By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
The pros come home in the summer like returning kings, in Cadillacs, Lexuses and Mercedes-Benzes -- tall, disdainful men with gold chains around their necks and diamonds in their ears. Their egos are large, their skills highly developed. Some of them make more than a million dollars a year playing basketball. Some of them make millions more promoting shoe companies.
In a battered old Isuzu pickup, Dwayne Rogers comes like himself -- a man barely six feet tall, with scars all over his arms and a goatee around his smile. His ego is large, his skills highly developed. He earns $8 an hour in a box factory. The shoes he wears he cadged from the pros.
"It ain't about what you make," he says. "I just look at it like I'm playing another dude off the road."
On the basketball court now, his sleepy eyes were wide, and he was talking as he does nowhere else. The man guarding him was one Grant Gondreziak, who starred at Pepperdine and played three years in the NBA before taking the money in Europe. Dwayne, who has never played professionally, or in college, or even in high school, was telling Gondreziak the way things were going to be: Gondreziak would move this way; Dwayne would move that way. Flash -- it happened just so.
"See, now," Dwayne said, after scoring, "I told you! Your mama's dumb, and you're dumb, and how you gonna guard me and be so dumb? Man, I'm likely to score 50 tonight!"
Why not? He had scored 48 the game before. He shot like he breathed, without a hitch or a thought. He looped passes behind his neck. By the third quarter, Gondreziak was so frustrated that he exploded in a fit of profanity and was ejected from the game. Dwayne went to work on the next man, slicing at one point through a descending arch of arms, the ball falling through the net as two opponents collapsed at his feet.
"I told you!" he shouted, punching the air. "I mean what I say!"
A big-bellied man in the bleachers fell back, chuckling. A young woman stood with her hands to her mouth. The announcer said, "Count it -- another basket for Dwayne Rogers!"
"They had a pretty good team," Dwayne says.
"And they lost, too," says Dwayne Jr., who is seven years old.
The Houston Flights almost never lose. They've won the local Pro/Am league championship six years in a row now, since Dwayne came over from the team that beat them. Last year in Las Vegas, the Flights won the Pro/Am national tournament; Dwayne was the tournament's most valuable player.
"He sits alone atop the pinnacle of all the non-pro players in the city," says Anthony "Ice" Robinson, his oldest and very best friend. "He makes them all bow down. He's the man, the best basketball player they seen in Houston."
Alvin Brooks, the University of Houston coach whose team has lost exhibition games to the Flights the last two years, says the same thing: "Oh yeah, he's the best guard in town."
In nine years, no one has been able to shut Dwayne down, says James Herbert, who runs the Pro/Am League. Herbert recalls how Penny Hardaway once had to hit a last-second shot to beat the Flights. Afterward, the star of the Orlando Magic wanted to know who that guard was who had scored 37 points and had made him work so hard. Dwayne Rogers, Herbert answered. He doesn't play anywhere.
"What!" said Hardaway. "Why?"
"Man, don't ask me."
But everyone keeps asking, and no one can understand why Dwayne, at the age of 33, is still an amateur. They used to call him "So Smooth," but as the years passed and he never went away, what else could they call him but "Legend"?
And there are playground legends in every city in the country -- sad, flawed characters like Swee'pea Daniels from Queens, who could do anything with a basketball, it was said, except sign it; like Philadelphia's Munchy Mason, whose passion for ball was rivaled only by his love for beer; like Chicago's Money Mondane, who could rain 30-foot jumpers all day but couldn't hit a lay-up.
Dwayne Rogers's legend is less woeful and more quirky. He never trafficked in crime or drugs or strong drink. He did not generally have a problem passing his classes. And there certainly was no glaring deficit in his game. The answer to the big question is this: Dwayne is where he is completely by choice. He has had many chances to play organized basketball, and always, he has turned them down.
Just two months ago, he received the latest offer: Would he take $35,000 to play four months in Indonesia?
He thought it over: Wherever Indonesia was, he knew his mama didn't serve gumbo there. He knew he would be surrounded by strangers and would have the strange experience of working at basketball. Dwayne considered that it would take two years to earn this money making boxes. And then he turned the money down.