SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. -- Many times during the 1990-91 basketball season at Southwest Baptist University, coach Jerry Kirksey would leave his office well after midnight. And many times he'd find himself drawn to the barely lit gymnasium, where he'd find Ernest Hall, nearly exhausted, dribbling from one end of the court to the other.
"It would be 1 a.m., 2 a.m. and [Hall] would be up and down the court, baseline to baseline," Kirksey recalled. "I'd like to have a dollar for every night I found him there. He's got this burning desire to succeed, unlike anyone I've ever seen before."
Hall's desire has earned him an invitation to the Washington Bullets' camp, where the 5-foot-11 point guard is attempting to become the latest Dunbar High School graduate to play in the NBA.
Ernest Hall? Dunbar High School? If you're not a hard-core Poets follower, you'd have a tough time making a connection between Hall and the school that produced Muggsy Bogues, Reggie Williams, Reggie Lewis and Sam Cassell. Recognition doesn't come to many 129-pound defensive specialists.
"I was real thin, I didn't have muscles and guys would just knock me off the ball," said Hall, who played behind Cassell and graduated from Dunbar in 1987. "But I always wanted to be a professional basketball player. I saw Muggsy do it, and he was my idol. I felt I could do it, too, if I put my mind to it."
Once Hall, 25, put his mind to it, a dramatic transformation of his body began. Hall, who grew up in the McCulloh Homes in West Baltimore, became a regular in the weight room at the Druid Hill YMCA, where he began working out.
"I'm a self-motivator, so I didn't want to work out with other guys," Hall said. "I'd get up on my own, run the [Druid Hill] reservoir five times, go home, rest and then lift. I never missed a day. Whether it was shooting, lifting, jogging, I'd always be out there."
His hard work began to pay off, and today he is a muscular 175 pounds. After stints at Trinidad Community College and the Community College of Baltimore, Hall earned a scholarship to Southwest Baptist, a Division II school in Bolivar, Mo., that wasn't interested in him when he left Dunbar.
"I made a mistake," Kirksey says today. "He was just so little when he came out of high school. But I should have taken him as a freshman."
That's because Hall averaged 18.1 points and 8.1 assists his senior season, helping Southwest Baptist to a 32-1 record and a spot in the final eight of the Division II basketball tournament. He led the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association in assists and steals and was a second-team All-America pick.
He was drafted by the U.S. Basketball League that year and averaged 10.6 points and 4.7 assists in eight games with the Atlanta Eagles. The next year, he was invited to the veterans camp of the Denver Nuggets. He was the last player cut after the team acquired Robert Pack after his release from the Portland Trail Blazers.
"[Nuggets coach] Dan Issel told me he would have made the team, except there were 13 players under contract," Kirksey said. "He said they just couldn't justify releasing a player making hundreds of thousands of dollars."
Hall finds himself in the same situation with the Bullets, who have 13 players under contract. That could increase to 14 if the team signs first-round pick Juwan Howard.
But the Bullets are also a team that has had problems at point guard, a position that was improved when Scott Skiles was obtained in the off-season. When Hall played well for the Baker League All-Stars in a game against the Bullets over the summer, general manager John Nash decided to invite him to camp.
"He's a tough, tough kid," Nash said. "He's tenacious, and his pressure defense is good enough that he might find an opportunity at some point in this league.
"He's a long shot," Nash added. "But he's got a toughness about him that he doesn't like hearing he's a long shot. And I don't want to be the one to tell him."
And Hall doesn't want to hear it. He just wants to battle Doug Overton for a back-up point guard spot (Brent Price is on the injured list), and hope he gets a fair shake. He is sure that, if given a chance, he will succeed.
"I'm used to playing against the best -- Muggsy, Cassell, you name it, and I've played against them," said Hall, who, when not working out, watches tape and reads books on great point guards. "In the summer, I've played against some of the top Division I players and the pros that come home, and I either outplay them or play right along with them.
"Basketball is basketball to me, so it doesn't matter who I play against," Hall said. "I'm just going to continue to work hard. Nobody ever gave me anything, and a lot of people didn't believe in me. I'm out here to show who I am."
NOTES: C Kevin Duckworth, who went back to the Washington area to take a stress test, missed the morning practice. He reported back for the evening session. . . . F Mitchell Butler did not participate in practice, resting his injured left knee. Nash said there's fear that Butler might have a cartilage tear. . . . To prepare for stricter enforcement of the hand-checking rule, coach Jim Lynam ran the team through defensive drills in which players had to refrain from using their hands.