On the rebound
Forget the NBA and those million-dollar underachievers. Troy Selvey and his amigos from Northern California had to travel to Mexico to jump-start their professional basketball careers.
Anybody who laughed at Troy Selvey when he said he wanted to play professional basketball, well, they oughtta see him now.
Yep, that’s Selvey, a garbage-time player for the Sacramento State Hornets last year, who just launched a medium-range jump shot toward the red, white and green net that’s dangling from a slightly bent hoop while norteña music blares from a couple of scruffy speakers and a skinny guy in a straw cowboy hat hawks bottles of beer from a bucket he drags through the grandstands of a concrete gym that probably could double as a bomb shelter. Selvey sinks that jump shot, too. Apparently, his aim is unfazed by those two burned-out lights above the basket.
“Nah, that doesn’t bother me,” Selvey scoffs later as he kicks back in a small hotel room after a post-game meal of pasta primavera that was prepared by cooks whose specialty is carne asada—which might explain why they left out the vegetables. Actually, before Selvey can kick back, he has to pull a chair to the end of his bed. Otherwise, his feet will spill over the edge when he lies down. Right now, though, he’s buzzing in the afterglow of a stat sheet that shows he scored 25 points. He really shouldn’t sleep yet, anyway, not until his coach gets back from touring the hotel ice machines, trying to scrounge up enough ice to cold-pack Selvey’s knees. “Maybe stuff like those burned-out lights would have bugged me when I first got here,” he says, proudly unflappable, “but not anymore.”
It’s early March and going on three whole weeks since Selvey started playing professional basketball in Mexico—for a Cabo San Lucas team called Los Paisas, who just finished a game in Los Mochis against a team called Los Pioneros, in a league with more initials (CIBACOPA) than fans who can tell you what they stand for.
Anybody want to laugh at Troy Selvey now?
Don’t answer that.
There are eight teams in the CIBACOPA—that’s Circuito de Baloncesto de la Costa del Pacifico—and each of them is permitted two non-Mexican players. Technically, these guys can come from anywhere, and sometimes they do. Officially, they are called extranjeros, which means “foreigners.” They usually come from the United States, however, and the common term for all of them—even the guy from Africa—is norteamericanos.
At 22 and just out of school, Selvey is the youngest and newest of these basketball vagabonds. But he’s not the only nortecalifornian.
Selvey’s roommate and Los Paisas teammate is Malik Harris, 28, who played high-school ball in Benicia, graduated from Stanislaus State and lives in a neighborhood on the Berkeley-Oakland border in the off-season. Tonight, Selvey and Harris played against former Stockton prep star Derrick Dukes, 26, who finished his college career in 1998 by helping the University of Georgia reach the Final Four of the National Invitation Tournament. Dukes is in his third season with the Los Mochis Pioneros. Corey Anders, 26, is in the CIBACOPA, too, five years after his final season at the University of the Pacific. He’s playing down in Navolato, for the Cañeros.
They’re all part of a peculiar south-of-the-border migration from the land that Mexicans call El Norteño, and the men perform their basketball derring-do for fans in working-class, farm-surrounded towns with names like Culiacán, Guasave, Hermosillo and Obregón. The best of them have played for teams in Europe, South America and Asia, too. A few are married and have children, a couple are divorced, and at least one has a fiancée. Each has a story about a strained relationship—with an uncomprehending lover, friend or family member. All admit they get lonely. None, however, seems to be able to quit. Most are loud and clear about exactly why they’re there—to make a living and to see the world while pursuing their lifelong dream to call themselves basketball professionals. A few will admit they nurture flickering fantasies of still, somehow, some way, making it to the National Basketball Association. But they don’t say that so loudly.
“Tonight, I gave everything, left everything I have out on the floor,” Selvey confides with just-the-facts nobility, the way only the pros can invoke that self-serving cliché. But there’s no doubting him. He played every second of a game that took four 12-minute quarters and three five-minute overtime periods before a lucky, controversial, last-second, half-court bank shot gave the win to Los Mochis.
Selvey majored in communications at Sacramento State, but his exhausted body can do the math—those 63 minutes of full-speed basketball in a single night are more than half the 105 minutes he played during his entire senior year. The 25 points he earned are nearly double the 15 he totaled during the 2002 season. But right now, Selvey doesn’t want to dwell on those many nights of bench-warming frustration; he’s swept up in a new revelation. “It’s hard when you’re giving everything you can,” he says, “and you still lose.”
