NBA's Minor League Brings Up Major Stars

The road between the Continental Basketball Association and the NBA is a two-way street for many top players

PROFESSIONAL basketball has some legendary rivalries: the New York Knicks and the Chicago Bulls, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Golden State Warriors, the Sioux Falls Sky Force versus the Rapid City Thrillers.

How's that again?

Well, if the rivalry between Sioux Falls, S.D. (population 100,000) and Rapid City (population 54,000) isn't quite the stuff of legends, it certainly is big news in South Dakota. The two largest cities in the state boast thriving franchises in the Continental Basketball Association (CBA), a developmental league for the National Basketball Association.

Founded 45 years ago as the Eastern Basketball Association, the 16-team CBA actually is as old as the NBA. The league changed its name in 1978 and signed a contract to develop NBA referees. Since then the two leagues have expanded their relationship, especially in player development. In 1978, there were two veterans of the CBA playing in the National Basketball Association. Last year, there were 75. In 1990-1991 alone, 30 CBA players were called up to the NBA.

Some of the CBA vets are well-known. There's Michael Adams of the Washington Bullets, Michael Williams of the Minnesota Timberwolves, and Anthony Mason and John Starks of the New York Knicks.

For many players, the road between the CBA and the NBA is a two-way street. Players may be called up and sent down several times during their careers, depending not so much on their talent as on the needs of the NBA teams. It's all a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

What matters to the NBA

``You don't have to be a high- scoring player in the CBA to be called up by an NBA team. What's most important is if you're what they need,'' says Russ Schoene, a 6 ft. 10 in. forward who has played for three NBA teams and recently left the Thrillers to play for a team in Italy.

Greg Grant, the Thriller's 5 ft., 7 in., 140 lbs. point guard, started 30 games for the Philadelphia 76ers last year. Grant says, ``It's your reputation that counts. They don't call you up for what you do in the CBA. It's because of what you've done in the NBA.

But some things do set the leagues apart. In addition to a proving ground for players, the CBA serves as a test bed for new rules and equipment.

Currently, there are three rules in the CBA that could find their way into the NBA. The most notable is the 7-point scoring system for the league championship in which the winning team receives three points for a victory and an additional point is awarded to the winner of each quarter.

Another difference in the CBA is that a player who is fouled in the act of shooting a three-point field goal receives three free throws if the shot is missed, not two as in the NBA.

Finally, there's the no-foul-out rule. In the CBA, a player who picks up his sixth foul may stay in the game, but at a cost. Each time he fouls again, the opposing team gets an extra free throw and also receives the ball out of bounds.

In addition the CBA uses its own ball, stickier than the NBA's, and was the testing ground for the breakaway rim used in both leagues.

Some experiments have been abandoned. In 1987, the CBA moved the three-point shot line 21 inches closer to the basket, but abandoned the experiment. In 1990, the line was moved back to the standard NBA distance.

When Rapid City hosted Sioux Falls Dec. 11 in a battle for the Midwest Division lead, nine of the 10 players in the Thrillers' roster had NBA experience.

Sioux Falls, on the other hand, had only two NBA veterans. That fact was not lost on the Thrillers' coach Eric Musselman, and it bothered him.

This was the first meeting of the season for the two South Dakota teams, and it was being ballyhooed in the local press. The mayors of Rapid City and Sioux Falls had bet a side of beef on the outcome.

``That's what worries me,'' says Musselman. ``For those guys on Sioux Falls' team, this game is a big moment in their lives. Most of them will never see the NBA. This is their championship game.''

Musselman is a short, feisty coach who approaches the game of basketball with gusto. Last year his team had the best record in the CBA, due in large part to Musselman's intensity. He'd been up late the night before driving in the hills above Rapid City, trying to pick up Sioux Falls' game on the radio.

Game time

On the morning of the game, Musselman sat his squad down and screamed at the NBA veterans: ``Listen: You don't think this team can beat you? Last night, Sioux Falls won on a tip-in at the buzzer. They're going to come in here sky-high.

``We're a far superior team compared to what we've been playing. Tonight, I want you guys to come in here focused on this game - right from the start!''

At game time, more than 5,000 fans filled the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center Arena - a modern building with most of the accouterments of an NBA facility. The arena was darkened and strobe lights flashed as the Thrillers were introduced, one by one. Each player trotted out on the floor between two rows of Thriller Girls - cheerleaders who double as a dance team, like the Laker Girls of Los Angeles.

The South Dakota classic was no contest. After missing five of their first six shots - the kind of sluggish start Musselman had feared - Rapid City came alive and dominated the game. The Thrillers won 110 to 89.

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