Every so often, infrequent and random though it may seem, a dream comes true. And that's why they die so hard.
The St. Louis Pioneers basketball team is all about dreams — passion and dreams. Professional basketball once was a mainstay in town. This was home to the 1958 St. Louis Hawks, the NBA champions. This is where Bob Pettit, among the best ever to play in the NBA, spent his entire career, where Cliff Hagan perfected his hook, where Len Wilkens ran the floor.
This is where the St. Louis Spirits launched careers for Maurice Lucas, Moses Malone and broadcaster Bob Costas, where Marvin Barnes redefined "Movin." St. Louis was a part of the red-white-and-blue American Basketball Association universe, a galaxy where Julius Erving, George Gervin and George McGinnis shined.
This is where NBA players such as David Lee, LaPhonso Ellis and Larry Hughes polished their talents, in high school and AAU programs. But since the Spirits folded in 1976, a professional basketball void has loomed on the landscape. Some have tried to fill it. The International Basketball League came to town in 1999, bringing the St. Louis Swarm to the Family Arena. But the IBL faded to black in 2001.
Still, ambition can be resilient. James Graham, who played basketball at Lewisburg Community College in North Carolina, has dreamed of managing a professional sports franchise. So the 27-year-old Fontbonne graduate is bringing pro basketball to St. Louis again. Last summer, Graham bought into the new ABA, a conglomerate of 59 teams around the country. The Pioneers were born.
The new ABA was organized in 2000 by Indianapolis businessman Joe Newman. At a cost of some $300,000, franchises are located from Jacksonville, Fla., to Rockaway, N.J., and from Seattle to the town of Cleveland, Texas. Newman's mantra is the league "gives hundreds of players and coaches and referees a chance to do what they love to do — play, coach and referee at the professional level. And it gives fans a chance to see great basketball at affordable prices."
Graham was a disciple looking for a career change. The business plan is pretty basic — a good product at an affordable price. The Pioneers play their home games at Meramec Community College. General admission is $10, while a family can purchase an all-inclusive season pass for $30. Kids ages 12 and under and active military personnel are admitted free.
"My whole goal is to become a valid entity as far as basketball in St. Louis, to have affordable prices to fans, families and friends to come out and enjoy professional basketball," Graham said. "There's a big group of people who are basketball fans in St. Louis. It's the only sport we don't really have established here in the city. Plus, I love basketball myself and I wanted to be a part of it."
Graham put a plan together in June and conducted three stages of tryouts. The Pioneers roster is replete with names area fans will recognize. Toriano Adams played at Lindenwood. LaPhonso Ellis Jr. played at Greenville College. Jonathan Griffin was at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, as was Aaron Green.
Dwayne Polk is a St. Louis University grad. Paul Paradoski played at Southeast Missouri State and UMSL. Kenard Moore is from SEMO, Mark Stovall from McKendree, Philip Gilbert was at Bradley, and so on. The only true import is 30-year-old John "Helicopter" Humphrey, a native of Morehead City, N.C., who played at Middle Tennessee State before gaining fame on the AND 1 Mix Tape Tour with gravity-defying dunks. Humphrey has a freakish 45-inch vertical jump.
"He's something else, I'll tell you what," Pioneers coach Marc Stricker said. "He's a very good all-around player. He's a very good shooter, an unbelievable defender. He knows the game … I mean, he's going to be making a lot of money in a few months if he gets back overseas."
Stricker played with Hughes on CBC's state championship team in 1996-97, then went on to play at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He has a day job with BCL Auction and no illusions of grandeur. But he's a basketball junkie, through and through.
He coached as an assistant at UMKC before returning to the area. He has coached in the Gateway Basketball Club and assisted Brad Soderberg at Lindenwood University. The man can't help himself. "I just love the game, love to coach, love being around it," Stricker said.
Stricker heard of the Pioneers last summer, contacted Graham and asked if he needed a coach. "It's a passion for me," Stricker said. "I love being involved with the guys and helping them get to where they think their careers should be going. This is kind of like a résumé builder for our guys.
