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NBA Purgatory : The CBA Has an Improved Image, but It's Still Mostly a Place That People Are Trying to Leave

January 22, 1988|MARYANN HUDSON | Times Staff Writer

Unlike the National Basketball Assn., there are no million-dollar contracts, holdouts or incentive clauses. And instead of caviar in Boston and New York, it's more like grilled-cheese sandwiches in Rochester and Pensacola. Ever try to take in a first-run play in La Crosse, Wis.?

Yes, if it's Biloxi, Miss., it must be the Continental Basketball Assn., a league that serves as a holding pattern for top college draft picks who never made it and NBA players who somehow lost it.

It's a purgatory existence, but the CBA offers a place for a player to develop or rediscover his skills, prove his worth and for a few wayward souls, atone for the past.

And maybe, just maybe, make it to, or back to, the NBA.

"There is absolutely no reason to be here unless you want to move on to the NBA," said Brad Wright, formerly of UCLA, who is in his second year with the CBA's Wyoming Wildcatters.

"When I was up with the (New York) Knicks, I made more money in one day than I make here in one week. There are no guaranteed contracts, retirement plans, nothing. What this league is good for is to improve your skills and possibly get a chance to make an NBA team in a couple years."

A starting forward his senior year on UCLA's 1985 National Invitation Tournament championship team, Wright was Golden State's second pick in the NBA college draft. When contract negotiations broke down, Wright went to play in France for a six-figure salary. Only problem was, his employers failed to pay him.

He returned to Los Angeles and began an apprenticeship in broadcasting under Fred Roggin at KNBC-TV. But Roggin, among others, advised Wright to give basketball another chance--that he could always become an announcer.

That's when former NBA player Cazzie Russell, the coach of the Wildcatters, gave Wright a call.

"I said, 'Here's a guy who is 6-11 and he wants to be in broadcasting? Give me a break,' " Russell said.

So Wright became a Wildcatter.

"It was a tough move going to the CBA," Wright said. "Coming out of UCLA, I had high hopes and I had heard bad things about the league, like 14-hour bus trips to get to a game. But it isn't like that anymore."

"My first year at Wyoming, we rode everywhere in luxury buses. The only time we saw an airplane is when we looked in the sky. But this year we fly everywhere that's over a two-hour drive. We get good-sized crowds, at least as many as the Clippers. And the arenas we play in are first class, not high school gyms, like I heard. I can compare everywhere we play to Pauley Pavilion and I consider that my home."

Wright was one of nine CBA players called up to the Knicks last season. Under a joint agreement, an NBA club can sign a CBA player to a 10-day contract with the option to renew for another 10 days. After that, if the club wants to keep a player it has to sign him for the rest of the season.

Last season, 24 CBA players were called up by NBA teams and two are still there, Quintin Dailey of the Clippers and Craig Ehlo of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Altogether, 39 former CBA players started the 1987-88 season in the NBA.

Success stories like these help the CBA's reputation. And it has a long one to live down.

It was begun as the Eastern Basketball League in 1942 in Pennsylvania by a group of industrial workers. In 1977, Jim Drucker, who was the league's lawyer, spearheaded the change to the CBA, then served as commissioner for the first eight years.

"In the beginning the league was literally a day-to-day existence," Drucker recalled. "I didn't worry about players showing up for a game in matching socks. I just hoped they would show up."

For most of the last decade, the CBA has been a ragtag league. Teams really did play in high school gyms and really did spend hours driving from game to game. Ken Drooz, public relations director from 1982 to '84 for the defunct Detroit Spirits, recalls one of those marathon trips he took with such former NBA players as Marvin Barnes, Kenny Higgs and Terry Deurod.

"We played five games in a row and 11 in 13 days," he said. "After the fifth game in Detroit, we drove eight hours through the night to Lancaster, Pa., and played a game that same night.

"Then on to Albany, N.Y.--336 miles--for a game the next night. Right after that game we drove to Bangor, Me., to play two more. Back to Rochester for one, then another eight hours back to Lancaster for a game that night. And finally, another eight hours home to Detroit.

"It was a caravan. The coach drove his car, I drove mine and somebody drove the van. It was dark and cold and icy, and we did this for eight days.

"We had one overnight at the Bangor Holiday Inn," Drooz said. "We asked the desk clerk where a decent night spot was in town. The clerk looked at us and said, 'This is it.' That's when we knew it was going to be a long series."

That's exactly the image the CBA is trying to shake nowadays. Although not as colorful, the new stories coming out of the league paint a much brighter picture, likening the CBA to a Triple-A baseball league.

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