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By Friday afternoon, Mike McLeese should be crying.
The last day of his first week as coach of the new Washington Congressionals of the USBL, a 12-team, very minor hoops league that does business each spring, is coming to a very discouraging end. The University of the District of Columbia field house, the Congressionals’ home gym by default, still looks as if no housekeeping crew has stopped by since local legends Earl Jones and Michael Britt played here in the early ’80s. The tattered tartan court lacks the regulation three-point lines and lanes used in the USBL. That’s OK for pickup games and practices, but the Congressionals’ home opener is just five days away. (Don’t bother calling the team about tickets: The phones aren’t connected yet.) One set of Congressionals uniforms, sans logos, arrived that morning, but most of the players McLeese hoped to suit up against the Columbus Cagerz in this weekend’s inaugural road game have yet to show for any of the squad’s workouts. Worst of all, the Congressionals are supposed to leave for Columbus at the end of Friday’s practice, but, like many of the players slated to be part of the franchise, the team’s chartered bus has yet to make it to UDC.
But McLeese isn’t down. Hell no, he’s laughing as if there’s nowhere he’d rather be. Regulation court or no regulation court. Players or no players. Bus or no bus.
“I’ve got to try to make this all work,” he says, with a shrug and a smile.
A week earlier, McLeese was out of work, against his will. The administration at Howard University, who for whatever reason had never warmed to the former Dunbar High School coach, had booted him off the campus after three years for not winning enough games.
The Congressionals position came open unexpectedly two weeks ago, only because Rory Whitewho originally signed on as head coach but never bothered holding even one workout herefinally decided to tell team owner Larry Arnold that he really didn’t want the job and flew back to his North Dakota home. Arnold, a Silver Spring resident and rookie sports owner, couldn’t conduct a national search for a replacementhe was too busy finding a place for his team to play, having been turned down by, among others, the MCI Center, the D.C. Armory, the Smith Center, the Patriot Center, the Showplace Arena, and various Baltimore venues.
McLeese, with his lofty presence on the local hoops scene and his well-publicized availability, seemed a natural fit for Arnold’s venture. So, instead of playing golf and recovering from the trauma of the Howard kiss-off, McLeese will spend the next two months jockeying from another bench. With all the problems thrown his way since signing on with Arnold, McLeese has no time for regrets about the past or self-pity about the present.
“I’m a basketball coach. This is what I do,” he says. “I’m not going to worry about who we’ve got and who we don’t have just yet, or about not getting a team together fast enough. I mean, you don’t get a team together in a week. I mean, we haven’t had a practice yet; we’ve had tryouts.”
The list of players who have played hooky during McLeese’s first week is a lot more impressive than the list of those who have played hoops. Lawrence Moten, still glowing from his 1.1 points per game stint with the NBA’s Wizards and assorted CBA squads, has told the team he may make it in time for Wednesday’s home game. Curt Smith, an All-Met a decade ago and local playground hero, may be in uniform by then, too. Nate Smith, the team’s top draft pick and recent American University graduate, can at least use an ankle injury as an excuse for his absence. Victor Page, the former McKinley Tech and Georgetown gunner who dropped out of school last year in a misguided attempt to kick start his pro basketball career, hasn’t bothered giving McLeese or anybody else an explanation. He just hasn’t shown.
“Victor doesn’t want a bus ride to Ohio,” mumbles a Congressionals assistant.
With all the truancy, just eight players will be on the roster against Columbus. Most of the founding Congressionals are former D.C. high school stars, like Darryl Prue, Greg Jones, and Lonnie Harrell. Also along for the ride is Craig Hodges, a redheaded center out of George Mason University who definitely should not be confused with the onetime Chicago Bulls sharpshooter of the same name: “I don’t have that guy. Oh, I wish I had that guy,” says McLeese.
Those who do show up for the team’s games will play out a 26-game schedule for $1,000 to $2,000 a month (plus $40 per diem for road games) and go to bush-league cities like Camden, N.J., Salem, N.H., and Milford, Conn.and Columbusfor one reason: As things now stand, no NBA team will invite any of them to camp next season. But have a big spring in the USBL and, well, maybe… Every player in this dreamers’ league knows that since 1985 more than 110 USBL alums have made it to the NBA, including several guys who appeared in nationally televised playoff games just this weekend: Anthony Mason, Chris Childs, and Charlie Ward. (No Congressionals actually got to see any of the NBA games, of course; they were on the bus.)
But the shot at the big time lets the Congressionals endure the long bus trips, even though the concept seems especially foreign to some of them. Jones, for example, spent this past March leading his West Virginia Mountaineers to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16, and his internal clock is clearly gauged to faster modes of transportation: While waiting for his first real road trip to commence, Jones confidently misinforms his Congressionals teammates about how long the ride to Columbus will be.
“Three hours to get to West Virginia, and another hour to Ohio,” he says. “We’ll be there in four hours.”
When told that he has underestimated the length of the trip by about half, Jones decides the plastic bag he’s loaded with junk food and toiletries isn’t sufficient for the upcoming voyage.
“Man, I gotta get back to CVS,” Jones groans.
He has time: As it turns out, the charter bus shows up at UDC eight hours late. But McLeese won’t even let a snag that big bring him down.
“This is the pros,” says the coach.Dave McKenna