The Best Basketball You Never Saw

by

08/15/2020

Neighborhood: Downtown Brooklyn

It was the dying days of the springtime professional circuit known as the United States Basketball League (USBL). 

A one-time proving ground for NBA hopefuls, the League had fallen on hard times. Teams going out of business weren’t being replaced. In the 2006 season, the USBL was a faded attraction, split in two between a solid midwestern division and a deflating eastern loop, a two-fare zone from the big leagues. 

There were still very good basketball players even by New York City standards, former Division I college guys who played overseas during the winter who were not quite tall or fast enough for the NBA. Their situation was perfectly illustrated to me one night that season during my first pro basketball “media scrum.”

The Kings had just topped their local rivals, the Long Island Primetime, pretty decisively at LIU Brooklyn’s Schwartz Center on Flatbush Avenue. It was crowded for a USBL scrum: three reporters—diehard basketball observer Jeff Lenchiner, who is still the publisher of insidehoops.com; a socially awkward and disheveled local newspaper man, named Robert “Bob” Elkin, and myself. 

Bob, never able to read a room, raised his giant cassette tape recorder and asked a question that was harmless yet utterly preposterous. “Who from your team will be drafted?” Elkin said, staring attentively at the Kings head coach, Kenny Charles.

Neither Jeff nor I laughed, but Charles nearly did. He knew that wasn’t how it worked in the USBL.

Once composed, the Fordham University graduate and former NBA guard for the Buffalo Braves, held back a chuckle, while still showing respect to his players. “Well, I don’t know about drafted,” he said. “What I want to do is to get these guys ready for free agent camps and the NBA summer leagues.” 

Former players remember the USBL in those days as a competitive league where tough pros and capable prospects could stay in shape, but hardly an NBA training ground. “It was watered down by then. It wasn’t really about the NBA scouts anymore, it was just about trying to put up good numbers so that you could play overseas – or somewhere,” said John “Mookie” Thomas, a legend at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, and the Primetime point guard in 2006. 

I found Mookie’s observation to be accurate covering the final stretch of the USBL’s penultimate season for a now defunct website. As the NBA was expanding its D-League and forcing players to attend at least one year of college, the USBL was like a dead mall or haunted amusement park still frequented by urban explorers. 

Games were played in front of crowds hardly large enough to fill two rows at Madison Square Garden.  Sports Illustrated writer Alex Wolff, who owned a minor league basketball team in Vermont in another league, once told me that he’d considered the USBL when starting his club but found indoor activities to be a tough sell to fans in the springtime. That made good owners hard to find. 

In order to save that 2006 season, the Primetime were added as a sort of emergency expansion team propped up by a former Knicks scout, James Ryans, and a well-known streetball coach, Sid Jones. They had assembled their team so quickly that they didn’t bother printing a logo on the team’s green and white uniforms. 

The instability of two Pennsylvania-based teams, one of which folded early in the season, left the Kings and Primetime no choice but to cancel games – sometimes with paid attendees already in the bleachers.

As I followed the two teams back and forth between Flatbush Avenue and Northern Blvd, it was their gritty yet calculated style of basketball that made them so entertaining to watch–even as the once glorious USBL was fading into Wikipedia’s black hole of defunct sports leagues. 

The Kings were led on the court by former St. John’s University legend, Anthony Glover, and by Chris Sandy, a Newtown High School (Elmhurst, Queens) and Fresno State alum. Sandy, a talented guard who drew the interest of NBA Summer League teams, would die only a few months later in a car accident while playing professionally in Finland. According to a feature obit I wrote for SLAM magazine’s website, Sandy was third in the USBL in assists (4.8 a game) and seventh in scoring (18 points per game). 

When visiting teams did not show up for scheduled games, Chris could always be found roaming the stands signing autographs or on the court doing tricks for the handful of fans that had shown up expecting a game.

The Brooklyn team had been on the brink of ruin until it was purchased by Ernest Lorch, the director of the Riverside Church AAU basketball program. Lorch was a controversial and shadowy figure, who was later accused of child sexual abuse by some of his former youth players. He died in 2012, bound to a wheelchair and suffering from dementia, at the age of 80, and never faced trial. He was most visible at Kings games as a grimacing old man sitting behind the scorer’s table.

Despite deep pockets, Lorch was tight-fisted. But his players were always paid on time, stayed in decent hotels, and traveled comfortably.

Even with these creature comforts, it was a struggle to keep the Kings together at times. “I don’t remember who the player was, but I was charged with handing out paychecks at the airport on our way to a playoff tournament and I got schooled,” said Harris Rappel, the Kings’ vice president of basketball operations, now an assistant athletic director at York College in Queens. “Someone conned me into giving them their paycheck before we got through the gate and then, the next thing I knew, the guy didn’t get on the plane.”

Therein lay the problem of the USBL, at least for those teams that operated within major basketball hubs like New York, Philadelphia, and D.C. It was a legitimate place to extend or begin one’s professional career but, in truth, many of the players could make more money by playing in a single streetball game for cash than they would collecting a check for a full week’s work in the USBL, which included practices and distant travel. “It wasn’t for the money or the scouts, but it was for something that put you in the “pro” environment, where you could have a solid run against pros that were still active,” said Antawn Dobie, a Corona, Queens native and another LIU product who played with the Kings in 2006. “But eventually you get tired of games being cancelled, and I was getting anywhere between $400 and $500 for playing just one game of summer streetball.”  

