Life on the bench: hurry up and wait

BASKETBALL'S Last Chance Caf'e is called the Continental Basketball Association (CBA). That's where Dirk Minniefield hit bottom. There were eight-hour van rides. Sparse crowds. Dirk had played before 23,000 at the University of Kentucky. Now, with the Louisville Catbirds, it was 2,000 on a good night. Worst of all was the drugs. ``I can't be around this stuff,'' Dirk thought. ``I've got to get out of here.''

Minniefield is out now, a member of the Boston Celtics as they try for a 17th National Basketball Association championship. Hardly a household name, he dresses quietly at his locker while reporters besiege teammates named Bird and McHale and D.J. He hustles for his minutes on the court, and watches intently while he sits, in case his name is called. He'd like more time. But he's not complaining.

People who know him are are not surprised at the turn of his fortunes. ``He will stick with something until it kills him,'' says Jock Sutherland, his high school coach in Lexington, Ky. ``He left a larger trail of admirers in this city than any high school player ever.''

Of the thousands of college basketball players in the United States, only about 160 get drafted each year by pro teams. Of those, only 40 or so stick. Most move on to other things. A few play in the CBA or in Europe, hoping for the break that in most cases, never comes.

Having seen the dark end of this street, Minniefield today conveys a steadiness and maturity beyond his 27 years. His apartment in a Boston suburb has the transient feel of a man who arrived in a hurry; the only clues as to its occupant are the Celtics fan magazines, with his picture on the cover, and a pair of basketball shoes, which these days look as though somebody had mated an old Chuck Taylor hi-top with a ski boot. Minniefield talked about life in the CBA, the Celtics, and - most passionately - how high schools and colleges are not preparing young athletes for the tough road ahead.

Not that long ago, Dirk was on the superstar track himself. At Lafayette High School in Lexington, he was the state's ``Mr. Basketball,'' and a high school All-American. He played against Isiah Thomas, now the Detroit Pistons star, in All-Star games. ``Many thought that Minnie would be better,'' says Rick Bozich, a basketball writer for the Louisville Times. ``He was one of the best players to come through the state in the '70s.''

Sutherland says he quit coaching after Minniefield graduated in 1979. ``I knew I would never have another Dirk,'' he says.

The large Minniefield family was not dirt-poor, but not well-to-do, either. For college, Dirk went a few blocks over to the University of Kentucky, a perennial basketball power with a fanatical following. According to local basketball mavens, it was at UK that he hit a bump. A creative, freewheeling player, at his best on improvised drives to the hoop, Dirk found himself in a highly structured system. His job was to pass the ball to the big guys and - as Sutherland puts it - ``get out of the way.''

Minniefield left his mark at UK. All Southeastern Conference. School record in assists. But in the process he got a reputation as a guy who couldn't score, even though he had been a premier shooter in high school. Sutherland caused a flap by publicly criticizing the UK coach - no small step in Kentucky - for the way he handled Sutherland's former player.

Dirk was the 33rd college player chosen in the pro draft in 1983, and folks in Lexington were expecting great things from him. But he didn't make the cut. To Minniefield, it was just a setback. Back home, however, people treated him like a fallen hero. ``All of a sudden everybody was looking at me like a failure,'' he says. ``It really made me see how cold people can be.

``That actually shocked me more than not being in the NBA.''

Minniefield thought about quitting. He was getting job offers, chances to make some real money. But he just couldn't leave the game. ``I just felt like I owed it to myself,'' he says. ``I knew I was good enough to play in this league.''

But first, the CBA. It wasn't as bad for Minniefield as for other players. (It's also improved considerably since then.) A hometown favorite, he got sweeteners and side deals that put him above the then-standard $425 a week. ``I was getting a nice salary,'' he says. ``I used to help guys out.''

He vowed never to become a hanger-on. ``I used to tell myself that if I have to play here over two years, then I'll retire from basketball,'' he recalls.

