"It was really exciting for me to be playing at this level," said guard Jeff Hadden, 29, an administrator for Honeywell. A former high school star, Hadden played basketball his freshman year at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., but then transferred to Florida State University to get a business degree, and simply had no time for basketball. He spent the '80s living with regret. Savino, too, saw the road show as a way to make up for missed opportunities. He had suffered an ankle injury in junior college and felt that, subsequently, he had never really put himself to the test on court. Forward Eddie Gibbons, a 39-year-old high school teacher and assistant basketball coach, believed his college coach never gave him a fair shot; now he had one.
Donald (Duck) Williams had no such void to fill; he had been an all-conference forward for the University of Alabama-Huntsville in the late 1970s. But the 6'7", 34-year-old forklift driver had other needs. "I wanted to prove to myself that I could still play," he said. "It really got me going again, like I was back in college."
Forward Tony Brown, 24, a college standout during his years at St. Louis University, just liked the camaraderie of the team. The Wave is lucky he did; Brown led the team in scoring for this '90-91 season, averaging 24 points a game.
The 1989-90 campaign proved most beneficial to Eddie Anderson, the team's playmaking guard. He scored 36 points in the victory over McNeese State. As it happened, scouts from a New Zealand pro team were in the stands, and they promptly signed Anderson to a contract. A part-time stockbroker and a Wave youngster at 24, Anderson now splits his basketball year between hemispheres. He plays out of St. Pete through January, then travels Down Under to play professionally for six months.
After such an auspicious debut for the team, growth and increased slickness were almost inevitable. Neader drummed up donations to cover the $500-per-game fee to telecast games on a local cable-TV station. Working out of his waterfront office, from which he negotiates contracts for clients such as Dwight Gooden and Gary Sheffield, he put together a very ambitious, 36-game schedule for the 1990-91 season. (Gooden, by the way, lives near Neader in St. Pete, and has become an enthusiastic Wave fan, getting all of Neader's reports from the road. "When Jim comes home from a four-day trip and tells me the towns were nice, then I know he didn't score too many points," the Doctor joked while shooting hoops in Neader's driveway recently. "Seriously though, he really knows the sport, and he cares about that team.")
The heart of the Wave's most recent season was a grueling stretch of nine Division I games in 13 days last November. Those contests were bunched together to accommodate the colleges, which are allowed by the NCAA to schedule two exhibitions against club or foreign teams each season. They usually do so in the preseason, as tune-ups. Air Force, Baylor and Texas A&M booked the Green Wave this season. The University of Texas tried to but reached Neader too late. That such formidable programs would schedule the Wave in its sophomore tour is testimony to the team's quickly earned reputation. "They're older, but they really play hard," said Texas A&M assistant coach Billy Kennedy, who drove three hours to scout the Wave the week before A&M was scheduled to play it. "Most teams in exhibitions just don't play that hard, but these guys are talented and they go all out. I told our guys, 'You better play them as if they're Arkansas or you'll get beat.' "
This season, the Wave's expanded road show produced a 28-8 record, with all of the eight losses coming against Division I teams. Neader's men opened their tour on Nov. 7 by beating beleaguered McNeese State yet again, 82-78, for their third big-college triumph. Then things got a bit rougher. Twenty-four hours and 150 driving miles after the McNeese game, Nicholls State of Thibodaux, La., broke loose from a 57—all half-time score and ran the Wave ragged, 145-127.
Neader remembered the day of the Nicholls game as a particularly harrowing one. "I'd just picked up the afternoon paper, and I see this big headline—'Strawberry Signs With Dodgers,' " he said. "So I immediately called my wife, Michelle, and she says, 'You've got calls from all over the country from reporters who want to get a comment from Dwight.' I called back as many of the writers as I could, but Dwight wasn't home in St. Pete, and there just wasn't much I could do from Thibodaux, Louisiana." Michelle, who held the fort during the media barrage, wasn't fazed. In fact, she has put her foot down only once on her husband's hoops career. "Really, I think it's great that he's doing this. It's a big dream for him," she said. "But I told him he couldn't play one game when I was pregnant with Alison. He had a game on her due date, and I said, 'This is one game you'll have to miss.' " Alison is 14 months old now and has a burgeoning interest in basketball. Or so says Dad.
After the frustrations in Thibodaux, it was back in the van and off to Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, 100 miles away. There, on Nov. 9, the Green Wave found itself a showcased guest.
"It was about an hour before our game time when I noticed all these homecoming setups," Neader said. "I asked their student manager, 'So, who does your football team play tomorrow for homecoming?' He tells me, 'We don't have a football team. This is homecoming.' Needless to say, I was in shock."