Net Return

When the St. Charles-based River City Basketball Club (RCBC) unexpectedly shifted its allegiance from the Continental Basketball Association (CBA) to the fledgling International Basketball League (IBL) last week, the move was greeted with the usual shrug and wink in most local sporting circles: wise-ass cracks about the level of play, some jokes about another group of initials to contend with.

But the team's organizers -- headed up by key local investors Michael Mannion and Brian Matthews -- hope that the IBL will become the new second-best basketball league on the planet. The IBL shift occurred, in large part, to take advantage of the larger markets that the league is offering. St. Louis is the second-largest region buying into the plan, just ahead of Baltimore and just behind San Diego in population. The early response from season-ticketholders, according to RCBC marketing chief Russell Brightman, has been solid, and the response from players has been overwhelming, with "over 100 players calling about tryouts."

Because of that interest, the RCBC squad that takes the court when the league debuts next fall might have a distinctly local flavor. Brightman cautions, however: "If it comes down to a 12th player and it's (former St. Louis University star) Erwin Claggett or John Doe, if he's the better player, you'll take John Doe. The key is winning." But winning with some local character is obviously River City's first choice.

And there's plenty of regional talent floating around the non-NBA tiers of pro basketball. In just the past few seasons, SLU, Mizzou and Illinois have produced a dozen or more players who have been passing, shooting and dribbling around the world in hopes of making a career in the pro game: Claggett, H Waldman, Julian Winfield, Byron Irvin, Melvin Robinson, Donnie Dobbs, Paul O'Liney, Chris Gandy, Kiwane Garris, Deon Thomas, David Robinson, Jason Sutherland. They've found a way to keep playing post-collegiate ball, whether on European squads and traveling teams or in the well-established CBA.

Take, for example, Collinsville's Richard Keene.
The former standout guard for the University of Illinois has seen a share of that world already. Since leaving Illinois after the 1996 season -- after three NCAA tourney appearances, one NIT bid and four years in the starting lineup -- he's done time in a variety of programs.

"I basically went to the CBA my first year, a team in Fort Wayne," he says. "There were a lot of high-profile players on that team. It was hard to crack a position, and they suggested going overseas to get playing time. So I was there till December and took an opportunity to go to Finland. I left the team and was ready to leave for Europe, but things didn't work out, and I got stuck at home."

The CBA, the 6-foot-6 Keene says, gets a bad rap, though he admits that there is a certain level of "me-first" play in the league. "There's a little bit of that," he says. "It's more of an isolation game, more one-on-one. You've got to be athletic and strong. Most of the players that just miss the NBA are in the CBA. People don't understand that it's been the second-best league in the world." And jobs are scarce, says Keene: "There are only eight to 10 players on a team and around 10 teams in the league."

Even before his CBA experience, Keene had a brief glimpse of the meat markets of pre-NBA tryout camps, attending one league-wide "look-see" camp in Portsmouth, Va., and receiving an invitation to train with the Milwaukee Bucks. He'd also suffered through the trials of not being drafted after hearing the whispers.

"They brought me into the Portsmouth camp, and I had a decent week but nothing big," he says. "NBA teams had been looking at me, and you hear that somebody 'might take you in the second round.' I went to the Milwaukee camp, but nothing really panned out."

Rounding out that first season away from Champaign, he hooked up with an American touring team that competed for more than a month in Dubai, playing such teams as the host United Arab Emirates and Bulgaria.

"It was interesting being there," Keene says, "especially thinking of the Middle East, the problems that we've had there in the past. We played in 7,000-seat arenas, in front of good crowds. It's different having sheiks in the audience -- kind of intimidating -- but, for the most part, it was no different than being in some high-school gyms."

His 1997-98 season was wiped out by a medial-cruciate-ligament tear, which, he says, took longer to heal "not being around the training staff day in, day out." Although Keene says his knee is now "perfect," the latest challenge facing him is finding some games that'll help his play.

"You stay in the weightroom, use the treadmill, but it's hard because there's no place to play to get the competition you need. You can go down to the high school, but it's not the same. I was up in Champaign this summer and worked out with the team, and that helped a lot, getting the knee in better shape."

In high school, Keene got his first notice as a freshman, and by the time he was a senior every major college coach in the country had visited his house. Though Illinois was just coming through a period of probation, he made the popular choice around his hometown and attended the in-state school.

A post-college career seemed a reasonable thing to shoot for, and the setbacks since -- the CBA/Europe detour, the injury -- haven't shaken Keene from his goal of playing pro ball, with the new IBL a possibility.

"It comes into your mind," he says of stopping the pursuit. "But you talk to different players, and they all say to stick with it. One shot, one good opportunity, and it could take off for you. For some guys it's just one situation or one good season. Sometimes you think of giving up, but it's something you've worked for year-round. You want to take it as far as you can."

Maybe Keene will be a part of the new RCBC mix. If playing locally doesn't work out, however, Keene has no intention of giving up. "Basically, wherever I'd get the opportunity, I'd play," he says. "I'll go anywhere.