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.
"Just imagine," he says, "me in Indonesia."
Anyone could see it was an absurd idea.
Action Box Company is a long, severe brick building with signs that say careless, drug-using employees are unwelcome, and the customer is always right.
After the Flights overwhelmed SRO Sports by 33 points, Dwayne arrived at the factory at 5:30 a.m. Lining the walls around him were stacks of cardboard 30 feet high. In front of him was the machine that cuts the cardboard lengthwise. His job requires him to carry the cardboard and set the blades, and some days, he and his partner cut 10,000 pieces, with a 15-minute break every three hours.
"But man, when I hit that clock," he says, "it's like a new life."
His time has been divided this way, between hard living and easy playing, for as long as he can remember. On the court, Dwayne runs and jumps and chatters with the energy of a child. Everywhere else, he appears sleepy and indifferent, as though he is waiting, sitting on the bench. He would seem morose in these periods, except for the fact of his smile.
"People ask me, 'Why you always be smiling?' " he says. "I'd rather be happy than sad, know what I'm saying? If something's wrong with me, you'll never know."
Dwayne grew up without a father, the sixth of seven children born to a housekeeper. Then and now, Trinity Gardens was the kind of neighborhood, his friend Anthony explains, "where people would jump you and take everything you had." From the age of about five, Dwayne began escaping to the basketball court.
The court had everything life did not: justice and recognition, grace and sudden joy. Dwayne lived there in the summers and after school. He learned to dribble and shoot and jump better than nearly everyone else. Eventually, he taught his moves to a whole community. The basketball he played was a matter of reacting, "like when a car gets in your way," he said, "and you do something to get out of the way." That was his game and how he lived his life.
The team at Francis Scott Key Junior High might have taught him something, if the school hadn't gotten in the way. Dwayne got Anthony to quit the band for the team, and they were going to do things for that school, they really were, until Dwayne was attacked by a vicious math teacher. Dwayne had always talked while she was talking, and she didn't like that. "Woman had problems, man," he still recalls. "It was her way or no way." Unable to accept that in a teacher, Dwayne was unable to play basketball for the school.
The lesson he learned was that school and basketball don't mix, that the one only ruins the other. At Kashmere High, when he showed up for tryouts, he was dumbfounded the first day when the coach told him to roll on the floor and to run just for the sake of running. Dwayne left and never returned, not even when the coach came to ask him.
The coach at Jefferson Davis High came, too. With no tryout at all, he offered Dwayne the starting guard position. Dwayne decided it was too far from home and friends, and he clung to what he knew.
The future yawned before Dwayne; he yawned back. High-school ball is the traditional route to college ball, which is the usual path to the NBA. Good as he was, Dwayne had never considered the NBA, and he had no need for college. The plan for his life was simply to do as his mother and brothers had done -- "just get me a job and work, try to make it."
His friends were abusing substances of all kinds, but without any desire to alter his life, Dwayne was also bored by drugs. ("Keep me a natural high," he says.) Basketball was the single thing that moved him. He was a playground player born and bred, and he and Anthony roamed together. At five feet seven inches tall, Anthony was quicker than most, and he could dunk "any way you wanted." Dwayne wasn't much taller and had been slamming since he was 14. He was an artist of improv -- unerring, powerful and fast. Anthony called him "So Smooth" for the way he played, and for his own nickname, after his hero George Gervin, Anthony called himself "Ice."
They played two-on-two for money in the Trinity Gardens Park. It began when they declined a game against two much taller strangers and were asked, why -- were they scared? Smooth and Ice began hanging from the rims after that, and three games later, one of the players was telling a bystander, "Man, these two little dudes just whipped us for $100."
"Man," said the spectator, laughing, "Dwayne's about the best around."
They never won that much again, because word traveled. When they heard about a park in the Fifth Ward where people were playing one-on-one for $500 a game, they went there, bluffing the money, sure that Dwayne could not be beaten. Everyone believed it; no one would try.
