There are no club blazers or secret handshakes that unite them, but nonetheless a fraternity still exists among those men who toiled in the Continental Basketball Association during the 1980s, each awaiting his chance to make it big.
Future NBA coaches George Karl, Flip Saunders, Terry Stotts, Bill and Eric Musselman all were there then at one time or another. So, too, was a fellow named Phil Jackson, winner now of a record 11 NBA championships.
Stotts brought his Portland Trail Blazers to Target Center a week ago. Karl brings his Sacramento team to town Friday.
Each man will never forget frigid nights spent in drafty arenas from Montana to upstate New York, in a league where players and sometimes franchises came and went like the Dakota prairie winds.
“That was a special time because everybody wanted to get to the NBA, whether it was George or Flip or me or Eric or anybody during that time,” Stotts said. “Those times are always more enjoyable in retrospect than when you’re in Great Falls, Montana and the wind is blowing and it’s 20 below zero.”
They bused across the plains, wore a variety of hats from coach to general manager to traveling secretary and probably washed more than their share of players’ uniforms, all in an attempt to keep the minor league show on the road.
They signed and cut players constantly and sent many — John Starks, Anthony Mason, Sidney Lowe, Sam Mitchell, just to name a few — to the NBA, some on fleeting 10-day contracts and some headed toward long careers.
“I tell you what, the CBA was a different world,” Stotts said. “Being a GM in the CBA was as important as being a coach because players were coming and going all the time. The best time to make a trade was when the other guy had lost. You’d call him at midnight and he was ready to get rid of half his team.”
Stotts played for Karl’s Montana Golden Nuggets for three seasons in the early 1980s before he played in Europe. Karl went on to coach Cleveland and Golden State in the NBA and in Spain as well before he returned to the CBA, where Stotts served as his assistant for a season with the Albany (N.Y.) Patroons to start the 1990s.
They coached that one season against a rival named Flip Saunders, who won two titles in seven CBA seasons coaching from Rapid City, S.D., to La Crosse, Wis., and Sioux Falls, S.D.
“I remember coaching against Flip in Fargo or Sioux Falls, somewhere in North or South Dakota anyway,” Karl said. “I remember his team coming into Albany one year when he was in first place and we were in first place and it was a huge game. There are a lot of games I remember all the way back in the CBA days. I loved guys who were CBAers and had success.”
That’s why his voice cracked and he held back tears recently when he talked about coaching against Saunders, the Timberwolves coach and basketball boss who died in October at age 60.
“He probably had as much success as I had,” Karl said. “The guys who were there then, we went through the tough side, the tough travel. Playing 56 games in the CBA is not easy. I think there’s a little bit of a fraternity with the guys who were there.”
Karl remembers those seasons fondly. So does Stotts, who remembers those 20-below nights more fondly now than when he lived them long ago.
“Then, not so much,” Stotts said. “But now, it’s good to tell about it as times go by.”
NBA short takes
Peering into futures
Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett will play each other just one more time in their careers — in Los Angeles in February — after they met Wednesday in Bryant’s final Target Center appearance.
Garnett called their situations different, saying his return to Minnesota “had a lot more of a plan and the future involved in it” with his desire to help teach the team’s young players and to be involved in team ownership down the line.
“I don’t know what Kobe’s plan is,” Garnett said last week. “He doesn’t sound like he’s going to be in basketball after this. I’m hoping to obviously be a little more long-lasting in this organization. … Kobe, it seems like’s the last hurrah for him.”
Basketball and blockbusters
Like peanut butter and jelly or Leiber and Stoller, some things just go together, right?
That’s why the Wolves’ loss Friday at Denver was “Star Wars Night” and they’ll return the favor by doing it all over again Tuesday night against the Nuggets at Target Center.
“For me, it’s Nuggets-Wolves night, that’s all I care about,” Denver coach Mike Malone said. “Darth Vader, all the other stuff, I don’t have any memories. I was in the gym growing up with my father in New York City watching guys play.”
Calls ’em like he sees ’em
From the Takes One To Know One file: TNT analyst Charles Barkley talked about Sacramento’s talented but less than sculpted center, DeMarcus Cousins, while working Thursday’s New York-Sacramento game, “When you have success, you don’t realize you’re not in shape. … If he would lose some weight, instead of being an All-Star, he’d be a superstar.”
Wolves’ week ahead
Sunday: 2:30 p.m. at Phoenix
Tuesday: 7 p.m. vs. Denver
Wednesday: 6:30 p.m. at N.Y.
Friday: 7 p.m. vs Sacramento
All games on FSN
Player to watch:
Kristaps Porzingis, Knicks
Those tough New York fans booed him when he was chosen fourth on draft night. But they’re now cheering a guy who will challenge No. 1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns and others for Rookie of the Year honors.
“Where did the time go?”
— Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant on Wednesday night after lining up against the Wolves’ Kevin Garnett in Bryant’s last game played at Target Center. He will retire after this season.