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Jerrod Mustaf is 33 years old. That seems young, given how long he’s been a part of the local basketball landscape.
Mustaf now runs the Street Basketball Association (SBA), a league he founded to promote a more freelance-friendly version of the game he played during his NCAA and NBA runs in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Its press releases promise that the SBA “will entertain crowds with players displaying vicious killer crosses, behind the neck no look passes, and 360 degree slams while the DJ is mixing the latest hip-hop beats.” Mustaf calls his product “baskettainment.”
“Five or six years ago, it was frowned upon when somebody said an NBA player played ‘street basketball,’” says Mustaf. “Now, that’s how they describe the play, the showmanship and creativity, of all the young players[Tracy] McGrady, Steve Francis, Baron Davis, Kobe [Bryant]. The guys who used to be accused of hot-dogging are now the guys who sell the most apparel.”
Last summer, the Street Basketball Association fielded a team that traveled around the United States as part of the Sprite Liquid Mix tour, a barnstorming effort headlined by rapper Jay-Z and the alt-rock band 311. The squad went undefeated against street teams fielded by local promoters in the 15 cities they hit with the road show. Mustaf says at least eight cities will put teams on the court for the SBA’s 2003 season and that the local squad, the DC Legends, will debut on July 18 at an as-yet-undetermined site in the city. And a DJ will be in the house, wherever that house is.
David Schwab, sports-marketing director for the international sports agency Octagon, says that sports marketers are looking for a blend of the urban and the athletic. On paper, the SBA offers just that combination. But no matter the conceptual upside, Schwab cautions, the costs associated with launching any new sports league usually prove overwhelming.
“For something like [a new basketball league] to work, you’ve got to get a serious cable network or a major apparel manufacturer behind you,” Schwab says.
Still, the time seems right for the SBA. Street basketball’s prominence is evident in both the NBA-sanctioned video gamesNBA Street Basketball II just hit the shelvesand the recent premiere of Magic Johnson’s Who’s Got Game?, an MTV reality series that aims to find the top street baller in the land. (Randy “White Chocolate” Gill, an SBA player last season, is in the cast.) And its hard to find any basketball fan who wasn’t bored by the stagnant pace of the NBA finals, won by the fundamentally sound San Antonio Spurs, which garnered the lowest TV ratings ever for a championship series.
“I saw the trend toward street basketball coming in a while ago, and it’s only getting bigger,” says Mustaf. “There are players in D.C. and in every city who deserve a bigger audience. We’re trying to get word out on the street about our events, get people talking about us, people on the street who are looking for the next big thing, and just trying to get [street basketball] to blow up.”
There was a time when a lot of folks thought Mustaf was going to be the next big thing. The Prince George’s County product made a few all-American teams as a sophomore and junior at DeMatha, and pretty much every all-American team during his senior year, when he was among the most highly recruited prep players in the country. The 6-foot-10 center was the leading scorer for the Capital All Stars in the 1988 Capital Classic, a game that featured 13 future NBA players. Mustaf’s market value was so high coming out of high school that he and his parents decided to turn the recruiting process into a forum on minority hiring on college campuses. Every suitor had to provide the Mustafs with information about the number of African-Americans in its athletic department and administration, and the percentage of black athletes graduating from the school.
The University of Maryland won the Mustaf sweepstakes. The school scored points with the family by hiring Bob Wade from Baltimore’s Dunbar High School to replace the legendary Lefty Driesell, canned after the 1986 death of Len Bias. Wade was the first black coach ever hired to run a major sports program in the ACC. Maryland’s chancellor at the time, John Slaughter, was also black.
Wade’s stay at Maryland was a disaster on the courthe went 36-50 in three seasonsand off. Mustaf arrived just in time for the flameout. Near the end of his freshman year in College Park, Slaughter left the school. Then the NCAA launched what sure seems, all these years later, like a heavy-handed investigation of the Maryland basketball program. Among the most serious violations uncovered by the NCAA was that Wade had personally arranged for a player, identified in press reports as guard Rudy Archer, to be driven to class. (Yes, that’s an NCAA no-no.) Wade was forced to resign, and the NCAA handed down sanctions including a two-year ban on television or postseason appearances.
