Guys who played the other b-ball, too.
Inspired by some of the comments in my Matt Kemp post, and with the NBA about to take over this site for real for real (oh yes, we ARE doing another SLAMonline top 50), I thought this article I wrote for SLAM 45 would be a good fit for the dog days of summer. I’m guessing young folks who take the time to read this will read a thing or two.—Ben Osborne
We get the letters, the e-mails, and even discuss it here in the SLAMDome (though I do not take part).
“Baseball,” most modern hoop heads say, is boring. Stupid. Wack. Old-fashioned. Something to know, however, as you devote hours of your day to watching and reading about your favorite sport while avoiding coverage of the one-time “National Pastime” like it’s biology, is that there are players in the majors who might just as easily have been in the NBA, and vice versa.
A roly-poly Tony Gwynn running the point? John Bagley did it. A cornrowed Delino DeShields as his back-up? Look at Troy Hudson for your comparison. These guys aren’t among the many who simply balled in high school and dream about it to this day (Cal Ripken, for one, has a court in his house). No, these are cats who were known as basketball players.
Besides San Diego’s Gwynn and the O’s DeShields, the roster of talented ballers who chose baseball would include the Giants’ Terrell Lowery, the Devil Rays’ Randy Winn, the Tribe’s Kenny Lofton, and DeShields’ Baltimore teammate Ryan Minor. The GM for this team would have to be future Baseball Hall of Famer Dave Winfield. Winfield set a precedent of sorts for these jack-of-all-trade athletes when he averaged 9 ppg over the ’71-72 and ’72-73 seasons as a University of Minnesota power forward. He was good enough to get drafted by the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks and the ABA’s Utah Stars (and even the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings as a tight end), but wisely chose baseball; Winny retired in ’95 with 3,110 career hits and a spot waiting for him in Cooperstown.
Gwynn’s another sure-fire future HOFer who had game. During his ball career at San Diego State (’77-81), the pass first, eat later pg averaged 5.5 aps and remains SDSU’s all-time assists leader with 590. Gwynn’s last basketball moment was when he was drafted by the then-San Diego Clippers in the ’81 draft. Of course, the Pads drafted him on the very same day, and the rest is history.
DeShields turned heads as a schoolboy star in Delaware, and was nice enough to be Villanova’s lone basketball recruit in ’87, but instead he took the Expos money and ran, literally; he’s stolen more than 400 bases in his career. Lofton was a member of the ’88 Arizona Wildcats, who reached the Final 4. He was a part of the bench squad known endearingly as “the Gumbys,” and the next year Lofton capped his career as a Wildcat by starting all 33 games and setting the UA’s all-time steals record. Like DeShields, Lofton could—and still can—steal in baseball as well.
While Winn didn’t do much more than back up Steve Nash at Santa Clara in the early ’90s, Lowery was a West Coast collegian who could ball for real. All Lowery did at Loyola Marymount was finish in the top 10 in the nation in scoring for two straight seasons and earn All-American recognition. As a junior in ’90-91, the 6-3 Lowery averaged 29 ppg and 9 apg, and as a senior he dropped in 26 ppg. Lowery expressed surprise when he didn’t get picked in the ’92 NBA Draft, but his earlier comments probably scared off teams. “I’m serious about basketball and get a lot of publicity from it,” he told the LA Times in ’91. “But baseball was always my true love.”
Minor was another basketball stud whose interest in baseball scared off NBA suitors. As the current Oriole infielder says, “I’ve got some great memories of my basketball days. I mean, I was Big Eight player of the year as a junior [when he averaged 24 ppg at Oklahoma in the ’94-95 season nine months after winning a national championship in baseball.] I think I would have made the NBA if I had stuck with it and developed, but I woke up one day and I didn’t want to let the opportunity to play baseball get away from me. Once I did that, I made my decision, and I haven’t regretted it.”
I assume members of the choose-hoops club like Danny Ainge, Scott Burrell, Trajan Langdon, Dell Curry and even Shawn Bradley, feel the same, though a recent chat with Curry left me wondering.
It was minutes after the Raptors’ Game 2 playoff loss to the Knicks, and the Raps’ once-lethal scorer Curry had just finished his second straight night with minimal minutes. He didn’t seem in any mood to talk, but, emboldened by Burrell telling me that pitcher-turned-sharp-shooter Curry had been a role model of sorts, I nudged my way past Toronto’s Alvin Williams and asked Curry about his “brief” baseball career. “Yeah,” Williams cracked. “Very brief.”
“Shut up,” Curry countered with a sudden smile. Curry was the ace of the Virginia Tech pitching staff in ’85 [the year he was drafted by the Orioles], and happily recalled striking out future big leaguers Paul Sorrento and Luis Alicea in a win over Florida State. “Right now I’d say that my baseball career is better than my basketball one.” Considering that Curry has scored more than 11,000 points in the NBA, it appears he made the right choice, but some guys never seem to know for sure. For evidence, check the White Sox all-time roster. Seems they had a bush leaguer who wore No. 45 who was a decent basketball player in his day.
Ainge made the major leagues as a light-hitting member of the Blue Jays, but made it bigger in the NBA as a hard-hitting member of the Celtics. Burrell was also a Blue Jay—well, at least a minor league pitcher—but he chose hoops, where he uses his right arm to launch three pointers, currently for the Nets. Langdon spent three summers in the Padres’ system, and given his woeful rookie year with the Cavs, he might consider returning to baseball. And Shawn Bradely? According to the Mavs media guide, the 7-6 project “pitched and played first base on his high school baseball team, batting .407.”
Just imagine how much you’d hate Major League Baseball if he played.