Selvey knows about losing—it’s kind of a Sacramento State basketball tradition. The university has only 17 winning seasons in a basketball history that goes back to the 1940s, and none since ratcheting up to Division I-AA in 1991. A 12-17 record in the just-completed season is the best in that 13-year span, but it only improves Sacramento State’s Division I-AA resume to 63-261. During Selvey’s four seasons, the Hornets were 26-81, which made all those games on the bench all the more galling.
“We’re losing games and losing games—like, at one point one season, we were 0-18—and I’m still not playing?” Selvey ruminates, now that the subject has come up, and he shakes his head. “It was a struggle. It was embarrassing. I’ve got friends looking at me, asking, ‘Don’t you think you should play more?’ My mom, she finally stopped coming to the games—her son sitting through all the losing. I think it became a little heartache for her. Meanwhile, I’m not really saying much to anybody, but I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, if I’m not playing now, then when?’”
Selvey got the bulk—if one can use that word—of his playing time at the end of games, in meaningless batches of two or three minutes, after the latest Sacramento State defeat had been rescued from the jaws of victory. He got to start the last game of his senior season, but he was back on the bench in 10 minutes.
Then again, it’s not as though anybody predicted Selvey would be a college star. He knows that. “I graduated from a small high school in Hanford,” he reports in the kind of expressive-yet-neutral tone he may have learned in one of his broadcasting classes, “and nobody recruited me to play basketball in college.” He shrugs and smiles. “I got my degree. That’s the important thing.”
And Selvey isn’t badmouthing Sacramento State now. “Even though I was sitting on the bench when I thought I should be playing, I’m the kind of person who continued pulling for my boys, my team,” he says. “I could have transferred, but I enjoyed Sacramento State, and not just for the basketball.” One year after leaving, Selvey’s e-mail address is still Hornet44, his number on the team. (Meanwhile, neither Sacramento State basketball coach Jerome Jenkins nor the university’s publicity department responded to e-mailed requests for interviews or information about Selvey.)
Growing up, Selvey started playing basketball pretty much because it seemed to be the logical thing to do under the circumstances, which were that he was growing up. “I’m 6 feet 8 and 225 pounds, you know?” he offers, letting his eyes glide halfway across the hotel room, out to where his feet lay—beyond the bed, on that chair he put there. “Not a lot of people in my family are very tall. I figured I was meant to play this game.”
Obviously, there have been some differences of opinion about that over the years, but the fact remains that playing basketball has been a thread of cohesion through a rather far-flung life. “I’m a military brat, the son of a single mom who was in the Army, and we moved around a lot—so most of my life, I really wasn’t from anywhere,” Selvey says. “Of course, the other way of looking at that is to say that I’m at home everywhere. And there are basketball courts everywhere.”
There are courts in Australia, which was Selvey’s first choice for his professional basketball career to take flight. “Yeah, I had planned to go to Australia with one of my friends who plays there,” Selvey says. “But, um, well, it kind of fell through.”
There are courts in the schools and playgrounds of Sacramento, where Selvey’s pro career sat on the runway. “I was coaching a seventh-grade boys team at John Morse school, and a third- and fourth-grade girls team at Carriage [Drive] Elementary and, you know, still working on my game,” Selvey says. “I had given myself ’til the end of January. If it didn’t happen by then, I would start looking for a job—you know, doing something with my degree. That was the final deadline, the end of January.”
And then it wasn’t, although Selvey doesn’t beat himself up at all for fudging on that cutoff date.
“Because it was the end of the first week in February—or maybe it was the second week—when the phone call came,” Selvey recounts. “A guy I was playing with in a recreation league said he knew a place that needed players—didn’t know for sure yet—but that he would let me know. … And that was that.”
One week later, that became this, and Selvey is now playing on the basketball courts of Mexico.
The courts can be funky. The Cabo San Lucas team plays on a slab of cement with lines painted on it. There’s a roof over the court but no walls around it. Tarps are tied to poles in an attempt to keep out the wind.
Circumstances can be funky, too. Selvey’s first game as a pro was on February 20, helping Cabo San Lucas to victory against its rival from La Paz. The teams played again the very next night, and Cabo San Lucas won again. Then, the La Paz franchise went out of business.
By the time Los Paisas played in Los Mochis, Selvey wasn’t surprised to see little kids run out on the court and shoot baskets during every timeout. He didn’t give a second look to the knots of adolescents leaning against the wall beneath one basket, smoking cigarettes. He’d come to accept the shrugs he’d get if he asked somebody how long those two lights above the other basket had been burned out.
