- The Washington Times - Friday, June 22, 2001

During his seven-year Army hitch, George Evans fought in the Middle East and witnessed other horrors. He traveled the world, stopping off in Fairfax to play basketball at George Mason University for four years. Evans finished his career at the age of 30, a three-time Colonial Athletic Association player of the year.
He has practically seen and done it all.
But never before had he showed up for a game to learn the officials were on strike, then had to wait an hour until a couple of guys from the neighborhood could be rounded up. He never had to travel five hours by van, play the game, then return home afterward, arriving at 4 a.m. He has flown in all kinds of aircraft, but never the type of "crop-duster," as he called it, that transported him and his Maryland Mustangs teammates to a game in Wichita, Kan., a trip during which Evans somehow lost his driver's license and one of the players decided to get off in Dallas and not come back.
"I knew it was the minor leagues," he said. "I didn't know it was the minor-est of the minor leagues."
Not that Evans is complaining, as he quickly points out. What he has endured and observed makes all this trivial by comparison. He is happy to be here, preparing for a chance to play in the NBA, perhaps adding another chapter to his unusual story. Besides, he said, if Mustangs coach and former NBA star Robert Parish can deal with the hassles without complaint, so can he.
"As long as he's being professional, how can anybody not follow his lead?" Evans said.
It's just that life in the United States Basketball League is, well, different.
"I think the transportation is the most difficult part," said Evans, who enlisted in the Army after high school in Portsmouth, Va., and fought in Operation Desert Storm in Iraq. "That and the business aspect. There are constantly new players coming in and trying out."
Sometimes that's by choice, sometimes not. The Mustangs had a player named Kareem Poole who, during a three-game trip to the Midwest, asked if he could miss one game and attend his girlfriend's college graduation when the team changed planes in Dallas. He was told he could. Problem was, Poole never came back. His whereabouts are still unknown.
The Mustangs also lost former Maryland guard Johnny Rhodes, who went to Saudi Arabia to play. He was supposed to return but decided to stay. Money talks, and oil money is especially loud.

Evans, a 6-foot-7, 230-pound forward picked by the Mustangs in the USBL draft in April, was among the midseason newcomers. No tryout was needed; his spot on the squad was assured the moment he showed up. Joined by a couple of other additions with local connections, forward/center Sitapha Savane (Navy) and guard Duane Simpkins (Maryland), Evans has helped lead the expansion Mustangs to a 17-10 record, second best in the league and good for first place in the USBL's North Division.

But it's been a tough sell for part owner and president Brett Vickers, who believed the area was ripe for minor league hoops. He still does, but only with support from local businesses. Despite their record, a big name like Parish and one of the league's better facilities Show Place Arena in Upper Marlboro the Mustangs average only about 1,000 a game. Vickers called that "middle of the road" for the league.

The club stands to lose about $20,000, "which isn't bad for a first-year thing," Vickers said. "Most minor league teams take three years to show a profit. If you break even [in the first year], that's unbelievable."

Vickers said he might sell the Mustangs former NBA player Harvey Grant, a Mustangs assistant, and his brother, Los Angeles Lakers forward Horace Grant, are interested. But even though its phone number has been "temporarily" disconnected for two weeks, the franchise still is more stable than its local USBL predecessor. The late, unlamented Washington Congressionals kept getting evicted from various facilities, used borrowed uniforms and once played a game with five players because the rest of the team was in a car that had a flat tire.

But Vickers had only three months to get the team up and running, which made it difficult to sell corporate sponsorships and group tickets. He said he will never make that mistake again. Like most owners, Vickers has had to demonstrate fiscal responsibility. That means renting vans instead of buses for drivable road games, saving $500 a trip. Not staying overnight in hotels saves even more. And with an abundance of volunteer assistant coaches like Grant and Chris Chaney (head coach of the powerful Newport School team in Kensington), Vickers told assistant Terry Truax he couldn't afford to pay him.

The players find all this rather interesting, if not amusing, which also is how they regard their salaries.

"Pennies," laughed Simpkins, who said he earned $75,000 playing in Europe and now makes $300 a week with the Mustangs. For Evans, this isn't even his real job; he works as a youth counselor in Virginia.

Can it get any better than this?

"It's different," said Savane, who joined the team with Simpkins two weeks ago. "But I guess you have to pay your dues if you want something. I don't think I'm a prima donna, so I have no trouble getting down and dirty."

What the 6-9, 240-pound Savane wants is the same thing Evans wants: a shot at the NBA. He was Navy's top scorer and rebounder in 2000 before graduating with a degree in economics and playing professionally on the Spanish island of Menorca ("not a bad place to play," he said). A native of Senegal, Savane does not have to fulfill a commitment to the U.S. Navy. Instead he will serve in the Senegalese Navy, which, he said, has about a dozen ships and provides the nation's coast guard.

In addition to his military background, Savane shares with Evans a broader view of the world and a perspective different from that of their teammates or of most professional athletes, for that matter. The son of Landing Savane, Senegal's minister of industry and mining and a political leader who was twice jailed for criticizing the government, Sitapha Savane can take just about anything in stride.

