Hoop Dreams

How Montecito’s Curt Pickering Brought Professional Basketball Back to Santa Barbara

On a clear day last October, on the outdoor patio of Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort, a small crowd of less than 100 gathered for a press conference in hushed excitement. Parents shielded the sun from their eyes with glossy folders and kids in baggy shorts and jerseys dribbled basketballs, sharing in badinage while jumpsuit-clad goliaths convened on the lawn facing Cabrillo Boulevard. Amidst the serene scene was the frenzied face of Curt Pickering, the lifelong journeyman turned Montecito dad and coach who weaved in between bodies making final arrangements.

Seventeen years ago, Pickering had been general manager and director of operations and personnel for the Santa Barbara Islanders, an expansion team for the Continental Basketball Association, or CBA, a prominent farm program at the time for players looking to get into the Big Leagues. In their first year, the Islanders held a competitive record and enjoyed a strong attendance, but the organization folded at the end of the season when it ran out of money.

Ever since then, Pickering has longed for another chance to organize a Santa Barbara team. The opportunity eventually presented itself last year when he made arrangements with the International Basketball League, a two-year-old experimental association designed to build on the mistakes of past minor league ventures and offer players the promise of a “realistic dream.” Pickering and two “silent partners” put up $50,000 for the franchise and on April 6, Santa Barbara’s first professional basketball team in 17 years will open a 20-game season (the team name is as of yet undetermined). For Pickering, who is the team’s president and director of operations, this is the culmination of a decade’s worth of waiting for the right moment.

‘A Pact With God’

In 1994, standing on the sands of Butterfly Beach, Curt Pickering made a “pact with God” to give coaching basketball one more try. If it didn’t work out, he’d stay in Santa Barbara and raise a family. Two years before that, while coaching a team in Kuwait, Pickering had forbidden himself from even setting a foot on the beach as land mines left over from the Gulf War were still washing ashore. His time in Kuwait had been preceded by years as a globetrotting vagabond, coaching CBA players in dank Mississippi gyms, traveling from arena to arena for a summer startup league and scouting the distant shores of the world for the next phenomenon.

After his “pact with God,” he took a coaching position in Winnipeg, Canada, but was soon confronted by unfriendly weather, desolate towns and tiring road travels that put a toll on his patience. By ’96, he was back in Santa Barbara, where he married his wife, Resa. They had one son, Sage, who is now 9 years old. In 1997, Pickering founded the Montecito Basketball Academy, a mentorship program that has coached more than 7,500 kids.

“I’ve lived on four continents and every region of the U.S,” Pickering says. “When my situation got settled out there in Winnipeg, my life priorities were in place.”

As time went on and Sage got older, Pickering kept his past at arm’s length, turning down scouting and coaching positions and even offers from the veteran NBA coach, Don Nelson, who once told him, “Pick, if you ever need a job, we have one waiting for you.”

Last year, the CBA approached him to take over a team in San Jose when the league was desperate for a foothold on the West Coast. Pickering says league executives were prepared to hand him over a franchise free of charge, back when teams were going for $200,000. He turned down the offer dubious of the financial prospects, but he was renewed with interest in bringing a team back to Santa Barbara. In mid-2006, he struck a deal with the IBL, whose Northwest and Midwest teams were eager to have their players competing in a place like Santa Barbara.

Lessons Learned

One of the prevailing messages at last October’s press conference was: “Don’t worry about the past, we’ve learned from it.” A sequence of speakers stood at the microphone guaranteeing that fans would watch a “good game” and that the IBL was a delivering a sound business plan designed for “longevity.” The recurring refrain was meant to assure the audience that the failure of the 1989-90 Islanders was not a problem with Santa Barbara, but rather with the CBA.

“I think that if the Islanders were still around, they’d be one of the best minor league teams in the country,” says Larry Creger, a former assistant with the Los Angeles Lakers. “I don’t think Santa Barbara is too far from having an NBA team. It’s a fabulous place for basketball.”

The coach of the team, Don Sellers, who has coached pro basketball since 1992, promised to give fans fast-paced action with respect to fundamentals, “the right way to play the game,” as the great NBA coach Larry Brown is known for saying. Sellers also told the audience that players would be approachable.

“We want to be a team that brings in good guys who want to get out into the community and help the kids,” he said.

Fans, so far, seem to have bought into that mantra. “I sure hope it survives because it’s a brilliant thing for Santa Barbara,” says Montecito dad Eric David Greenspan, whose company Make It Work is designing the team’s logo and colors. “These kids live for basketball. I know my son [Jacob] does.”

At this point, Pickering has compiled a portion of his roster, mostly with players who have ties to the West Coast. These include former UCSB standouts Adama Ndiaye and Branduinn Fullove, former USC player Sam Clancy, Shantay Legan (who began at the University of California and finished at Fresno State), former NBA first round pick Erick Barkley, two other unnamed players, both with NBA experience, and a whole smattering of prospects who have either pledged interest or made quasi-commitments.

