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A dream Deferred

by Brian Clarey

What happens to a dream deferred? — Langston Hughes

Tonight the dream lives in the auxiliary basketball court at Winston-Salem State University, a perfectly serviceable expanse of seasoned hardwood, with rudimentary bleachers and old-school fiberglass backboards — not up to par for the WSSU Rams men’s basketball team, who play in a decidedly more modern facility across campus, but just fine for tonight’s contest between the school’s scrappy B team and their challengers, a cadre of semi-pro cagers that make up the Triad’s ABA affiliate, the Carolina Cheetahs.

Head Coach Kristina Baugh waits near the door for the African drum and dance rehearsal to end so she can lead the team in warm-up drills and finalize her game plan.

“It’s not gonna be a close game,” she says.

“My guys just need to get up and down.”

Her team, a collection of college and juco veterans, is a heavy favorite against the WSSU squad. They’re bigger, more seasoned. And collectively they have a higher “basketball IQ,” a term Baugh uses to describe knowledge of the game and how it plays out on the court.

“”It’s more [about] decision-making than talent,” she says. “Do they have the poise to make the ball-fake before taking the shot? Knowing how to make a play, but not always for you. How to be a pro.”

Her guys. Of the 13-man roster, just seven have showed up for tonight’s scrimmage. A few have become disillusioned with the rebirth of this league, on a team still in its first year. There are concerns about financial compensation and stability — their last home game, scheduled for Jan. 29 at UNCG’s Fleming Gym against the Greenville Trojans, fell victim to lastminute cancellation. The next one, which is supposed to take place Sunday night, looks doubtful.

But these guys came to play anyway. The sit on the courtside bench, donning their royal-blue uniforms, slipping braces on elbows and knees. There are no names on their jerseys, no tear-away sweats or teamsanctioned shoes.

Now they line up beneath one goalpost for pre-game drills: jump shots, layups, dunks. They dribble, shoot, rebound, pass, skills honed for years in driveways, playgrounds, church leagues and high school gymnasiums.

No. 12, Chris Woods, grabs a basketball and streaks for the basket, launching himself at the edge of the key and dropping a swift dunk that snaps the net.

Woods played his college ball at Pfeifer University, where he was decorated with accolades. He made all-conference in 2008-09, and again in 2009-10. That season he averaged an impressive 103.1 points per game — he put up 146 against the Barton Cougars in February — made the all-state, all-region and all-American rosters; earned honors from the National Association of Basketball Coaches and was named the Pfeifer Male Athlete of the Year. In 2010-11, the Sporting News put him on the pre-season all-American list, and that February he passed the 2,000 career point mark against Erskine College.

“He shouldn’t be here,” Baugh says. “He’s a pro.” His teammates tonight include CJ Pigford, who played intermittently at Virginia Tech and UNC-Charlotte before landing at Elizabeth City State University, where he averaged 18 points and 8 rebounds a game and then went on to play professionally in Europe.

Terrence Jones, sturdy at 6-foot six and 250 pounds, spent a few years in the ABA after playing his college ball at Livingstone University. He shoots a lazy, playground jumper but he’s a monster under the boards.

Jerrod Johnson was a standout at Ragsdale High School before heading to Emerson College. Now he’s adjusting to a faster, stronger game. “I’ve been working on my shot a lot, being more aggressive,” he says.

Ryan Scott, small by NBA standards at 6-foot-2, didn’t see much playing time his freshman year at the College of Charleston, but as a Golden Bull at Johnson C. Smith University he led the team in scoring and led the conference in three-point shots as his team won back-to-back CIAA championships.

Scott’s father, Dennis Scott, also shot the long jumper, sinking an NBA record 267 of them during his 1995-96 season with the pre-Shaq Orlando Magic.

The elder Scott also did time in the ABA as general manager of the Atlanta Vision.

Shortly after tip-off at the scrimmage against Winston- Salem State, Scott drives down the court and stops short by the top of the key, dishes it to Johnson, then steps behind the threepoint line, accepts a pass back and adds three to the Cheetah’s total. Just a minute or so into the game they are down 5-3, but none of them seem overly concerned about this. There is plenty of game left to play.

The American Basketball Association was founded in 1967, a league of flash and action designed to compete with the NBA’s more staid style of play — though the goal was always to become integrated with the NBA. It was the ABA that introduced the three-point shot and the all-star game slam-dunk contest. It also used iconic red, white and blue basketballs and nets.

