Casey Calvary holds daughter Kylie and signs a T-shirt. SR.com: Any thing for the game

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Any thing for the game

A long way from glory days with GU, Calvary happy to play in the CBA

NAMPA, Idaho -- It is midway through the first quarter when Casey Calvary soars to snag an offensive rebound, his momentum carrying him away from the basket along the baseline.

Without even a hint of taking the ball back to the rim himself, he shovels a pass out to point guard Randy Livingston, who instantly relays it to teammate Josh Davis in the key. Davis hesitates a beat to encourage a double-team, then drops the ball to the now unguarded Calvary, who slides back along the baseline
for a resounding two-handed dunk.

Let's stop here and total up the damages ... one, two, yes even three passes.

If it's not a Continental Basketball Association record for a single possession, it is at least two more than the evening's opponent, the Great Lakes Storm, has bothered to throw in any of its first 17 trips down the court.

This is not the only reason Calvary and his Idaho Stampede teammates built a 23-point lead in the first 6 1/2 minutes of this particular game, but it's a good place to start.

That could be the CBA's slogan, too -- a good place to start.

Or to regroup.

Or hang on.

Not that any of those necessarily apply to Casey Calvary, the erstwhile Gonzaga University basketball standout who as much as any player helped define the Bulldogs' crash into the national consciousness.

No Zag has scored more points or grabbed more rebounds in NCAA Tournament play than Calvary. Nor, really, has any Zag had as fitful, even stormy, a transition to the pro game, with its ceaseless politics and inevitable pitfalls.

There have been unsatisfying auditions with the NBA Grizzlies, Sonics and Wizards. A happy year in Japan with the Isuzu Giba Cats, a mostly miserable season in France and a Tarantino-esque two days in Puerto Rico.

So what's he doing in the Triple-A of pro hoops, with its legendary backwater travel, low wages and hey-look-at-me style of play?

"Being happy," he said. "I can't imagine a better place to be playing right now."

He says that having weighed all the factors with his trademark bluntness.

For instance, while he appreciates the hospitality of southern Idaho's basketball fans, he wishes he and his wife, Jennifer, and their 10-month-old daughter Kylie were billeted in more cosmopolitan Boise instead of Nampa which, he said, "is like the Spokane equivalent of Cheney."

While he understands the CBA's reason for being and obvious market limitations he noted that, "For what we play for here, we might as well be volunteering."

And, yes, the scenery often leaves much to be desired.

"I've seen the worst places in America," he laughed. "We go to Bismarck, Sioux Falls, Gary and Frankenmuth, Michigan."

Frankenmuth?

"That place," said Calvary, shaking his head. "The food there -- Josh Davis had the runs for a week and a half. We had this order of Buffalo wings, only they weren't regular wings -- they were like the legs of this big monster chicken. We tried to eat them and got so sick. And when we tried to go somewhere else, everything was closed because there's nothing in Frankenmuth.

"We wound up going down to the (hotel) lobby and buying these souvenir noodles with this seasoning salt. We tried to cook the noodles in the coffee pot and season them and that was pretty disgusting."

And yet, he quickly points out, the downsides are all relative.

"Travel is easy compared to what guys go through overseas," he said. "In France, we had a Yugoslavian on our team and we had to play a game in Slovenia. When he showed his passport, two guys with M16s walked up and grabbed him and took him to jail. They held him overnight, fed him nothing and put him on the next plane back to France."

So while the food might be fatal in Frankenmuth, there is no soldier with his finger on the trigger to force you to eat.

Besides, nothing keeps Calvary content like playing winning basketball -- and he's found his perfect CBA situation.

Idaho is 29-10 and in second place behind the Bismarck entry, the Dakota Wizards. The Stampede are coached by Larry Krystkowiak, himself a journeyman NBA big man after rewriting records at the University of Montana. The team has a happy mix of 20-somethings -- a couple (Livingston and Paul McPherson) with NBA experience -- and a local favorite in Boise State alum Roberto Bergersen. And the crowds in the chummy 4,100-seat Idaho Center are respectable and enthusiastic.

When public address announcer Greg Culver booms, "Let's make some noise for the boys!," they do.

Best of all, the boys pass the ball.

It is a bit of a misapplied stereotype that the CBA is a gunner's paradise -- but only a bit. Since every player's grail is to get an NBA call-up, it's assumed the best way to get noticed is to score -- even though no NBA team is going to be drawing up plays for CBA refugees.

But Krystkowiak has managed to instill a different mindset with the Stampede.

In the game against Great Lakes, the Stampede had more assists than the Storm had field goals, with two players in double figures.

