THE PLAYER remembers the summer the agents were wooing him, when they watched his every move, talking about his turning pro. In his home town, he played in an outdoor league, and after each game a local man -- an aspiring agent -- gave him a wad of bills to treat his teammates to a night on the town. What was left over the player pocketed. hIt was one of his best summers -- an endless party.
It is like that when an athlete is young. He never thinks: "I won't make it," that the good times won't go on and on. He thinks only of playing in the big time. He goes off to camp with a future full of money, love and dreams.
One minute he is talking strategy with the coach, playing three-on-three against his idols. The next the general manager is saying, " . . . and bring your playbook with you."
For almost everyone cut, the dreams fade. The odds of wearing the NBA satins again are minuscule: Only 5 percent of the 559 rookies cut in the last four years have come back. Most go back to school, hang out in the old neighborhood or get a job. But for those who won't quit on their dream, that small minority that won't give up, it's on to another tryout camp, back to another lonely gym to work on the game they thought they had polished. And usually it means a trip to the bush leagues and starting over.
For some, success in a minor league like the Continental Basketball Association may mean a job in the NBA. Everyone who has played in outposts like Utica, Bangor, Anchorage and Scranton has heard of Bob Love, Ray Scott, George Lehmann, M. L. Carr, Bob Weiss, Paul Silas, Charlie Criss, Mike Riordan. They made it back.
But the return trip may bring another run of hard times -- second and third shots, tryout camps ad nauseum.
Who knows what goes on in the head of a man who has bounced around? There's nothing stable about bigtime ball. The minimum salary in the NBA these days is $35,000; in the CBA it can be as low as $70 a game even for an ex-NBA pro. The lobster dinners, the swank hotels, the jet travel that are de rigeur in the NBA are no part of the CBA life.
Every time a man is waived, the odds of his finding a job in the NBA decrease. Deserved or not, he gets a book, a rep that he can't shake. "He's a head case." "He can't play the good D." "He's got boxscores in his head."
He plays scared, worried that his next pass or shot will betray him. He adjusts his game to impress the coaches, the scouts, anybody who can help. He knows that the rookies are taking a lot of the jobs. Of the 242 spots in the NBA, 20 percent are taken by rookies. o
He stops checking the sports pages for injury reports, cuts, waivers, news of expansion and plans for roster increases. Phone calls to the NBA won't do any good. In the bush leagues, everyone is waiting for the call.
Back in 1977, Bradley Ernest Davis could run a fast break as well as anybody since Guy Rodgers.
Not only that, the "book" said, he was "good people" -- NBA code for anybody who is not a general pain in the rear. At the University of Maryland, Davis would show up an hour before practice and would stay late. In games, he was content to parcel out the ball to teammates and take just enough shots to keep defenses honest.
He was a kid who was bright, white and could play very well -- all the ingredients to help a team in its division and at the box office. The Los Angeles Lakers, suffering in both standings, made Davis one of their three first-round draft choices.
In 1978 Brad Davis was gone from Los Angeles. Davis, it was said then, was a so-so shooter, suspect on defense and not quick enough for the NBA. He was signed by Indianapolis late last season and waived early this year.
He moved to Anchorage where he started at guard and shot 51.9 percent from the field until February, when he signed to play with the Utah Jazz.
With his mustache, scruffy whiskers and blond hair that flops up and down when he runs a basketball team, Davis looks California-laid back. Though Davis (who was raised in Pennsylvania steel country) owns a condominium in Manhattan Beach, Calif., he is hardly the easy-timer. His business manager, Thomas Collins, says, "He is just a nice person. He calls a coach 'sir' at least a hundred times. Where that comes from, I don't know. aNobody told him he had to do it, but it's not something he forces."
His older brother Mickey, who played four seasons in Milwaukee says, "His approach to everyday life is on a sincere basis. Whether it's schoolwork or friends. He takes everything seriously. He has -- and I don't mean this critical -- a minimal sense of humor. Everything is interpreted as a challenge. Some of it probably stems from following a brother through school who had some success. Even though he eclipsed everything that I did.
"While he was in the NBA, he became more and more determined to do well, and he increased the pressure on himself, so much so it may have had a detrimental effect."
In the early days of Los Angeles' training camp, the Lakers were baffled by Davis, who seemed slower than he'd been at Maryland. Investigating, they found that, after every team practice, he was taking long training runs along the beach, which deadened his legs. It was a forgiveable excess, and typified an admirable NBA attitude. Time and again, they came back to Davis' maturity, his professionalism. Phrases like "a good kid," "coachable," "supportive of his team." And yet. . . .
There is no mystery about what happened to Davis at Los Angeles. He came into the league with a specialty -- running the fast break. Coach Jerry West didn't want his team to run back in 1977-78. They worked a set offense around Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. That style detracted from Davis' game. It put a premium on ball control. Brad Davis was the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Many players to from the NBA to the CBA convinced they are victims of the basketball crapshoot -- mismatched to time and team. It was what Bill Klucas, Davis' coach at Anchorage, was telling NBA scouts who were dubious about Davis.
Though Davis does not say it (Klucas: "Brad complains about nothing. He's a class guy."), West's impatience made Davis a timid player. His instructions to Davis -- "move the ball, move the ball" -- translated, "Don't shoot the damn thing."
"He played," Klucas says, "like his head was in a guillotine. What happens is that guys worry about making a mistake -- and they never get into the flow."
"I tried to talk with him," says Mickey, "and it was hard to communicate. He thought it was his fault. I felt that he should share the blame with the situation."
In Davis' case, the time at Anchorage was well used. In late February he was averaging 13.3 points and four assists per game. His team was battling the Rochester Zeniths for first place in its division. His future? "I'm just just going to let fate take its course. I don't plan to spend a good portion of my young life, hooking up in the NBA, playing CBA. I plan to get into something more stable." With his Anchorage salary of about $12,000 and the reported $85,000 the Lakers were paying off on a three-year guaranteed contract, he could afford this season in the CBA. Then it happened.
On February 27, Davis called business manager Collins to tell him the Jazz wanted to sign him to a 10-day contract. "He was elated," says Collins. "Eee-lated. It may be the break he needs. . . . Oh, one other thing, Brad felt an obligation to Anchorage and Bill Klucas, so we've worked it out that he'll go back for the CBA championships even if the NBA season overlaps."
On Feb. 29, Davis' name returned to an NBA box score. He scored four points in a Jazz victory over Portland.
On March 10, he signed a contract to play in Utah for the remainder of this season. He moved up to the first guard off the bench, and averaged 18 minutes and six points a game in the last month of the season.
A team spokesman now says Davis has an "excellent" chance of making the team next year. "We should have had him here a lot sooner," he says.
So Brad Davis is one of the fortunate few to make it back.