The closest thing the NBA has to a minor league is the Continental Basketball Association, the unofficial farm system of mobile franchises, fluctuating rosters and every-man-for-himself hoops.
In a league where every game is an audition, the shared goal is getting to the NBA."Everybody understood that everybody wanted out, and if a guy had it going one night, nobody would care if he took 25 shots," said former BYU player Andy Toolson, who spent last season with the Tri-City Chinook. "At times, guys are selfish and frustrated and yell at each other, which is kind of ugly."
Compounding that problem is the fact that the NBA is full of CBA success stories these days. Craig Ehlo played before a crowd of fewer than 25 in a CBA game before earning a starting guard spot with the Cleveland Cavaliers; John Starks played for the CBA and bagged groceries in a supermarket before becoming the New York Knicks' second-leading scorer.
When players rejected by the NBA see these guys in action, they know there's still a chance. That's why a guy like Michael Smith, former first-round pick of the Boston Celtics, chose to play in the CBA last season rather than in Europe.
"You have to change your thinking," Smith said of his experience with the CBA's LaCrosse Catbirds and Oklahoma City Cavalry. "It was a humbling experience. I went down there to work on my game, to continue to play."
Smith scored big in the CBA and was even the leading scorer at the league's annual All-Star game. But with a month left in the season, he broke his foot, killing his chances of making an NBA team. This year, he's headed for Spain.
One reason the CBA hasn't caught on is the changing nature of the roster. Losing players to the NBA, Europe, injuries, drug rehab and real life makes it hard for fans to find anyone to identify with.
Most players who have been in the CBA, however, agree that there's good basketball played there.
"The CBA doesn't get enough credit," Toolson said. "There's some decent talent there, in the 6-foot-4 to 6-7 range. There are a lot better players than people realize."
Europeans recognize that "minor-league" basketball in the United States is still a step above. After a team of World Basketball League players - most of whom had CBA experience - trounced the Greek National Team in Greece, a local sportswriter called the Americans "a whole team of Michael Jordans."
Toolson, who has played in Europe as well as the CBA, compares them this way: "The CBA has more athletic guys. Teams in Italy and Spain are bigger and slower. A CBA team against a European team would be like watching BYU play UTEP."
Like Europe, the CBA can be an insecure place to play. While he was with the Catbirds, Smith said the team's point guard, Steve Henson, was playing well and had been scouted by the Atlanta Hawks. Three weeks later, David Rivers came back from France, was signed by the Catbirds and installed as the starting point guard. Henson went to the bench, to his teammates' amazement.
Pay in the CBA - ranging from $550 to $1,300 a week, by one estimate - doesn't come close to overseas basketball, which is why ex-Ute Mitch Smith says, "The CBA's a great place for a single guy who's got a chance to make the NBA. A guy with a family is better off playing in Europe."