Lewis then bounds toward the basket (1) where two of his teammates are waiting. At first it appears as if they're going to block their own teammate's shot. But then Lewis flings his body at the two lumbering players who grab him around the ribs from each side and hoist him up to the basket. Lewis slams the ball, hangs on the rim for a delicate moment then descends to the floor and it's hard to tell if the cheers or the laughs from the crowd are more audible.
With that, welcome to the International Basketball League.
The only thing I knew about the IBL was that the league had a team in Central Oregon and that the games produced outrageous final scores. In the 2007 season there were scores on the evening news with the Hotshots (or their competitors) oftentimes scoring 140 and sometimes as many as 160 (2) points in a game. I wondered how these scores got that high. Did dunks count as five points? Was the hoop seven feet off the ground? Did the teams receive, upon entrance, a coupon good for 50 points, redeemable at their discretion?
But about two minutes into the game, it all made much more sense. With a 22-second shot clock (compared to the 24-second NBA version) and only a few timeouts, the game races by and the players get caught up in a style that even at its more controlled moments is frenetic. During this particular game, any hint of patience has evaporated about halfway through the first quarter as the teams sprint up and down the court, tossing up three pointers and chucking half court beeline passes. There's a few blocked shots and some nice half court stops on behalf of the Hotshots, but all in all, there's not a whole hell of a lot of defense going on. Ever played a late '90s video game called "NBA Jam?" This is kind of like that...minus the half court dunks and synthesizer soundtrack.
At a practice a few days earlier, Hotshots head coach Joe Becerra speaks at length about his team's defensive strategy without any prompt. I was actually asking about his expectations for the season, but it's clear Becerra is used to dispelling the rumor that the IBL doesn't play defense.
"People talk about this league and say that there's no defense. At these games you're going to see a lot of scoring, these guys put up a lot of points, but they also play really tough defense," Becerra said, standing at the baseline at the Bend Athletic Club where five of his players who've made it into town a day early were shooting around.
As if marketing a minor league sports team isn't hard enough, touting a low scoring, tight defensive product wouldn't make a hell of a lot of sense. People want these guys firing three pointers until their arms fall off. They want 150 points out of each team. And of course they want dunks - all the time. If the casual basketball fans had their way, there would be no free throws, after a foul, the player would just get a free run at the hoop for a slam. There's a time and place for Princeton back door cuts, Phil Jackson triangle offenses and complicated zone defenses - but the IBL isn't that place. League commissioner and Hotshots Director of Operations Mikal Duilio is well aware of this. Duilio has been organizing basketball leagues since he was 15 years old and is also the creator of an adult recreational league in Portland (Portlandbasketball.com) that boasts some 190 teams each year.
"We were trying to make the game faster by eliminating timeouts and time stoppage. The reason was to speed it up for the viewer, so the high scoring was actually a byproduct," he says over the phone as he heads toward Coos Bay with the Hotshots for a mid-week neutral site game.
Duilio himself is tall and, if it wasn't for the speckles of gray in his hair, he could be easily mistaken for one of the players. Although he admits he was never a great player, Duilio clearly has a basketball jones and a knack for tweaking the game to bring out the game's crowd pleasing elements; he once started a league with a rim six inches lower than the standard 10 feet.
Minor league sports are famous for their promotional tactics, as Will Ferrell's dismal ABA flick Semi-Pro illustrated in theaters this past winter. Duilio isn't getting ridiculous on the promotions, other than the standard half-court shot contest and free-water-bottle-if-you're-doing-the-YMCA-dance-properly giveaways. Instead he's banking that the style of play will serve as the draw. It's a bold move and when the Hotshots score 12 points while only 1 minute and 52 seconds roll of the clock, there's a hint that Duilio might be onto something.
Central Oregon has yet to truly embrace the Hotshots. Although the team is in its fourth season, sellout crowds are a rarity. Yet the team is hardly ignored. In some markets, a minor league basketball team could get buried in other sports coverage, but in Bend, the local sports guys seem to keep in touch. On the day of the victory over the High Flyers, a local television news program shows highlights of the game, care of a sports reporter who poked his head into the gym early in the third quarter just long enough to run his HD camera for about 15 minutes. A reporter from the other local network affiliate showed up a good ten minutes after the game was over.
And of course, it doesn't help that the Hotshots haven't had a ton of success in the win column. This season has been especially rough on the Hotshots, who enter this week's final home stand with a record of 6 wins and 11 losses. When forward Terry Horton recalls the team's early-May trip to Canada to take on the Edmonton Chill, it's hard not to feel bad for the guys.
"We didn't even have our team up there. It's hard to win when you don't have your key guys with you," he said as we sat watching the team's early afternoon shoot-around.
Horton is referring to the fact that some of the players had passport issues and couldn't get into Canada for the game, forcing the team to find some last minute replacement players to fill the gaps. As expected, the Hotshots lost both games.
The IBL is hardly a small-time venture, with 18 teams and another nine joining up in 2009. Teams range from the Northwest all the way to Canada and the Midwest, as well as a Chinese-based team that's new to the league this season. While the teams are geographically diverse, Duilio has structured the league so that clubs can operate within their markets on modest budgets by reducing travel costs.
"We've taught each team how to be efficient," Duilio says, "The teams are clustered together, so each team only has to fly once a season."
Every time I ask someone if they want to check out a Hotshots game with me, the response typically falls somewhere in between "I'm not a basketball fan" and "Why in the hell would I want to go watch a bunch of guys who I could probably take to school?" The latter expression is hardly even close to the truth. No this isn't the NBA, or the NBA D-League, or the ABA or one of many elite European leagues, but this also isn't intramurals.