"We have guys who have played ball overseas and are looking to get back over there. And as opposed to sitting around and not playing anywhere, we're providing them with an avenue to play professional ball, get some games, some stats on their résumés and get them back over there making money."
Humphrey has played in Japan, Griffin in Uruguay, Phillip in Europe, Moore in Brazil. This isn't a Nationwide Tour. No one is kidding himself, thinking he might get a battlefield promotion. No one is going from the hardwood at Meramec to the floor of the Staples Center or Madison Square Garden. Not even "Helicopter" can make that jump.
But from an early age, their lives have been knitted to basketball, and their dreams are to make a living playing it until they can play it no more. Polk didn't pursue that dream after four years at SLU (2005-2008). He took a job as an intervention specialist at McCluer North High and stayed close to home to help mentor his younger brother, Curtis Churchman. The 5-foot-7 Churchman is a senior point guard for Hazelwood Central High.
"I wanted to spend time with my family and keep my little brother on the right track," Polk said. "I wanted him to be able to have the same experiences I had, as far as going to school, getting a scholarship and being able to play basketball, whether it's a Division I level, Division II or anything.
"I tried to help him and prepare him for what he's going to face. And right now he's doing an excellent job and he's definitely going to get a scholarship somewhere."
That said, Polk is still just 25. The athletic skills he honed at Vashon High and St. Louis U. were dormant, not dead. The window of opportunity still has a crack at the sill.
"I thought I was too young to give up on my dream of playing basketball," Polk said. "So I said, 'Hey, you got to start somewhere.' It's great competition. We get to travel for free, which is actually cool. So why not?"
Polk has made his presence felt with the Pioneers. He had 23 points and seven assists in the team's season-opening win over the Steam in Chicago on Nov. 5. The next night, Ellis had 23 and the Pioneers won 91-81, sweeping the two-game set. Right out of the box, St. Louis' new ABA team was 2-0.
"Chicago is an established ABA team, been around for a few years," Stricker said. "Last year, I believe they were 20-4, and we stole a couple of road victories up there. That was huge for us. I think it speaks volumes about the type of players we have on our team."
The Pioneers lost their third start on Dec. 4 at Oklahoma City, then dropped their home opener in double overtime to the Missouri Rhythm on Jan. 8. It remains to be seen whether the game was a loss in the big picture. More than 250 people were in the stands for the OT thriller — a sign of good things to come?
"I think the players and everyone were very happy with the crowd we had, given we have not had much of a chance yet to really market the team," Graham said. "And in talking to people afterward, I didn't hear one say they didn't have a good time. It was a great ballgame."
The Pioneers face the Rhythm again at 7:30 tonight at Meramec. The long stretches between games is part of the territory and part of the challenge in a basketball business trying to gain a foothold. The Pioneers have 16 games remaining on their schedule, but there is no guarantee all take place.
"I try to tell our guys in this league we have to learn to be liquid," Stricker said. "We've got to be sensible, accessible and adjustable, because there are teams that fall out. We had a few other road games scheduled (last month) against teams that fell out before we had a chance to play them."
While an ABA player has to be flexible, he also has to be fast. Rules applying to the conventional game have been tweaked a bit in order to promote a quick-paced, entertaining product. As an example, when the ball goes out of bounds, a player need only get a touch from the referee before immediately putting it back in play.
A steal and a basket in the backcourt is worth an extra point — three for a regular field goal and four for a 3-point shot. Refreshingly, an official's main priority is to stay out of the way and let the players do their thing.
"There's very few stoppages in play," Stricker said. "There's not a lot of fouls ever called. It's an extremely fast-paced game and there are some really good players in this league. You go to an ABA game, you're going to see some entertaining basketball and you're going to see talented players.
"I guarantee you, every one of the people we had at our game last week would say that game was entertaining."
Maybe this time pro basketball will grow roots in St. Louis. Infrequent or random as it seems, dreams do come true.