Basketball’s Bush League

Playground Legends and Local HS Hoop Stars Mix It Up in the USBL

With next to no fanfare, two of New York City's most exciting recent schoolboy hoop stars, Adrian Autry and Brian Reese, are playing professional basketball in the New York area. The reason hardly anyone knows this—even those who vividly remember the duo from their Tolentine High and big-time college days—is that they play in basketball's bush league, the United States Basketball League (USBL).

Though they play on different teams—Autry is a Brooklyn King while Reese plays with the Long Island Surf—they are still close friends with glowing memories from their days as high school national champions. In 1988, with Autry, Reese, and the late Malik Sealy leading the way, now defunct St. Nicholas of Tolentine High in the Bronx won the New York State title, as well as the "mythical" national championship.

Sealy was a senior that year, but Autry and Reese were just sophomores, meaning they had two more seasons to entertain NYC crowds, which came easy to them. Autry, dubbed "Red" for his unique skin tone, was the classic city point guard, a 6-3 operator who combined flashy ball handling with fundamental passes and an erratic jumper. Reese was his perfect running mate, a 6-6 leaper who wasn't much outside 10 feet but sure was fun to watch around the hoop.

They both got the big scholarships everyone expected, Autry to Syracuse and Reese to North Carolina, and basketball aficionados were sure NBA stardom would follow. Though each had a decent college career, things didn't unfold as planned—the NBA never came calling.

Neither is particularly bitter about his fate, as each continues to live the hoop life. But their reasons for playing "pro" ball in near anonymity vary. Together, their opinions capture the feelings of many of the USBL's 150 or so players.

"The USBL is a great opportunity to play NBA-style ball in the summer," Autry says, sitting in the bleachers at Long Island University's downtown Brooklyn gym before a recent Kings game against the Pennsylvania ValleyDawgs. "It's a chance to advance, be seen. I'm 28 years old, so I know my window of opportunity for the NBA is closing rapidly, but I'm not ready to give up yet."

Let the objective observer point out that Autry's window of opportunity to make the NBA has actually been slammed shut, doomed by his mediocre D and still-weak jump shot. But Autry is no poverty case. "You may not make any money playing in this league," Autry says of the $250- to $300-per-week salaries paid out during the USBL's April-June season. "But you can overseas. There's enough money to do all right over there. Maybe not 2 million a year, but a couple hundred thousand. So this is just to be seen."

Or, in Reese's case, just to stay in shape. "Every summer I come to play with one of the USBL teams to stay fit," says Reese, kicking back in the Surf locker room at Island Garden, a Basketball City-like warehouse in West Hempstead, Long Island. Reese has just finished off an 11-point, 5-rebound outing in a Surf win over the New Jersey Shorecats, and he seems extremely content. "I'm playing overseas eight, nine months of the year—I played in Korea two years ago and I played in Taiwan last year—so this league gives me a chance to be home with my family and prepare for the upcoming season. But I don't have too much of a goal for the NBA anymore, for chasing that dream. I still like playing the game, though, and I'm making about $100,000 a year. I've been bouncing around, running after the money basically."

Autry and Reese aren't the only local hoop heroes playing in the USBL. Both the Kings and the Surf have NYC playground legends on their rosters in Jerry "Ice" Reynolds and Lloyd "Swee' Pea" Daniels, respectively. Each has had stints in the NBA—and each holds down the hope of returning.

Reynolds is a 37-year-old Brooklyn native who played with the Bucks, Sonics, and Magic from 1985 to '92, when he was forced to retire early after a collision with Patrick Ewing. Reynolds stayed away from the game for a while, but he's been back for a couple years, rebuilding his game and keeping his dreams alive. "I'm hoping the best happens, which is, you know, that I get picked up by somebody in the NBA," Reynolds says, his slick cornrows and perfect physical condition providing no hints of his age. "But if not the NBA, there's a lot of other leagues out there, so this is just an opportunity. The younger guys always tell me they wish they could move as well as I do, so I'm going to keep playing."

Ice's game is indeed still cold, as the 6-8 forward can be smooth and exacting while operating in the post. It says here that he's too slow and inadequate on defense to make it back to the NBA, but the 28 points, 9 rebounds, and 6 assists he posted in the ValleyDawgs game were enough to prove that he's by no means embarrassing himself.

Daniels has nothing to be ashamed of either, even if you wonder how a guy who was being compared to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird at age 17 can come out and compete against castoffs like Ishua Benjamin and Tunji Awojobi. Daniels—who played a total of 212 games in the NBA between 1992 and '98, and who is now completely free of the substances that sabotaged him as a youth—says he's here for a couple reasons. "I could always use the change," he says, referring to the pay. "And I want another shot at the League."

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