Unlike his teammate Walt Williams, Mustaf didn’t stick around for the length of the probationary period. He played one year under new coach Gary Williams and the thumb of the NCAA, averaging 18.5 points per game in his sophomore season. And then he declared himself eligible for the NBA draft.
For years, Mustaf’s name would come up around NBA draft time, as the poster boy for the evils of leaving school early. (The Post’s Michael Wilbon has cited Mustaf in separate columns arguing that Joe Smith, Terence Morris, and Chris Wilcox should stay in College Park rather than go pro.) Walt Williams, who now plays with the Dallas Mavericksand a guy whose jersey, unlike Mustaf’s, hangs from the rafters of the Terps’ new arenais usually pitted as the good Terrapin against Mustaf’s bad.
Mustaf says he doesn’t regret skipping school to go to the NBA.
“When I left Maryland, I wasn’t even thinking about playing in the pros,” says Mustaf. “I had a big issue with the NCAA. It was the wicked sanctions the NCAA put on Maryland that made me leave school. I saw what was going on, the investigations, the sanctions, and it was about Bob Wade. Here you had Chancellor Slaughter, a black man, bringing in a black high-school coach, a guy committed to inner-city youth, and there were people inside the institution and the boosters who were upset by that. They didn’t like Bob Wade, they didn’t show up at school functions, they stopped giving money, and the boosters decided they’ve got to figure a way to make Bob Wade fail. People inside the athletic department at Maryland called the police on themselves’Hey, listen here: They’re driving a player to class! Huge violation!’ Next thing you know, Bob Wade is gone, and here comes Gary Williams, somebody the boosters know and like. It was nothing that Bob Wade did. It was that Maryland wasn’t ready for an inner-city black coach.”
Mustaf’s pro career, much like his college stint, never really got going, either. The Knicks took him with the 17th pick overall in the 1990 draft but gave up on him after just one year. They shipped Mustaf out to Phoenix, along with Trent Tucker and two second-round picks, in exchange for Xavier McDaniel.
His Phoenix stay, also like his tenure at College Park, ended with an investigation, though of a much more sordid sort. In 1993, Althea Hayes, identified as Mustaf’s girlfriend, was found murdered in her Glendale apartment, and a forensics report concluded that she was three months pregnant with his child. LeVonnie Wooten, Mustaf’s cousin, was arrested for the killing. He claimed at his trial that he had been set up by Mustaf, who evidence showed had paid Wooten’s airfare from the D.C. area to Phoenix at the time of the murder. Wooten was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Mustaf denied he was involved in the crime and invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination during grand-jury testimony. He was never charged with any crime related to Hayes’ murder.
The absence of criminal charges didn’t stop Phoenix from jettisoning Mustaf from its roster. No NBA team would touch him, so he went to Europe, bouncing from Spain to Greece, France, Poland, and Turkey. An NBA comeback attempt in 1996 flopped when both Charlotte and Seattle signed Mustaf but quickly dropped him because of public outcry about his link to the Hayes murder investigation; the Hornets dropped him a day after offering him a contract, before he’d even worked out with the team.
When asked if he’s been blacklisted by the NBA because of the Hayes investigation, Mustaf says, “I don’t have any certainties, but just look at the facts and use the circumstantial evidence: I was signed a couple times by a couple teams but never was given a chance to compete for a job. You can dress it up or dress it down. I understand that business is business, so you move on and do something else.”
Mustaf went back to Europe, but in 2001, after his team in Turkey went bankrupt, he came back to D.C. and founded the SBA. Getting the new league up and running, he says, has kept him too busy to think seriously about trying to play again.
His current goal is to have an SBA team in every major U.S. city. Mustaf says he has long dreamed of being part of a black-owned major professional basketball league. He says he’s not trying to prove anything to anybody who thinks his past has been a disappointment, or worse.
“Look at my career from high school on: I’ve been a socially conscious young black man,” Mustaf says. “So there’s not any ‘redemption’ needed on my part. This is just staying the course. The NBA happened to be a huge platform, but if that platform is denied to me, there are other things I can do, and [the SBA] is another vehicle. My own career, well, it never had a chance to be completed as a player, but I’m still in the game, and I still have a lot to give the game. The jury’s still out.” Dave McKenna