Brandon Williams had just finished packing his car last Thursday for the drive from Detroit back to Rockford, Ill., when a friend phoned with the news. The Continental Basketball Association—at 55 years the oldest pro hoops league in America—had died.
"I had a feeling things were going to crash," says Williams, 25, a 6'6" Rockford Lightning swingman who led the CBA in scoring in 1999-2000. "Our team was one of only two that had been paid in the last two weeks. Then we read in the paper that our All-Star Game had been canceled. When I was getting ready to come home to Detroit last week for the All-Star break, I packed everything because I had a feeling I might not be coming back."
The demise of the CBA left minor league basketball in chaos, with the two-year-old International Basketball League ( IBL) and the startup ABA 2000 trying to stay afloat. Two of the IBL's eight original teams folded before the season started, and ABA 2000 is struggling with attendance. Rockford and two other CBA clubs have joined the IBL, and as many as four more were in talks with the league.
After graduating from Davidson five years ago, Williams played in France for a year, but he has turned down offers in excess of $300,000 to return to Europe, believing that his best shot at the NBA is to stay close to home. Williams, who has never made more than $25,500 in a CBA season, has had brief call-ups from four NBA teams and in 1999 earned a championship ring with the Spurs, though he was mostly on the injured list that year. "A lot of players bounced around before finding a place in the NBA," says Williams's agent, Mark Bartelstein, noting that Darrell Armstrong, Anthony Mason and John Starks were CBAers. "If we can get Brandon to the right place, he can have a good career."
Look for two minor leagues to survive: one for older players (either the IBL or the ABA 2000), and the NBA's Development League, which will tip off in November, featuring young guys being groomed for the big league. "I don't want anybody in the NBA to go down with a major injury," says Williams. "Just be nice and sprain an ankle long enough so I can show what I can do."