Anthony, meanwhile, had not left the organized game, and he went on to become a junior college all-American at Wharton. He tried to get Dwayne there, but Dwayne says, "I was working, and I wasn't going to quit working for no college."
He had found a job as an electrician's apprentice, making $9 an hour. "Well," he recalls saying to himself, "that's what I'll do," and Dwayne dropped out of high school midway through his senior year.
A couple of years later, after he was laid off, he took a job as a roofer, using none of his electrician's skills and making less money. After that, he loaded and unloaded trucks for five years, and then began digging holes, pounding stakes and laying foundations. When work was done, he always went to the place where everything was easy.
He has played in more leagues and won more championships than he can remember. Hearing of some small weekend tournament, he and his friends would pile into their cars, drive all night across Texas or into Louisiana and win it. Once, he came home with a stereo, but the usual prizes are trophies, which he has begun giving away in favor of keeping only the T-shirts. His son and his sisters sleep in these, and he wears them wherever he goes:
MVP, Men's Major Division, Texas Amateur Athletic Federation State Tournament 1996
It seems that everyone wants Dwayne on their team, and on some nights, he might be playing in two leagues. Tony Hardy managed to corner him and get him on his side, and just to keep him there, the assistant purchasing manager at Action Box offered him a job.
"I had to, man, had to," Hardy explains. "I went from a team that lost every game to a team that won all but one. I'm telling you, this guy can flat-out play."
The pay was $1 an hour less than Dwayne was earning 13 years ago, but it was an inside job with benefits, and he was proud to find it.
"Whatever I'm doing," Dwayne says, "I'm always thinking about getting to the top."
After a day of making empty boxes, on those days he isn't playing basketball, Dwayne comes home to a one-bedroom apartment and takes his place on the couch. There, with his son, he watches cartoons and shoot-'em-ups, and sinks into a netherland of sleep, until his wife Andrea comes home to make dinner.
Then more sleep, and then another day begins.
The best that Andrea can say about working as a prison guard is, "it pay my bills." After seven years of marriage, she no longer swells with pride when people say her husband should be playing in the NBA. She no longer watches him play, and she is the reason he doesn't bring his trophies home. Dust collectors, she calls them.
"Ain't bringing no money," she says, "ain't doing no good."
If they had more money, she would buy a house, go to school, pay off her car and open a savings account. If they had more money, he would get a bigger place to live and a newer truck, "and that's all it'd be," says Dwayne. "I'd basically try to live the same, you know."
People began saying years ago that Dwayne was scared to leave home. He denied it -- said he'd go anywhere, as long as he could get back. But then he turned down the chance to play in South America ("They was having that war and all, and I wasn't going to put my life in jeopardy''), and then he turned down Indonesia. After that, everyone was pretty convinced Dwayne would always be a homeboy.
At first, Andrea agreed that Indonesia was just too far. Then she began considering the bills they could pay, and she decided he should go. It was like a trip to the moon, said Dwayne. The offer came in a phone call from a man he had never met, and for all Dwayne knew, "he might be sending me to Indonesia to get cremated." But he was going to go, until his mother began crying. "It really got to me, you know?"
He called the stranger up and said he just couldn't leave his family like that. "You've got to be kidding!" said the stranger, and he slammed the phone down in the Legend's ear. Andrea called the agent back, but he was rude to her, and the chance was gone.
"It was just too sudden," says Dwayne.
"I was highly upset," says Andrea.
"I ain't turning nothing else down," says Dwayne.
This July, Sam Cassell signed a six-year contract with the New Jersey Nets for $21 million. Last July, Dwayne's Pro/Am team beat Cassell's, 89-84, and Dwayne outscored him, 35-21.
Since being invited into the Pro/Am league nine years ago, Dwayne has guarded the likes of Kenny Smith, Avery Johnson and John Starks. Sam was the best, but "I go at all of them like they took something from me," Dwayne says. Herbert, who runs the league, says the pros, too, play especially hard against Dwayne. "They really try to shut him down."
