Keeping Score: Dream wizards
On Oct. 11, a half-dozen athletes called the Harlem Wizards will drive 170 miles from New York City, get out of their van and straighten their backs, suit up and play a fundraiser before a packed house inside the Forslund Gym on the Northfield Mount Hermon campus.
The Wizards have been doing road shows since the day a Queens-born baseball scout and sports promoter named Howie Davis decided there was room enough for another team to use basketball as showbiz.
It all started, said Todd Davis, “In 1959 when my father was booking Goose Tatum. He was the Globetrotters’ funny guy and had put together his own all-star team called the Harlem Stars. It was the Harlem Stars versus the College Stars and then it evolved to where my father realized it could work in other ways.”
Today, there are three different Wizards’ teams composed of 18 players and a few reserves. They play an eight-month season, and training emphasizes choreography and teamwork. “Each year, the only one negative I’d heard was it’s the same show every year. Our breakthrough was bringing in Swoop (Dwayne Simpson), who pushed that we had to be creative.”
Players earn on average about $50,000 a season and put on shows in 450 cities and towns a year. Alumni include household names like Connie Hawkins, Tiny Archibald and Hawthorne Wingo, but most are relative unknowns like 6-footer Rashaan Barner, who averaged 19 points and 10 rebounds at William Paterson University. “Rashaan is one of our best players. If he was 6-4 I could see him as an NBA player. There’s a lot of greats who were just the wrong size.”
The team’s old-timer is Claude “Tojo” Henderson, a Purple Heart recipient in Vietnam, and the loudmouth little guy is 5-foot-6 Arnold “A-Train” Bernard, who played high school ball alongside former NBA standout Rod Strickland.
“A-Train was an honorable mention All-American at Southwest Missouri State,” says Davis. “Some websites have him listed as one of top 30 hoops players of all time under 5-10. Tojo’s a kid that never grew up. He’s got an intimidating deep voice, but he’s a mirthful good time guy.”
Davis regularly gets videos from players and calls from college coaches, but there’s an ebb to Wizard’s attrition rate. “Our players stay with us for a long time, but there’s always guys in the pipeline.”
When there’s an opening, making the team doesn’t depend so much on talent as it does charm and likability. “Personality and interaction,” says Davis. “We want people to come away from the event having had a great time. Players are happy to show off but they have to have the warmth of the interaction.”
Or, as Barner puts it in the team’s yearbook: e_SDLqHaving little kids look up to you means a lot to me.”
They must be doing something right. Monroe-Woodbury High School in Central Valley, N.Y., has used the Wizards for 23 consecutive years. “There’s something about the idea you can be friends with these guys,” says Davis. “They’ll come back and remember a student’s name or a what a teacher or principal might have said. They’re exhausted, it’s not always easy, but it’s the warmth of the interaction.”
At NMH, the Wizards will play the “Chase Your Dreams Team” coached by former Pioneer hoops star and NBA player Adam Harrington. The money raised will go to his two charities, one devoted to his late sister and the other to help youth programs in need of assistance.
It was Harrington’s role as an assistant junior varsity coach at NMH that indirectly led to the Wizards agreeing to help his twin causes.
“I had a Chinese player on my team named Roy Huang who took an interest in Adam’s foundation,” explains JV Coach Jim Shea. “When the Wizards were in Beijing, Roy asked if they’d be willing to come to the school.”
Davis said they were simply reciprocating for Huang’s help in a strange land. “Roy was amazing. It was our first game on the trip and they didn’t have a great translator so Roy stepped in and took over. We’re hoping he can be part of our future plans. He was just wonderful.”
The doors open a week from Friday at 6:15 p.m. and tip-off is at 7. Tickets can be purchased online at harlemwizards.com for $10.99 or at the door for $12.
“We’re selling 700 tickets,” says Shea. “It’s not really a serious hoops game, just a group of NMH people that’ll be ready to be made fun of.”
One of Franklin County’s favorite short order cooks, Phil Courtemanche, was able to get out of Brad’s Place long enough to see 14 games at Fenway Park this season.
“Ten-and-four,” he said of their record. “About right for the best record in baseball.”
Phil’s such a fan I worry what he might put in my orange juice whenever I criticize the old home team.
Squibbers: Red Sox playoff tickets are skyrocketing on the secondary market. Ace Ticket wants $97, $217 and $525 for a bleacher seat to the Division, Championship and World Series, respectively; sellers on StubHub want $90, $249 and $549, respectively. The face value for same is $50, $100 and $125. ... What a snoozer the Jets-Bills game was, watching the official walk off 27 penalties, back and forth, for a total of 255 yards. ... The Tennessean newspaper’s account of Vanderbilt’s win over UMass reported “A smattering of 16,419 announced fans inside the mostly empty home of the New England Patriots.” Later that night in Hartford, 42,704 watched UConn lose to Michigan at Rentschler Field. ... After 13 swipes in 13 tries, Reds speedster Billy Hamilton was thrown out by Mets catcher Juan Centeno at Citi Field on Wednesday. Hamilton has been timed at 2.98 seconds getting to second; Rickey Henderson was 3.10 in his prime. ... More remarkably, Daisuke Matsuzaka picked up the win, his third straight since joining the Mets. He is 20-25 since going 18-3 for the Red Sox in 2008. ... At Progressive Field in Cleveland on Tuesday an announced crowd of 21,083 watched Jason Giambi’s two-out, two-run pinch hit home run beat the White Sox. The Indians won again Wednesday, this time with 10,000 more in the stands. ... Charlie Molnar, the 30th football coach at UMass, is already tied for 15th on the all-time loss list. Molnar got a bit of bad news this week — his first vote of confidence, coming from former Minuteman and current Ravens safety James Ihedigbo.
Aside from early season injuries to Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey, everything went right for the Red Sox this season. Manager John Farrell stayed in the background, Mike Napoli, Daniel Nava and Mike Carp all had career years, and 38-year-old Koji Uehara has been mentioned as a Cy Young candidate. Indeed, if the Rangers don’t make the playoffs it’ll be because they failed to re-sign him.
David Ortiz returned from extended spring training on April 20, raked 24 hits in his first 58 at-bats and hasn’t looked back. Dustin Pedroia blossomed into a leader, no longer awestruck as he was his rookie season when — as he told Dan Patrick — he stood at second base and said to Derek Jeter, “My name is Dustin, how ya doin’?”
Last March, Sports Illustrated predicted the Nationals would beat the Rays in the World Series. I said it’s be the Nationals beating the Tigers, though I did have the Red Sox and Indians making the Wild Card.
This is a great month for pro sports, the best. The NFL is in full swing, the first puck will drop in the NHL, and the 10 best teams in baseball play for the world championship. Buckle yourself in, the fun is about to begin.
Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley.