt Lake City, Fresno and the Washington state tri-cities of Richland. Kennewick and Pasco, in addition to Las Vegas, Reno and Great Falls—already has established itself as the NBA's most valid farm system. It is a place where draft failures and fringe veterans together with spot-and role-players can hone their skills in an atmosphere of good coaching, suitable airplane travel, respectable lodgings and regular paychecks. Then on those numerous occasions when an NBA team loses a player to injury, dog bites or airsickness, a general manager can pluck a replacement from a WBA team.
This is what the Phoenix Suns did to obtain Ted McClain from Reno; what the Denver Nuggets did to obtain John Kuester, also from Reno; what the San Diego Clippers did to get John Olive from Tucson; and what the Milwaukee Bucks did two weeks ago when they needed a shooting guard to fill in for injured Brian Winters. They went straight to the Utah Prospectors for the WBA's leading scorer, Sudden Sam Smith.
In Sudden Sam's first NBA game, in Los Angeles, he unleashed a quarter-ending, lunging, leaning, 45-foot shot from the side—a WBA specialty—which banked off the glass and through the hoop just as Smith's face was embedding itself in the Forum floorboards. After they scraped Sudden Sam off the court. Laker play-by-play man Chick Hearn roared. "Well, fans, now we know why they call him Sudden Sam."
Since the 1976 merger and before the WBA, the only options for players like these were to play in Europe (and inevitably become lost or abandoned) or to go to the Continental Association, which is nothing but the old Eastern League (plus the Anchorage Northern Knights), basically a part-time, weekend endeavor, although the schedule includes some midweek games this season.
Reno Center Clint Chapman, formerly of Southern Cal, who recently played for the Rochester Zeniths of the Continental Association, says there is no comparison between the two leagues. "You don't feel like a professional there." he says. "We traveled six to 10 hours in a Winnebago and sometimes dressed in it. There's not much hope, nothing to point to. This league is so much more pro. There's more NBA scouts out here. I mean, scouts would rather go to Vegas than to Allen-town, you know what I'm sayin'? When that wind started whipping off the Atlantic Ocean in Rochester, I was gone."
Chapman's unique sense of geography must have come in handy when the Bighorns began a WBA-style, three-day road trip by flying from Reno to Great Falls by way of Seattle, Spokane and Kalispell, Mont., a six-hour trek. Upon arrival, Chapman refused to admit Great Falls was colder than Rochester, possibly because he never left his motel room, which was rumored to have a marvelous view of the Pacific. For whatever reasons, in Reno's 108-104 victory, Chapman went scoreless for what he said was "the first time, lifetime."
In Great Falls who should turn up firing jumpers from a nearby ice floe but Cazzie Russell, the ex-Knick, ex-Laker, ex-Warrior, ex-Bull and current all-round ageless wonder now performing for the Montana Sky. Russell, who is actually only 34, scored 17 points in a losing cause and said, "It's cool. The people are astounded by me being here. They think I'm doing them a favor. But I'm loving it. The game's in my blood. I don't want to be put out to pasture. When Red Holzman got the Knick job, I had visions of winding up my career in the Big Apple. But if I don't get back up top, that's cool, too. This league is a real trip. To go home to L.A. from here, my flight originates in Canada."
When Russell signed up for the Sky at a $10,000 salary—the league, limits team payrolls to $82,000—he gave the WBA instant identity. Yet there are more than 20 younger players in the league who also have been in the NBA at one time or another. Some—like McClain—have come and gone back up. Others—like Derrek Dickey—have come and disappeared. (Shortly after Dickey quit the Bighorns he won $23,000 for a third-place finish in a racquetball tournament. Now he's helping his wife, who is running a beauty salon.)
The Reno team alone has undergone 21 player changes while hanging up a 24-14 record, testimony to Coach Bill Musselman's stable leadership, defensive teachings and passing-game offense, which has tended at times to dominate a league overpopulated by perimeter gunners. Tucson's Herb Brown, Fresno's Bucky Buckwalter and Las Vegas' Larry Jones are other capable WBA coaches who have sampled life in the bigs and want back in.
