I Got Skillz

The game is finished. His team won. Cameras swarm. Mark Cuban eats it up, grinning a grin somewhere between sinister and goofy, like he's trying to decide whether to take over the world or Denny's. Cuban and two Mavericks scouts--Morlon Wiley and Scott Lloyd, both of whom used to play for the club--just finished punking some media personalities in a fan-friendly exhibition, a showpiece in this year's Hoop-It-Up tournament.

It was a smackdown worthy of Macho Man Randy Savage--who, coincidentally, was on hand as a guest announcer/coach and looked his Slim Jim-best decked out in tight black leather. Cuban and his cronies all stand over 6 feet tall. My colleagues, if you stack all five on top of each other, might be able to ride the teacups at Disneyland. Wiley even blocked the shot of a girl, Dallas Morning News Mavs beat writer Jodie Valade, who smiled on the surface but must have simmered underneath.

"I had to do it," says Wiley, who was booed for his callousness by a considerable crowd. Wiley is smirking and dripping sweat. The man has no remorse. "I had to do it. She was right there. How could I not? I don't mind being the villain."

I could kill him where he stands and avenge the injustice, but these people need Wiley and Lloyd. The two talent evaluators aren't simply here to prey upon smaller, weaker opponents. They're here for work. They're here, believe it or not, for the crowd.

Cuban is looking for players for the team. He issued an edict last week saying he'd have the scouts select 15-or-so Hoop-It-Up participants to try out for the Mavericks summer league team (12 would eventually be selected for the July 1 audition). Promised, even, that it wouldn't be just for show. If some of the chosen can really ball, who knows, he said. Maybe they could earn a spot on the end of the bench as an NBA 12th man.

"There are some guys out here who are players--they're competitive, and they want to play," Lloyd offers, eyeing the potentials. A heavy, pepper-colored mustache catches sweat near his lips as he takes a tug on his Gatorade. "It's tough trying to get an overall feel, though. Realistically, I don't know if anyone here has a shot."

Nonsense. I've already talked to at least 10 or 15 people who are sure they'll make it.

Across the way from where Lloyd stands, only a few feet from the infamous block on Court Cuban--a nicely constructed area with stands and a VIP tent and Hooters girls serving sandwiches--is an ongoing dunk contest where I'm sure the first would-be Mav will be harvested. Shawn Kemp, a former winner of the event, made his mark this way before going pro and getting fat. There are judges and an MC--a short man with a backward cap who urges the spectators to "get live, y'all." Hip-hop, the good kind, not the Lil' Bow Wow kind, bumps from the speakers.

The competition, made up of the general public on a first-come basis, has been whittled down to a final two: Eddie Love and T.C. These guys must be good. The crowd around them goes three or four deep. Plus, they're appropriately dressed with NBA-sanctioned accessories. Tattoos. Baggy shorts. Corn rows. More tattoos. And, most important, headbands. I've noticed that no hoop dream is complete without a headband.

Furthering my belief that one of these young men will be playing in the pros is the sponsorship for this contest: the U.S. Army. Perfect. Everyone knows the Army is only good at two things, and damn if ballin' ain't one of them.

T.C., a thick, muscled 20-year-old, draws oohs and ahs for his ferocious throw-downs. Puts home a crazy-fly, mad-stupid two-handed thunder jam, which helps him win easily. Also helping was Love, who wasn't getting any from the rim--he missed all but one of his attempts.

"I didn't know the Mavs were lookin' around here," says T.C., who drove with his uncle two hours, all the way from Clever, or Cleburne; I'm not sure which. "That's cool. Yeah, I got aspirations. Maybe they'll see me."

No maybes about it. The man is sure to be a star once the league officially drops the hoop down a foot (the dunk contest was on a 9-foot rim). This would also help Shawn Bradley.

Wading through a heavy crowd--the scene in the West End is a lot like Mardi Gras, only, regrettably, with fewer beers and boobs--I continue the search, but with meager results. There's an 18-year-old kid, tall and lean, from Oak Lawn with a crossover but no jumper. There's a guy, nearly 30, from Las Colinas, with good range from deep, but he's pudgy and slow off the dribble. This is not it, not what I want. What I'm looking for is someone who can do a little bit of everything. What I'm looking for is what Cuban, Wiley and Lloyd are looking for: a man, not a boy. What I'm looking for, I finally realize, is me.

If everyone else around here can entertain fantastic delusions, why can't I? I play a lot, a few times during the week and always on Sundays with a group of middle-aged men who have more hair on their backs than they do on their heads. Most of them giggle like gelatin. If that's not pro competition, I ask you what is? Besides, I hear the NBA is dreadfully short on 5-foot-10 Cuban-Italian point guards with no hops and a propensity to overdribble.

My Hoop-It-Up game, on court 31, starts around 3:30 in the afternoon. Doesn't feel as glamorous as the activity surrounding Court Cuban, though. My court isn't in the main area but rather under the Woodall Rodgers Freeway, cast in a dark gloom and marred by rocks and dirt and uneven pavement. I don't see any scouts around. For that matter, I don't see any Hooters chicks dishing out lunch. What the hell's going on? How am I supposed to get famous here?

Before I can bitch too much, our game is under way. I'm filling in for a friend, which I suppose makes me a ringer. The guy who's guarding me is only slightly better and quicker, which by that I mean he's much better and quicker. He goes around me like I'm stuck in a pool of Elmer's, flashing to the hole for quick buckets. No fair. I didn't even get a chance to pump up my Reeboks.

Naturally, we lose the game, which has less to do with me getting repeatedly blocked than it does with my teammates. All they did was score and play defense. Grudgingly, I come to understand what many others already have: I'm not bound for the NBA just yet. I need to work on a few things.

Like getting a headband.

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John Gonzalez
Contact: John Gonzalez