Monday, August 14, 2006

They Got Game - The Best Basketball Team in New York No One Knows About”
By Matt Caputo

-by The L magazine (BK/NYC)

Without any help from Isaiah, Larry and oddly enough some effort from an unrelated Marbury, a New York basketball team is sitting upon an eastern conference thrown. The Brooklyn Kings, of the professional United States Basketball League, have been quietly winning division titles and keeping the nest warm for the LIU Black Birds during the off-season. The USBL allows players just out of college and those returning from playing-for-pay overseas to stay in competitive shape, make some extra cash and play for a professional championship. Ten of fifteen current Kings played high school ball in the city, including former St.John’s star Anthony Glover, and and streetball icon Mike Campbell. Despite the league’s organizational troubles, the Kings have managed to overachieve with little fan support by building a quality evening or afternoon of entertainment around a first class minor league line-up.

“Throughout the history of basketball, Brooklyn has sent many, many guys to the NBA,” Head Coach and general manager, Kenny Charles, says in a sugar-cube sized hallway between the home locker-room and the staircase leading out to the main court where the Kings have just defeated the visiting Nebraska Cranes. “Brooklyn is a basketball Mecca, some of the great summer tournaments started here, our goal is to get these guys invited to (NBA rookie and free agent) summer basketball camps when they open.”

Unlike the NBA’S Barnum & Baliey-like events that offer corporately funded and name-tagged giveaways like the beach towel and the sports bottle, the USBL is only endorsing one product, basketball. When not traveling to such exotic outposts as Enid, Oklahoma, Salina, Kansas, and Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania, The Kings are very much at home in Brooklyn. Their home games are played in the old Brooklyn Paramount Theatre, which dates back to the late-1800s, on the campus of LIU-Brooklyn, where the building has long been restored into the Schwartz Athletic Center. It is as interesting a sporting venue as any of it’s kind in a town where basketball is “the city game.” While the Kings home court has all the lore and culture one could imagine in a gymnasium, no other arena in the league, save for the large USBL venues of the Midwest, offer as much game atmosphere.

“Right now we’ve got a great ownership group and since they took over we’ve had two twenty win seasons, rapid improvement and we’re trying to build awareness,” says Harris Rappel, VP of Basketball Operations, on the road with the Kings at the Elmcor Youth and Adult Activities Center on Northern Boulevard in Corona, Queens. The Kings are in town to take on the Long Island Primetime in front of a scant crowd of 35 or so observers. Put together just as the season opened, the home team offers no roster print-out to match names to the numbers on their otherwise blank uniforms and play over a PA system given to extended ear bending feedback, but make up for their sub-rag-tag event coordination with free admission. “You need to have faces that people are going to want to come out and see. This year we have a great supporting cast and our coach is an icon in Brooklyn.”

The Kings all-time franchise roster reads like a “Who’s Who in New York City Basketball.” Coach Charles, who played at both, the since closed, Brooklyn Prep and Fordham University spent five years in the NBA. There are ten players currently running with the team who played high school ball in the city and former Kings like two-time NCAA leading scorer Charles Jones, former Archbishop Molloy and Boston College center Uka Agabi and renegade high school phenom turned pro Lenny Cooke, who was USBL Rookie of the Year in 2003, all played high school hoops in the city. The Kings also enlisted the help of Vance Marbury, a point guard out of Ohio, who is no relation to current Knicks point-guard Stephon Marbury. Other notable players making appearances with the Kings over the years include former Seaton Hall star Shaheen Halloway, Kareem Adbul Jabar Jr. and Corey “Homidice” Williams. Ed “Booger” Smith, one of, if not the, most storied “playground legend” of recent time and subject of the documentary “Soul in The Hole,” also sipped short cups-of-coffee with the Kings in the early years.

“When I graduated from St. John’s and the Kings drafted me and I’ve been here ever since” remembers Anthony Glover, who is in his fourth season with the Kings and plays overseas during the winter. Glover, a six-foot-six forward, once powered Rice High School to a few catholic league titles and joined the Kings this season from France. “I get to play at home against my friends, and when I’m overseas my wife and my daughter don’t often get to see me play a lot, I like getting to play in front of my family and in my hometown.”

At one-point, the USBL, dubbed “The League of Opportunity,” was a premier breeding ground for basketball’s high towers and half-pints honing their skills in hopes of making the league. Besides journeymen pros like Billy Donovan (Head Coach of the University of Florida) and Tim Legler (NBA 3-Point Champion & ESPN analyst) the USBL rosters have been filled with a considerably assorted cast of characters stretching from Mugsy Bouges, Spudd Webb, and Charlie Ward to Roy Jones Jr., the boxer, R.Kelly, the singer, football players Randy Moss and Terrell Owens, and Arthur Agee of “Hoops Dreams” fame, to John “Hot Rod” Williams, former Knicks forward Anthony Mason and human-skyscraper Manute Bol.

Recently though, the USBL has declined a bit. In 1999, the league had twelve teams, as of right now there are eight teams but the Pennsylvania Valley Dogs are said to be “not breathing” and the North East Pennsylvania Breakers have cancelled three games on Flatbush Avenue this season alone. Franchises in the boredom infested Midwest may see two thousand fans any given night, but USBL teams in the east seem to be a tough sell even with top quality talent. While the quality of play hasn’t suffered, the USBL is struggling to find a market. The Kings are not unlike the great pizzerias, diners and barber shops in the borough they represent; they’re hard to find, only cool people know about them and you’re lucky if when you find them they’re open for busienss. If they are open, you’ll live and die by them.

“The last three seasons we’ve been winning the eastern conference championship and we want to keep going what we helped start,” said Antwan Dobie, a Corona, Queens native who went to Monsignor McClancy H.S. and also played his college ball at LIU-Brooklyn. “People are defiantly missing something not coming out to see these games.” Dobie, a quick point guard with a smooth shooting touch, plans to pursue a career in real estate when his playing days are done.

“The best part about this league is about being able to come back from Overseas and stay sharp,” offers Mike Campbell, also a city product who played his college ball at LIU, who Slam magazine named among the “greatest playground players of all time. “The worst part about this league is that it‘s not the NBA, but there is no comparison between this and Summer Tournaments where you’re playing for a trophy, this is more serious, guys are playing for something.”