Drafted in the third round, 62nd overall, by the New Jersey Nets in 1985, former UCLA basketball player Nigel Miguel thought his dream of playing in the National Basketball Assn. had finally come true.
“This is where it really begins,” he said after the draft.
A beginning, though, is all it really was. The 6-6 guard didn’t make a strong enough impression and was released by the Nets in training camp.
So, to stay in the game, Miguel went from New Jersey to La Crosse, Wis., home of the fledgling Catbirds, a new team last season in the Continental Basketball Assn.
Naturally, the trip didn’t appeal to him.
“It was real hard at first, mentally,” he said. “I felt I didn’t belong there.”
But he realized that he had to put his situation in the proper perspective to preserve his drive and ambition.
“When you’re young and you have this dream . . . and the dream has you going (to the NBA) right after college, and you kind of get sidetracked, you have to keep your head in the right direction,” he said.
“I’d have to say that I’m (in the CBA) for a purpose. It can be a worthwhile experience.”
Still, the former star at Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks is not content with his current role in professional athletics, even though he helped the Catbirds get to the league championship series.
Miguel wants to play in the NBA, to rise above the $405-a-week salary he got with the Catbirds.
“It’s hard to play for that amount while (NBA players) make so much,” he said.
Miguel, however, is used to slow starts. After a disappointing start at UCLA--as a junior he averaged only 4 points a game and shot only 39.8%--Miguel came into his own as a senior, earning a reputation as a defensive stopper while averaging 12 points and shooting 48.6%.
He was even compared with Laker guard Michael Cooper and thought the comparison deserved merit. “I feel that in time I can do as much or more (in the NBA) than Cooper did for the Lakers,” he once said.
What Miguel didn’t count on was the delay. Welcome to professional basketball.
At the end of last season, there were 44 players in the NBA with CBA experience, and 23 CBA players were called up by NBA teams for various periods of time. Most signed 10-day contracts, which only occasionally lead to longer-term employment.
Still, there is always a chance. Laker backup center Petur Gudmundsson, formerly of the Kansas City Sizzlers in the CBA, signed a 10-day contract in March, then played well enough to be re-signed for the remainder of the season.
But Miguel, probably like many other players of his caliber, had no intention of being sent to a minor league in the first place and still maintains that he didn’t get a legitimate chance to impress the right people at the right time.
“I never felt like I got a chance in my senior year to show what I can do at UCLA,” he said. "(NBA scouts) felt that I had to prove myself, and . . . I looked at (the CBA) as a proving ground,” he said.
He believes that he proved himself last season and that he is ready for the NBA now.
“I felt I had to show them that I could score from anywhere, and just let them know I can play,” Miguel said.
According to Miguel, the right people were pleased with his performance.
"(NBA scouts) thought of me as being one of the great players in the league,” he said.
Catbird Coach Ron Ekkern apparently did, too.
“He’s a very strong player,” Ekkern said. “It may require another year, I don’t know. But I don’t think there’s any doubt that he’ll be an NBA player.”
Miguel showed steady improvement during the season, helping the Catbirds gain the championship round of the playoffs against the Tampa Bay Thrillers.
Tampa Bay won the best-of-seven series in five games, but Miguel missed the first two games--the Catbirds lost both--with a pulled hamstring, and played the final games even though he wasn’t completely healed.
Still, he finished his rookie season behind only former NBA player Paul Thompson in scoring on the Catbirds and was second to Michael Adams of Bay State in voting for Rookie of the Year. Adams has been invited to the Sacramento Kings’ training camp.
In the regular season, Miguel played all 48 games, mostly at guard but sometimes at forward. He shot 48.2% and averaged 17.5 points a game.
In the playoffs, he was even better. He shot 50.6% and averaged 21.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.5 steals.
Said Ekkern: “Nigel was good when he came here but became an outstanding player in the league as the season progressed. I think he’ll definitely make it.”
To do so, though, Miguel will have to do what most CBA players haven’t been able to do--rise above the talent line that separates the leagues, and make it past training camp.
Most of his teammates have had similar experiences with the NBA:
--Thompson, who led the team with an 18.4-point average, was selected by Cleveland in the third round of the NBA draft in 1983. He was traded to Milwaukee, then to Philadelphia, where he started briefly before being released. He has since returned to the NBA twice on 10-day contracts.
--George Montgomery was picked in the second round in 1985 by Portland, then released in training camp.
--Russell Cross was picked sixth in the first round in 1983 by Golden State. He was quickly released and wasn’t even much of a factor last season with the Catbirds, averaging just three points a game.
--Earl Harrison was picked by Philadelphia in the fourth round in 1984, then was released in training camp.
--Eddie Hughes was picked by the then-San Diego Clippers in the seventh round in 1982 and was released in training camp. He went to training camp last season with Denver, but the Nuggets released him, too.
--Herb Johnson was picked by Cleveland in the third round in 1985, then was released in training camp.
Obviously, the CBA is no sure ticket to the NBA. But maybe Miguel can rise above that line and make it.
“Whatever it takes,” he said. “If I have to shove it in their face to show them I can play, I will.
“They like to draft people right out of college, so it’s a little tougher, but I’m young and still have the opportunity.”
He does, indeed. He has been invited to training camps by Cleveland, New Jersey and Sacramento. Miguel and his agent, Keith Glass, will decide which invitation to accept after the NBA draft, when they can determine which team offers him the best chance.
And if it doesn’t work out this time around, Miguel wouldn’t dismiss the possibility of playing in Europe, if he gets a good enough offer.
“But I do plan on being in the NBA next season,” he said.