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Dec. 04, 2006
Copyright © Las Vegas Review-Journal


HOOPLESS

Undersized, underequipped and under no situation should he be on the court

Watch the movie...
MOV | FLASH

 

Click on the photos to enlarge them...

Corey Levitan tries keeping up with the action as he plays basketball for the Las Vegas Venom against the Gallup Outlaws of New Mexico.
Photos by Ralph Fountain.


Levitan tries getting a shot past 6-foot-5 Las Vegas Venom star Dajuan Tate during warm-ups.


Levitan has better luck against 3-footer Trent Savage, the 5-year-old son of team co-owner Dan Savage.

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 the bench.

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 publicity stunt.

"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 basketball game!"

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 www.fearandloafing.com. Click here to view more basketball photos.


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COREY LEVITAN
FEAR AND LOAFING


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