Coach Mauro Panaggio tapped my knee.
"Go in for Glenn," he said. "Just set things up and run the offense."
I tried to act cool, as if I did this every day. That act lasted about four-tenths of a second.
"Wait a minute, coach," I said. "Glenn's the point guard. He runs the whole show.I've been here three days and you want me to take his place? Can't I play another position?"
"Just run the offense, move the ball. You can do it," he said.
The scoreboard read Rochester 123, Maine 95; time remaining: 3:04.
I thought to myself, "28-point lead, three minutes to play. Not even I can blow that."
I went to the scorer's table and nodded to the official scorer the way Dr. J does. Lawrence Boston, formerly of the University of Maryland and the Washington Bullets, was checking in for Maine.
"Where you going?" he asked, looking down at me.
The horn sounded; official Tom Ward motioned me into the game.
I pointed at Glenn Hagan, who nodded and left the floor. The fans stood and cheered. The skinny 6-foot guard from St. Bonaventure, who looks like Yoda from "The Empire Strikes Back," had 34 points and 12 assists. I figured the cheers were for him, not me.
The public address boomed: "Now in for the Zeniths, replacing Glenn Hagan, No. 11, Dave DuPree."
I was playing professional basketball. It was for the Rochester Zeniths in the Continental Basketball Association and not the Philadelphia 76ers, but that doesn't matter. A pro is a pro.
Since I was the smallest Zenith on the floor at 6-2 I picked up Carlton Green, Maine's six-foot guard. He's built like a linebacker. I resemble a pencil. He hurried the ball up court and tried a crossover dribble in front of me as he bulled his way towards the basket.
I reached in and slapped the ball away. Teammate Al Smith snatched the loose ball.
My first pro statistic -- a steal. But I wasn't through. The best was yet to come.
Two plays later Jim Bradley blocked a Maine player's shot and I grabbed the ball as it bounced off the glass. Another stat, this one is a rebound.
Dribbling up court against heavy pressure I was triple-teamed at the midcourt line. Before I could squeak "help," Andrew Parker stole the ball.
The maneuver left me off-balance, stumbling and helplessly remembering the last thing my teammates told me in the locker room before the game: "Whatever you do, don't fall on that carpet. It'll scar you for life."
The carpet was an ugly green rug that covered the cement floor of The Dome arena and served as a basketball court.
That lecture flashed through my mind as I hit the carpet and lost a chunk of skin off my left knee. Now I had blood to go with my other stats.
Maine scored and Bradley inbounded the ball to Smith. I felt my time was now. Maine pressed. I sprinted up the right sideline into the open. Smith saw me and led me with a perfect pass. I caught it 30 feet from the basket, dribbled toward the middle, reversed to my right, faked once and popped a 10-foot turnaround jumper.
I tried to stay cool but a broad grin somehow forced its way onto my face.
As I turned to get back on defense Boston said, "Damn, DuPree, you're serious, aren't you?"
"Yessir," I said, backpedaling downcourt.
The basket went to my head. Next time down I had an easier shot but at the last instant tried to bank it instead of shoot it straight in and missed badly.
I even had the nerve to look at the rim as if it had moved.
Twenty seconds later it was over. We (I guess I can say "we" now) won, 133-113. The Zeniths' 10th straight victory improved their record to 30-5, best in the CBA.
I had played three minutes, made one of two shots, had a rebound, a steal, a turnover and two points.
"Welcome to the CBA," Panaggio said.
Welcome to the CBA is not exactly the same as welcome to the NBA. The Continental Basketball Association is one big notch below the big leagues. Where an NBA star might make $1 million a year, a CBA player is doing better than averge if he earns $5,000 for a 40-game season.
But it's pro ball with quality players, as I quickly found out in practice.
I had a case of nerves all day, Wednesday before my first game. I tried to go about my normal routine, watching Ryan's Hope, All My Children, One Life to Live and General Hospital -- my usual afternoon television fare.
I had no appetite -- butterflies, I guess, so my pregame meal was a small submarine sandwich and a soda.
I tried to take a nap but couldn't sleep. At 6 p.m. I left for the arena.
The locker room motif is early basement -- cold cement floors and dusty dressing cubicles.
"You should have seen this place before they fixed it up," said teammate Larry Fogle.
I had my ankles taped for the first time in 12 years.
I slowly put on my uniform, making sure everything was perfect. My hands were clammy. I started thinking that I'd rather be sky diving.
Fogle read from a small Bible, Hagan teased everybody and Bradley, who couldn't find his athletic supporter, was trying to borrow one.
"Just use some tape," said Lee Johnson.
The crowd cheered, patted our backs and reached for our hands when we went out for pregame warmups. That was easy because we had to walk through the stands to get to the floor. It was the largest crowd ever at the Dome for a Zenith game, 3,417.
Halfway through the layup drills, after my teammates had demonstrated slam dunks, jam dunks, rock-the-cradle dunks, reverse dunks and double-clutch dunks to my Morgan Wootten textbook layups, Bradley, a 6-8 strongman, told me, "That won't do. I'm going to give you a perfect lob pass. I want you to grab it on the way up, rock it back behind your head and jam it through the hoop with both hands." u
"Right," I said.
I couldn't even jump high enough to get the pass.
Two television stations interviewed me. The big questions: How do you pronounce your name and why are you doing this?
"You came here to write a story and you end up a celebrity," said teammate Wayne Abrams. "What's it feel like to be a star?"
Before the game the nonstarters were introduced first, including "a 6-2 guard from the University of Washington and The Washington Post, Number 11. . ."
The rest is history.
There are two portable showers in the locker room. The nozzle comes right out of the pipes in the ceiling and the water cascades down, half of it missing the stall altogether.
That, the cold floor and a scraped knee don't bother me. I am a pro.
Even though I've been a Zenith only three days I feel like a part of this team. They've taken me in. The fact that I am not as good a player as they are doesn't seem to matter.
When we were struggling in the first half Smith told me not to worry. "We've got it under control," he said, even though we led by only a point, 62-61. "We'll get you in."
He was right. We blew to a huge lead almost as if we could have whenver we decided to. When I got in everyone tried to make sure I scored and when I did, the look of satisfaction in their eyes said they were just as glad as I was.
After only three days, I've learned there is more than just basketball itself involved here. Players in this league, at least on this team, share a bond that isn't found in the NBA. You have to be a part of it to feel it. It's like a family. The difference is it's a rich family in the NBA and a regular family down here. Everyone here is struggling. It is the struggle that ties them so closely together.
Sure, I wish I were a Boston Celtic or a Los Angeles Laker or a Washington Bullet, but right now I'm proud to be a Rochester Zenith. That's a feeling I didn't anticipate when I started this assignment.