TULSA, Okla. — Most of the Wichita Falls Texans sleep right through the four-hour bus ride to Tulsa. Barry Stevens doesn't. He's too busy dreaming.
A three-year veteran of the Continental Basketball Assn., Stevens flips through the sports sections looking for the Houston-Atlanta NBA box score.
"Look here," he tells assistant coach Mike Davis. "Morlon got 14 assists and no turnovers last night."
Called up from Rapid City, S.D., because of injuries to the Hawks' backcourt, Morlon Wiley is the newest inspiration in the lives of CBA players, an exciting mix of NBA wannabes, gonnabes, has-beens and never-weres.
The bus pulls into the hotel parking lot about 12:15 p.m. Coach John Treloar gets seven rooms for $25 apiece and hands out the keys. "Two to a room," he says, telling them to meet out front in five hours to go to the arena.
Then he gets a room for the bus driver, another $25.
There are no fans asking them for autographs, nobody to carry their bags.
This is the minors, one step and a million miles from "The League," as the National Basketball Assn. is known in 16 CBA cities across the country, from Yakima, Wash., to Albany, N.Y.
The League. That's where they all want to go, where even a 10-day contract to spell an injured star means a paycheck of about $10,000, more than they make in an entire season in the CBA.
Some of the Texans, who earn about $600 a week and live in a rent-free apartment, walk over to Burger King to spend some of the $25-a-day meal money. Not Stevens.
He heads for his room, where he hooks up his juicer in the bathroom. Using a plastic knife, he begins slicing his lunch: apples, carrots, pears, potatoes. He'll drink the juice, first the fruits, then the vegetables, and throw away the mulch.
Across the Hall, Davis is calling a contact he made while playing professional basketball in Switzerland and Italy in the mid-1980s.
"Mike, ask if he's looking for a guard," whispers his roommate, Stephen Bardo, who is curled up under a blanket. The heater isn't working.
When Davis hangs up, Bardo grabs the phone.
"The ankle's fine," he tells his agent, who says he'll shop Bardo around Europe once Bardo gets used to the Texans' offense and his points go up.
"You can make a lot of money in Europe," Bardo says. "But it's not The League, know what I mean?"
Bardo, a second round pick by Atlanta in the 1990 NBA draft, was released by the San Antonio Spurs three weeks into this season after he injured his right ankle. Instead of being a backup at off-guard to Willie Anderson, he reported to Quad City, which traded him to Wichita Falls last month.
Unlike most of his teammates, Bardo has made it to the NBA, knows what the big time is like, even has his own basketball card.
He says he's signed hundreds of them. And he'll never charge for an autograph, either. "Guys forget when they were little boys how important it was to them," he says. "I'll sign them all day."
Just get him back to The League.
"What's the biggest difference between the CBA and the NBA?" he says, repeating the question. "The money, definitely the money."
Bardo curls back up. "Mike, have them give me a wake-up at 5:30."
Davis heads to the coach's room down the hall, where he picks up a small television and videocassettes of the last time the Texans played the Tulsa Zone. He also has a tape of the previous night's 97-96 loss to the Omaha Racers.
"Juice me up some apples," Davis says as he walks into Stevens' room to set up the VCR for some pre-game strategy sessions with Stevens and fellow forward-guard Walter Bond.
They watch the entire game, backing up the tape to watch a particular pick or play that beat them last time. Or even whenever somebody does something stupid, or funny.
The 5:30 p.m. wakeup call comes just as they finish watching the overtime loss.
The Texans are a little late leaving for the game because the bus driver thought they would be returning to the hotel afterward for a good night's rest. They won't. They'll sleep on the bus. The driver will sleep during the game.
They ride across town to the Maxwell Convention Center. Guard Kenny Atkinson says he thinks he forgot "From Here To Eternity" in his room.
"I only had 20 pages to go," he says.
Entering the arena, the smell of fresh popcorn fills the air. About 10 fans have arrived early and are watching the Heartbreakers, Tulsa's Laker Girls, practice their routines.
The Texans get dressed and wander out to warm up and chat with the Zone players. Finally, they line up and bow their heads.
Three women in silk jackets who call themselves Beauty and the Beats sing the national anthem, and the game between the Texans, dressed in dark blue, hot pink and neon green, and the Zone, whose black and silver uniforms look like something out of, well, the Twilight Zone, is under way.
Bardo is still warm, swishing his first three shots to quiet the crowd. You can hear every sneaker skid, every instruction, every curse. Every whistle.