A league of their own

On the court with the Sacramento Heatwave

Sacramento Heatwave point guard Justin Johnson looks for an outlet pass while forward Xin Jin defends.

Sacramento Heatwave point guard Justin Johnson looks for an outlet pass while forward Xin Jin defends.

Photo By Devin Bruce

Three young men fall hard onto the basketball court of the Cosumnes River College gymnasium, stumbling over each other in futile pursuit of a ball out of bounds. It’s late in the game, the score’s tight and things are getting rough. The referee steps over the imprint of sweat left by the human pile and calls for a towel from the home team’s bench. The players look around turning over chairs and sports bags and come up empty. A cacophonic range of high-pitched squeaks begin as players scrape up the moisture with the bottom their shoes. “What, we don’t have a towel?” the referee asks of the bench while squinting through the piercing noise.

“A towel?” laughs a player as he walks by the referee, wiping off his shoes. “There ain’t no towels.” Shaking his head with a smile he adds, “Welcome to the ABA.”

That’s the American Basketball Association, the other pro-basketball league with a franchise in Sacramento.

Haven’t heard of the them? You’re hardly alone, judging by crowd of about 30 spectators watching the recently imported Sacramento Heatwave team take on the Los Angeles-based Beijing Aoshen the evening of December 18.

The Aoshen are composed of mostly professional Chinese national players, some of whom will play for the 2008 Chinese Olympic team. This is the second game in a two-game home stand against the team. The night before, the Heatwave prevailed in a come-from-behind 107-102 victory and are trying to put together their first back-to-back win of the season, which so far has yielded a disappointing 3-7 record.

“Come on now,” commands Heatwave coach Reggie Davis from the sidelines, slapping his hands together as the opposition begins a scoring run. Davis is also the co-owner of the team and is a real-estate developer based out of Fresno. He decided to move the team to Sacramento earlier in the season due to poor attendance in Fresno and Davis says he’s here to stay.

“We will be here as long as the community will have us,” Davis says.

Davis is banking on the ABA’s offensive-orientated game play and affordable prices to draw in the fans that might not be able to afford the NBA’s $70-per-ticket experience.

Adult tickets range from $10-$12 and the season of 37 games runs until March 12. Tickets can be purchased at the doors along with hot dogs and sodas and, if you’re lucky, you might be treated to some local talent in during the halftime show.

“The ABA presents a more exciting brand of basketball, we think,” Davis says. “[It’s] certainly more affordable. We’re starting to edge our way in. Our league is getting more competitive, which means the talent level is increasing.”

The halftime buzzer sounds and the Heatwave’s lead has been cut to one, 43-42.

The Heatwave lumber to the locker room but there is a problem: The door to the locker room is, well, locked.

“What in the hell?” Davis asks as he tries in vain to open the door as sighs begin to emanate from the tall bodies cramped in the hall way. Davis’ face begins show impatience. The night before, a youth-league tournament inadvertently was scheduled at the same time of their game, delaying it for more than two hours. It was a surreal scene as 12 oversized Chinese players patiently sat for hours in wood bleachers cheering on children as they shot free throws.

“We got no locker room now?” asks a player as he slides down along the wall to the floor letting out a disparate breath on the way down. The larger bodies take positions around Davis and there, in the hallway of the Cosumnes College locker room, Sacramento’s newest professional basketball team discusses its strategy for the next half.

“We got to play as a team …” Davis says as his voice trails off in a series of strategy adjustments. A look around the room of the nodding faces shows a team pulled from all over the world.

The team’s largest member is 6’9”, 265-pound center Mark Maxwell, 25, who hails from Detroit. After playing ball at the University of Central Arkansas and finishing with a degree in sociology, Maxwell is playing his first year as a professional. Maxwell left his five-year-old and 18-month-old boys at home with his mother back in Michigan in pursuit of an NBA career.

“I miss my babies,” Maxwell says, who is trying to make the transition to up-and-down style of the ABA as a big man.

Fresno real-estate developer turned team owner (and coach) Reggie Davis.

Photo By Devin Bruce

Maxwell can be easily spotted as the only player on the court wearing gold-framed eye glasses during warm ups. He wears them all the way up until his services are required in the tip-off circle. That’s because he needs them to see and has yet to get prescription sports goggles.

“Really the strongest part of my game right now is rebounding but that’s only due to fact that I normally play with goggles when I play, so I really can’t see,” Maxwell says. “So on offense I am really using all fundamentals.”

Maxwell also can be seen squinting from the court as he struggles to read the scoreboard and the coach’s hand movements from the bench.

Next to him sitting along on the wall taking in the halftime lesson is Takuya Okada, whom everyone else on the team calls “T.” Okada, 29, played three years in the Japanese Basketball League, Japan’s NBA. His wife and child remained in Japan when he moved to the United States and he spends hours hunched over a laptop e-mailing back home when he’s not running up and down the court. He uses his wavering hand to describe in broken English how his marriage is like bamboo: It bends but never breaks. “I am a bad husband, though,” Takada concedes in perfect English.

To the right of Okada is the Heatwave’s newest addition, Dean Browne, a wiry 6’9” post-player who describes himself as part forward, part guard and all defense. Browne, originally from New York, made his way onto the team his after his other ABA team, the Las Vegas Venom, folded earlier in the year.

Browne was stuck in Sin City limbo and was considering calling it a career. However, his girlfriend and his three children, who he sees only half of the year, pushed him to continue.

He played his college ball at the University of Nevada before blowing out his knee at the start of his senior year in 2004. He went through rehab but failed to make it back on the team, according to Browne.

He has been fighting his way back ever since.

“It’s like we’re always on that yellow-brick road,” Browne says with his cap tilted to side in a faint Brooklyn accent.

“I just want to get a workout, an NBA workout. I don’t want to make no team. I just want to get a workout so I can see where my level is at.”

The salary cap for an entire ABA team is $120,000. With many of the players having mouths to feed somewhere in the country, the league provides a redemptive, if somewhat tentative, opportunity for its players.

Davis’ voice chimes back in. “Are you going to go down alone or with your friends?” asks Davis. “Now let’s do this.”

The team breaks from the locker-room hallway as the second half begins. Beijing Aoshen makes good on their scouting report as a fundamentally disciplined team, passing with noticeable efficiency and now connects on everything it puts at the basket. The third period ends with the Heatwave down 54-69 as the bench squirms with anxiety and accusatory statements about what is responsible for the deficit.

“Ya’ll need to move,” yells one.

“I’ve been helping everyone out here. How about someone help me out for once?” defends another.

The team falls apart in anger and regroups with its hands together in a single minute.

The Heatwave takes the court with an utter disdain for its predicament, swarming to the ball utilizing Maxwell and their other interior muscle to mount an offensive. The Heatwave pull within four with less than six minutes to go.

But Beijing Aoshen survives the renewed aggression as their guards heat up on the perimeter and drop four-straight threes from beyond the arc.

The game falls further away as Heatwave’s fouls and Beijing’s scoring output increases the lead into double digits and out of reach.

In a stunning moment of defiance, however, Browne steals an inbound pass and races up the court with three defenders in pursuit. Browne high steps to the low baseline and launches himself toward the basket, which now stands at chest level with the rising forward, and slams the ball through, returning to earth on the other side of the paint. It’s not enough. The Heatwave go down 101-91.