Basketball’s Bush League


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.”

Despite his book-length basketball résumé (literally; one was written by Newsday‘s John Valenti in 1990, and an updated version is in the works), Daniels is only 32 years old, and his game looks pretty good, too. The 6-7 Daniels was mostly playing forward against New Jersey, while recent St. John’s grad Chudney Gray played point, but it was clearly Daniels’s team. He directed traffic with and without the ball. And his passes? Pretty Magical.

Of course, in the USBL, offense rules (of the 11 teams, only the Kings and the Washington Congressionals don’t average 100 points per game). The games are played entirely with NBA rules: same shot clock, same team defense rules, same three-point arc. But where the NBA has skilled big men to make the defensive schemes work, the USBL most definitely does not.

“This is a league of twos and threes,” says scout Scott Adubato, referring to the shooting guards and small forwards who dominate the USBL. Adubato, son of New York Liberty coach Richie Adubato, works for the San Diego Stingrays of the International Basketball League, a new minor league that’s a couple rungs above the USBL. “There’s just no shot blockers, and the taller you go, the weaker the talent. But the shorter guys . . . it seems like there’s a million of them out here trying to make it. You have to be so fucking good, though. Look at some of the NBA twos. Reggie Miller, 6-7. Allan Houston, 6-6 and strong. The guys here have to be prepared to do the little things, play hard and play smart. Because if they do ever make it, they’re going to be 12th men.”

Among the guard types are younger players like Gray and Queens native Duane Woodward of the Surf; Kevin Garnett’s high school teammate Ronnie Fields of the ValleyDawgs; Brooklyn native and LIU product Mike Campbell of the Kings; and Ray Tutt of the Shorecats, an explosive scorer out of UC-Santa Barbara who’s gotten a couple of looks from the NBA since he finished school two years ago.

After scoring 39 points against the Surf on a variety of aggressive takes to the basket, the 6-4 Tutt contrasts the constant frustrations of playing in the USBL (a three-point line marked off with electric tape; a less-than-serious attitude on the bench; a crowd count in the low two figures) with the luxuries of the Show. “My time in NBA camps really spoiled me,” he admits with a grimace. “The nice travel, the meal money, the hotels, but what can you do? When you do make it back to that level I guess you can just appreciate it that much more.”

And USBL players, who are, after all, making a living—one place or another—playing basketball, can always simply appreciate what they’re doing every day. “I may have been projected to be a star when I was younger, but what’s a star, really?” Reese asks. “I ain’t making a million, but I bought a house in Yonkers, I’m putting my son through school, and I’m enjoying what I do. I still feel like a star.”