In 1988, when Corey Gaines told his father, Los Angeles police Lt. Winslow Gaines, that he was determined to play in the NBA, he received some advice.
"My father told me: 'Keep trying to find the right door. One day, one will open, and you'll find yourself a home,' " Gaines recalled.
Gaines keeps knocking, but, to date, it's been in one door and out another. The 6-foot-4 guard from Loyola Marymount has played a total of 51 games in the past three NBA seasons while passing through New Jersey, Philadelphia and Denver. But he has spent a lot more time performing in such CBA outposts as Quad Cities, Omaha, Neb., and Yakima, Wash.
Now, opportunity is knocking again with the Washington Bullets. After an impressive but short trial in Denver last season for his former college coach, Paul Westhead, Gaines said he is ready to establish himself in the NBA.
Appearing in 10 games for the Nuggets last winter, he averaged 8.3 points and 9.1 assists in playing 22 minutes per game of Westhead's racehorse style.
"I've reached another level in my game," he said. "I proved to myself I can not only be effective in a transition game, but also in running a half-court offense."
Now, Gaines has to convince Bullets coach Wes Unseld, who also has instituted a fast-break offense and realizes that Michael Adams, worn down leading the Nuggets last season, needs a backup.
General manager John Nash scouted the Los Angeles Professional League this summer and was impressed by Gaines' speed and ball-handling.
"If Adams goes down for any reason, we need someone who knows how to play this style," Nash said. "Gaines had a taste of it in Denver, and so far in training camp, he's shown he can also handle the point."
As usual, it's a numbers game for borderline players such as Gaines. His chances are better here than in Denver, where Westhead has Chris Jackson, Winston Garland and Mark Macon to trigger his running game.
But the Bullets seem committed to four guards -- Adams, Ledell Eackles, A.J. English and rookie LaBradford Smith of Louisville, who has missed training camp with an ankle injury. That leaves Gaines in competition with holdover Larry Robinson and free agents David Wingate, Kurk Lee and Tim Legler for the final guard spot.
Wingate seems the best bet because of his defensive skills, but has no credentials as a point guard. Lee is also known more for his shooting than ball-handling, and Robinson and Legler are strictly shooting guards.
But Gaines, who played on the high-scoring Loyola Marymount team with Bo Kimble and the late Hank Gathers, is not looking over his shoulder.
"A lot of people have written me off before," Gaines said. "When I transferred from UCLA to Loyola, people said I couldn't play Westhead's frantic style. But I averaged 17 points and 11 assists and got picked in the draft."
The Seattle SuperSonics selected Gaines in the third round in 1988, but he lost the battle for the last roster spot to Avery Johnson. He was claimed by the New Jersey Nets and served the last half of the season as a caddie for shooting guards Mike McGee and Dennis Hopson.
"After that, I got involved in a lot of crazy situations," he said.
Now, he's knocked on another door, hoping someone opens it just wide enough for him to sneak through.
"You play as hard and as well as you can, for as long as you can. Just give it your best shot," he said. His father couldn't have said it better.