For many, the lure of the promised land of the NBA never fades

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CHICAGO -- He seems creaky at times, the speed and stamina that once were his signatures giving way to the hard truth of age and reflex. But every now and then the angular face of Darron Brittman gets that special look, the one that says, "It's still my court."

The eyes widen, then harden, the ball switching back and forth between the hands barely an inch off the ground. He goes toward the hoop in a flash, then pulls up to hit a 15-footer with a touch so soft there isn't even a swish.

There are no cheers, because there is no crowd. Instead a few of the regulars respond with what passes for a standing ovation on a playground court:

"Nice shot."

He grew up on this patch of asphalt at 95th and State streets in Abbott Park, where the sound of the ball is often drowned out by the scream of a truck grinding into gear on the Dan Ryan. The air is thick and pungent, part exhaust fume, part fast food. This is where he first started learning the game when he was 10 from men who were wizards with the ball and now hang day after day on nearby street corners. This is where he still comes back to play 18 years later when the urge hits him.

It isn't the Michigan game, when the electric play of Brittman and his Chicago State teammate Paul Beene earned an ovation from the Ann Arbor crowd of 13,000. It isn't the Milwaukee Bucks camp when he hung in there for longer than anyone ever thought he would after signing on as a free agent. And it certainly isn't an NBA championship, where the Michael and Magic show had the world on hold.

It's just the playground now, a place to let go of dreams as much as it is a place to have them.

If there is any room left for further adoration and emulation of the Bulls' Michael Jordan, it will surely occur. There's no one like him. He's the best. But as University of Utah coach and former Bucks assistant Rick Majerus put it, "There's a thousand Darron Brittmans," so close to the promised land but not close enough, left behind at the playground while a lucky handful soar.

When basketball was good to Brittman, the world seemed perfect. "I didn't want to wake up," he said. "It was beautiful. It was beautiful. It was like a dream."

But when he got cut by the Bucks without making the team, when a brief sojourn in the Continental Basketball Association turned into a disaster, when he came back to the playground amid constant cries of "What happened, Britt?," the world changed, as it so often does for those who think the road to life through basketball is paved only with gold.

"I had everything going for me. I didn't have to worry about anything. Then when I got in the real world, I didn't know how to handle it. It set me back. I didn't know how to adjust to it."

During Sunday's pre-game show on NBC, millions watched a group of neighborhood boys imitating Jordan at the corner of Monroe Street and Damen Avenue with a miniature basketball and a broken milk crate on a pole. The kids practiced Jordan's dunks, including the instantly famous Tomahawk move he put on in Game 2 against the Lakers.

Darron Brittman understands the haunting power and beauty of that image. But he also winces at it.

"You know deep in your heart what the real deal is. You watch them dress up like Michael. You hear them say, 'I'm going to make it like Michael Jordan.' You see so many kids imitating the way he plays. I think it's just about every kid's dream.

"I would tell these kids to enjoy it while they can and not take it for granted. One day they're gonna look back and it's not gonna be there."

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Brittman runs up and down the court at Abbott Park, but it could anywhere. It could be over at the Waterworks in Maywood, where the three asphalt courts are teeming with teen-age kids who go by the names of The Playground Legend and The Six-Foot Nightmare and the Real Jordan. It could be the little corner court at California Avenue and Flournoy Street that takes an edge off the city grit. It could be the gym at Kennedy-King College on Wednesday nights where the well-organized pick-up games are filled with a mix of young could-bes and too old could-haves.

All over the city and the suburbs, night after night, players young and old flock to these places with their tilted rims and grimy backboards and spongy fences to boast, to sweat, to search for their own sweet moment just one more time.

It's where you'll find 16-year-old Dwayne Jenkins, nicknamed So-So by his sister for reasons he doesn't even know, commanding the center court of the Waterworks with the spraying frenzy of an errant Fourth of July firecracker, fouling, scowling and howling, the word "BULLS" etched into the back of his head in honor of their championship run.

"My rebound! My rebound!"

L "Where you at, little boy!? You can't stick me, little boy!"

It's where you'll find 23-year-old Terry Watkins, playing at the Kennedy-King gym to keep the lifeline to the game strong and pure.

"Oh, man, I always wanted to play in the NBA," said Watkins, who instead delivers pop for Coca-Cola. "It was hard to give it up. It was hard. But at the time I got out of high school, I needed to work. I needed the money."

It's where you'll find 18-year-old Lacey Lindsey, of the shaved head and the thin spindly legs, who according to his friends over at the Waterworks not only looks like Jordan but "moves like Jordan, talks like Jordan and chews like Jordan." And 20-year-old Van Thompson, who talks of going into pro ball even though his current job, in visitor service for the Brookfield Zoo, doesn't seem easily suited for such a career switch. And 14-year-old Fred Dentis, who thinks he can make it to the big top as well and comes up to the Waterworks on Saturdays and Sundays at 7:30 in the morning. "I think I can play there because of my skills," Fred said.

The playground is also the place where, from time to time, you may run into Darron Brittman. There was a time in his life he thought he could play there, too.

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He had a nickname back then in the mid-1980s, Ali Baba, because no one in country was better at filching the ball from an opponent than he was. A former All-Public League player at Chicago Vocational, he went to Chicago State and set a single-game NCAA record for steals. He led the nation in steals as a junior in 1984-85 and then again a year later. His average in his senior year was about 18 points a game. But he was a little man in a big man's game, a 5-10 guard. Pro scouts generally weren't interested in him, but his play was too good to be ignored.

"If you ever wanted to see a nice, hard-working kid make it, it was him," said his college coach, Bob Hallberg, who has since moved on to the head post at University of Illinois at Chicago. Brittman wasn't drafted, but the Bucks invited him to camp and he lasted for a while. He turned some heads. But his size, and the fact he was competing against No. 1 draft pick Scott Skiles out of Michigan State, made it a virtual certainty that he wasn't going to make it regardless of how well he played. He was waived on Oct. 10, 1986.

Majerus, who was with the Bucks when Brittman was in camp, said he was there largely to provide the more established players with competition. "He really didn't have a shot at the NBA," Majerus said. "His size precluded that. He was a hard worker. He was a nice kid. It's so hard to make that league. Even when you're good, you have to be injury-free and be compatible with the coach. You have a better chance of winning the Illinois lottery."

Brittman played part of a season with the Worcester Counts of the World Basketball League until an injury ended his career there. In 1989-90 he joined the Columbus Horizon of the Continental Basketball Association. He played in two games and scored two points before the team and he parted ways.

He returned to Chicago, but the transition to a world that didn't revolve around basketball wasn't easy. He has worked as a mail handler for several months with the Postal Service but has had difficulty finding steady work since then. He has no stable place to live, and there are times when he isn't sure where his next meal is going to come from.

"I felt I had let a lot of people down by not making it," he said. "My self-esteem was low.

"It's really tough on kids like this," said Hallberg. "They're stars in grammar school and high school and college and all of a sudden someone's telling them that they can't play basketball anymore. They've never been told that before."

Hallberg sincerely believes that Brittman, who still turns heads when he plays in summer pro leagues in the area, could have made it in the NBA. But he also knows that the last thing the NBA is looking for now is a 28-year-old rookie.

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