By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 27, 2007
WILMINGTON, N.C. Team policy states that Wilmington Sea Dawgs' players must adhere to every autograph request, and that was causing problems for Byron Mouton. After a high-scoring game, 12-year-old boys yanked him out of the locker room like a dog on a leash. Mouton was half undressed and headed for the shower when a family requested to see him. He returned to the locker room three minutes later, only to be beckoned out by a teenage girl.
Finally, 30 minutes after this Wednesday night game in late February, Mouton sank into his chair in a cramped locker room in a community college. He bent over and gingerly removed athletic tape from a sore left ankle. When he looked up, the Sea Dawgs' coach was staring at him.
"A boy wants to take a picture with you," the coach said. "He would have asked earlier, but he was in the bathroom."
"Are you serious?" Mouton said. "Man, sometimes I wish nobody remembered me."
Five years have passed since Mouton helped Maryland win the national title the last time it was held in Atlanta, but the significance of that weekend still casts a shadow over his daily life in the American Basketball Association. Since he started for Maryland during its 2002 title run, Mouton has played for 13 professional teams in nine leagues. Still, even in Wilmington, fans regularly ask Mouton to talk about his old college teammates and sign Terrapins memorabilia.
In the consciousness of basketball fans, Mouton is forever stuck in the NCAA tournament -- a fate that likely awaits some players from Florida, UCLA, Ohio State and Georgetown who will never eclipse the public pinnacle they experience this weekend at the Final Four in Atlanta.
"You get a little sick of it," said Mouton, 28. "It's like, 'Okay, that's great fans want to talk to me. But are they really supporting me or this player they remember from five years ago?' "
Mouton ended up in Wilmington by mistake. When he signed a contract with the Sea Dawgs in late January, he thought the team played out of Wilmington, Del., a 90-minute drive from Mouton's apartment in Bowie. Two hours later, his agent, Mike Hart, called to say that he'd bought Mouton a plane ticket to North Carolina.
"What am I going there for?" Mouton asked.
"To play for their ABA team," Hart said. "Remember? You already signed the contract."
Later that afternoon, Mouton boarded his flight without complaint. Five years on the fringes of professional basketball have taught him the importance of flexibility. Team, league, location -- those are just the secondary details of a contract, Mouton said. All he cares about is that, somewhere, he earns a good living by playing basketball.
Mouton tried out for the Boston Celtics after his senior season at Maryland, but the team dismissed him after a few weeks of preseason camp. At 6 feet 5, Mouton stood too short to play forward and ran too slowly to play guard, team officials said. And with that, Mouton packed up his brand new Cadillac DeVille and drove away from a team for the first of many times.
He drove to Idaho, where he played for a year in the Continental Basketball Association. He flew to Germany and then to France, where he made annual salaries of more than $100,000. He joined a spring league in the Dominican Republic and a summer league in China, where games sometimes took place outside under rain. Mouton moved about every three months for four years, signing with teams in six states and five countries.
It's the type of nomadic career Mouton never imagined possible during his time with the Terrapins. A high school all-American from Rayne, La., he played two seasons at Tulane before transferring to Maryland. He started in his junior and senior seasons in College Park and averaged 11 points and four rebounds in his final year. During the 2002 NCAA tournament, he became Maryland's master of thankless tasks: He dived for loose balls and positioned himself to take charges. After Maryland beat Indiana, 64-52, in the championship game, scouts predicted Mouton would be picked in the NBA draft.
"Everybody on our team was shocked when he didn't [get drafted]," said Juan Dixon, a former Maryland point guard who plays for the Toronto Raptors. "It didn't seem fair. Without Byron, we don't even get close to winning it in 2002. He might have been the best all-around guy on that team, but that's the story of his career. He just gets overlooked."
A few times during the last six months, Mouton has considered quitting. This season, he's slid deep into the backwash of professional basketball. He played for a team in Montana that folded in December. Then Mouton joined an ABA team in Cape Cod that never paid him and played its home games at a middle school. The Wilmington Sea Dawgs -- no matter what state they played in -- provided Mouton's opportunity to escape.
