Dec. 04, 2006
Copyright © Las Vegas Review-Journal
Undersized, underequipped and under no situation should he be on the court
Running fast and scared down the hardwood, shorts swishing against
my ankles like Capri pants, I slice through a thicket of men nearly
half my age and twice my height.
I'm open, which isn't surprising since the Gallup Outlaws of New
Mexico consider me more gnat than opposing player. (One of them is so
huge, I think he's leaking tree sap.)
With four seconds of game left, former University of Nevada, Las
Vegas player Lou Kelly's footlong right hand fires a leather cannonball
at my head.
I'm playing on the Las Vegas Venom, the valley's brand new American
Basketball Association franchise. My position is point guard, I think.
I'm not positive because I don't know much about sports. The first
professional basketball game I've watched in its entirety is the one
I'm playing in now.
"If we get a jump shot happening again, I want us to run 4," Coach
Che Jones tells the team during his pre-game pep talk in the men's
locker room at Del Sol High School.
"You top, you post," he continues, feverishly scribbling on a
blackboard like Russell Crowe in "A Beautiful Mind." "And when you go
down to set that down screen, hold your screen!"
I'm glad he cleared that up.
My body presents even more of a handicap than my mind. If an
accurate assessment of my basketball suitability isn't immediately
available to anyone with eyesight, the number on my back is 0.
I probably should have guessed that one practice wouldn't be enough
to master the game when I tried guarding Dajuan Tate and the 6-foot-5,
former NAIA All-American bounced the ball between my legs, picked it up
behind me and dunked.
And defense is the half of the game I'm better at. (To feel
like a man again, I took on a player more my speed: Trent Savage, the
5-year-old son of team co-owner Dan Savage. And let me tell you, his
best shot never stood a chance.)
The ABA is a struggling minor league that launched in 1999 using the
same name as two defunct struggling minor leagues. ABA Version 3.0
reportedly confers franchises on nearly anyone who pays its expansion
fee (currently $50,000). Its 51 teams play in high schools for small
crowds at bargain ticket prices.
"Does it bother me, playing here?" Venom co-owner and former UNLV
power forward Tyrone Nesby repeats my question before the game. "Not
one bit. This ain't no NBA team. Guys aren't making millions of dollars
and then having to come to a place like this."
Venom players start at about $300 a week.
"But one thing that's cool about the ABA is that you can invite someone like you out to play," Nesby continues.
Coach Jones calls me to the court. My heart starts dribbling as the
crowd starts screaming. I'm the 13th man, the player who sits most of
the game out — usually due to an injury or losing streak — and comes
in at the last second to replace one of the main players. Everybody
roots for the 13th man to score.
Excuse me while I interrupt this article for a personal message...
Hi, Eric Abolafia. Remember picking me last during every gym class?
How about that clever nickname you eventually called me over to your
team with: Pollywog? So tell me, have you ever played pro basketball? I'm just asking because it was your dream, not mine.
"Damn, you got Mini Me on the court killing us!" yells Las Vegas
resident Tony Harris, 24, who sits behind the bench not far from the
girl who formed the sign of the cross on her sweater when I rose from
OK, fine. So I didn't mention what the crowd was screaming.
Playing below the nipple line is not necessarily a handicap, Jones told me during practice.
"Shorter guys are usually faster," said the coach, who played pro
hoops in Greece despite standing 5-foot-7. (He claims he's 5-foot-9,
but I pad the truth by two inches, too.)
"And for a big guy who has to get all the way down and guard a short guy, it's a little more difficult," he said.
The Outlaws experience about the same level of difficulty with me,
however, as electric bumpers do with a pinball. I am shoved
mercilessly. The only reason I don't topple is my freakish-for-my
height feet, size 10 1/2, which confer Weeble-like stability.
A couple of years back, according to Jones, a guest player with
another Las Vegas ABA team was seriously injured during a similar
"He was a politician or something," Jones says. "The guy goes up for
a layup and a big, humongous guy fell on him and broke his collarbone."
Las Vegas has had two previous ABA franchises: the Slam, which moved
from Chicago in 2001 and folded a year later; and the Rattlers, which
began in 2004 and folded a year later, despite boasting rapper Master P
as guard and forward.
With a lifetime record of 1-3, the Venom seem headed in the same direction.
"We cannot lose to this team or we're done!" Jones screamed during
his pep talk. "That means you've got to dive into the stands! You've
got to do whatever it is you can do to ensure that we win this
With 2:30 left in the final quarter, Jones has placed me in way
earlier than anyone in earshot of his pep talk about winning expected.
And I haven't even told you about my sneakers yet. They're designed
for jogging, not basketball. (This isn't my fault. Jones — also a
freakishly big size 10 1/2 — promised to bring me his basketball
high-tops and forgot.)
Then again, I'm not technically playing basketball. According
to Jones, I am out of position, don't know who I'm guarding and break
the cardinal rule of remaining within 15 feet of a teammate.
"Who are you?" asks the referee who drags me by the arm like a mannequin to the proper place to stand during each free throw.
Afterward, the ref (who refuses to identify himself because ABA
rules forbid him from granting interviews, yet allow me to be out
there) says that I remind him of a female guest player in a game he
reffed last year in San Jose, Calif.
"She lost her right leg and had a prosthesis put on just for that
game," he says. "When she ran up and down the court, I gave her the
same look. I was thinking, 'I'm gonna have to protect this player.' "
In case you can't guess, I don't sink a shot at the buzzer. In fact,
I miss Lou Kelly's pass entirely. But it doesn't matter. The Venom win
the game 129-113. (If we weren't up by at least 15 points, Jones would
never have put me in.)
Oh, and there's an even bigger reason it doesn't matter. This is the
last game the Las Vegas Venom will play this season — and perhaps
ever. A week after my appearance, the team prematurely ceases
operations and announces its sale to a new owner.
I have nothing to do with it. At least that's what they tell me.
Fear and Loafing appears every Monday in the Living section.
Levitan's previous adventures can be found at
here to view more basketball