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Hoop Dreams


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San Diego's WildFire basketball teamI’m fairly certain I had nothing to do with it, yet less than a week after I worm my way onto the court during a San Diego WildFire practice, the pro basketball team’s head coach—LaSalle Thompson—resigns. Dane Suttle, the assistant coach, is now the head coach. Thompson is general manager, the team’s roster is down to nine players, the season is being shortened, and for a while it looks like no one is going to get paid.

And that’s just for starters.

It begins with my desire to join a team practice—to get on the court with a bunch of strapping young ballplayers. The new guy, Mitchell Butler (last guy cut from the Indiana Pacers this year), is absolutely adorable. All I can think is how cool I’m going to look in the photos.

When then-coach Thompson, a former NBA player, shows me how to throw the ball—how to really throw the ball, he says, not like they taught you in high school—I make the basket. I hear the swoosh. I want to yell, “Yo, baby, yo, baby! Check me out!” but I know better. I’m 5-foot-5, skinny, nervous and wearing Speedo-brand sweatpants with little zippers on the ankles.

Instead I say, “Can you teach me how to do that spin-out thing you guys do? I saw Geno do it a couple of times at the game last Friday night.”

“Geno’s gone,” says Thompson, trying to answer two ringing cell phones at once. “He just left to play in Italy.” For the money, says Thompson. Apparently a good player like Geno Carlisle can make $100,000 for three months of play in Europe. Mitchell Butler, who spent three seasons with the Washington Bullets, one with the Portland Trailblazers and two with the Cleveland Cavaliers, played with a Lithuanian team last year.

“It’s definitely lucrative,” Butler admits. The average American Basketball Association (ABA) player’s salary is $50,000 annually.

But now back to me. Thompson blocks me from behind and shows me how to step out and around him quickly, so it seems like I’m spinning. This way I can dodge his block and run up to the basket. I forget I’m also supposed to dribble. That’s too much to do at once. “How about a slam dunk then?” I suggest helpfully. After all, the magazine’s photographer is waiting.

Thompson sighs. “Okay,” he says, and calls over Stevie Thompson. I’ve had a crush on Stevie for half an hour, ever since he asked me to rebound balls for player Jason Cox. Stevie was removing his sweatpants. He pointed at me and yelled, “You? Yeah, you. Can you throw the balls back to him while I take these off?”

So when he offers to lift me up for the slam dunk, my legs start shaking.

Thompson—LaSalle this time—thinks I’m nervous. “Okay, Pauliasi, you come over here.” Pauliasi Taulava is 6-foot-10 to Stevie Thompson’s 6-foot-4. So it’s decided Taulava will lift me to the basket so I can simply drop the ball through the net. Taulava lifts me up for my dream dunk. My knees buckle, and I’m so afraid he will drop me that I throw the ball and miss. I’m 4 inches from the basket, and I miss.

The entire team is yelling, “Hang on to the rim! Hang on to the rim!” I beg for solid ground. Taulava is laughing. LaSalle Thompson walks away, shaking his head.
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