“Actually, this is a pretty nice gym,” Selvey allows. “It’s a lot nicer than some of the other teams have, anyway.”
Selvey figures he can afford to be charitable, even though he is on another team on another losing streak—even after Los Paisas’ fifth loss in a row came on that lucky, half-court bank shot that may have left the shooter’s hand after the final buzzer.
“It’s like that old joke: Los Pioneros may have won the game, but they still live in Los Mochis,” Selvey giggles kind of guiltily. “We may have lost the game, but tomorrow I go home—to Cabo San Lucas.”
There’s a knock on the door of his hotel room, and it’s Selvey’s coach, who has come back from those ice machines with two small buckets full of ice—and a bag of fresh fruit, too, that he bought from a late-night street vendor.
“I’m in heaven,” Selvey sighs warmly when he sees the armful of gifts, and then he corrects himself. “Well, if we were winning, I’d be in heaven.”
El Hotel Calinda is breathtakingly white, trimmed with precise green landscaping, and it perches atop a cliff at the end of Baja California’s 1,000-mile finger like a perfectly manicured nail. There is a panoramic view of the famous Arch at Land’s End, which seems to hover between the overwhelming blue of sky and sea. The grounds feature rooms set along winding garden paths that periodically intersect with fountains and plazas. There is a beach so secluded it might as well be private. It’s right outside Room 53, where Selvey and Harris stay.
“Can you believe it? We live in a resort!” Selvey says. “People spend big money to come down here and stay a few days on vacation. We’re not only here all spring, it’s not only free—they are paying us to be here!”
Selvey and Harris only met when both were summoned to be Los Paisas’ norteamericanos, but they have been living as closely as brothers ever since—and maybe even more compatibly.
“Basketball teaches you that, I think,” says Harris, a 6-foot-8-inch forward with the acrobatic moves to penetrate defenses, the outside shot to keep opponents from clogging the lanes close to the basket—and a gently analytical personality. “It takes camaraderie and cooperation to make a team work, and those things seem to carry over to the living situation for Troy and me.”
At 28 years old, Harris is six years older than Selvey but has just a smidgen more international basketball experience. He played part of a season in Venezuela a couple years ago, as well as in the other-worldly meat market that is the Southern California Summer Pro League, where herds of basketball hopefuls play game after game while hoping to attract the attention of a pro scout. All Harris got out of the league was a torn Achilles tendon. He’d just returned from a promotional tour of China, where a U.S. organization sent some players to drum up interest in proposed basketball camps—hoping to cash in on the opportunities opened by the NBA success of Yao Ming. Then, Cabo San Lucas called.
“I consider this my first real opportunity to play internationally,” says Harris, “and I want to get the most of it—as a basketball player and as a person.”
Although Harris quietly admits he hasn’t given up on the idea that his basketball career could reach the NBA, he happily would settle for a six-figure gig in a European league. “But at my age,” he acknowledges, “everybody is always reminding me that my window of opportunity is closing.”
Meanwhile, the brief international experience he and Selvey are sharing has been eye-opening—and not just the part about living in a luxury resort.
“What we’ve seen of Mexico, it’s peaceful,” says Harris. “People aren’t walking around with guns. We went out the other day, and some Mexican guys started fighting in the street, three on three. I was like, ‘Look at that! Look at that!’ Troy was telling me to be quiet, but I couldn’t believe it—all those guys going head-up until they had it settled. If you get in a fight at home, somebody’s pulling out a gun. Either before, during or afterward, somebody ends up getting killed.”
Harris brought back other perspectives from China.
“You say it’s a communist country, and everybody gets these negative ideas. But in Beijing, it seems they have things more taken care of than we do,” he says. “It’s like 80 percent middle class, not many poor people, free health care—you don’t have to spend your whole life’s savings trying to pay the doctor back if you get sick.
“But when I come home and tell people, they’re like, ‘Are you serious?’ The image the U.S. paints of China as a cold, hard place—well, it’s not. People are very nice. Everybody speaks to you. And you just don’t see a lot of the nonsense that we have to deal with at home. I could live there.”
As Selvey listens to Harris, he begins to feel freer to open up to such experiences, too—and to see those he has had in a new light.
