04 May 2012

Adventures in Basketball's Bush League

(From RealClearSports)

Once, on a road trip in 2004, beaten down from the CBA grind and (Coach) Dales’ ways, Trainer Brad told me, “I feel bad about waiting for the maid to go in and clean the room so I can grab soap from her cart and run. … [For CBA games, the home team is supposed to provide soap for both locker rooms, but apparently Dales didn’t like paying for that.] A few times I’ve just gone to Target and bought soap, just to appease Dales and let him think I’d stolen it from the hotel. I just took one for the team.” 

- Carson Cunningham, "Underbelly Hoops"

It doesn't get any more bush league than the ol' CBA. Ten-hour bus rides; staying at motels where the towels were so rough that you wouldn't even think of swiping them; and a diabolical coach who hid the fact your wife was hospitalized because he wanted you to finish practice.

Such is the life in the "underbelly."
The Continental Basketball Association, the irrepressible, irredeemable basketball league might be gone, but some of its memories are forever preserved for posterity in Carson Cunningham's irreverent and humor-laced "Underbelly Hoops: Adventures in the CBA."

You might remember Carson, a former All-Pac-10 freshman point guard at Oregon State who, after transferring to Purdue, nearly led the Boilermakers to their first ever Final Four under Gene Keady. He spent four years chasing the dream of reaching basketball's holy grail, the NBA, before finally hanging up his sneakers and settling into his new life as Dr. Cunningham, teaching history at DePaul University.

But the "Underbelly" is about more than just chasing a dream. It's also a love story.

"A lot of us do it for the pure love for hoops," Cunningham says during an interview with RealClearSports. "We keep grinding away because we want to play high-level hoops. It was good basketball (in the CBA). From top to bottom, the league was better than any major (college) conferences. The basketball was good, underrated. There were a lot of super-talented players and I didn't appreciate how good the players were until I was in the league.”

One of those was Keith "Boss" Closs, a 7-foot-3 center who was at one time a rising star with the Clippers but the big-hearted shot blocker with a big vice somehow ended up playing for Cunnigham's Rockford Lightning. During a late-December road trip to Flint, Mich., Closs apparently passed out at a nightclub after the game and was dumped at the local police station by players from the opposing team. The next morning, the gregarious Closs sat under the Christmas tree regaling a group of curious cops about his life and times in the NBA as if he were an oversized Santa Claus, before an assistant coach was sent to fetch him.

It took a thick skin, and a somewhat irrational personality to survive in the CBA. You didn't do it for the pay, that's for sure, since most guys earned hundreds of dollars per week, plus occasional McDonald’s coupons that passed for per diem. It wasn't for the glamour and the amenities - when you consider a Red Roof Inn was a treat and at some games the crowd count was short of triple digits.

While Cunningham might be a hoops junkie chasing every Hoosier’s boyhood dream, he was a man with a plan. During his stints in the CBA, he was also working on his Ph.D. in history at Purdue. As his teammates spent countless hours pounding away at video game consoles, he read, wrote and kept a diary of his existence in the underbelly.

“It’s living on the fly, you just basically learn to adapt to uncertainty, and roll with it,” Cunningham says. “When you’re in your early 20s, you have a lot of energy and you have a lot of down time to get some stuff done. I’ve always enjoyed the process of writing and I liked it that during my minor league days I was able to combine two passions.”

Cunningham adds that the CBA was able to get the hoops out of his system so that when the time came, he was ready to move on with his career, get married and have kids. His book isn’t so much a tell-all about his ex-teammates and coaches, but a memoir, and maybe even a cautionary tale about the nomadic minor-league existence.

Two recent stories neatly presented the juxtaposition of this phenomenon. Jeremy Lin, who spent a bulk of his professional career riding the bench in the NBA and playing in the D-League, broke out and became an instant star. Meanwhile, Antoine Walker, who made over $100 million in his NBA career, was plain broke and last seen playing for the D-League team in Boise.

“One thing I struggled with in the book is how to cope with riding the animal – so to speak,” Cunningham says. “Jeremy Lin epitomizes (the dream) for thousands of hoopers like us. I think in a way it's inspiring but at the same time you have to confront the reality that your NBA dream might never come to fruition.

“There’s a fine line on chasing a dream and how hard to chase it. … I was grateful to have a backup plan, but I’ve seen a lot of unfortunate situations. I never had a lot of money but you would come across guys who made a chunk and ended up with nothing.”

The D-League, a wholly owned subsidiary of the NBA, is essentially an offspring of the CBA, which managed a half-century of existence that, wrote Cunningham, “survived the Cold War, economic recession, relative obscurity, and Vietnam, among other things. Over 53 years, nothing seemed capable of toppling it. But then, Isiah Thomas showed up.”

Through Thomas' mismanagement, the CBA began its death spiral, but not before providing refuge for hundreds of more hoop dreamers before its demise in 2009. Cunningham might have eventually found a cure for what he called an “affliction,” but he stuck around long enough to serve up a nice slice of Americana.

And even now, in his new life, Cunningham occasionally finds himself missing the wilderness of the underbelly:

Now, don’t get me wrong, I loved the way things were rolling with my wife and our little one, and I liked teaching history. … But I still couldn’t completely shake it. I still wanted a run. 

I started to really feel it after we went to a dinner party and this couple with a bunch of advanced degrees started in on the movie “Crash.” The lady, kind of affected-like, said “More than race, [it’s] about class.” I felt like puking. … She went on and on about how profound the movie was, but did so in a way that made me want to put on Tarzan gear and run out to the wild and beat a drum or swing from a tree – or go play in the CBA.