His eyes scanned the list of names of men invited to the Maine Red Claws’ training camp. That day in November, his mind weighed their credentials and pedigrees.
Fifteen players, including himself. Eugene Spates was impressed.
“Ten off that list would make the team. I thought my chances were slim. Confidence? I had no confidence, I can tell you that.”
Spates spoke with that broad grin that’s become familiar to teammates and fans. He sat on a bleacher in Hill Gymnasium on the University of Southern Maine campus Thursday. The team had just finished a morning practice. Ten hours later, the Red Claws would beat the Erie BayHawks, a tough D-League opponent.
Spates scored 21 of his team’s 120 points. He shot 5 of 7 from the floor and 3 of 3 for 3-pointers. He had three assists. He didn’t turn the ball over once. All this after coming off the bench for several stretches that added up to about 24 minutes, or half the game.
He was named player of the game, a first for him in this league. As he was interviewed for the radio audience, Spates couldn’t contain his grin. He’s heading into the new year and he still has a job as a pro basketball player. So tenuous was his future, he had registered for a test to qualify for a job with the U.S. Border Patrol.
“I canceled that. I’m still here.”
He played three seasons for Northeastern after transferring from a junior college in his home state of Texas. Southern Methodist had become the school of his choice, but Coach Jimmy Tubbs left abruptly when the NCAA came around to investigate possible infractions. Someone pointed Spates in the direction of Northeastern and he jumped. “I really didn’t have any other options.”
Spates averaged 7.5 points a game over three seasons and 95 games at Northeastern. He really wasn’t on basketball’s radar. He got an agent who found him a spot on BC Mess in Luxembourg for the 2009-10 season.
Luxembourg? Spates went to the Internet and pulled up maps of Europe. “I couldn’t find Luxembourg. My agent said to look between Germany and Belgium. I still couldn’t find it. And then I did. You mean this little itty bitty country?”
The 6-foot-8 Spates averaged 34.6 ppg and 13.2 rebounds for a team in a town of not much more than 3,200. “I didn’t expect the level of play to be as poor as it was.” His teammates all had day jobs.
When BC Mess crossed the border for games in Belgium, Spates played in arenas with no heat, poor lighting and bent rims. “Some of the courts weren’t made of wood. I think it was concrete.”
Spates returned to Boston. He caught a break when his coach at Northeastern got a phone call from Austin Ainge. “Got any players I might be interested in?” Bill Coen mentioned two. One of them was Spates.
“It was just a name and a phone number,” said Ainge after Thursday night’s win over Erie. Coen didn’t pitch Spates. The world has a lot of good kids without eye-opening talent who understand their roles.
Ainge called Spates, inviting him to play in some pickup games. Weeks later, Ainge asked him to the Red Claws’ tryout session at the University of Massachusetts-Boston.
When the D-League draft rolled around, the Red Claws’ president, Jon Jennings, and Ainge made Spates their seventh-round pick. He was the 99th player chosen. Expectations weren’t very high.
Spates worked harder than some in training camp. When Stephane Lasme injured his foot and Magnum Rolle got hurt, the Red Claws were suddenly short of big men. The player who was about to be cut was kept.
Today, Jennings and Ainge are scratching their heads. Why didn’t this friendly kid have a basketball profile? Who knew he could play this well?
“He’s only two years out of college but it’s like he’s 10 years older than anyone else,” said Ainge. “He’s that much more mature. When he doesn’t get the minutes, he doesn’t sulk or complain. He makes himself ready for when I do call on him.”
For Christmas, Spates invited two younger sisters to Portland. One is a 19-year-old, 6-foot-3 student at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, one of the Little Ivies. “No, she doesn’t play basketball, can you believe that?”
The other is 17 and a high school student in New York where their father is from. He met their mother when he was in the military, stationed in Texas. The sisters were at the Portland Expo for Tuesday night’s game. Spates played all of four minutes.
“They had a really good time,” said Spates. “They left (Wednesday) and they didn’t want to go.”
High up in Section 3, behind the Red Claws’ bench, Alex Namer, 10, and his sister, Hailey, 7, sat taller every time Spates touched the ball. In four minutes, that wasn’t often.
“He’s really dynamic when he’s playing,” said Marie Bourque-Namer, the kids’ grandmother. “He’s also aware of people other than himself. You don’t always see that.”
He talks to youngsters rather than at them, says Bourque-Namer. When Hailey asked for his autograph, he obliged and asked her in turn: “Can I have your autograph?”
Spates doesn’t have the quickest legs, said Ainge of his player who turns 24 in two weeks. “We call him our Old Man of the Rec League. He understands the game.”
He understands life.
Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: [email protected]