When people in Newport talk about "the season," they're referring to the part of the year when the rest of the world peers into their seaside mansions and takes Instamatic pictures of their sleek yachts. These people use only Bain de Soleil spray to achieve their perfect tans; they take an equally dim view of Claus von Billow and loud radio music; and when the season ends, they all go to Palm Beach to rest their seersuckers. When Newporters talk about "the season," they are surely not referring to the schedule of the new United States Basketball League and its highly visible Newport franchise, the Rhode Island Gulls. The Gulls, whose season began May 25 and runs until the middle of August, have generated a lively following among both the tourists and the townies, but there is some doubt whether the true blue bloods have been making it to the games. "They be too busy sailing, I guess," sniffs Spud Webb, the Gulls' top scorer.
It is probably fitting that little Rhode Island should be the biggest name in the down-sized USBL. Although there are only seven teams this year, the league plans to add as many as 15 next season, selling them like fast-food franchises. "We're the McDonald's of professional sports," says league founder Daniel Meisenheimer III of Orange, Conn. No one knows yet if the fledgling league will embrace the popular drive-through window concept, but there's already a move afoot to offer a free shake and a large order of fries with any purchase of a season ticket.
The Gulls have a little bit of everything that makes the USBL what it is, including a center who is very big and, at the same time, Manute; a guard who is minute but plays very big; and a high-revving forward named Hot Rod, who these days is living his life minute to minute. At center is 7'6¾" Manute Bol, the Dinka tribesman from the Sudan who has Newport opponents dancing a nervous two-step every time they come into the lane. Webb, a 5'7" guard from North Carolina State, leads the team in scoring (21.3 points per game). The Gulls' best all-around player is forward John (Hot Rod) Williams, late of Tulane and the police blotter, who is awaiting trial on two counts of sports bribery and three of conspiracy to commit sports bribery in New Orleans.
The 6'10" Williams is being paid $15,000 this season by the Gulls, which, depending upon how you look at these things, may not seem like a lot of money, but is $5,000 more than he has told authorities he once received from a booster to play at Tulane.
"I was looking for playing ball anywhere," Williams says. "I didn't care where. I had in my mind to go to the first place that likes me and lets me play ball this summer."
The Gulls have had their own leadership problems. The team's first owner was a 27-year-old Boston financial planner named Phil Stillman, whose operation of the franchise forced the league to step in and take control of it a month before the season started. Stillman then disappeared. "I don't know what ever happened to him," said Kevin Stacom, the ex-Celtic player who is the team's coach and general manager.
The team is playing its games in Newport not as part of any grand design but because Providence seemed too big. "We figured, why not put it in Newport, where you've already got a summer community, and build on that," says Stacom, who played for Providence College in the early 1970s. For the first several months of the franchise's existence, it was run out of the Dockside Saloon, a bar Stacom co-owns. Stacom says he has never even watched a complete episode of the TV show Cheers—upon which his life is based in part.
The Gulls had only five days of training camp before their first game, and Stacom had to miss half of those practices because he had to tend to the team's tangled business affairs. The roster has been such a revolving door that two players who were starters in the Gulls' first game were later cut. Forward Martin Clark is the team's second-leading scorer at 20.3 points a game and is playing a lot of minutes. In 1984 Clark was temporarily suspended from Boston College's team when his frustration over a reduction in playing time erupted into a shoving match on the bench with coach Gary Williams late in a game with Syracuse.
Bol has been the biggest addition to the league, in every sense of the word. He signed his $25,000 USBL summer contract in a locker room just minutes before the league's historic opener at Springfield on May 25, then went out and blocked 16 shots. After Bol renounced the remainder of his college eligibility in April, the USBL's attitude toward him was that if you could ink a Dinka dunker, do.
Bol had played creditably in his only season at the University of Bridgeport, but he made an ill-advised appearance in an all-star game between New England Division I players and those from Divisions II and III. He wasn't sharp and he allowed himself to be pushed around. "There were some scouts there, and the book on Manute after that was that a bunch of guys had muscled him around," says Stacom. "I think playing with us has helped him prove he can handle himself against big, strong guys."