On a sleepy sunday morning the rented van barreled along the seemingly endless asphalt of Highway 6. It was on a fast break to the Houston airport and the end of an odyssey: four days of riding the back roads of Louisiana and Texas, a thousand miles on the odometer and a few hundred shots taken by the passengers within. They were nine tired basketball players, all of them a little long in the tooth and a little thick in the middle for this sort of thing.
"I'm physically exhausted when I get back to work after one of these tours," said Bart Savino, 30. "I always think, I need a vacation just to recover from this vacation." He paused. "But what we're doing is something special, and I'm sure to do it all over again."
What Savino and his pals are doing is unique. They are the Green Wave, a Florida AAU team that challenges opponents who are way out of its league.
The Wave was founded five years ago in St. Petersburg by Jim Neader, a 40-year-old sports agent who is a shooting guard and co-captain of the team. Neader recruited a bunch of former high school All-Everythings, who played under the banner of Harvey's 4th Street Grill, and the team quickly became the dominant force in the St. Pete recreation league. In 1989, Neader started thinking bigger. He gathered the players and broached his idea: In addition to playing city-league ball once a week, why not schedule a bunch of college games, with a handful of exhibitions against some truly major schools sprinkled in?
"We thought he was nuts," said Savino, who works in contract management at Honeywell in Clearwater, Fla. "We weren't even in shape, and now we'd be trying to hang in there with guys half our age!"
Neader pressed forward and found that jump-starting his idea was as tough as jump-starting his teammates. Neader realized that he would have to negotiate guarantees with the schools to help cover, travel, room and board. He would have to solicit backing from local businesses for the $2,000 worth of customized uniforms and travel bags that he wanted to buy. And he would have to dip into his own bank account to cover the several thousand dollars in miscellaneous expenses that were bound to crop up. To keep a traveling Green Wave squad afloat, Neader estimated, would cost at least $10,000 a year, and considerably more than that if he wanted the team to travel outside of Florida.
And the Wave would be heavily out-manned and outtrained every time it took the court against a college team. Neader figured the team could field nine or 10 guys per game, depending on who could escape work for the road trips. These weekend warriors would routinely be opposed by 15 well-conditioned college players.
Still, there was the sheer, irresistible audacity of it all. Neader's team voted to make the jump, and surprised itself with a 13-5 record in the fall and winter of '89-90. The Wave's wins included two over Division I colleges: a 72-67 washing of McNeese State in Lake Charles, La., and a 104-100 victory over the University of Central Florida.
Along the way, the Wave was taunted by college students who yelled things like "Geritol!" and "George Foreman Jr.!", watched referees give the bulk of the questionable calls to the home teams, and had to cram into vans for dreary interstate drives that often left little time for pregame warmups. Despite all that, the inaugural season, which included games in Florida, Texas and Louisiana, was judged a success.
"First, we found this was a great way to stay in shape," said Neader. "Second, it gave you a chance to step back from your occupation, clear your mind and come back refreshed. And third, it was a challenge. Here's this little team from St. Petersburg competing with these Division I schools. It was very gratifying."