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Original Issue

Playing Out of Their League

A Florida-based AAU team goes on the road to tackle big-time college opponents

On a sleepy sunday morning the rented van barreled along the seemingly endless asphalt of Highway 6. It was on a fast break to the Houston airport and the end of an odyssey: four days of riding the back roads of Louisiana and Texas, a thousand miles on the odometer and a few hundred shots taken by the passengers within. They were nine tired basketball players, all of them a little long in the tooth and a little thick in the middle for this sort of thing.

"I'm physically exhausted when I get back to work after one of these tours," said Bart Savino, 30. "I always think, I need a vacation just to recover from this vacation." He paused. "But what we're doing is something special, and I'm sure to do it all over again."

What Savino and his pals are doing is unique. They are the Green Wave, a Florida AAU team that challenges opponents who are way out of its league.

The Wave was founded five years ago in St. Petersburg by Jim Neader, a 40-year-old sports agent who is a shooting guard and co-captain of the team. Neader recruited a bunch of former high school All-Everythings, who played under the banner of Harvey's 4th Street Grill, and the team quickly became the dominant force in the St. Pete recreation league. In 1989, Neader started thinking bigger. He gathered the players and broached his idea: In addition to playing city-league ball once a week, why not schedule a bunch of college games, with a handful of exhibitions against some truly major schools sprinkled in?

"We thought he was nuts," said Savino, who works in contract management at Honeywell in Clearwater, Fla. "We weren't even in shape, and now we'd be trying to hang in there with guys half our age!"

Neader pressed forward and found that jump-starting his idea was as tough as jump-starting his teammates. Neader realized that he would have to negotiate guarantees with the schools to help cover, travel, room and board. He would have to solicit backing from local businesses for the $2,000 worth of customized uniforms and travel bags that he wanted to buy. And he would have to dip into his own bank account to cover the several thousand dollars in miscellaneous expenses that were bound to crop up. To keep a traveling Green Wave squad afloat, Neader estimated, would cost at least $10,000 a year, and considerably more than that if he wanted the team to travel outside of Florida.

And the Wave would be heavily out-manned and outtrained every time it took the court against a college team. Neader figured the team could field nine or 10 guys per game, depending on who could escape work for the road trips. These weekend warriors would routinely be opposed by 15 well-conditioned college players.

Still, there was the sheer, irresistible audacity of it all. Neader's team voted to make the jump, and surprised itself with a 13-5 record in the fall and winter of '89-90. The Wave's wins included two over Division I colleges: a 72-67 washing of McNeese State in Lake Charles, La., and a 104-100 victory over the University of Central Florida.

Along the way, the Wave was taunted by college students who yelled things like "Geritol!" and "George Foreman Jr.!", watched referees give the bulk of the questionable calls to the home teams, and had to cram into vans for dreary interstate drives that often left little time for pregame warmups. Despite all that, the inaugural season, which included games in Florida, Texas and Louisiana, was judged a success.

"First, we found this was a great way to stay in shape," said Neader. "Second, it gave you a chance to step back from your occupation, clear your mind and come back refreshed. And third, it was a challenge. Here's this little team from St. Petersburg competing with these Division I schools. It was very gratifying."

"It was really exciting for me to be playing at this level," said guard Jeff Hadden, 29, an administrator for Honeywell. A former high school star, Hadden played basketball his freshman year at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., but then transferred to Florida State University to get a business degree, and simply had no time for basketball. He spent the '80s living with regret. Savino, too, saw the road show as a way to make up for missed opportunities. He had suffered an ankle injury in junior college and felt that, subsequently, he had never really put himself to the test on court. Forward Eddie Gibbons, a 39-year-old high school teacher and assistant basketball coach, believed his college coach never gave him a fair shot; now he had one.

Donald (Duck) Williams had no such void to fill; he had been an all-conference forward for the University of Alabama-Huntsville in the late 1970s. But the 6'7", 34-year-old forklift driver had other needs. "I wanted to prove to myself that I could still play," he said. "It really got me going again, like I was back in college."

