Basketball was invented in 1891 by a white man in Massachusetts. Nearly 125 years later, the most richly compensated people in basketball tend to be white men. And recently, a rich white man in California was secretly recorded by his mistress expressing his belief that the game of basketball depends on the largesse of people like him.
In the recording, Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling spoke of his role with shocking notes of entitled paternalism. "I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars and houses," he said. "Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them? Do I know that I have—who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game?"
Sterling's notion that basketball exists only because of rich people's money bothered Umar Muhammad as much as the racism elsewhere in the recording. Muhammad is the perpetually upbeat principal owner and general manager of the Bull City Legacy, a one-year-old semipro basketball team that plays in the Tobacco Road Basketball League.
"'I make the game'? People come to see the players. They don't come to see the owners," says an incredulous Muhammad, who like many of the people associated with Tobacco Road is African-American. "Owners get a chance to be part of something society loves. That's what was missing in his comment: The spirit behind basketball is the spirit of cooperation."
Tobacco Road is ambitious in scope. Its founding was spearheaded in 2011 by Raleigh businessman Mark Janas, and the league now has about a dozen teams ranging as far as Wilmington, Greenville and Spartanburg, S.C. Janas has been involved with semipro basketball for nine years, first with the Wilmington Sea Dawgs, then the Cary Invasion, which he sold to its present owner, Terry "Doc" Thorne. Now Janas is starting another team, Raleigh's Triangle Stealth, and continues to serve as de facto commissioner. The league runs on the energy and dedication of players who are willing to commit to long weekend trips for little remuneration beyond post-game pizza.
It also depends on people such as Muhammad, who is certainly making less money than Sterling—and doubtlessly working longer hours, too. Muhammad is a behavior interventionist for Orange County Schools with a passion for community sports development. He studied sports psychology at N.C. State and earned a master's degree in business administration at N.C. Central while studying nonprofit management at Duke. Muhammad handles significant marketing and management tasks. He is a nonstop ambassador for the Legacy and the ways that a locally owned and supported basketball team can benefit a community.
The Tobacco Road league is semipro, meaning that monetary compensation is usually on a modest per-game basis. For now, the Legacy players are more "semi" than "pro" as Muhammad gets a revenue model off the ground. He's already secured sponsorship from Triangle Orthopedics and other local business groups, but to build interest and attendance, admission this season is free. Marketing is done through social media, and at a recent Legacy home game against the Fayetteville Crossover at the Walltown Park Recreation Center, the gym held a solid crowd of about 200.
This was quality basketball—played above the rim, with silky crossover dribbles, accurately timed alley-oops and zippy crosscourt passes. Virtually all of the players have college experience, some quite high-profile. The roster of the Cary Invasion, whom the Legacy face this weekend, includes Daryll Hill, a former Big East standout for St. John's (he recently left the team to play in China).
On this day, the visitors from Fayetteville had a female coach, two 6-foot-8 forwards and a shorter, Charles Barkley-esque center—burly, bearded and a good decade older than his teammates—who was nimble and unstoppable in the paint. But the Legacy, coached by Fred Whitaker, eventually won the see-saw contest 112-111, rallying behind the quickness of a guard-heavy lineup.
Among the Legacy's guards is Corey Evans, who leads the team in scoring, averaging more than 30 points a game. Evans excelled at Northern High School before he went on to play for Cincinnati Christian University, an NAIA school. His career there was undistinguished—hampered by injuries, he says—but he hopes that playing in Tobacco Road will revive it. "It's an opportunity for me to showcase my talent. I've always been underrated and under the radar," he says.
The odds of a lucrative career are long for Evans, but that says less about the quality of his play and more about the scarcity of NBA jobs. Of 450 available positions, about 20 percent are held by foreign players. There are thousands of Americans who, like Evans, weren't able to beat the odds the first time around. Many players are derailed by poor grades, difficult personal circumstances or untimely injuries, keeping them out of the few schools that serve as the first round of the vetting process for the NBA. The scarcity of work in the birthplace of basketball means many Americans cobble together a career overseas.
Playing "minor-league" basketball should be a respectable option in this country, but it's often met with the derisive sneer typified by a recent News & Observer story about former UNC star P.J. Hairston, who spent this season with the Texas Legends in the NBA's developmental league, the D-League.Hairston's use of vehicles rented by third parties in traffic violations last summer led to his suspension by the NCAA. UNC declined to defend him, and with no legal recourse, he turned to the D-League. For the N&O's reporter, who was intent on snickering at the bush-league trappings, Hairston had failed the character test and gotten his just desserts.
Muhammad told me that the Legacy had put out feelers to Hairston. Landing him would have been a coup, but more typical of the league is someone like guard Jason Smith, whose high school career in Mecklenburg County led him to a basketball scholarship at Winston-Salem State.
Seven knee surgeries hampered a career that finished at UNC-Pembroke. Later, Smith had a chance to play in Brazil, but his knee kept him from passing the physical. Now he works 12-hour shifts at Merck's vaccine plant in Durham and finds his release on the court with the Legacy.
Reflecting on this weekend's opponent, Smith notes that the four-year-old Cary team boasts a comparatively high level of professionalism, with perks that include van travel, stipends for a roster that features international talent and a dance squad.
"There's where we're trying to get to," says Smith, who earned a master's degree in sports administration at Pembroke. He didn't mention needing a billionaire owner. Who makes this game, after all, but players and fans?
This article appeared in print with the headline "Who makes the game?"