You could see the frustration one night when the Flights took the court against a team that included Kevin Brooks, recently of the Denver Nuggets; Rodney McCray, the former Rocket who led the University of Louisville to three final fours and a national championship; and Chris Morris, the Utah Jazz player who, during the NBA finals this year, did a better job than anyone in covering Michael Jordan.
The Flights were far less celebrated -- a squad comprising mostly college and overseas players. Dwayne, the most obscure of all, posed the toughest matchup problem.
He worked a few of his "patented" moves on Brooks -- the shuffle-and-shoot, the herk-and-jerk. When he shot, his hand hung in the air like the head of a swan; an instant later, the net hissed like a snake. Brooks soon gave up the job to a shorter, quicker West Texas State alum named Jerry Singletary. Dwayne began calling, "Clear the door!" then, and his teammates backed away with their defenders. Singletary endured some humbling lessons in one-on-one.
In years past, Dwayne would score his usual 30-odd points, yet his team would often lose. The difference now is in the passing, the way he uses his teammates like tools to take apart the foe. The Flights play as a team, Dwayne explains, which is how they are able to beat such odd assortments of talent as this.
In losing to the Flights again, Kevin Brooks kicked the ball in anger and received a technical foul; Chris Morris at the free-throw line listened to Dwayne calling him a "scrub"; and Jerry Singletary erupted in a fit of profanity that forced him from the game. Standing on the sidelines, Singletary cussed Dwayne, as Dwayne sank the free throws, laughing.
Afterward, Rodney McCray sat scowling at the floor. Chris Morris spat his professional opinion of Dwayne Rogers:
Another agent came courting. He spoke to Dwayne a dozen times, but Dwayne still couldn't remember his last name and had lost his phone number.
Mike Springer encountered other problems selling Dwayne. The player was nearing the end of his career, and there was no way to document what that career had been. The Pro/Am glory was officially meaningless. The statistics were not comprehensive enough, and the team had never held practices or run plays. As smooth as it was, it wasn't technically organized basketball. Dwayne after all these years was still just a playground legend, and how do you sell a legend to people thousands of miles away? How do you know the Legend will travel that far?
There was a way around it, and it was Springer who told Dwayne of one more chance. A group of dreamers had announced something called the Southwestern Basketball League. They hoped it would one day rival the NBA, but in its first season, the players would earn about $1,000 a week to work on any of six teams. One of those teams would be the Galveston Storm. Tryouts would be that Saturday....
It seemed the dream to answer a dream -- a chance to show what he could do, to play and make money and eat his mama's cooking. But Dwayne was unsure. They probably already have their team, he said. And what about his work? At the box factory, he had become head man on the machine that cuts across the width of the cardboard. If he had to work, he had to work, said Dwayne. "A bird in hand is better than two in the bush."
The week before the tryout, he went off to another tournament and came home with another MVP trophy. Andrea wasn't happy, but this trophy came with $150, so she let him keep it.
That Saturday, after all, was not a day for empty boxes. The Legend did indeed show up and endure the second tryout of his life. About 70 others were competing against him, and was he nervous?
"Naw, man," he said. "I was playing ball. I don't do no panicking."
In the scrimmage, his team got behind, and Dwayne took them over and onward to victory. The week that the Flights finished as champions again, with Dwayne the league's leading scorer, the news came that he made the Storm's first cut. There would be many cuts to go before the season began in November, but Dwayne is "an outstanding athlete," pronounced Coach Alonzo Bradley, and who knows?
If Dwayne makes the team, he thinks the coach will like him, because "I got offensive skills." If he doesn't, and he never makes a living at basketball, what then?
"Do you think I'm going to be moping around? Naw," the Legend said. "I'm going to go on living like I always been living -- satisfied.