No man's land

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.  

"I kinda understand the lifestyle of the USBL," says Hall, who played briefly for the Tampa Bay Rowdies indoor soccer team. "It's nomadic, and you play for the love of the game. It cracks me up when you see these guys making $7 million, $8 million a year complaining about what kind of hotel room they have." He will fit right in.

Depending on how you look at it, depending on how charitable you might be, the USBL is either a first chance or a last gasp. It's where NBA players are born, or where they go when they've run out of opportunities. It's where Darrell Armstrong, currently the second-best player on the Orlando Magic, got his start--thanks in no small part to Kevin Mackey, actually. Mackey likes to tell the story of how he gave Armstrong his very first shot, invited the kid to sweep the gym one day and asked him to stick around when he discovered that Armstrong could take his best players one-on-one. And Mavericks backup center John "Hot Rod" Williams was USBL Rookie of the Year in 1985, playing for the Rhode Island Gulls.

The USBL is also where former Phoenix Suns Craig Gondrezick (indicted on drug conspiracy charges) and Richard Dumas (tested positive for cocaine) ended up when they were booted out of the NBA. Former Dallas Maverick Roy Tarpley--a man whose name is forever synonymous with "wasted talent"--briefly played on John Lucas' Miami Tropics team of recovering addicts when he, too, was banned from the pros. In 1993, Tarpley told a reporter from CBS-TV that he "ain't getting paid enough" to play in the USBL, a league whose every gym smells "like a high school locker." Tarpley couldn't believe he had ended up in the USBL, couldn't fathom how far he had fallen. "I came from 17,000-people sellouts in Dallas to 700 people in the CBA," he said back then, his voice dripping with regret, anger, disbelief. "Now I'm down to just seven people in the stands in the USBL, so it's's a big adjustment."

Tarpley has since disappeared once more, his name appearing only in police reports. But more than a hundred USBL vets have gone on to play in Europe, where the money and playing time beat anything they'll find in the States.

Mackey likes to imagine a day when the USBL and the CBA act as basketball's minor leagues, a place where 20-year-old Germans right out of high school can work on their games, find their shots, learn defense. He whispers that he's heard Isiah Thomas is looking to buy the Continental Basketball Association or the International Basketball League or the USBL; maybe that'll change things, make them legit leagues.

"I think more and more it becomes very obvious basketball needs a minor league," Mackey says over lunch, as he scarfs a mayo-soaked turkey sandwich and washes it down with his ever-present Diet Coke. "Especially when you see the failure of so many guys when they come out of college, how much they struggle."

The fact is, no one knows about that struggle any better than Kevin Mackey, a man who succeeded as a college coach, only to end up at the ass-end of basketball, wondering how in the hell he's ever going to the pros.

Not one of the dozen men on the floor knows a single thing about the man running the drills, stalking the sidelines, shouting encouragement through a coach's half-grimace, half-smile. A couple say that maybe they've heard of him, maybe they recognize him...but from where, man? After four hours of grueling workout, some still don't even know his name. They aren't impressed when told it's Kevin Mackey. That's because most of them aren't old enough to know who he was, what he did, what heights he reached...and how far he fell to get here.

Mackey never expected to find himself coaching in the minor leagues--the witness relocation program of basketball, he is fond of saying, a place where coaches go to disappear.

"But I never expected to get arrested coming out of a crackhouse, either," he says with a tiny shrug, no doubt the automatic response a man offers when he knows you know more about his personal life than he ever intended. It's the look of a guy who's had to retell his story a thousand times, who's had to apologize for screwing up his marriage and his kids' lives, and, oh, yeah, his own.  

Mackey's was too golden a career for him to end up anywhere other than the NBA. He deserved it; it was owed him, this obstinate kid from the suburbs of Boston who coached high school basketball, won state titles there, taught young men how to play beyond their limitations. After that, in the early 1980s, he spent six years assistant coaching and recruiting for Boston College, collecting players no one wanted--some of whom, among them Michael Adams and John Bagley, would go on to careers in the NBA. It has long been said of Mackey that no one in the business has a better eye for talent. He could find a star in a clear blue sky.

