Gilberto Garcia is a sports agent, just as he’s always wanted to be. But for now, it’s just a part-time gig.

He’s been in the field for six years. He interned with one of the big boys of representation: Impact Sports Management of Boca Raton, Fla., the firm run by superagent Mitch Frankel, which handles such NFL biggies as Jamal Lewis and David Boston. So Garcia knew how tough a business he was getting into. He knew that you can’t land big clients without big name recognition. And you can’t get big name recognition without the big clients.

So, while hoping to someday land in the realm of Frankel and Jerry Maguire, Garcia pays the bills mainly by putting his law degree to use in handling employment-discrimination and immigration cases.

“We all make decisions about what work we want to do,” says Garcia, 34. “I aspire to be somebody like a David Falk or a Scott Boras, but these guys had to all start somewhere, too. I’m on the ground floor, and, until you have enough clients, you have to stick with your day job.”

Either in his Springfield, Va., home office or jetting off to college tournaments and all-star games, Garcia used up every spare work hour during the college-basketball season scouting for future pros. He’s not licensed to work the NBA yet, so he lets Southern California–based partner Daniel Prince, who played college ball at UC–Santa Barbara, go for the bigger-time players while he focuses on WNBA and ABA prospects.

Garcia has learned over the years that publicity doesn’t normally go to folks in those leagues—or their agents—unless things go really right.

Or really wrong. Both happened with Ashley McElhiney.

McElhiney was involved in the two biggest stories in the ABA this year, one good, one not so good. The first, and the feel-good portion of McElhiney’s year, came when the expansion Nashville Rhythm hired her as its coach. McElhiney, who is only 23, wasn’t much of a known quantity outside of Nashville, where she’d had a decent but not otherworldly career playing college ball at Vanderbilt.

Mediocrities need representation, too. Garcia had signed McElhiney during her senior year there, praying she’d latch on to a WNBA squad. But after McElhiney was cut by the Indiana, Charlotte, and Connecticut franchises, she gave up her playing career. She had been trying to land an assistant-coaching gig at several schools when the Rhythm, owned by a wannabe pop star named Sally Anthony, decided to make a splash by asking McElhiney to coach the team. That made McElhiney not only the first coach in the franchise’s history, but also the first female coach of a men’s pro-basketball franchise at any level.

“I didn’t expect that for Ashley,” says Garcia of the Rhythm job, “but that was history. When I signed her, I thought I was representing a player. But when that Nashville offer came, she asked us to assist her, and we agreed.”

Anthony’s ploy worked well: ESPN and every major sports outlet covered the signing, and the Rhythm was among the top draws in the ABA. And, though she had no experience coaching players of any gender, McElhiney immediately turned the Rhythm into a winning team.

But, as Garcia and McElhiney learned together the hard way, the ABA is far better at producing debacles than it is feel-good tales.

A quick look at what’s going on these days with the Washington area’s entry, the Maryland Nighthawks: Last week, the Nighthawks earned a spot in the ABA’s quarterfinals, but, as of press time, the team hadn’t found a gym where it could play that game, which it was supposed to host. The Nighthawks dumped their original home court, the Show Place Arena in Upper Marlboro, earlier in the season because of high rent. And last week, the team’s second venue, the massive Run ’n’ Shoot gym complex in District Heights, Md., went out of business. The scheduled quarterfinal opponent, Bellevue, agreed to meet the Nighthawks at a neutral court in Salt Lake City, home of the Utah Snowbears. But the Snowbears, still alive in the ABA playoffs, suspended operations on Monday.

“We’ll announce a date and location for the Nighthawks game very soon,” promises ABA Commissioner Joe Newman.

Garcia’s brush with ABA disaster, and the not-so-good portion of McElhiney’s year, which sure seems worthy of a movie on Lifetime, came during a Rhythm home game in January. Anthony, who was as inexperienced an owner as McElhiney was a coach, rushed onto the court in the third quarter and, in front of the team and fans, began screaming at McElhiney to bench Matt Freije, an NBA castoff and Vanderbilt alum. As security guards moved in and restrained Anthony, she yelled to the players that McElhiney was fired for disobeying her command.

But the Rhythm, as one, sided with the coach in this dispute, and the team went on to a comeback win that night. Anthony was rushed to a Nashville hospital hours later after a reported drug overdose. Garcia was at home when the on-court firing took place but jumped on a plane to join McElhiney as soon as she phoned in the tale. As the national and even international sports media swooped in to tell the bizarre story, Garcia and McElhiney decided the best strategy in the long-term interest of her career would be to let the story die, and she declined all requests for interviews about the brouhaha. Garcia handled reporters and faced the biggest media storm of his career.

McElhiney also decided that, because her players had stuck by her, she would stick by them. Within a week of the brouhaha, she announced that she would keep her job with the Rhythm despite the feud with ownership. Anthony soon after resigned as president of the team. She could not be reached for comment. Newman called Anthony’s situation “a personal tragedy disguised as a sports story.”

And the Rhythm, led on the court by former Mississippi State star Dontae Jones, continued winning, posting a 22-10 record, eighth-best in the ABA. But Nashville management went into a tailspin after the Anthony resignation—the team’s Web site went offline immediately, for example—and never recovered. Tony Bucher, Anthony’s husband, announced that the Rhythm would not participate in the ABA playoffs because of the turmoil. McElhiney resigned immediately.

Garcia knows he’s got the hottest property the ABA produced all year.

“It was a bad situation in Nashville, but it turned out wonderful for Ashley,” he says. “What resulted from the incident was the players all stood behind Ashley, wanted her to continue to coach. They could have said, ‘We’re with the owner,’ or they could have just walked away from the disintegrating situation. Today’s players don’t always come out on the side of their coach. But every player publicly supported Ashley. To me, that says a lot. She proved she could coach in a bad situation, and she can coach players of any gender and at any level. That really has opened things up for us.”

Along with mulling offers for his client’s services from colleges across the country, Garcia says, he has looked into several WNBA job openings. He thinks the Washington Mystics, which recently promoted former assistant coach Linda Hargrove to general manager, would make a good fit.

“They’ve got a seat open, and that’s definitely something we’d be interested in talking about,” he says. “Ashley wanted to make the WNBA as a player, but now it’s about coaching.”

Garcia says that, apart from concerns about Anthony’s health, he has but one regret about the fallout from the McElhiney story: Because of a Nashville reporter’s error, his name appeared in most wire stories about the Rhythm fiasco as “Gioberto” Garcia.

“I wasn’t trying to get my name out there,” he says. “But if your name’s out there, you hope it’s spelled right. Things like this don’t happen much to guys like me.” —Dave McKenna

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