The door closed and the room grew suddenly quiet as coach Denny Hovanec turned from the blackboard to face his Las Vegas Silver Streaks. He looked pale and agitated, and his voice rose like the hot summer wind blowing off the desert floor outside. "Consider yourselves very fortunate," said Hovanec. "We haven't done anything for 20 minutes of basketball, and we're down only five. We haven't played basketball at all. It was ugly out there. This Illinois team is going to bust your ass for a whole 20 minutes more. They ain't laying down."
It was halftime of a recent game against the Illinois Express, and the Streaks were down 61-56 and looking for all the world as if they were ready to call it a night. The two teams, each with a 12-5 record, were tied for first place in the World Basketball League, a five-team professional venture—the Calgary 88's, the Worcester (Mass.) Counts and the Youngstown ( Ohio) Pride are the other three—that has been struggling through its second year of play, but surviving. The 1989 season, during which each team will play 44 regular-season games, began on May 5 and will conclude in early September.
This particular summer league has some intriguing wrinkles, the most significant of which is that all players must be under 6'5". To be exact, no one can stand taller than 6'4?". Players near the cutoff height are measured lying down—on their backs, with their knees locked—to discourage slouchers. The height limit does not apply to the six foreign teams—from the Soviet Union, Italy, Greece, Holland, Finland and Norway—that were invited to play a handful of games as touring members of the league this summer. In the league standings, they are lumped together as the Internationals.
Not that their formidable advantage in altitude has done them any good; the U.S.S.R. and Greece each went 0-10 in their recently completed tours, and the Italians won only one of five games before they went Alitalia. Through July 16, the foreign visitors had a collective record of 1-26—the Dutch are 0-2—leaving behind a message for the Finns and Norwegians, who are scheduled to arrive later: Don't bother to bring the big, slow-moving 7-foot guys, around whom the Americans run rings. Instead, bring along your fast-breakin', shot-makin', lane-drivin' runners and gunners and dribblers and leapers.
Gas drives the game in this league. "The foreign teams have not been able to keep up with the speed of the North American teams," says WBL commissioner Steven Ehrhart. "The speed eventually wears them down. The big guys can't keep up."
"These smaller guys are like antelopes," says Bob Griggas, the Streaks' assistant coach. And at times they look just as disorganized—as the Streaks had in the first half against Illinois at UNLV's Thomas & Mack Center. On that Sunday night, Hovanec, a former graduate assistant at UNLV, scanned the locker room until his eyes found 6'2" Freddie Banks, who had contributed only four points and one assist before intermission. This was the Freddie Banks who in 1987 had helped lead UNLV to the Final Four in New Orleans, where the Runnin' Rebels lost 97-93 in the semis to eventual champion Indiana. Banks had 38 points against the Hoosiers, 30 on three-pointers. He was drafted in the second round by the Detroit Pistons but was cut and then failed to make the Denver Nuggets. Last year Banks joined the Streaks.
"If I weren't doing this, I'd be working as a slot host at Bally's casino," says Banks. "Just walking around and trying to get people to play the slots."
On this night he looked as if he were playing with one arm himself. "Freddie, I need you to start shooting, son!" said Hovanec. "If you don't start shooting, you're absolutely useless to me. Take over! Start knocking the ball down. Have fun with the game."
Banks averted his eyes, and Hovanec turned to 6'3" Daren Queenan, a Lehigh grad and the school's alltime leading scorer (2,703 points) and rebounder (1,013). In the final two minutes of the half, Queenan had committed an offensive foul under the boards that had Hovanec grimacing in the locker room. "Q!" yelled Hovanec. "That was a great call the official made against you. You're dipping your body. Just lay the ball up. Nobody can stop you inside, Q. Get your deuce and get out."
Queenan nodded. "Kenny!" cried Hovanec. Kenny Wilson, a 5'9" guard and Villanova's career assist leader with 627, raised his head. "You can't be playing half-speed in this league. You can't be cute with these guys, Kenny. They'll bury you. Everyone: Set good screens and move. Move. Move. Create good shots for yourself. Keep your heads in the game. This is for first place. You're in for a battle. They'll try to come at you and hurt you."