Musselman, the former University of Minnesota head man who took early retirement when he resigned as coach of the Virginia ABA franchise three years ago, returned from a life of leisure, he says, simply because "I missed coaching and being with the players." However, his intensity on the bench and the ability to motivate hardly conceal a fiery desire to prove himself at a higher level. Matured both in his on-and off-court attitudes, Musselman seems less uptight, more cordial, and resigned to the frustrations of coaching. "This is an easy job because everybody is hungry; I trust these guys," Musselman says.
Because of Musselman's newfound tranquillity, the Reno club has escaped the problems present on other squads, where NBA egos have clashed with WBA realities. For instance, Utah's Bruce Seals (ex-Seattle Sonic) confronted Coach Dick Nemelka at halftime when he felt he wasn't getting enough playing time. Seals: "If you don't play me, I'm going home." Nemelka: "Bye, bye." Plagued by the same thoughts and instructed to take an end-of-the-half shot, Fresno's Tony Robertson (ex-Atlanta) instead placed the ball on the floor, walked away and let time expire. "I couldn't get it off," said Robertson, who is known to have gotten them off cross-country when he was so inclined. Robertson was suspended for several weeks.
"We see a lot of players in street clothes after halftime," Musselman says.
Though vaguely familiar names dot the rosters of the WBA, what the league aspires to be is a showcase for the young and unknown who need just a bit of seasoning to make it in the big time. Center Jeff Cook and Forward Walter Jordan of Washington, forwards Jackie Robinson and Stan Rome of Las Vegas, guards Glen Williams of Tucson, Duck Williams of Reno and Davis of Great Falls are such players. And so is Reno's Randy Ayers, a 6'6" rookie out of Miami of Ohio, who may be the most fundamentally sound player in the league.
After helping Miami to its stunning upset of Marquette in last year's NCAA tournament and being drafted in the third round by the Chicago Bulls, Ayers was cut. "You will never show me a 10th or 11th man in the NBA who does all the things this kid can do," says Musselman. "He's strong, tough, quick, unselfish, plays solid D, works hard and is a dream to coach. I can't believe nobody can use him up there." In three games last week Ayers made 32 of 60 shots, scored 72 points and added a bushel of rebounds and assists. Included was a 28-point tango all over the wizened visage of the semi-jazzy Cazzie.
"This league is a right-time, right-place deal for me," Ayers says. "We all feel we're just a step away. We look at every NBA team and wonder why some guys are where they are. When Sudden Sam or somebody else gets called up, it gives everybody hope that he'll be next. That's why we play hard every night."
This is another measure of the WBA—48 minutes of intensity. Reno's Gus Bailey, a veteran of two NBA teams, Houston and New Orleans, says, "Everyone knows the superstars in the NBA wait till the fourth quarter to play. We go all-out from the tip-off to the final gun. What it's all about is opportunity."
Possibly it is the fault of the weather, but the opportunities in Montana seem to be wasted more often than not.
Just after halftime of Montana's very first game, Center Edmund Lawrence stood on the sideline gazing into the stands and drinking a soda pop. This would have been peculiar enough, but unbeknown to Lawrence the game was well under way and he was supposed to be playing in it. Sky Coach Bill Klucas had to scream at Lawrence three times before he would run onto the floor. Needless to say, Lawrence was soon gone. After the Sky got off to a 3-17 start, however, so was Klucas. Montana co-owner Al Donohue, in the absence of co-owner Charley Pride—yes, that Charley Pride, of Kiss an Angel Good Mornin' country-and-western hit record fame—fired Klucas and brought in Rex Hughes. Lucky Hughes.
Last week, during a game against Utah, Hughes heard some unmerciful razzing. When he peered down the bench he discovered it had come from one of his own players, Ray Epps. As the team walked off at halftime, Hughes inquired of Epps what the story was, and the two proceeded to push and jostle one another. Before or after Epps could get off a punch—eyewitness reports were shaky at best—Hughes suspended him on the spot. Upon hearing this, Pride, who was presumed to be closely following his team's progress from the fairways of the Bing Crosby Pro-Am, must have felt as if he had kissed a frog good evenin'. Or been punched by Billy Martin.
The Reno Bighorns, one of the WBA powers, are also big deals at a Las Vegas blackjack table.
Montana is Big Sky country and for ebullient Cazzie Russell, 34, there's never a cloud in sight.
Coaches have their aspirations, too. Reno's Bill Musselman is looking for a trip back to the bigs.