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USBL Team Called ‘Unprofessional’

June 8, 1999

POTOMAC, Md. (AP) _ In front of 35 spectators, including the security guard, the Washington Congressionals took the court at a small high school gym wearing another team’s practice jerseys.

Admission was supposed to be $8, but the Congressionals’ owner _ who had planned to take the money at the door _ had to leave 30 minutes before tipoff to pick up his statistician. So, the fans got in for free.

The gym didn’t have a 24-second clock and the 3-point line was a crooked arc of black tape. But at least the game took place.

The last home game was postponed because there was nowhere to play. The game before that was scheduled for a YMCA gym in downtown Washington, but the other team showed up late and the time slot reserved for the court had expired.

The road doesn’t provide any refuge. A car carrying some of the players to a recent game against the New Jersey Shorecats never arrived because of a flat tire, leaving five players to play the entire 48 minutes.

The Congressionals are a member of the United States Basketball League, a low-key but respected 13-team league that draws an average of about 1,000 fans to its games. While USBL teams play far from the glitz of the NBA playoffs, they do supply a handful of players each year to the world’s best basketball league.

But even on this small scale, the Congressionals are an embarrassment.

``This is the bottom of the barrel,″ said forward Lonnie Harrell, who played for Georgetown and Northeastern and, like most of his teammates, has spent the last few years in minor pro leagues trying to get noticed by the NBA.

``It’s so difficult to play basketball where there’s no organization. We’re not practicing. We’re not sure if we’re going to play or not. On road games, we’re not sure of transportation. We can be out here physically, but mentally it’s not together. I’ve played in a lot of minor leagues and semipros, and this is one of the most unprofessional ones I’ve ever been on.″

The Congressionals are owned and run by Larry Arnold, a Washington lobbyist. Last year the team had a respectable debut season playing at the University of the District of Columbia and made the playoffs under former Howard coach Mike McLeese.

This year, penny-pinching and lack of planning have made the team a nonstop folly with a 1-14 record.

Unsignable players, such as NBA-bound Shawnta Rogers, were chosen in the draft. McLeese wasn’t re-signed for the season until days before the first game. Arnold secured the Smith Center at George Washington University for the first four home games, but that was all. Hotel reservations for the season opener in New York weren’t made in advance, so the team had to drive around looking for vacancies and ended up staying in Jersey City, N.J.

McLeese, who finally got fed up when a van showed up three hours late to take the team to a game in Pennsylvania, quit May 7. Since he had secured the team’s uniforms, and since Arnold wouldn’t pay him anything for them, McLeese took them with him.

``We were going backwards,″ McLeese said. ``We weren’t making any progress, nickel and diming the guys in per diem, no place to play. It felt like the Congressionals were pulling me down instead of helping me.

``It’s been a bush-league operation. Somebody has to take over that team and run it right.″

Assistant Jacob Jonas took over, but some players thought the season was over because Arnold couldn’t find a place to play. Finally, he struck a deal with The Heights School in Potomac, which seats maybe 500.

The Congressionals, who each earn $300-$500 a week, debuted at their new home in front of the crowd of 35 last Friday, wearing the Connecticut Skyhawks’ dowdy white practice jerseys. They were beaten 140-128 by defending champion Atlantic City in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score indicates.

Arnold, chatting with fans during the game, played down the team’s problems. He said that the inability to find a home court was a ``mix-up″ and that he has new uniforms on the way. He said the game at the YMCA should have been a Congressionals victory by forfeit because of the other team’s late arrival from Raleigh, N.C.

``I think we’re as up to snuff as several other teams in the league,″ Arnold said.

The USBL doesn’t think so. The league wants the franchise to get its act together during the offseason.

``It’s not up to the standards the USBL set forth,″ league spokesman Sean Fisher said. ``But the bottom line now is that we want the games played. At this point, we’ll take what we can get.″

For players such as Harrell, shaking his head after another loss, it all seems as far away from the NBA as one can get.

``I’m not getting a whole lot out of this,″ Harrell said. ``I need to move on.″

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