Mouton invests himself emotionally in Wilmington's success, which his teammates generally view as pathetic. In a league that comprises players obsessed with building stat lines that please scouts, Mouton prides himself on leadership and self-sacrifice in pursuit of winning. During a pregame meal at Chick-fil-A in late February, Mouton tried to excite his teammates for a game against the Jacksonville Jam.
"I've been looking on the ABA message boards," Mouton said. "Jacksonville is like number eight in the league power rankings. That's a few spots ahead of us."
"Nobody cares about this league, man," said Terrence Todd, Mouton's teammate. "Eat your chicken nuggets."
As they finished eating dinner, some of Mouton's teammates complained about what they called their "impossible" late-season dilemma. A group made up primarily of former Division I and Division II college players with experience playing overseas, the players wanted to continue winning and make the playoffs out of habit. But wouldn't it actually make more sense, players said, to just lose and cut the season short?
A first-year ABA team, Wilmington had already experienced the tribulations that have defined the league since it resumed play in 2000. The Sea Dawgs took a nine-hour bus ride to Chattanooga, only to turn around after learning the game had been postponed. They canceled a game in New York after the opponent refused to help pay travel costs. After two teams declared bankruptcy in March, Wilmington was left with a 16-day gap in its schedule.
"In this league, we consider every game on our schedule as a little tentative," said Kevin Whitted, Wilmington's head coach. "You learn to roll with the punches. There's no other choice."
Mouton makes about $500 per week in Wilmington, a salary he tolerates because the team pays for virtually all of his expenses. The Sea Dawgs provide him and two other veteran players with an apartment 20 miles south of Wilmington that overlooks Carolina Beach. Team sponsors give players 14 free meals each week at Golden Corral -- a low-budget, chain buffet restaurant -- and seven meals at Chick-fil-A. "It gets hard to eat healthy," Mouton said.
The Sea Dawgs play on a concrete-like, polyurethane court, which aggravates Mouton's ankles and knees. He looks stiff when he runs, and he sometimes stays back on defense instead of fast breaking with his teammates.
The ABA's video-game-like rules -- goal tending is legal and teams are awarded bonus points for creating turnovers with full-court pressure defense -- create a run-and-shoot game that's discordant with Mouton's style. He prefers to jog casually up the court and spot-up for three-pointers. That he starts for the Sea Dawgs and often leads the team in scoring is a credit to Mouton's ingenuity. He anticipates the trajectory of rebounds. He twists his body to create contact, so he shoots about 10 free throws each game.
"He probably knows basketball better than anybody else on our team," Whitted said. "He's got that maturity. He's experienced a lot -- being a high school all-American, an NCAA champion -- and it shows."
Mouton's pedigree sometimes makes him feel out of place on game nights. Before the game against the Jacksonville Jam, Mouton dressed in pressed khaki pants and a tie. Then he drove to Cape Fear Community College, sat in the empty stands for 20 minutes with his teammates and changed into his uniform before any fans arrived.
The Sea Dawgs' ambitious ownership group dresses up home games with all the pageantry of a professional team. A mascot wears a giant dog head and roams through the stands. A team store sells license plates and temporary tattoos. Cheerleaders dance to music spun by a live disc jockey. But during Wilmington's 121-103 win over Jacksonville, only about 250 fans were scattered throughout the stands.
"That crowd would have been weak for a high school game," Wilmington forward Rashard Lee said afterward.
"I know," Mouton said. "It's kind of embarrassing."
Mouton spends much of his time in Wilmington talking about his plans for this summer. During a two-hour conversation with a teammate late one night, he outlined his possibilities: to take real estate classes, which will facilitate a transition to his next career; to intern at the tobacco company where his brother works; to play in a Puerto Rican league that pays $15,000 per month; to play in a California summer league frequented by NBA scouts.
He loves talking about his future. It's the easiest way not to get stuck in the past.
"You know what else I want to do?" Mouton said. "I want to enter some of those professional bass fishing contests. Man, I love fishing. I love it. And the thing is, you just never know. Maybe 10 years from now, people will be remembering me as the king of bass."