- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 16, 2002

Jamal Robinson thought his life as a globetrotting basketball journeyman had come to a successful landing in Miami.

The former University of Virginia star made the Heat to start the 2000-01 season and was convinced he was on his way to a lucrative career in the NBA. After leaving Virginia in 1997 the 6-foot-7 swingman labored for three years and logged thousands of miles playing professionally in Lebanon, Cyprus, France, the Continental Basketball Association and the U.S. Basketball League before finally making an NBA roster.

But Miami proved to be little more than a tropical mirage for Robinson. He played in only six games and made three of 22 field goals for the Heat before coach Pat Riley released him a month into the season. His NBA dreams on South Beach were replaced by the chilled reality of life on the NBA's scrap heap.

"They said they needed a veteran player," Robinson said. "I was replaced on the roster by Cedric Ceballos, and I went to play in the CBA in Sioux Falls [S.D]. It was like negative-50 degrees every day nothing but snow."

Such is the temperamental life of a little-known free agent trying to make the NBA a promising flirtation one day, a heartbreaking breakup the next. Robinson, who turns 29 in December, is still angling for a second shot. He is part of the Washington Wizards' summer league team, which opened yesterday against Milwaukee in Boston. This is the sixth NBA franchise he has played for either over the summer or in a fall camp. Despite the annual rejections, Robinson still harbors NBA dreams.

Robinson should consider himself one of the lucky ones; at least he made the NBA for a Miami minute, something that eludes most other marginal prospects. The Wizards might not even have a roster spot for a new free agent, depending on whether Michael Jordan and veteran free agents Popeye Jones and Tyrone Nesby return. But that doesn't stop Robinson and others, who hope Washington or another team if there isn't room here will appreciate their talents enough to bring them to fall camp.

Two former Maryland players were among that group with the Wizards. Seven-footer Mike Mardesich, who played last season in Germany, is with the team in Boston. His former teammate Byron Mouton won't have that opportunity.

Mouton got his first cold dose of the NBA when the Wizards cut him Saturday. The 6-foot-5 swingman, who helped guide the Terrapins to their first national championship, is regarded as too small to be an NBA small forward and not enough of a scorer to be a shooting guard.

"Nobody knows what position I play, but just put me on the court, I'll do something," said Mouton, who has been trying to prove he can be a dependable scorer. "Most of the guys who don't get drafted are 'tweeners' [between two positions]. If you are a 'tweener,' you are going to have a hard career trying to make it. That's what I'm going up against."

Mouton doesn't look at the NBA as his only option. He plans to play overseas, rather than in the NBA Developmental League or the CBA, if he does not latch on to an NBA team. Many Americans earn six figures playing abroad, where they are stars rather than spare parts.

Robinson, who played in Italy and Cyprus last season, has made a career on international soil. He knows he's a long shot to stick in the NBA, conceding that if he does not make the league this season or next, he would look to sign a long-term deal overseas "in someplace nice like the south of Italy." That's quite a different outlook from 1997, when he left Charlottesville with youthful naivety and the assuredness he would make it in the NBA. Back then, earning a living in exotic locales like Beirut and Rhodes was about as likely as shooting jump shots on the moon.

"I feel like I'm about 40," said Robinson, who lists Beirut as one of his favorite spots and returns there for vacations. "Coming out of school, I was like, 'I'll be in the NBA. I'm not even going to worry about it.' Then when things start to get a little shaky, you begin to wonder. It was one way then and another now. Now it's more realistic. I've seen a lot. I've been around. I dealt with six NBA teams. My perspective has changed."

Robinson soon may call off his quest, but other, younger counterparts like Mardesich and Mouton are just beginning rocky journeys of their own. Mardesich saw firsthand he could make good money in basketball last season, averaging 9.7 points and 7.2 rebounds for Telekom Bonn.

Even though he made well into the six figures, the NBA remains the Holy Grail. Mardesich, the inspirational leader and on-court enforcer for Maryland's first Final Four team in 2001, played for the Boston Celtics and San Antonio Spurs in summer leagues last year. He was spotted there by a German scout, which got him the job in Bonn.

Mardesich, who turns 25 later this month, knows the money is there for him abroad, but he still harbors the dream. He says his improved scoring ability last season may just be the decisive tool to keep him stateside this winter.

"I know that I'm not Michael Jordan, but every player has certain things that they can do," said Mardesich, who got married two weeks ago. "The NBA is really an ego thing because you can make almost more money overseas. The money isn't really what it's all about. You want to be close to your family, and it's a pride thing pretty much. I'm hoping to go to Boston and, even if it's not this team, I hope to open some eyes somewhere else and just improve my chances of playing here. It's just a matter of the right team finding a player that fits its system."

That's the flickering hope that keeps the dreamers coming back year after year.

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