Mostly, what he's encountered in the USBL has been pretty funny. Like the refs not showing up in Brooklyn because of a strike. "It was 10 minutes before the game and we were warming up and doing our regular routine," Savane said. "That's when they came over and bothered to tell us there were no officials. They ended up getting a guy who coached the local high school team around the block. But it wasn't ridiculously bad."

The pull-out bleachers, like they have in high school gyms, were an interesting touch, Savane said. But the trainer was another matter. The Mustangs don't take their trainer on the road, and the guy in Brooklyn seemed in over his head.

"He ended up being the worst trainer I ever met," Savane said. "He couldn't even tape ankles right… . But when it comes down to it, you're still playing basketball. It's a good exercise in concentration."

Simpkins had this solution to the problem: "I don't mess with trainers on the road," he said.

The Brooklyn trip was preceded by a game in Long Island, which is when Savane and Simpkins, whose four-year career at Maryland ended in 1996, joined the Mustangs. Instead of staying overnight, the team drove up to Long Island, played and arrived back in Maryland at 4 a.m.

"Truly minor league basketball," Simpkins said.

Said Savane: "That was a little crazy. After sleeping in the van on and off, I was unable to sleep when I got back home. I finally fell asleep at 6 in the morning, when everyone else was getting up."

Savane awoke at 10:15 a.m. and went to a team shootaround at noon. He returned to Annapolis, where he lives with his former Academy sponsors, and was back in the van again the next day at 12:30 p.m., Brooklyn bound.

Here's the key to traveling by van: Get your own row.

"If you can get one," Simpkins said. "If you can get your own row, you're good. Just bring a pillow."

Getting a row, Savane said, "is the highlight of your day."

But even air travel has its pitfalls. There was Evans' "crop-duster," a prop plane used on the Dallas-Wichita trip. "The stewardess didn't even get out of her chair," Evans said. "She just talked into the mike."

For a game in Lakeland, Fla., last week, the Mustangs flew into Fort Lauderdale, a four-hour drive away, instead of Tampa, about an hour away "just to save some money," Simpkins said. The team arrived 30 minutes before the scheduled tip-off, and the game started about 15 minutes late. Weary from their trip, the Mustangs blew a fourth-quarter lead and lost.

The USBL, which plays a 30-game regular-season that ends next week, followed by playoffs, calls itself "the league of opportunity." Several NBA players started here, including Muggsy Bogues, Mario Elie and Avery Johnson.

Simpkins has different plans. At 27, with a couple of years in Europe behind him, he harbors no NBA dream. He wants to coach. Simpkins worked with the junior varsity for his old coach at DeMatha, Morgan Wootten, and was a varsity assistant under Wootten's son, Joe, at Bishop O'Connell in Arlington.

A few weeks ago, Simpkins was playing in a pickup game with, among others, Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Randy Moss (an occasional member of the USBL's Pennsylvania ValleyDawgs). Mustangs general manager Billy Dreher noticed Simpkins and was impressed.

"He thought I looked pretty good and asked me if I wanted to play," said Simpkins, who is finishing up work toward his degree at Maryland. "I came in the next day, practiced well and the next day they told me they wanted me to play the rest of the year.

Simpkins was drafted by the USBL's Portland, Maine, team in 1996 but passed. He said he since has heard from friends about the cold showers, the sparsely attended games and those long rides. "But I still have a great love for the game," he said. "I'm still only 27 years old, and I'm getting excited at some of the feedback I'm getting. And I'm still not even in tiptop shape."

Simpkins, who has a 3-year-old daughter in New York, plans to put basketball on hold. But he is playing well, and who couldn't use a savvy point guard?

"They say God does things in wondrous ways," he said, "and this could be one of them."

Evans, on the other hand, is anxiously Wednesday's NBA Draft, hoping to hear some good news. But he might be disappointed. He played well at the NBA showcase camp in Portsmouth, but because of his age and the fact he is considered a "tweener" (too small for power forward, too slow for small forward) he is not high on many draft lists. Yet he was an outstanding low-post player in college, and continues to demonstrate the same skills in the USBL, where he ranks in the top 10 in scoring and rebounding.

Also, his leadership skills and other intangibles are above reproach.

"I can't worry about what anybody says," said Evans, whose agent is former Wake Forest star Delaney Rudd. "If I worried about what people say I can't do, I'd be nothing… . There are a lot of other guys in the league my age trying to do the same things I can do. I feel I can go into the league right now and contribute."

Dreher, once a nifty shooting guard at Oklahoma State and the University of California, said it would be a shame if Evans wasn't drafted.

"He's showing what a great all-around player he is," Dreher said. "The more you see George, the more you fall in love with him."

Savane, who is nursing a sprained right shoulder, is as confident as Evans. Although he plans to return to Senegal and eventually follow his father into public service, Savane hopes to catch on with an NBA team as a free agent. Evans and Savane figure if Raja Bell can make it, why can't they? Bell was playing in the International Basketball League when he signed a 10-day contract with the Philadelphia 76ers in April. He was good enough to stick around and was getting minutes in the NBA Finals, becoming a patron saint for everyone whose van arrives home from the game at some ungodly hour.

"When I entered the academy, I just wanted to play ball and go to a really good university," said Savane, who put on two inches and considerable muscle at Navy. "I never thought about playing professionally, but now I'm hoping to get a shot."

Savane was asked if he's good enough.

"I wouldn't be playing if I didn't think I was," he said.

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