World Basketball League Provides Players a Possible Shortcut to NBA

Hartford Courant

Fields of corn sag in the summer sizzle. A gray-white haze hangs over groves of pine trees like smoke in a tavern. A man shoveling asphalt into the cracked road leading to Anna Maria College 10 miles northwest of Worcester is enveloped in steam.

The only noise at the center of this bucolic campus comes from an occasional car. But in the distance a faint, repetitive sound is heard. As one draws closer to the Fuller Activities Center, it becomes louder.

Balls are bouncing and men are laughing. These boys of summer are playing a winter game. The Worcester Counts, one of five professional teams in the World Basketball League, are at work.

"Most people today are thinking of going to the beach or of something cool," center Kevin McDuffie says. "For me, there's no place better than a hot gym."

Each Count is counting on earning an opportunity to play in the NBA. Eight WBL players, including the Celtics' Kevin Gamble of the Illinois Express, were in the NBA last season.

Even though some players may be short in inches--WBL players can be no taller than 6-feet, 4 7/8 inches--all have great expectations.

"This is the best competitive summer basketball around," says Delray Brooks, the shooting guard on Providence College's 1987 Final Four team. "I'm confident I'll be going to an NBA camp."

Former Purdue sharpshooter Troy Lewis says, "I could be playing street ball. But you can get into bad habits there. You take a bad shot, but you don't really care. You can't do that here. The only negative thing here is that some guys have to play out of position, like a shooting guard playing down low."

Keith Gatlin smiles and points to his blue cap with "NBA" printed on it. "For me, trying to get to the NBA, this league is great," he says. "I'm 6-4 and played shooting guard at Maryland. I'm doing the same here."

Gatlin watches a teammate's shot bounce off the rim and positions himself near the foul line. He receives a pass and leads a 3-on-2 break.

"Outlet pass, go, go go," Counts Coach John Clark yells. He knows fast-break points will be essential if the Counts are to defeat the Youngstown (Ohio) Pride in back-to-back games at the Worcester Centrum.

Andre Morgan, a beefy 6-4 center, needs two towels to wipe perspiration from his bare upper torso.

At the conclusion of practice, the Counts have two lines of players shooting beyond the three-point international and WBL stripe of 20 feet, 6 inches.

The lineups are impressive. They include Gatlin, Brooks, Lewis and John Williams, the second all-time scorer at Indiana State behind Larry Bird.

Each side is encouraging its players and heckling the others. Laughter echoes in the home of the Anna Maria Amcats.

When assistant coach Norm Van Lier, a former NBA player, sinks a shot, the game of 20 is over.

"Twenty? I thought it was 21?," Gatlin says.

Van Lier flashes an impish smile and says: "No, no, it was only 20."

Numbers. The WBL and the Counts are always in search of the right numbers.

When the league was formed last year, it instituted its novel height requirement. This--along with such rules as the first team to score seven points in overtime wins and no player can foul out--accentuates a fast-breaking, high-scoring offense.

The league has had some interesting tales of the tape.

"We have an accounting firm, like the Academy Awards, that certifies that all players are under 6-5," WBL Commissioner Steven Ehrhart says. "Last year there was some question whether Anthony Jones, who was 6-7 at Georgetown and Nevada Las Vegas, was too tall. We went in and measured him (all measurements are done without sneakers with players on their backs), and he made it. . . . As far as measuring goes, no bent knees or crimped up necks are allowed."

Another player who inched into the league was McDuffie. At Northeastern, he was listed as 6-8. But in the WBL, he's 6-4 1/2.

"It was a psych job in college. You know, having the other team think you're taller," he says. "I was ready for the measurement here because I got a haircut--an extra low one."

McDuffie's head is cleanshaven.

State of the league and the Counts: Even with the WBL featuring such fine former college players as David Henderson (Duke), Keith Smart (Indiana) and Alfrederick Hughes (Loyola-Chicago), Ehrhart says pro basketball is a "tough summer sell." He says each WBL team is losing several hundred thousands of dollars a year and that such losses are expected in the league's development stage.

Each team's annual budget is $750,000 to $1 million. The other teams, besides Worcester and Youngstown, are Calgary, Las Vegas and Springfield, Ill. Players' salaries average between $12,000 and $20,000.

The WBL's 44-game regular season started May 10 and will conclude Aug. 25. The top four teams will compete in the "Four on the Floor" championship playoffs Aug. 27-Sept. 3 in Youngstown.

Five playoff games will be televised by SportsChannel America, which has helped sustain the league with a three-year, $2.1 million contract signed this year for 23 regular-season telecasts.

The WBL is the only North American pro league that plays European foes, with the games counting in regular-season standings. Club teams from the Soviet Union, Greece, Italy, Holland, Finland and Norway are grouped as the Internationals in the standings.

Ehrhart says the WBL will continue to operate next year. But he won't say which teams will return or emerge. He talks of expansion and of the day when the WBL will be playing home and away games in Europe and Asia.

The Counts, who drew a season-high 7,054 for their home opener against Youngstown on May 10, are averaging about 1,200 in the 13,800-seat Centrum.

A banner draped over the Centrum's center court scorer's table says: "The World Is Coming To Worcester--Count On It."

But only 1,324 showed up for the Counts' recent game against the Pride. Assistant General Manager JoEllen Clark says the club's break-even point is 2,500 to 3,000.

The Counts, who average 109 points, are thankful no NBA scouts are watching after scoring a season-low 11 in the first quarter. Most scouts are at their rookie camps. NBA scouts occasionally watch Counts games. The Celtics lead all NBA teams with eight appearances.

"There certainly are some interesting players in the WBL," says Celtics scout Rick Weitzman, who has seen four Counts games. "We got one in Kevin Gamble. It's up-tempo, wide-open basketball. But you're not going to find any power forwards or centers there. You're pretty limited to it being a guards' league."

The Counts' guards do not shine during the first three quarters. Neither do any of the other Counts. They are missing too many shots, not boxing out and playing defense occasionally.

Despite such taped timeout songs as "Twist And Shout" and "We Will Rock You" reverberating in the arena, foot-stomping fans can't motivate the Counts. The Pride leads, 82-61, after three quarters.

But the Counts rally with Gatlin sinking three three-point shots and Brooks two, cutting the deficit to 101-96 with less than three minutes to play.

The spurt is short-lived. The Pride survives 18 fourth-quarter points from Gatlin to win, 115-102.

Brooks, who finished with a team-high 29 points, including a club-record nine three-point baskets, slumps on a locker-room chair.

"Shoot-around tomorrow at 11," Van Lier says.

The Counts shower and dress. There will be another game against the Pride in 21 hours.

They straggle from their locker room and down a dim corridor. Gatlin opens a side door, straightens his NBA cap and strides into the balmy night.

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