The talent is there - as are the back stories that so often come with minor league athletes.
Horton returned to the Hotshots this season and is leaning onto the court during the second quarter, shouting instructions to his teammates until Coach Becerra silences him with a wave. About three minutes later, Horton (a 6 foot 4 inch wing who carries his 200 pounds in the form of solid muscle) strides into the game and pulls down a rebound (3), skying above the post players and slapping the ball together in his hands like Karl Malone used to do before he slowed down. Horton plays in Germany when not with the Hotshots and was recently named an all-league player over there. His stock is rising on the international level, but Horton is a hard-hat-and-lunch-pale kind of player with an almost unbelievably modest take on himself that doesn't fit the egomaniacal "I-think-I'll-put-out-a-rap album" ethos often attached to pro basketball players.
"The NBA ain't for everybody, ya know? I had to come to that conclusion and I've settled with it. It's OK," Horton says as we sit behind the basket at a recent practice.
"I'm definitely content. I definitely want to go higher and higher, but not being in the NBA is not holding me back," he says and we then talk for about a half hour about Horton's affinity for Playstation and the new Ironman movie, then discuss nightlife in Bend (4).
Horton seems to be a player who has a handle on how to make a career as a professional basketball player, NBA-be-damned. Yet dreams of the NBA still linger in the IBL, and also within the ranks of the Hotshots in the form of Terrance Whiters, a first-year player fresh out of Arkansas Tech who sits down next to me in the stands after coming out of the locker room(5) with an ice pack on his thigh, thanks to an injury suffered the previous night. Now, Arkansas Tech doesn't sound that impressive, but ESPN.com ranked him the 86th best high school player when he graduated in 2002.
Whiters, a Baltimore-area native who entered the draft in 2007, but eventually withdrew his name, has again entered into the NBA draft this year and has been with the team intermittently as he trains to make his stats more appealing to scouts. It's driving deeper into the third quarter and the Hotshots are pulling away thanks to some lights out shooting from Jeff Dunn, and Whiters' eyes almost never leave the court as we speak. He tells me about spending two seasons at Loyola Chicago and in an instant I remember being in the stands as he dropped in 19 points in his debut game against my alma mater, Loyola Marymount. Then, as is still true today, the guy was one of the fastest guards you're likely to find anywhere.
Whiters left Loyola Chicago, tried to get on the squad at Towson, and eventually landed at Arkansas Tech, but again, had his time cut short.
"I had some family problems that I had to go home and take care of - my sister was in trouble - so I only played in 13 games,(6)" he says, leaving me wondering where he'd be if he could have found some stability in his college career.
On the court, Dunn, a 6 feet 5 inch Oregon native, is smoothly weaving his way through the key on repeated trips down the court to score with a sort of Larry Bird meets Scottie Pippen lay-up. Dunn, although the team's leading scorer at more than 28 points per game, isn't interested in furthering his basketball career like Horton or Whiters and according to Duilio, is quite content working for his family's berry farming business.
But when it comes to fan favorites, one need not look past Lewis. Duilio and others constantly refer to Lewis, who was been with the team since its inception, as a "fan favorite," and they're dead on in their description. "Fan favorite" is a touchy term, because it might not always be a good thing. Dennis Rodman was a total fan favorite, not because he was kind to fans, but because spectators sat at the edge of their seats waiting for him to punch somebody or dye his hair during a time out. Lewis is an Ozzie Smith kind of fan favorite, sitting at half court in a throne fulfilling his "King Arthur" role, and also pulling kids onto the court for impromptu dance lessons. A 2007 Hotshots press release actually lists Lewis as heading up the promotions department.
Soon after this game, Lewis headed back to his home in Maryland where he'd taken a job working with kids and also coaching youth basketball. He will, however, be in uniform this weekend for his last game with the team.
"Hey, I'm just out there to put smiles on people's faces. I don't need a script or anything like that. You can ask my parents, they'll tell you that I've always just been an entertainer," Lewis says, adding that he's keeping his options open for a tryout with the Harlem Globetrotters.(7)
Now in the fourth quarter, the Hotshots are scoring at will, due in part to what appears to be fatigue on behalf of their opposition. At times, High Flyers don't even attempt to get back on defense as Lewis, Horton, Dunn and company zip around the court.
Lewis has the ball and is dribbling around the perimeter, and true to his word, is making not only the crowd smile, but also himself. That's probably because he knows the sun hasn't quite set on his professional career... and he's about to get tossed into the air for a dunk.
1) It remains unclear whether this play is legal within IBL rules, but the official scorer of the game did, indeed, count the basket.
2) This is for real. The Edmonton Chill put up 165 point on the Hotshots on
3) As of press time, Horton was the IBL's fourth leading rebounder with 10.2 per game. Remember, he's only 6'4".
4) Horton was floored to hear that Jokers had closed.
5) When I attempted to follow the team into the locker room for some down and dirty reporting, a visibly frustrated Coach Becerra, apparently not nearly as thrilled as I by his team's chaotic finish to the first half, gave me a "maybe next time."
6) Whiters nonetheless averaged 20 points and almost 5 assists per game in those 13 games.
7) Arthur also got me hip to the fact that the Globetrotters are now owned primarily by a company headed by Roy E. Disney.
All games at Mountain View High School
Wednesday 5/28 - Las Vegas Stars, 7:15pm
Friday 5/30 - Grand Rapids Flight, 7:15pm
Saturday 5/31 - China Shanxi Kylins, 7:15pm