When the ABA merged with the NBA in 1976, it brought its own established stars like Julius “Dr. J” Erving, George “Iceman” Gervin, Moses Malone, Larry Brown, Rick Barry and Connie “The Hawk” Hawkins.

Hawkins had no choice but to play in the startup league, banned from the NBA after a point-shaving scandal in the early 1960s tarnished his reputation. He joined the Pittsburgh Pipers after playing in the short-lived American Basketball League and a few seasons with the Harlem Globetrotters, and played the inaugural 1967-68 season, leading the team in scoring with 1,875 points. The Pipers would win the ABA Championship that year, largely due to Hawkins’ play. Two years later, after successfully suing the NBA and collecting a $1.3 million settlement, Hawkins took to the court with the Phoenix Suns. In the last game of his rookie NBA season, Hawkins scored 44 points and nabbed 20 rebounds.

This incarnation of the ABA — which has no legal affiliation with the old one, or the NBA, which actually holds the rights to the name — held its first season in 2000. Difficulties ensued each year, with individual teams and the league itself suffering financial hardships, lack of fan support and canceled games. Some teams dropped out before seasons ended, wreaking havoc on scheduling and standings.

At last count, the current ABA has 95 teams. The Cheetahs play in the Mid-Atlantic Division under the Carolina Cats organization, which includes the Rocky Mount Jaguars and the Raleigh Cougars. As it stands, the Cheetahs are in 9th place overall.

With 8:32 left in the first half, Coach Baugh’s team is up 28-15. Still she paces the sideline, shouting directions at her players and cajoles at the ref.

“Hey! That’s you!” “Follow! Follow!” “Foul!” “Pressure! He shouldn’t be able to get that shot!” “Pick it up!” She looks tiny among this team of giants when they huddle around her and her clipboard as she draws out plays. But she’s got serious credentials of her own.

Baugh was a starter on the women’s squad at Providence College, in the venerable Big East Conference. Known more for assists than scoring — in three seasons with the Friars she recorded 176 assists — she still averaged about four points a game in lower-scoring women’s play.

“Women play below the rim,” she says, “that’s the main difference. We can miss layups because we can’t dunk. [The women’s game] is more about fundamentals. The guys have so much raw athleticism.”

She learned to dribble and shoot as a kid, in her home town of Roxbury, Mass., where she played night games at the Shelbourne Center and hustled dollar games of horse on the playground across the street from her house. Until she took a scholarship to Tabor Academy in Marion, Mass, where she also played soccer and softball, she only played basketball with boys.

“They respected my game, for sure,” she says. “I was a competitor. Most guys respect a competitor.”

Now she works in basketball, such as it is, named head coach halfway through the season after her predecessor, former NC State shooter Tim Wells, took a coaching position here at WSSU.

Now she’s one of two female head coaches in the ABA.

She picks up a little side cash refereeing. And she’s fixing up a foreclosure she bought in Winston-Salem.

“This experience has meant more than just the money,” she says. “I got an offer [to coach] at Morgan State, and I turned it down. I’ll probably never get another opportunity to coach guys, at this level.”

At halftime in the WSSU gym, her team up 47-28, Baugh orders adjustments.

“We’re not talking on D,” she says. “That has to happen at half-court. And turnovers! It’s about the reaction, not what happened. The reaction.

“And too may open threes,” she adds. The game plays out. Scott drops threes. Pigford launches sharp passes and sweet jumpers. Woods uses speed and control to drive to the hoop. Jones enforces at mid-court and under the boards. Johnson plays tight D and is always, always open at the baseline.

When the final buzzer sounds her guys are ahead 87-83.

Epilogue:

Next Sunday’s game at UNCG is cancelled. The team is scheduled to play an away game against conference rivals the Fayetteville Flight on Sunday, on Feb. 25 at the South Carolina Warriors and Feb. Feb. 26 at the Johnson City Mad Hatters. All future home games are TBA. As for a new home turf, they just don’t know.

They don’t know if the team will hold together, don’t know if the rival teams will show up for games, don’t know if there will be a next year. They don’t know if their efforts on the court will come to anything — a winning season, a championship, an opportunity to play in a pro league overseas or even a shot at a walk-on tryout with an NBA team.

They just don’t know. But still they don the uniforms, practice their jumpers and dunks and alley-oops. The dream is still alive. And so, for now, are the Carolina Cheetahs.

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