Greg Ballard can't get his check cashed, because he's about to do an interview. He hasn't had time to find an apartment -- his local residence is a downtown hotel -- and he has no way to get to the bank. So John Lucas, the ex-Bullet, tells him that he'll cash it for him, and gives Ballard the keys to Lucas' car.
"You sure?" Ballard asks.
For the third time, Lucas says "Yes," and adds, "I've been taking care of you for years. I burped you in Washington."
That's where the young, 6-foot-7 Ballard was a Bullet for eight seasons, the future initially on a team with Elvin Hayes, Wes Unseld, Bob Dandridge, Kevin Grevey. Now, Ballard, 34, is in the state of Washington, playing on a 10-day contract with the Seattle SuperSonics. It's not the stuff with which NBA first-round picks are normally associated, and Ballard, the fourth player taken in the first round of the 1977 draft, was the highest pick Washington has had in the last dozen years. But it's the winter of Ballard's career and he'll take the playing time where he gets it.
That's why Ballard spent a season and a half in Italy after leaving Golden State, his previous NBA employer, for a contract in Europe. He played in Pesaro, on the Adriatic coast, and in Forli, a town about 30 minutes east of Bologna. When Forli bought out his contract, bringing in ex-Phoenix Sun Kenny Gattison, he spent Christmas at home in Washington before he received a call from George Karl, head coach of the Continental Basketball Association's Albany Patroons.
And that's why Ballard played seven games in Albany as a player-coach this season before he got a jingle from Bernie Bickerstaff, the former Bullets assistant now head coach at Seattle. And that's why Ballard is back in the big league, even if it's just for another day or so. After his playing days end -- which could be Thursday, when the 10-day deal runs out -- he wants to get into coaching and scouting full time.
"I didn't know how long I was going to be (in the NBA)," said Ballard, the last active member of the Bullets' 1978 championship team that beat the SuperSonics in the finals. "I was praying I would be around but I didn't know how long I would last in the league. Because every year, there was exceptional talent coming out. I'm talking about players who can play three positions. I wasn't sure how long Greg Ballard would last."
Ballard had a setback when he sprained his ankle in warm-ups before the SuperSonics' game with the Bullets Friday. He didn't play that night and didn't make the trip when the SuperSonics played in Portland. He sat out again as Seattle beat the Boston Celtics this week, so his numbers are stuck on one-of-eight shooting from the floor ("He's still got no conscience," said Karl) with four of four from the foul line in two brief appearances. And, with no more games in his contract tenure, he's run out of time to impress.
All Bickerstaff would say about Ballard's future was, "Right now, we're just looking at the 10-day thing and we'll see what transpires from that."
In eight Washington seasons, Ballard averaged 13.2 points, missing only 13 games; he once played in 305 consecutive games. He averaged double figures in scoring the last six seasons, reaching a high of 18.8 in 1981-82. He is still among all-time leaders in several Bullets categories: second in steals (713), third in games (643), fourth in minutes played (18,687), fifth in rebounding (4,094), sixth in assists (1,542) and seventh in points (8,706).
After the Bullets traded him on draft day 1985 for second-round picks in 1985 and 1987 (the '85 pick turned out to be Manute Bol), Ballard put in two seasons at Golden State, where he averaged 8.8 and 7.1 points in a reserve role. But in July 1987, he opted to go to Pesaro. He played one season there before shifting to Forli last summer, but not without casting a glance back toward the NBA.
Ballard wanted to return and was thinking about the Miami Heat, but when Ron Rothstein was named coach, his chances dissipated.
"At that time, I was talking to Stu Inman (the Heat's director of player personnel). He was talking very positive, but this was before they had hired their new coach. When they hired their new coach, he had a lot of input, a lot of say-so, on the players he wanted on his team. He basically wanted to go with a younger team and, sure enough, he stuck to his guns."
In Italy, where TBS broadcasts one NBA game a week, Ballard's life with his wife, Donna, and their four children was two years of ups and downs. True, he was given a car and a fully furnished apartment (an American player can get a villa if he so desires), but there was always the language barrier. His coach spoke three languages, including English, and most of his teammates spoke English, so the on-court communication was fine. But there are many non-playing hours in the day.
"Trying to learn the language was difficult," he said. "I picked up a little bit of it. What makes the language so difficult is you have a lot of verbs. ... A lot of times people in the community would invite you over to their house. You felt uncomfortable going over there because you couldn't communicate with anybody."
Karl said the American players abroad also carry a disproportionate share of their hosts' expectations.
"The success of the team (in Italy) is out of sync," he said. "People think the success of the team is being caused by the Americans. Actually, the success of the Italian teams is based on the Italians. On the top teams over there the Americans basically cancel each other out. The blame goes over on the Americans. And the Americans are the ones they can change. It's harder to replace their own players."
So, Forli officials told Ballard they were buying out his contract and bringing in Gattison. He could stick around if he wanted and work out with the team in case a player got injured. He chose not to, went home for the holidays, and was figuring out what to do next when Karl called. On Jan. 26, Ballard joined the Patroons, who had lost two players to Italian teams in the last six weeks.
"Greg and I had talked last year when he decided to go to Italy," said Karl, who coached the Warriors in 1986-88. "He had some interest in becoming a coach. I think he was an intelligent player who had the ability to communicate with the players. ... It was easier for him to become a player-coach. I could pay him some money (the top CBA players make $500-$600 a week) in that capacity. I could not pay him just as an assistant coach."
In seven games at Albany, he averaged 8.1 points (with a high of 16) and 5.3 rebounds, shot just under 50 percent from the floor, broke down film and scouting reports with Karl and coached a couple of practices. But Bickerstaff came calling Feb. 13 and Ballard checked into his hotel room, leaving the family behind in Washington, for who knows how long.
"I still think he can contribute in the NBA," Karl said.