In a perfect world--one where college coaches with $300,000 contracts don't get busted driving away from crackhouses with a whore in the front seat--Mackey would have been forever defined by the good moments, the made-for-Hollywood splendor of March 1986.

There they were, the boys from Cleveland State--the Vikings, as if. They counted among their ranks a kid who spent his high school years ushering in a movie house, another dude who played ball in a Canadian junior college, one nicknamed Black Rambo by his teammates. These were the freaks and geeks of Division I, a few of them stump-legged scrappers who weighed 220 and stretched no taller than 6 foot 3.

No way a man wins with a team like that, unless that man's Kevin Mackey, who never met a feisty baller he didn't love. It ain't all about talent, he likes to say in that Bah-ston accent of his, but about heart--what's inside a man, what you can see in his eyes.

In March 1986, Mackey's Vikings, having lost only three games all season, got a bid to play in the NCAA tournament. No one expected the team to advance beyond the first quarter, much less the first round: Cleveland State, after all, had been scheduled to play Bobby Knight's Indiana Hoosiers, and Knight had never been booted out of the tourney in the first round. Until, of course, he ran into Mackey's Vikes, who dispatched the No. 3-ranked Hoosiers with a final score of 83-79.

Mackey's ride ended when David Robinson and his Navy team reminded Cleveland State where it was--playing so far above its talent level, the air became a little too thin. But when a team like Gonzaga makes it into the Sweet Sixteen, those Vikings get dredged up from the history books, reprised once more as columnists write of the great Cinderella stories of all time. Such tall tales have kept Mackey's name from disappearing altogether.

After beating Indiana, Mackey became a bona fide celebrity in Ohio--"The King of Cleveland" they called him, despite earlier allegations that he had committed recruiting violations when he brought Manute Bol to Cleveland State. He even had his own McDonald's commercial, and on June 7, 1990, Cleveland State offered him a contract extension worth $300,000 a year. It was enormous money, more than he had ever dreamed of making at such a tiny school. Yet Mackey never had enough, always borrowing from friends who turned a blind eye to his addictions.

Mackey can't explain how he ended up in a Cleveland crackhouse six days after signing that contract. It just happened, beginning with a few beers, leading to a little casual coke, and ending in a self-made hell. But the whole city got to watch it, the moment the King of Cleveland was caught selling his crown for crack rock. News cameras captured the entire bust, broadcast everything.

In the time it took for the cops to cuff him and the hooker, Mackey's career was over. He was fired from Cleveland State, and any shot he had at coaching in the NBA disappeared.

Never mind Mackey's talent; never mind his eye for talent. Never mind that he never got a single moment of jail time for what he did. He instead submitted to rehab, including a 90-day stint at New Spirit Treatment and Recovery Center in Houston, founded and run by his old friend (and soon-to-be head coach of the San Antonio Spurs) John Lucas.

People expect that kind of behavior from athletes--it's excused, ignored, forgiven. It's written off as the excesses of youth, dismissed as stupidity or arrogance...anything to make it seem so all right. But when a coach gets caught with coke and alcohol in his blood stream, he's forever condemned to pay for his sins.

That is how Kevin Mackey ended up in the USBL, the IBA, the CBA, the Global Basketball League, in South Korea...anywhere men don tank tops, run up and down a floor, and try to put an orange ball into a round hoop. His resume reads like an alphabet soup, a mishmash of letters signifying the bottom of the bottom rung of professional basketball--a place where coaches make $25,000 a year, where players are lucky to pocket $1,500 a month after taxes.  

And that is how Mackey ended up in Dallas on a Saturday afternoon in April, instructing grown men and young boys how to play a game he knows as well as anyone.

Perhaps one day he will get his pardon, be allowed to coach in the bigs. He can't wait for the day, and has even been promised an assistant coaching job every now and then, though no one's yet followed through. And he knows that for a long while, all anyone will mention is that day in 1990 when he nearly destroyed his career and his life. But that's fine with him. It has taught him to give others a second shot.

"I always root for someone who's had a problem, any type of a problem, or who's made a mistake," he says. "I will always give a guy another chance. Whatever he did somewhere else, I will say, 'Hey, you start fresh with me, you got a blank slate, let's go from here.'"

Now, if only someone will say it to him.

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