Minniefield latched on with the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers in 1985, but his odyssey didn't end there. He went to the Houston Rockets the next year, played the season, then moved on to Golden State Warriors, who cut him last fall. He was at home in Lexington, trying to decide what to do with his life, when the call came from the Celtics.

``It's a credit to his mental toughness that he stuck with it,'' says Bozich of the Louisville Times.

Strange as it seems, after lesser teams passed on him, the mighty Celtics appear to have given Dirk his niche. Red Auerbach, the Celtics padrone, loves to pick layers off the discard list and give them supporting roles for his stars. Minniefield brings needed speed and exuberance to a slow veteran team, and his hustle calls to mind a former Celtics guard named K.C. Jones, now the team's coach, of whom it was also said that he couldn't shoot the ball.

Dirk plays extra hard in practice - to keep in shape, he says - and in his first games off the bench he made an immediate impression. ``All of a sudden I felt I was in a system that could utilize all of my skills,'' he says.

On a pro basketball court, Minniefield looks almost tiny as he scurries among the seven-footers. Actually he's an impressive 6 ft., 3 in. (still the shortest on the Celtics), with the sturdy build of a free safety, and a smile that could defrost Khomeini. An easy, gracious man, Minniefield speaks of past trials without bitterness, dwelling on what he's learned from these experiences.

You'd never guess, for example, that some feel he was stifled at the University of Kentucky. He talks only about the discipline he learned under ex-coach Joe B. Hall. ``He taught me to persevere,'' Minniefield says.

Even the CBA had its value. ``It's good for a lot of guys who come out of a big program and never experience hardships,'' he says. ``It teaches you a lot about life. It taught me lessons that I will never forget, because I saw those guys struggle.''

Struggle comes up often in Minniefield's conversation. The Celtics, for example, are neither especially fast or strong. But ``they find ways to overcome,'' Dirk says. ``It breeds a guy like myself, who a lot of people said has shortcomings, to take his abilities and not worry about the shortcomings.'' On subjects close to home, such as how high schools and colleges (though not his own) fail to prepare young athletes for life, he rises to eloquence. Minniefield believes in a strict no-pass, no-play system. ``You got to teach the kids that it's not about playing the game,'' he says. ``It's about living your life. You can only play this game so long. As you come up you've got to be taught discipline. That's where we're failing the kids now.

``For so long we looked the other way at the kid who couldn't read. Now, we're paying for that.''

Public debate on this issue has tended toward racial stereotypes of black student-athletes, he says. ``They look at me and they say, `What about him? What about him? Then they say it's all the black guys. But they don't count how many white kids have dropped out of school.''

He speaks with passion, but without resentment. ``Look at the guy who goes to school for eight years just because his parents can afford [it],'' he says. ``I went to school for four years and got a degree because that was the only time allotted to me.''

The Celtics' bench doesn't play much. After some rough outings in the playoffs, Dirk's minutes have dwindled even further. Rather than sulk, he's assumed the role of cheerleader. He led the team onto the floor Sunday before the seventh game against Atlanta, fanning the crowd into a frenzied college roar. The Celtics appear to like him; at a recent practice scrimmage, he was the only player K.C. Jones singled out for praise. While nothing's certain in the NBA, there's an excellent chance he'll be back next year.

For now, Minniefield is happy to be a Celtic. It was evident several weeks ago, when the team pulled off a play that set Celtics fans to stomping. The guard dribbles aimlessly in the backcourt - ``fiddling and diddling,'' as Johnny Most, the Celtics' impassioned radio announcer, would say - looking perplexed. Suddenly, Larry Bird appears under the basket. The guard whips the ball through the forest of unsuspecting defenders. Two points. Home crowd explodes.

The play is a signature Celtic psyche job that says to the other team, ``Don't even think about beating us.'' Usually Dennis Johnson (``D.J.'') is the guard. But near the end of the season, Dirk Minniefield was connecting with Bird as well. ``Poetry in the making,'' Dirk says.

Says Bob Melvin, host of one of Boston's numerous sports talk shows: ``Dirk Minniefield fit right in from the minute he put on a Celtics uniform. That's pretty rare.''

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