Amid reports that he was in financial difficulty, Robinson tried to hook up with another NBA team last summer. But he reported to the Boston Celtics' rookie/free-agent camp 20 pounds overweight and dreadfully out of shape. He wrote an apologetic letter to Celtic executive vice president and director of basketball operations M.L. Carr explaining his "apparent arrogance" and poor physical condition. The letter appeared in the Boston newspapers. "I never thought that I would ever have to go to rookie camp to prove my worth, and I should have been more motivated," Robinson wrote.
They all have excuses. If you listen long enough, you may even hear a good one. George McCloud was supposed to be a star in the NBA. Almost six years ago the Pacers gave him a four-year, $4 million contract, back when $4 million was still considered real money. McCloud was a 6'8" guard from Florida State who could hit from long range, and at the All-Star break of his second season, he was among the NBA leaders in three-point shooting percentage. He was hoping for an invitation to the league's three-point-shooting contest at the All-Star Game, but it never arrived. Instead he went home to Daytona Beach, and saw his mother for the last time. Verbena McCloud, 57, died of a heart attack on Valentine's Day, 1991.
McCloud's performance slipped in the second half of that season, and his scoring average plummeted to 4.8 points per game. In Indiana, fans were already bemoaning a wasted lottery pick. He returned home in June, and his father, the Reverend George McCloud Jr., was waiting in the driveway. It was a Sunday morning, and the two agreed to watch the Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals together later in the day.
George III said he was going to take a nap. He told his father to wake him in time for the game and took the newspaper and a bowl of cereal up to his bedroom. His father went to his room down the hall, took out a gun and shot himself in the chest.
"I thought it was a closet door slamming or a chest falling," says McCloud. "I ran into his room, and there he was, lying on the floor. I just grabbed his hand, and said, 'Why? Why did you have to do this?' I told my sister to call 911, and we took him to the hospital, but he didn't make it."
McCloud says his father gave up on life after his mother died. George Jr. often talked of suicide to his other eight children but warned them not to bother George III—he had to keep his mind on basketball. "He and my mother had been married for 24 years, and he just couldn't deal with it," says McCloud. "He had started saying stuff like 'I just want to be with my wife.' He'd never say it to me, though. But I was so close to my dad—we were best friends—that I feel if I had known, I might have been able to do something. I might have been able to stop him."
After burying his father, McCloud had reconstructive surgery on his chronically injured left ankle. He returned to Indiana for two more seasons, but he never lived up to expectations, averaging only 5.5 points over his career. When Larry Brown took over the Pacers in the '93-94 season, he cut McCloud loose. McCloud wore the scarlet D for disappointment out the door. He went to Italy for one season. "Good money, bad basketball," he says of Europe. "It was like giving upon the dream."
Sitting in the lobby of the Rapid City Inn on a Tuesday night in January, McCloud is in the heart of nowhere, but the dream is not far away. Welcome to the CBA, he says. The place is as quiet as an abandoned mine, and it's easy to see how some players can get lonely and depressed. ("Christmas Eve was Burger King and a bottle of wine in the room," says Randall. "New Year's Eve, Burger King and another bottle of wine.")
Like most in the CBA, Thriller players earn between $800 and $1,600 per week, and very few have any kind of a guarantee. On the road the per diem is $25. A local Oldsmobile dealer provides the players with free use of cars, but, says one player, "there's nowhere to drive them." Mount Rushmore is 25 miles away, but that still leaves you wondering what to do on your second day off. The fans are terrific (in a city of 80,000, the Thrillers' average attendance for 28 home games last season was a league-high 6,116), but the lifestyle is nothing like it is in the League. In Rapid City the Thrillers take a backseat to the rodeo.
There have been times when the bad luck or the boredom nearly knocked McCloud out of the game, but this isn't one of those times. In January he was named CBA National Conference Player of the Week, and he earned a trip to the CBA All-Star Game in Hartford. There, with dozens of NBA scouts in the stands, he had 17 points and five assists in 21 minutes. He knew his dream was near. He could feel it.