ALBANY -- Who is this guy?
The baby-faced shooting guard looked like just another guy, to me, but John Starks would go on to be a star for the New York Knicks and dunk over Horace Grant (with Michael Jordan in tow), in the NBA playoffs.
Who is this guy?
He was just another nondescript shooting guard at an open tryout -- open tryout, mind you -- with a five-o'clock shadow and no gear that revealed his past, who had gone through a Division II school in Springfield, Mass., then pro leagues in Ireland and Portugal. Nobody was really sure how to pronounce Mario Elie's last name. He would go on to play for three NBA championship teams.
There were familiar faces passing through the old Washington Avenue Armory. There was Pearl Washington and Scooter Barry, and more to come when the Albany Patroons moved to the Knickerbocker Arena full-time a year later, like George Karl and Dwayne McClain, who played for the 1985 Villanova national champions and single-handedly broke the Patroons' hearts in the 1990 Continental Basketball Association semifinals ... three-pointer, Game 7, overtime, the whole bit.
But for the most part, I had no clue who these guys were, most of the guys on the Patroons as well as the opponents who came to the Armory in 1989-90 and the Knick in 1990-91.
Willie McDuffie. Gerald Oliver. Terry Stotts. John Starks. Mario Elie. Huh?
And that was part of the beauty of covering that team for the last two seasons of what is depicted as "The Minor League Mecca," a documentary about the Patroons franchise from 1982-92 that is being unveiled at the Palace Theatre on Saturday.
I've seen a rough cut of the film, which is not only entertaining and fascinating for anyone with even the loosest connection to the team, but also brought back a wave of memories from an assignment that was some of the most fun I've ever had at the Gazette.
Part of the fun was seeing what would happen to these guys later in their careers -- I saw Starks play for the Cedar Rapids Silver Bullets at the Armory, and Elie played two seasons for Albany that propelled him to an outstanding NBA career as a player and assistant coach. He said last week that he is "so bummed" that he can't make the movie premiere, but duty calls. He had to fly to China to coach some clinics in Shanghai and Beijing.
I have too much "junk in my trunk" to unpack all the memories (a wonderful old-school expression I first heard from Patroons coach Charley Rosen, describing a player with a variety of scoring hats, but perhaps carrying a whiff of dubious defense).
So here are a few that I believe illustrate the Patroons experience, at least during my small slice of the decade depicted in "The Minor League Mecca":
He was the head coach of the 1989-90 Patroons and general manager in 1990-91 when Karl was the coach. Never heard of him. He had the syrupy drawl of his native Tennessee, and his wife Margie used to cook fudge and bring it to the players at practice.
The affable Gerald "was serious about his craft. A genuine man, even though he had to deal with a lot of knuckleheads," Elie said.
Gerald had a hard time pronouncing my name, as he did with ...
"He butchered my name all the time," Elie said with a laugh.
So did we. But not once "Super Mario" became a key player for two NBA title teams in Houston and one championship alongside David Robinson and Tim Duncan in San Antonio.
"Nobody really knew about me," he said. "The CBA was an outstanding avenue to get to the NBA. Michael Adams, John Starks ... and it wasn't just guys to fill a roster. You go there for one thing, to go to the NBA."
Or back to the NBA.
The younger brother of Bernard King had a fine NBA career of his own, which he was trying to resuscitate when he came to Albany in 1990-91.
At the age of 30-plus, but still taut and wiry, he threw down a dunk at the Knick with skywalker aplomb, then said with a wink afterward, "You guys didn't think I could still do that, did you?"
That led to a cup of coffee with the Washington Bullets, six games in 1991-92, that marked the end of Albert's playing career.
Vince didn't have to attend that 1989 Armory tryout where the hidden gem Elie emerged. And it was only a matter of time before the two-time CBA MVP for the Patroons would land in the NBA.
He had strong hands and silky, unstoppable moves to the basket, and was also symbolic of callup-hungry CBA players of that era:
He came out of the locker room after halftime at the Armory one night, checked his assist total on the scoresheet and complained that statistician Doug Dickinson needed eyeglasses.
Doug, of course, already wore glasses.
PAUL "SNOOP" GRAHAM
Snoop eventually got the NBA call and played a few seasons with the Atlanta Hawks, but when the Patroons, depleted of its stars because of just that talent-plucking development, lost to Wichita Falls in the 1991 playoffs, he was in tears in the locker room.
In a mercenary league, he genuinely cared about winning a championship.
As further evidence of the transient state of CBA rosters and how short the Patroons were for players -- in the postseason, no less -- Stotts suited up and actually was the Patroons' leading scorer in the Game 1 loss of that Wichita Falls series.
The zoology major and MBA from the University of Oklahoma went on to win an NBA championship as an assistant coach with the Dallas Mavericks and is the current head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers.
George will be the special guest at Saturday's premiere of "The Minor League Mecca," and I'll be sorry to have missed him, since he's one of the most interesting people I've covered.
His 1990-91 team went an absurd 50-6 in the regular season, but couldn't sustain that in the playoffs while cobbling together a lineup that suddenly was missing the Big Three of Askew, Elie and Clinton Smith, all called up to the NBA.
George's basketball exploits pre- and post-Patroons are well-documented -- played for Dean Smith at North Carolina, NBA Coach of the Year with the Denver Nuggets in 2013 -- but covering him for one season in Albany offered a closer glimpse of an intense, tough, hilarious natural leader.
After getting kicked out of a game at the Knick once, he sprinted onto the court and crushed a place-kick of Sebastian Janikowski proportion, sending the ball 20 rows up into the stands before stomping off to the locker room.
Having sat behind him on the plane once, I saw him read multiple newspapers cover to cover. While on a postseason road trip somewhere, I bumped into him in a mall bookstore, and he recommended Garrison Keillor.
Oh, and if the Big Three don't get called up, the 1991 CBA championship is pretty much a walkover.
The Albany Patroons were revived in 2017 as a member of the North American Premier Basketball League, which they're scheduled to compete in again in 2019 as a member of the rebranded The Basketball League. It's less than a shadow of the franchise depicted in the film.
With a wider array of overseas options and no real minor league feeder system, the pro basketball landscape these days is profoundly different than it was from 1982-92.
The CBA -- and especially the Albany Patroons -- was a place where it wasn't unusual to find a person like George Karl, who you never for a moment thought wouldn't make it to the NBA.