No man's land

When you're out of options, look no further than the USBL

At first, it looks like any other pick-up game you've ever seen, shirts against skins going at it on the hardwood with nothing at stake, save for the afternoon's bragging rights.

They're a motley lot, these 10 men running up and down the floor in their homemade jerseys and hundred-buck sneakers. They come from all over town, with backgrounds as different as researcher at UT-Southwestern Medical Center to junior-college student to fry cook. Some are in shape, gym rats carved from marble. Others are soft, flabby, out of breath as they chase rebounds and launch errant passes out of bounds. Up and down, up and down, up and down they go until this game becomes a war of attrition. Every man for himself, team or no.

You almost don't notice the man standing on the sidelines, a stocky fellow with bare white legs, a shock of short gray hair, and a firm, round belly. He does nothing for a long time, standing with his arms limp by his sides. Then, out of nowhere, his Boston-bred bark will fill the entirety of the tiny Texas Club gym. "Get the pianos off your backs," he shouts, a small smile creasing his face. "You miss a shot, don't stand there and sulk! Get back down the floor!"

Occasionally, a few people working out at the gym will stop by and watch, unsure of what the hell's going on. Is this a team? a woman wonders as she makes her way to an aerobics class. Her friends says if it is, they're not any good. Like, did you see how fat that one guy is? They're talking about a kid the coach refers to only as Marco, though he pronounces it Mah-co, which rhymes with taco. As in, "Marco, you eat too many tacos."

Yet that man with the whistle around his neck is not just some guy, some schmuck brought in to work out a bunch of Saturday-afternoon wannabes. His name is Kevin Mackey, once among the most revered coaches in the NCAA's Division I--the man whose nobody Cleveland State University team shut down Bobby Knight's immortal Indiana team in 1986. Mackey could have been somebody. If only he hadn't gotten busted with cocaine and a hooker.

Mackey is in Dallas doing what he's done his entire professional life, scouring the middle of nowhere for that one ballplayer who might make a difference on his team--that one overlooked diamond shimmering among the coal. Mackey's now the coach for the Atlantic City Seagulls in the United States Basketball League, a nowhere outpost in a nothing league, at least as far as the world of big-time sports is concerned. But that doesn't deter him from his mission to rescue the guy who fell between the cracks. Mackey, after all, is that guy himself.

"We got a lot of suspects," he says, surveying the lot running and gunning before him. Mackey is in Dallas to invite at least one of these guys to USBL training camp at the end of the month for a tryout. "I don't know about prospects, but we got a lot of suspects." He chuckles softly, not ready to give up quite so easily.

As it turns out, a couple of these guys have skills--though no one who showed up really even knew this was a USBL tryout or that they were going to be coached by a man who was, who is, still one of the best. One of the players, DeMarkco Singleton (whose T-shirt reads "D-Mo"), is absolutely thrilling to watch. He's 23, a graduate of North Dallas High School who now works at the Hoffbrau, and he owns the court whenever he has the ball. He's a pure shooter, from outside or in the paint. Were he only five years younger...

D-Mo's buddy, 18-year-old Ryan Crawford, is just as good; he's in basketball shape, a guard on the Mountain View Community College team (and who knew they had one?). Only his left knee is wrapped in a brace, the result of a slight touch of tendinitis. Mackey tells him he needs to keep practicing, lock himself in a gym for a while.

"If I had been 100 percent..." Crawford says later, grinning. "Well, believe me. I'm not trying to be conceited, but believe me." Both guys insist they'd be happy to play in the USBL, despite the $2,000-a-month salary.

"It's just a dream to compete," Singleton says. "Some people do it for money. I just love the game. I'd play for free, pretty much."

But the afternoon's star is a 30-year-old personal trainer who, 12 years ago, actually played a little college ball--for no less than the University of Connecticut during coach Jimmy Calhoun's first year. Brian Hall will get the invite from Mackey to come to camp in Atlantic City. He has a great inside game, grabbing every rebound and making every shot--if only he were a little taller, Mackey laments, he'd be a hell of a ball player. Hall has a flexible enough schedule to allow for the league's two-month season. It would be a fantasy made real, even if it meant playing in the minor minor leagues.

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