"One thing unique to our group is that we have a team-first mentality," Bergersen said. "We get away from the one-on-one approach of this league and we pass and cut and move."

Some of that is a by-product of the triangle offense Krystkowiak has employed.

"I can't stand isolation ball, where you pass it to a guy and get out of his way," said Krystkowiak, who played nine NBA seasons. "Those days drove me crazy.

"The triangle puts guys in a position where they have to play off each other, where they're forced to hit the first open guy and then cut accordingly and read off that. It's shared work."

Still, it's tricky to teach and perfect in the endless roster churn of the CBA. Early on, the Stampede lost its two leading scorers, Jerald Honeycutt and Smush Parker, to overseas opportunities. That's when Krystkowiak, who had tried to recruit Calvary during the summer, called again.

He was in Spokane, coming off an ankle injury that had cut short his summer tryout with the Wizards. He had made plans to return to school at Gonzaga to finish his degree requirements.

But the ankle came around faster than anticipated, and Calvary got an itch -- and a notion he might enjoy the game again.

"This is why you play basketball," he said. "I've played on selfish teams where it's a new argument every day. That's the kind of stuff that makes you want to quit. A team like this, it's fun to come to work every day."

This was hardly the case with Calvary's last basketball job, a stint with Elan Sportif Chalonnais in France's Pro A league.

"The team I played with in Tokyo (in 2001-02) was great and I loved being in Tokyo," he said. "The people were kind and polite and they liked Americans. France was the complete opposite.

"I told my dad that I wouldn't go back to France unless it's in the pilot's seat of an F-15 Eagle to bomb Paris. Those people are rotten to the core. They are mean and nasty."

Calvary cited three different experiences in France in which he and teammate Udonis Haslem -- who, coincidentally, played on the Florida team the Zags beat in the 1999 NCAAs on Calvary's tip-in -- were refused service "simply because we were Americans."

It wasn't much better in the stands, where Calvary discovered a new level of fair weather.

"It's not like nobody gets booed in America, but it's almost as if they can't wait to do it over there," he said. "Here, people will support you during the tough times. I mean, heck, there are L.A. Clipper fans. People even come out and watch USF and Santa Clara these days. You support your team whether it's good or bad."

That theory hasn't been tested much in Nampa. The Stampede has lost only three times at home this year. Last Saturday, attendance reached 3,905 -- the largest since Idaho rejoined the CBA in 2002 -- and the line of kids at the postgame autograph table stretched halfway back to Boise.

Calvary, who signed with the Stampede just before Christmas, is only now getting into true game shape, but his numbers have been solid -- 14.6 points per game on 57 percent field-goal shooting, and 6.6 rebounds. He is playing slightly out of position as Idaho's center as Josh Davis, who starred on the Wyoming team which upset GU in the 2002 NCAAs, plays power forward.

He doesn't seem to mind that much, and indeed feels grateful for the opportunity to learn from someone like Krystkowiak "who's been there and done that.

"Hey, I learned a ton from Billy (Grier) and Mark (Few) at Gonzaga," Calvary teased, "but you can only listen so much to a guy who's 4-foot-5 telling you to be tough in the post."

Krystkowiak is quick to return the compliment, without the jab.

"He's strong as an ox and he can defend and has great footwork," Krystkowiak said. "I think there's a place in the (NBA) for a player like him. There have been a couple of call-ups this year of guys I don't think are the caliber Casey is.

"I wouldn't be afraid to put him on any 4 or 5 in the league, defensively. I know he's been held back by the `tweener' label, but he plays bigger than people think. And he doesn't have to be taught anything in terms of game plans and plays. He grasps everything and that's a tribute to him and the program he came out of.

"But there's a lot of luck involved, getting the right opportunity."

And yet Calvary doesn't come across as being consumed by that prospect -- or embittered by his previous NBA brushes. For instance, he couldn't be more thrilled that former GU teammate Richie Frahm has stuck with the Sonics this season after years of dues-paying.

"I'd probably be in the league if I worked as hard as Richie, too," he said admiringly. "He's an inspiration."

But Calvary doesn't turn to the sports page transactions first thing every morning.

"If you come in here saying, `I'm going to be disappointed if I don't get a call-up,' well, you're probably going to be disappointed," he said. "But I'm here to learn and work and play and hopefully present myself with a better opportunity next year.

"I've always been a realist. I didn't have a draft party. Every year you're out of college, your chances of making it go down and I understand that the NBA may not be part of my future. But basketball is about providing financially for my family and at the same time doing what I love.

"I take each opportunity as it comes and I'm thankful I can still play."


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