“I’m trying to learn the culture and the language here as much as I can—if only to meet girls,” he says, laughing. “But seriously, one thing I took away from college was that the more you learn about places, the better off you’ll be. Actually, I learned that earlier—as a military brat. The biggest part of me is my upbringing. One thing I would not change about my life is my family. My mom was a single mom, and I look up to her. I have seen the world be cruel to her, and I have seen her struggle, but I have never seen her give up. That’s how I want to be. I think that’s how I ended up playing pro ball in Mexico.”
The conversation in Room 53 has gotten a little heavy, and now it gets really quiet. Harris and Selvey look out to sea.
“Man,” Harris says finally, speaking to Selvey, “do you think we’ll get tired of this before the end of the season?”
Selvey takes his time responding—not because he’s considering his answer but because he’s contemplating the prospects of four more months in this paradise.
“Nooooooooo,” he says eventually, exhaling his answer like a contented sigh. “I don’t think so.”
It’s April Fool’s Day in the tiny farming town of Navolato, but that’s not why a guy is spraying a shaken-up bottle of Coca-Cola on the basketball court and smearing it around with a mop. They don’t celebrate April Fool’s Day in Mexico. The guy is trying to make the court sticky because it is made of cement, which gets slippery when it gets dusty, which happens easily because it is outdoors.
“Whatever works,” Selvey says impassively as he observes this sweet technique. “We’ve got a game we need to win, whatever the conditions.”
That’s sort of become Selvey’s mantra lately, and that’s helped Cabo San Lucas climb into contention in the CIBACOPA. Los Paisas are beginning the second half of the season in fourth place with a 12-8 record. Harris is the league’s second-leading scorer. Selvey, who considers himself a defensive and rebounding specialist, is nonetheless No. 12 in offensive production. Suddenly, this team is good.
Still, it seems pretty obvious from Selvey’s pointedly dry comments that he isn’t enjoying his circumstances as much, anymore.
But who enjoys getting his nose broken—two nights in a row? That happened to Selvey. And it’s nice when you can bend your right arm, which Selvey couldn’t do for a while on account of those elbow ligaments he hyperextended. Then there was the CIBACOPA All-Star Game the league held in Los Mochis last weekend—well, the league held it, but Selvey and Harris didn’t make it. Their boat from Cabo San Lucas hit bad weather while crossing the Sea of Cortez and was forced to turn back.
“We’ve had some frustrating moments,” Selvey says, and his diplomacy hints at more of them, although it’s hard to tell whether this is his attitude. It could just be his hair—he’s reined in his wild Ben Wallace ’fro for something closer to sinister Latrell Sprewell braids. Then, he says, “Lately, I’ve just been looking at this league in a whole new light.”
Rolling into Navolato, the newest and smallest member of CIBACOPA, sheds a whole new light on anybody’s notions of basketball. The Cañeros play in Plazuela Vicente Guerrero, a little community parque that is adjacent to a quaint town plaza across the street from an old Catholic iglesia. This has been the traditional layout of Mexican cities for centuries—minus all those jugadores gigantes who are slam-dunking through warm-ups to the subterranean thud of a hip-hop bassline.
Tipoff is about an hour away, but the grandstands—permanent ones of thick, chipped and whitewashed concrete on one side, temporary ones of rickety and rusty red metal on the other—already are almost filled with the townsfolk and the come-to-town farm families. The people are fairly flapping with energy, some as breezily as the banners of the team’s sponsors, which are draped over a long cord like laundry on a clothesline, and others as agitatedly as the moths that are swirling around the tops of the light poles. But everybody seems happy.
Well, not everybody. Selvey still doesn’t look all that thrilled. “I’m gonna be OK,” is all he says, “when the game starts.”
And when the game does start, the cutthroat competitiveness of professional basketball is amalgamated with the historic aura of a colonial Mexican pueblo, and the whole huevos revueltas is sprinkled with something like the flava of New York’s famed and ferocious playground games in Rucker Park. The scene is like a Nike commercial on drugs. And, by the way, if you look up Navolato on the Internet, one of the first items that come back is titled “Mexico’s Drug-Crime Capital.”
Los Paisas lose the game, even though Navolato’s norteamericano Corey Anders (the former University of the Pacific star) only plays a couple of minutes before pulling his hamstring—when he can’t keep his footing on that slippery cement. Los Paisas lose to Navolato the next night, too, when Anders doesn’t play at all.
Now Selvey and Harris have a day off before a couple more games in Culiacán, only 25 miles from Navolato but a time warp away. Culiacán is a big city, the state capital of Sinaloa, but Selvey and Harris aren’t in much of a position to see the sights or enjoy the nightlife because they are just about broke.