Forward Tony Brown, 24, a college standout during his years at St. Louis University, just liked the camaraderie of the team. The Wave is lucky he did; Brown led the team in scoring for this '90-91 season, averaging 24 points a game.

The 1989-90 campaign proved most beneficial to Eddie Anderson, the team's playmaking guard. He scored 36 points in the victory over McNeese State. As it happened, scouts from a New Zealand pro team were in the stands, and they promptly signed Anderson to a contract. A part-time stockbroker and a Wave youngster at 24, Anderson now splits his basketball year between hemispheres. He plays out of St. Pete through January, then travels Down Under to play professionally for six months.

After such an auspicious debut for the team, growth and increased slickness were almost inevitable. Neader drummed up donations to cover the $500-per-game fee to telecast games on a local cable-TV station. Working out of his waterfront office, from which he negotiates contracts for clients such as Dwight Gooden and Gary Sheffield, he put together a very ambitious, 36-game schedule for the 1990-91 season. (Gooden, by the way, lives near Neader in St. Pete, and has become an enthusiastic Wave fan, getting all of Neader's reports from the road. "When Jim comes home from a four-day trip and tells me the towns were nice, then I know he didn't score too many points," the Doctor joked while shooting hoops in Neader's driveway recently. "Seriously though, he really knows the sport, and he cares about that team.")

The heart of the Wave's most recent season was a grueling stretch of nine Division I games in 13 days last November. Those contests were bunched together to accommodate the colleges, which are allowed by the NCAA to schedule two exhibitions against club or foreign teams each season. They usually do so in the preseason, as tune-ups. Air Force, Baylor and Texas A&M booked the Green Wave this season. The University of Texas tried to but reached Neader too late. That such formidable programs would schedule the Wave in its sophomore tour is testimony to the team's quickly earned reputation. "They're older, but they really play hard," said Texas A&M assistant coach Billy Kennedy, who drove three hours to scout the Wave the week before A&M was scheduled to play it. "Most teams in exhibitions just don't play that hard, but these guys are talented and they go all out. I told our guys, 'You better play them as if they're Arkansas or you'll get beat.' "

This season, the Wave's expanded road show produced a 28-8 record, with all of the eight losses coming against Division I teams. Neader's men opened their tour on Nov. 7 by beating beleaguered McNeese State yet again, 82-78, for their third big-college triumph. Then things got a bit rougher. Twenty-four hours and 150 driving miles after the McNeese game, Nicholls State of Thibodaux, La., broke loose from a 57—all half-time score and ran the Wave ragged, 145-127.

Neader remembered the day of the Nicholls game as a particularly harrowing one. "I'd just picked up the afternoon paper, and I see this big headline—'Strawberry Signs With Dodgers,' " he said. "So I immediately called my wife, Michelle, and she says, 'You've got calls from all over the country from reporters who want to get a comment from Dwight.' I called back as many of the writers as I could, but Dwight wasn't home in St. Pete, and there just wasn't much I could do from Thibodaux, Louisiana." Michelle, who held the fort during the media barrage, wasn't fazed. In fact, she has put her foot down only once on her husband's hoops career. "Really, I think it's great that he's doing this. It's a big dream for him," she said. "But I told him he couldn't play one game when I was pregnant with Alison. He had a game on her due date, and I said, 'This is one game you'll have to miss.' " Alison is 14 months old now and has a burgeoning interest in basketball. Or so says Dad.

After the frustrations in Thibodaux, it was back in the van and off to Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, 100 miles away. There, on Nov. 9, the Green Wave found itself a showcased guest.

"It was about an hour before our game time when I noticed all these homecoming setups," Neader said. "I asked their student manager, 'So, who does your football team play tomorrow for homecoming?' He tells me, 'We don't have a football team. This is homecoming.' Needless to say, I was in shock."

