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Different Prize in ABA

Long Beach plays Kansas City for the title tonight, but a chance at the NBA is the true goal.

March 09, 2004|Lonnie White | Times Staff Writer

Ronnie Coleman has been a professional basketball player for 13 years, but he has never played in an NBA regular-season game.

From one international league to another, Coleman has witnessed many strange things, but he experienced something new last month while playing for the Long Beach Jam.

The Las Vegas Rattlers, one of the financially challenged franchises in the American Basketball Assn., did not have uniforms. Instead, the Rattlers wore the Jam's road jerseys in a contest that looked more like an intrasquad scrimmage than a professional basketball game.

"It was crazy out there," said Coleman, 34, who has played in pro leagues in Israel, Spain, France, Turkey, Argentina and Mexico since he finished a four-year USC career in 1991. "I never had seen anything like that before. You basically had two teams wearing the same uniforms ... but when you play minor league basketball, you get used to seeing something new every day."

Welcome to the new ABA, the attention-starved league that keeps an open door for the likes of Dennis Rodman and Master P, but can't always pay its players every week and has one franchise that doesn't even keep statistics.

"In this league, things go down when they can go down," said Long Beach Coach Earl Cureton, a former NBA player whose team will face the Kansas City Knights in tonight's ABA's championship game at the Pyramid.

"Sometimes we go on trips that are not the most convenient but the cheapest," he said. "We end up taking flights that certainly are not direct routes. So two-hour trips end up five to six hours.

"And the hotels? Let's just say we are not pulling up to any Ritz-Carltons, that's for sure. It's really different. But I tell the guys that it's like this because the league is not designed for you to stay here."

ABA players don't have to hear that twice. Playing in near obscurity in today's crowded world of minor league basketball, which includes the NBA-sponsored National Basketball Development League, the revamped Continental Basketball Assn. and U.S. Basketball League, the ABA has a fast-growing reputation as the NBA's feeder league.

Unlike professional baseball and hockey, which have established minor league feeder systems, the NBA has always followed a "get players any way you can" approach.

At least 14 ABA players have been called up to play for NBA teams this season. The Jam has had five make the jump: Matt Barnes, DerMarr Johnson, Jannero Pargo, Matt Carroll and Derrick Dial. Along with Rodman, who played two games before suffering a calf injury but will play tonight, and Coleman, Long Beach has several former NBA players and college standouts on the roster: Schea Cotton, Geno Carlisle, Rick Anderson, Corey Gaines, Juaquin Hawkins and Dial.

Former Laker and Loyola Marymount coach Paul Westhead put together the base of the team but left to become an assistant with the Orlando Magic one game into the season. Cureton took over and led the Jam to the regular-season title despite NBA call-ups and injuries.

The ABA is a seven-team league with a salary cap of $135,000 a team, which includes $15,000 in living expenses. But unlike most of the teams in the league, which were either financially strapped from the start or made unwise contract decisions, Long Beach started off with a solid plan and has made it work this season.

By paying each player $850 a week with a $25 per diem for meals, the Jam has been able to avoid the financial problems that have plagued franchises in Las Vegas, Fresno, Trenton, N.J., and Tijuana (which doesn't keep official statistics) this season.

"I know there have been players who haven't been paid on time, or not at all in this league," said Hawkins, 30, a former Long Beach State standout, NBA player and Harlem Globetrotter, who also has played in the CBA, Thailand and Japan.

"We know that the league is not financially balanced.... This is the minor leagues. But we have a strong franchise in Long Beach with a good owner, team president and coach. We're getting a [pay]check, and we have scouts coming to our games."

It's a situation that works not only for young developing players but also veterans such as Gaines, a guard for Loyola Marymount in the late 1980s.

As the Jam's starting point guard and assistant coach, Gaines is usingABA experience as a springboard to a coaching career.

"I've always been a hard worker, and that's how I made it to the league," said Gaines, who played in 80 NBA games with four teams over five seasons. "This is such a good experience for me. I'm putting in the time doing it all; scouting, recruiting, coaching, breaking down film. I'm doing everything.

"I haven't played in the NBA since 1995, but I've been able to make a career out of playing basketball. You have to put in work, because you never know when a scout is watching."


Tonight's Game

What: ABA Championship.

* Who: Long Beach Jam vs. Kansas City Knights.

* Where: The Pyramid.

* When: 7:30 p.m.

* Players to watch: Long Beach: Schea Cotton, Derrick Dial, Juaquin Hawkins and Dennis Rodman. Kansas City: Jamaal Davis, Joe Crispin and Cortez Groves.

* Story line: Long Beach and Kansas City are the two most financially sound franchises in the ABA. The Jam won the regular-season title but lost three of five games during the season to the Knights. Kansas City defeated Juarez, 100-99, in the semifinal game but will be without leading rebounder Paul Shirley, who signed a 10-day NBA contract with Chicago last week. Long Beach has scored at least 118 points in winning seven games in a row.

* Tickets:(562) 985-4949.

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