Unusual Gulls Are Favorite in This Town
Tourists troop through sprawling estates, marveling at the surrounding splendor. Summer crowds relax on sleek yachts, sipping cool drinks and savoring the good life.
Then there’s the gym.
The Rhode Island Gulls squeeze into a tiny locker room and play on a scuffed floor. Screaming fans sit in fold-up bleachers and wave handmade signs.
Not everything glitters in Newport. The Gulls, though, are a touch of high society.
Led by Manute Bol, the skinny, 7-6 3/4 center from the Sudan, the team is a crowd-pleasing summer attraction with distinctive players hoping to brighten their hazy futures.
The United States Basketball League club considered playing in Providence, the state capital, and Kingston, home of the University of Rhode Island, before taking the playground game to the playground of the wealthy.
“We wanted to be in a smaller community, a community that could kind of take us on as its own,” said assistant coach Steve Hocker. “That’s worked out.”
Through the end of the All-Star break Thursday, the Gulls were 6-9 and tied for fourth place in the seven-team minor league which plays through mid-August. The USBL took over the team after its original owner pulled out, and now a Providence businessman owns the Gulls.
They are a box-office smash. At home, their average attendance of 1,208 is second in the league. On the road through, they are first with an average of 1,650.
Featured are the Mutt-and-Jeff combination of Bol, who played one season at the University of Bridgeport (Conn.), 5-7 Spud Webb from North Carolina State and John “Hot Rod” Williams of Tulane.
“We want to see the tall guy,” said Al Santie, a 35-year-old water department inspector who attended a recent home game.
Bol can dunk without jumping. He tops the league with 15.4 rebounds and 12.4 blocked shots per game, yet weighs just 190 pounds. Webb, a push-it-up penetrating guard, startles the crowds when he dunks. He has to jump.
Williams, awaiting trial in an alleged point-shaving scheme at Tulane, leads the USBL with 21.6 points per game.
They were among five Gulls taken in the National Basketball Assn. draft.
Newport is a town that likes its basketball. Above the Gulls’ court at Rogers High School hang 108 faded red banners signifying the school’s athletic titles, many in basketball.
It’s also a place where people like to go out.
“People have something to do during the day,” said Gulls’ forward Martin Clark after patiently signing autographs for some youngsters. “They can go to the beach. They can go out and enjoy the weather and enjoy the area. But, at night, I’ve got to think they are limited to what they can do and this is one more thing.”
To some of the 32,000 year-round Newport residents, the Gulls are a fresh alternative to the mansions, trendy waterfront shops and yachts, which become “old hat,” as one fan put it.
The Gulls attract people of all ages; whether the yachting crowd is among them is uncertain.
“I know a lot of them and none of them are sports-minded. They’re party-minded,” said Henry Sullivan, 68, a lifelong Newport resident, standing outside the Gulls’ gym. “None of them (are) down here. These are the working class type of people.”
One of them is Steve Glover, a gas company pipe fitter who lives in nearby Bristol and yells from the front row.
A simple autograph request turned into a friendship with Gull players Mark Halsel, a Marvelous Marvin Hagler look-alike with the same aggressive style, and Tony Grier.
“They were over the house the other day eating lasagna and listening to music,” said Glover, 32. “They want friends. They’re away from home.”
They found them in the Glovers, their son Matthew, 7, and daughter Jessica, 5.
“Ever since we met these guys we’ve been on a natural high. They (his children) wear Gull shirts, Gull hats, Gull pins. It’s Gullmania here,” he said.
Kevin Stacom, a former Boston Celtic and a familiar face around bustling Thames Street, is Rhode Island’s coach and general manager. He’s an owner of the Dockside Saloon, a post-game stop for players.
“Kevin’s great with the people,” said USBL publicity director Mike Bovino. “If they (the Gulls) win, he’ll buy a round of drinks.”
While the players’ mission is serious--to improve enough to make the NBA--they enjoy playing in a picturesque resort area.
“I’m just about a tourist myself,” said Webb. “I’m just here for the summer, like some other people. I enjoy looking at the boats.”
“Newport is a nice town for summer. I don’t know about winter,” said Bol, who is accustomed to the Sudan’s warm climate. “When I walk in town right now I don’t hear somebody say something wrong. I think that’s nice.”