“We haven’t been getting paid like were promised,” Selvey says.
“The money is always late,” adds Harris. “And when we do get it, it’s not the total amount. And it’s not even that much money to begin with.”
Until now, Selvey and Harris have been elusive when asked about their salaries, but they’ve become frustrated enough to come clean.
“It’s $1,500 a month,” says Selvey.
That’s low, even by CIBACOPA standards. Other norteamericanos report salaries between $2,000 and $3,000 a month plus bonuses. But Selvey and Harris recognize that they were new and untested when they signed.
“And then, you know, we factored in that we got to wake up next to the ocean every day, too,” Selvey points out. “The Hotel Calinda is the best living situation of anyone in the league.”
But then there was the time that Selvey and Harris came back to their wonderful seaside room to discover they were locked out.
“The bill wasn’t being paid,” Selvey reports. “So, eventually, the hotel people decided not to let us in our room until it got its money. We really couldn’t blame them. And, you know, it worked. They got their money.”
The effectiveness of that tactic hasn’t been lost on Selvey and Harris as they mull over how to extract their salaries from a team owner whom they rarely see. They would like to be reimbursed for things such as when they had to use their meal money to take a cab to the game from the airport because nobody was there to pick them up. They’d like to be assured before the team leaves on a road trip that the owner has enough money to get them all back.
“It’s kinda come to where we wonder if we have to start sitting out games to show him we need to get paid,” Selvey says, but just saying that puts a very uncomfortable expression on his face, and he slips into silence.
It’s playoff time in the CIBACOPA, and as with everything else about Selvey’s first season south of the border, the post-season represents uncharted territory.
“This will be my first time ever playing in any kind of playoff game,” he acknowledges, proud of the 19-19 record that earned Cabo San Lucas the final berth in the championship tournament. “It took a lot to get here.”
Selvey and Harris aren’t living at El Hotel Calinda anymore.
“We were kicked out for good a few weeks ago—this time because the hotel’s name wasn’t on our team’s uniform, which I guess was part of the agreement,” says Selvey. “We were basically homeless for about a week—and the really bad part was that it was the week that my girlfriend came down to visit. My mom had to send me money.”
Eventually, team management found the guys a new hotel in town—a motel behind a strip club.
Meanwhile, Selvey and Harris boycotted a couple of games, hoping to squeeze their paychecks from the team owners. It didn’t work. But they did pick up some petty cash in the meantime by playing ball in some pickup tournaments by the beach.
“This season has been a humbling experience in many ways,” Selvey says, although not with the embarrassment you might expect. “But every time I’ve thought about quitting, I’ve learned something that’s kept me going. Every player who has survived down here for a while has had a season like this. They tell me to tough it out and keep putting up good numbers—so that I can learn from this, get a shot at another season and make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”
Selvey sounds excited about the playoffs, and in that sense, he sounds the same as he did three months ago, when he’d just arrived in Mexico to begin his professional basketball career.
“We’ll see what happens,” Selvey says with a spring in his voice. “I just want to keep trying to produce—make myself better. I’m enjoying it. I’m enjoying all of it. I just have to realize it’s business. If I’m not going to get paid, there are things I can do about it. I can go home and apply for jobs, like any other recent college graduate. Or, I can go back to school. It’s always been a dream to play pro ball, but I’m not dreaming. This is the real world.”
The CIBACOPA also holds the potential of opening other professional-basketball opportunities for Selvey. Many players consider this a stay-in-shape league, an audition for the better-paying leagues down south or overseas.
“Now that I’ve got my foot in the door, I want to make my name and get myself noticed,” Selvey says. “Some coaches from other leagues have already talked to me. That’s a big reason I’m staying.”
But it’s not the biggest reason.
“See, I’ve grown with this team—grown with the guys and grown with the situation,” Selvey says. “We’re all going through the same things, on the court and off. A situation like this, where I am playing every game and contributing and everything, well, it’s been a long time coming for me. So, it’s kinda hard, you know, just to pick up and leave.”
Selvey looks over at Harris, who is nodding in agreement, and then he finishes.
“For me, it’s almost a moral thing,” says Selvey. “I’ve always believed that if you do good to others, it’s going to come back to you tenfold. That’s the way I look at this. If it turns out this guy doesn’t pay us or whatever, whether bad circumstances happen or good circumstances happen, I already know that I can do this. I’ve proven myself. I can compete.”
Anybody who laughed at Troy Selvey when he said he wanted to play professional basketball, well, they oughtta see him now.