For the D.C. Metros, the pro basketball team named after a subway, there isn't much light at the end of their first underground tunnel of season.
"Our attendance is about 50 people a game," said Pete Green, the Metros' fourth coach of this Eastern Basketball Association season. "But we look on the bright side. It's a different 50 people every time."
"We're biting the budget," said Larry Marshall, who quit his steady Safeway job to become the Metros' founder, owner, business manager, cheer-leader, publicist, general manager and coach.
"Our chances of finishing the season are a game-by-game proposition," said Marshall, who greets every Metro fan like a maitre d' . "I'm sweating."
The Metros, who dream of being discovered by the NBA in the basketball bush leagues, are just happy to speak of their team in the present tense.
Besides those four coaches, the Metros in their infant season have already:
Switched home courts in midseason from one remote gym to another almost as difficult to find.
Sold their only two centers for $500 aplece to make ends meet.
Traveled 19 hours to Alaska to lose three straight games to the Anchorage Northern Knights.
Scored 164 points in a regulation game and lost by eight points.
Played a home game in a gym so cold that fans shot baskets a halftime to keep warm.
Routinely traveled from eight to 16 hours a day, packed nine-to-a-van, to make one-day junkets to Quincy, Mass; Brooklyn; Providence, R.I.; Long Island, and Wikes-Barre, Pa.
And, worst of all, held a lock on last place in the EBA with a 4-21 record and an average of 132 points allowed her game.
Few teams have ever endured so much for so little - pay of $50 or less per game.
Nevertheless, the Metros are determines to stay in existence. "I plan to play in this league at least six more years until I'm 30, or until I get to the NBA - whichever comes first," said 6-foot-11 Bill Lynn, ex-Georgetown University standout.
The Metros have been a precarious incubator baby since their inception, when Marshall - running the whole operation out of his hat with zero previous experience - convinced several investors to pool the necessary $14,000 start-up money.
"Our heads are still above water," said one of those initial angels, William Bryant, a Howard University guidance counselor. "But we can't foretell the future."
Just two weeks ago the Metros went through their first top-to-bottom shakeup. Marshall went from being founder-GM-coach-etc. to being simply the statistician.
"I think that will be his future role," said new coach Green. "Larry was cutting too many corners, trying to run everything on a thin shoestring. The team lacked discipline. The games were similar to practice - nobody was there."
"We know the Washington team has had problems," said the EBA's young Commissioner Steven Kauffman, who has overseen the league's resurrection from three to 10 teams in just four years.
"They'll need an influx of new capital so they can promote themselves properly if they are to exist next year.
And they'll probably need a better place to play".
The Metros started the season playing at George Mason University because it was the Cheapest gym available.
"A lot of the time even the players couldn't find it," said Lynn. "You'd hear these brakes screeching and you'd say, 'Well, somebody else just missed the turn.'"
Those who packed the ticket lines, two abreast and one deep, at GMU never forgot the experience, especially the infamous "Cold Bowl."
The George Mason furnace broke down on that frigid December night, leaving the Metros and Jersey Shore to play in 40-degree gym.
Players warmed up in gloves and overcoats, then wore sweatshirts and turtleneck sweaters under their jerseys. Jersey star Fly Williams asked the officials to let him play with a glove on his nonshooting hand.
Though the gym was "see-your-breath" cold, the walls outside somehow remained heated. Players moved the bench into the hall, drank coffee, and watched the game through gym door windows until coaches yelled for them to enter the game.
"That game probably got us ready for the trip to Alaska," rationalized Rubin Collins, the Metros' best player
"No," countered Lynn, "it was a lot colder in that gym."
Actually, the Metros' trek to Alaska was their most comfortable road trip of the year. It took only 19 hours one way with plane changes in Cleveland, Chicago and Seattle.
"It changed forever my concept of what one day in your life could contain," said Lynn. "But it was a whole lot easier than a 7-foot guy like me sitting in the back seat of a Granada for 11 hours in one day with a two-hour game in Lancaster, Pa., stuck in the middle of the trip.
"When I got out of that Granada, I was so stiff that I thought I had broken both knees when I cracked them."
Fourteen games into the season the team switched home-court operations from George Mason to Fairmont Heights High School. Attendances at the first three games there were 45, 64 and 65.
"These high school games around town draw two to three thousand," said Lynn, "and we're drawing 50, and we're supposed to be the next best thing to the pros."
"One Step From The Best" is the EBA's motto. And that step is almost always toward the basket. The EBA is the ultimate gunners' league. Scores like 169-167 and 172-164 don't surprise anyone. If the 24-second buzzer sounds, it gets checked for a malfunction. The overall league average is 126 points a game.
Everybody knows that 5-8 Charlie Criss made it from Scranton to the Atlanta Hawks because of that 38-point average.
The Eastern League, even the Metros, is packed with talent, especially shooters.
"This league is all chiefs and no Indians," grumped Green. "Somebody like Fly Williams says, 'Hell, forget the plays. Let's play some ball . And everybody goes crazy. If it's late in the game and one of my guys has only 10 points, I know he's going to start taking some amazing shots, 'cause everybody thinks they've got to get their own."
The Metros are pure EBA. "We have no ball-handling guards and no bulky center. We're a team of forwards and swingmen who were all shooters in college," said one Metro. "Everybody's playing out of his natural position. Nobody plays much defense. We gave up 10 breakaway lay-ups in our last game."
No pro sport approaches basketball in its surplus of talent that has no outlet. "For each of the 242 guys who are in the NBA," said the EBA commissioner, "there are two with no basketball job who are just a whisker behind them in talent."
The Metros, even though they seldom hold practices and play only on weekends because of their regular jobs, are not a team of dilettante pick-up players. Almost every one is chasing the NBA ghost, hoping a scout will visualize him filling some arcane need in a pro team's exotic strategy.
Some players, like the high-scoring Collins, are cautious, perhaps even in their own minds, saying, "I just like to play ball. Being in the Eastern League makes me feel like I'm part of something."
"I want to stay in shape. I'm not going to cry if I don't catch on with the pros, insists ex-Metro Tom Roy, a former Maryland center.
"It's bad enough being a giant," Lynn said, laughing. "I don't want to gain weight and become a giant slob."
But the Metros' real motives run deeper. They have had just a whiff of paradise.
"The New York Net's Coach Kevin Loughery told me he liked my style when I was in their camp," said Lynn."Then I got a blowout fracture of my right eye.
"I know I can make it if I get a chance and can just keep this skinny body of mine healthy."
Lynn's obsession is interesting, because his abilities stretch beyond basketball. He was a promising-enough painter to spend a summer as an intern at the Smithsonian.
"The two things I regret about the Alaska trip are that I injured my knee so badly that it swelled up as big as my head, and it was too cold to set up an easl outside and paint the mountains," said Lynn.
Players like Lynn hope fervently that new Coach Green and new club President Paris Artis (one of the original investors), can keep the franchise afloat.
Their current ploy is to give away complimentary tickets to the Metros' next game (Saturday) during Bullet games.
"We have to attract new fans somehow," said Green. "We figure you don't go to the library or the hospital to find the real basketball fans. So we'll just pass out tickets at the Bullets' game and hope people will visit us."
"All of us are just praying that the Metros survive," said Lynn. "This is an opportunity for us. If you're good enough in this league, it's impossible to be overlooked. I believe that.
"There's also something about the game I can't explain. You just want to keep getting better, to learn more, to master the little things nobody sees. You want your body to get its full maturity and mastery.
"You can't just leave the game," said Lynn, "cause it really is like that dumb beer ad on TV says: "'when it's right, you know it.'"