Nearly 1,800 fans came to the gym for the crowning of the homecoming queen and the more raucous festivities. "The crowd was making so much noise at half-time, we came out of the locker room early, sat on our bench and had a great time watching," Neader said. To the delight of the homecoming fans, the Green Wave ended up playing with five guards because of foul trouble, lost an 85-82 lead in the second half and faded away to a 113-106 final.

Fatigue was becoming a major factor. A quick stop for dinner at Burger King after the game in Hammond was followed by a five-hour drive that night. The team grabbed some early morning sleep in a real hotel along the way, then drove four more hours to College Station, Texas, for the minitour's grand finale against A&M on Nov. 10. The term real hotel is used because it is not always thus, not with this team. To save time and money the team once spent the night at a Delta Airlines gate, following a loss to Baylor, so they would be able to catch a 6 a.m. flight home to Tampa. "It wasn't bad at all," said Savino. "It was the first time some of us had been camping in our lives. I even took pictures. My favorite is of Neader. Here's the guy who represents Doc Gooden, sleeping by a trash can."

The evening the Wave rolled into College Station was far more pleasant. The cool autumn air of the Lone Star State wafted through the windows as Savino steered the van slowly down George Bush Drive and onto the campus. Anderson announced with mock drama: "Expected crowd for St. Pete AAU—two hundred and fifty thousand!"

Well, not exactly. Inside the gym, about 250 people were watching the end of an A&M-University of Louisville women's volleyball game. Outside, a guard explained that, no, there weren't any parking spaces set aside for a team from St. Petersburg, Fla. Finally, though, a space was located. And within a half hour the stands were filling up for basketball.

Inside, the neon lights of the Aggie scoreboard flashed FIGHT. Paula Abdul's Straight Up blared from the sound system. At one end of the court, the Aggies, dressed in their slick maroon-and-white uniforms, were doing precision layup drills. At the other end, the Green Wave—in green, blue and white—was engaged in a fierce, five-man game of H-O-R-S-E. "Just trying to stay loose," said Neader.

But the Wave was too loose on this big night. With 1,500 fans cheering A&M's first appearance of the 1990-91 season, St. Pete squandered an early 14-12 lead with uncharacteristically poor shooting. The Wave eventually finished 4 for 29 on three-point attempts for the game. The Aggies—perhaps imagining that St. Pete was Arkansas, as assistant coach Kennedy had urged—pumped up the volume as the long night wore on, and won 104-67. "We could shoot better blindfolded," said Savino disgustedly after the game.

Neader was philsophical. "It's tough, all this driving and playing, and then taking on a Texas A&M," he said on the ride back to the hotel. Then he sighed. "At least we're out here doing it."

Early the following morning, drained and bleary-eyed, they were back in the van, racing that stretch of Highway 6 to the airport north of Houston. Within the hour, they would be jetting home, already thinking about the next day—Monday—when they would return to their various jobs, then get together again to play a Monday-night city-league game. Then they would set off on another roundball odyssey, meeting five more Division I opponents, schools scattered from Orlando to Colorado Springs. The Wave would go 0-5 on that East-to-West swing, but that was of little concern. "When you think about it," said Savino, "nobody plays nine games in 13 days in different cities around the country." When you think about it, the Green Wave does.

Inside the airline terminal in Houston, Williams and Brown, two of St. Pete's big guys who had once dreamed of pro careers, were leaning against a wall and talking about the game. They turned to the escalator. The Houston Rocket basketball team was descending into view, returning home from a road game in San Antonio. Akeem Olajuwon, the team's seven-foot center, walked right in front of the players from Florida, who suddenly felt less like players. "Man, did you see how big that guy is!" Williams said, awestruck. It was a strange, momentary crossing of basketball worlds. There, across the lobby, went the high-profile pros. And here stood the unknown amateurs, waiting for their plane. Both teams on the road, embracing a game they love.



Neader (taking a rare breather) organized his weekend warriors into a traveling squad.



Good blocking couldn't offset poor shooting against Texas A&M.



At Neader's house Gooden (center) and Sheffield take on their agent.

The author, a frequent contributor to SI, is an editor at the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times.