Rehashing the Past

Sports speculators often see Santa Barbara as a logical place to set up a franchise, but like so many American cities of comparable size, this area has a poor record hosting professional teams. In 1989, the now languishing CBA added the Santa Barbara Islanders to its then 15-team league and 56-game season. Playing their games in front of capacity crowds at the Santa Barbara City College Sports Pavilion, the Islanders dashed out to win their first 13 games. By early February of 1990, however, the team hit a wall when its two best players, Leon Wood and league-leading scorer Derrick Gervin, were called up to the NBA, a notoriously bittersweet moment for any minor league team fan. The team also faced problems in the front office, as the owner, Shirley Otto, sold the Islanders to businessman Howard Schneider, who unloaded the franchise after only two weeks. For the remainder of the season, the league’s 15 team owners handled all executive decisions.

In late February, the Islanders returned from Rapid City, South Dakota and pulled off a courageous comeback victory, even though many team insiders were auguring an imminent demise. “You can only go on guts and glory for so long,” Pickering told the News-Press after the game.

The Islanders won their division and set an expansion team record for victories (37) and league record for points per game (123.5), playing in front of consistent audiences of 2,300. But the team ran out of money, playing its last four regular season games at Ventura College, before losing in the conference finals to the squad from Rapid City.

“Things weren’t done professionally or in a realistic way,” Pickering says of the CBA, comparing the league to the circus act, Barnum & Bailey.

Pickering left the CBA experience feeling exhausted, as though months of 15-hour work days had gone to waste. Today, he feels it was a learning experience; he sees promises in the IBL because it is designed to be everything the CBA is not. The league is built on a “prudent, solid foundation,” he says, with a cluster scheduling concept that limits a team’s amount of travel and reduces operating costs. Mikal Duilio, the league’s commissioner and founder, prides himself on the fact that teams run on annual budgets one third of the cost of average minor league teams and that the league completed all its scheduled games last year without cancellation.

The games themselves are also structured to maximize attendance and spark fan interest. Whereas the NBA allows six timeouts per game, IBL teams get one per quarter. Also unlike the NBA, the shot clock is 22 seconds, instead 24, and players are required to immediately throw the ball to an-inbounds player in dead-ball situations; the rule changes are said to have contributed to the league’s lofty scoring average of 126 points per game, compared to less than 99 for the NBA.

In addition, the IBL season is not five months long and it doesn’t conflict with the playing schedules of high school, college and pro teams. League operators don’t pretend for one second that they can compete with the NBA.

“Are we the Lakers or the Clippers? No, we are not. We are an appetizer,” Pickering says. “It’s very clear to me how the CBA and IBL are at two opposite ends of the spectrum.”

Playing the games in Santa Barbara is an added luxury, according to Duilio, who says the area has the “right population, right personality and right level of community activism” to have its “own identity” and be able to support a fledgling team.

“The IBL is so efficient,” says the self-assured commissioner, “you don’t need all those characteristics to have a successful franchise.”

Home is Where the New Start is

Pickering is utilizing his new team not just to bring competitive sports to the area, but to give young talent the opportunity to be seen by pro scouts in a setting where the quality of living rivals any place in America. In the case of Jaeson and Josh Maravich, Santa Barbara could even be a permanent home, a place to wage a new start. The brothers, who live in Covington, Louisiana, are the surviving sons of “Pistol” Pete Maravich, the floppy-haired hall of fame NBA player whose flamboyant on-court antics and fearless scoreless abilities revolutionized the game. During a pickup game 19 years ago, Maravich collapsed and died of a heart attack in front of his sons, who seem to be haunted by the incident to this very day. Jaeson, 27, a budding basketball star since the eighth grade, played ball at five colleges in six years before being sidelined by injuries and a chronic case of insomnia that on most days leaves him despondent and distracted. By comparison, Josh is less burdened, though he’s accustomed to the anxiety of hid dad’s memory, having played as a walk-on player at his alma mater, Louisiana State University.

In December, the boys visited Santa Barbara and toured the area with Pickering (“Mr. Curt”), whom they’ve met 16 years ago at the Pete Maravich Basketball Camp. In April, they could find themselves playing pro basketball on the Central Coast, escaping the weighty memory of a man whose legacy spreads the entire Gold Coast.

“Since I was at LSU, I’ve been waiting for the time to get out of here,” says John, who is 24. “It’s like my friend always says: ‘The only thing in Louisiana is beer and crawfish.’”

At 51, Pickering identifies with the notion of home, having convinced himself that while “money is great and glamour is great, there’s a real price to pay.” These days he wakes up in the morning and brings Sage to school at El Montecito and is home at night with his family for dinner. Sage loves basketball but has a deeper affinity for the guitar. On a night last October, Pickering recalls listening to his son strumming strings feeling validated by his life choices.

“That was the most comforting thing to me,” Pickering says. “That’s when I realized I always wanted to be a dad.”