The Kings’ original ownership–who hosted home games at Medgar Evers College–had given tickets away so freely they eventually lost the club. Lorch preferred to play in front of no fans rather than those that did not pay. Mookie had played for the Kings in his rookie season, in 1999, under previous ownership. “It was totally different then, the first five games of that season were the biggest crowds I remember for the Kings,” Mookie said.  

In the Midwest, the USBL had teams in Nebraska, Oklahoma, and in Dodge City and Salina, Kansas in 2006, and those teams were enthusiastically supported by the community. But in the Eastern Division, the teams playing in major cities struggled to draw fans. Occasionally, the players would summon enough friends and family to amass a decent Friday night audience, but the Kings rarely sprung for any extra entertainment that might fill seats. One time, when the Kings were struggling to find a national anthem soloist, I volunteered my father, a saxophone player, and the front office accepted. 

James Ryans had been the coach of Long Island’s most successful USBL team–long dormant by then– the Long Island Surf. His connections to streetball and NBA teams gave him the power to recruit quality players. With the Primetime, he’d assembled as good a team as any in the league without the resources of the USBL’s well-attended midwestern teams or even the Kings for that matter. 

The Primetime roster was a revolving door of talent, many with local ties, including LIU Brooklyn legend Charles Jones, who played briefly in the NBA. Mostly, the team consisted of the type of basketball players we have a lot of in New York City–those who had the talent to be pros, but not necessarily at the highest levels.  

Primetime played its home games inside the Louis Armstrong Gymnasium at the Elmcor Youth and Adult Activities Center on Northern Blvd in Corona, Queens. It’s a multipurpose venue that hosts professional wrestling, GED classes and Narcotics Anonymous meetings along with youth and adult recreational basketball on their regulation sized court. There is a small mountain of wooden bleachers on one side of the court, but no parking at all and only a tiny bathroom and concession stand. 

Despite this, it was a venue the USBL had utilized before with Ryans’ Long Island Surf team, circa 1999, when my neighbor, Mike (everyone calls him “Mike The Greek”) and I saw the Kings and Surf play for the first time. That night, it was a full house, complete with a loud DJ and ardent fans of “cult basketball.” By 2006 though, the bleachers were nearly empty.

While the USBL’s reputation for producing talent for the NBA was outdated by 2006, it still provided a front row seat for what seemed like a simulation for an “All-NYC professional basketball league.” The style was raw and creative, but in a structured game in which winning a championship could add a valuable line to a player’s resume. 

Both teams were led by veterans who spent the winter months playing in places like Poland and South Korea. Their professionalism made the USBL setting different than the streetball tournaments, where these same players earned more cash and bragging rights. The USBL mirrored the NBA rule-wise, and in years past players like Anthony Mason, John Starks, and Manute Bol, had got their entry-level experience there. The game footage alone was a tool for landing players their next job. “It wasn’t really about the money, it was more about the publicity and getting a little check in the summertime.” Mookie said.

Naturally, the Eastern Division title came down to the two most stable teams, and in the deciding game Brooklyn was the victor, closing the season by beating the Primetime 89-80 to secure their third consecutive division title. 

The Kings were seeded first in the playoffs that began Friday June 23rd in Dodge City, Kansas. According to my recollection, with confirmation from the archived USBL site, they lost and were knocked out on the first day.

A few months later, I asked Kings’ big man Tommie Eddie, a Boys & Girls High School and Ole Miss alum, how he felt about Brooklyn’s elimination and Sandy’s death in Finland. “We were holding our heads,” remembers Eddie, who had been Chris’ roommate that last season with the Kings. “But, after that, we were laughing and joking about being out in Kansas. All of this just taught me not to take anything for granted. You could be playing today and gone tomorrow.”

Even being the only financially healthy team in the Eastern Division couldn’t lift the Kings to the USBL championship that had eluded them for their entire existence. In the following year, 2007, the Kings would make it to the league finals and lose, in a season that was doomed by two expansion teams that did not make it past their first few games. The USBL announced it was taking 2008 off. It was rumored they’d return in 2010, but it didn’t happen.

Today, unless I’m speaking to a basketball lifer, few people remember the USBL or the Brooklyn Kings, and hardly a soul remembers the Long Island Primetime. 

Mookie still wonders if things could have been different, “It was sad that a team of some of the best players from New York City, didn’t have the support that was there in other cities…If people could have seen the hard work that went into the league, the two or three hour practices working on sets, guys getting fined for not showing up to practice like in the NBA… it was a real league. But people just couldn’t see it.”

***
Matt Caputo is a writer from Queens, NY. He has written for numerous publications including the New York Times, New York Daily News and Bleacher Report, and is a former staff editor at SLAM magazine.

 

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§ 3 Responses to “The Best Basketball You Never Saw”

  • John Mookie Thomas says:

    Great article, Very well written. “you had to be there”…

  • TSB says:

    What I liked best was the sense of time passing. Amazing to hear from these guys thinking about it all now.

  • David Solimano says:

    I saw the Stallions play during their brief time at the Westchester County Center, great fun. I still have the ticket stubs. Looks like they were only active for two years.

§ Leave a Reply

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