Have Game, Will Travel | Feature | Chicago Reader

Have Game, Will Travel 

Quemont Greer was a star at DePaul, but the NBA passed him over. So he took the first job he was offered: playing ball in the Philippines.

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Quemont Greer finished his college basketball career with the DePaul University Blue Demons last March thinking he had a bright future. The six-foot-six, 240-pound forward was the second player in school history to earn first-team all-Conference USA honors. His senior year scoring average of 18.3 points per game was the second highest in the conference, and he's the only player ever to be named Conference USA player of the week three times in a row. He was one of 64 college seniors invited to take part in the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, one of the NBA's two pre-draft camps, where he'd have the chance to play in front of scouts from around the league.

His hopes grew dimmer as summer approached. Though Greer put up decent numbers at Portsmouth in April, and his team won the tournament, he wasn't invited to the NBA's bigger and more important Chicago camp in June. Draft night came and went on June 28, and Greer wasn't among the 60 players selected. He tried to work his way into the league as an undrafted free agent, playing in summer leagues and even practicing once with the Sacramento Kings, but he was never offered a contract.

With the NBA no longer in his sights, Greer asked his agent, Bill Neff, to find him a job overseas. Greer said he "didn't have a lot of options" at the time, and told Neff to "pick and choose the best situation." In early September Neff called with an offer: Greer could take a roster spot with the Red Bull Barakos, one of nine teams in the Philippine Basketball Association. His monthly salary of $12,000 would be a pittance compared to the riches of the NBA. Instead of state-of-the-art sports arenas with luxury suites, he would play in the Cuneta Astrodome, a crumbling turquoise eyesore that overlooks Manila Bay. He'd face teams with absurd, corporate-sponsored names: the Purefoods Chunkee Giants, the San Miguel Beermen, the Santa Lucia Realtors.

A year in the PBA consists of two four-month seasons. During the Fiesta Conference, which runs from October to mid-February, each team is allowed one foreign player, who can be no taller than six-foot-six. The Philippine Cup begins in mid-March and is closed to non-Filipinos. Fiesta Conference imports are almost always from the United States, and while they're the best players on their PBA teams, they have less job security than their teammates. They're given no more than three games to prove their worth and are referred to by PBA coaches and broadcasters in terms usually reserved for used cars and washing machines: one bad night can be enough to convince a team that they've bought a lemon. When that happens the team swaps the player like a flat tire.

Of the hundreds of American players who have played in the PBA since the early 1980s, only a handful went on to play in the NBA. Traffic between the two leagues more often moves in the opposite direction, with former NBA players coming to the Philippines in the twilight of their careers for a paid vacation or a chance to stay in shape for one last shot at the big time. The most recent former NBA player to take the walk of shame along the Pacific Rim was Darvin Ham, last seen in 2005 with the Detroit Pistons, who joined the Talk N Text Phone Pals for three playoff games in January. Former Bulls Dickey Simpkins and Scott Burrell are also members of the NBA-to-PBA fraternity.

Size is the biggest reason Greer wasn't selected in the 2005 NBA draft. He's a classic tweener, a player whose size and skills leave them stuck between positions. With his broad, bullish physique and soft shooting touch near the basket, he plays like a power forward, but he's got the height of a shooting guard or small forward, and NBA teams didn't want to risk finding out he couldn't score on seven-foot centers. "I don't think he was ever considered much of a prospect," says Jonathan Givony, president of Draft Express, a Web site that contains hundreds of scouting reports on potential NBA players. "If there's one type of guy you can find the most coming out of college, it's the undersize power forward, and their track record is terrible." Of course Greer disagrees with the scouts. "Some people say I'm not tall enough," he says. "I don't think that should have been a factor. If you can play, you can play."

Greer knew that in the Philippines he had an opportunity to prove himself. But he also knew there would be constant pressure throughout the season: any lapse in his scoring or effort, or even a simple losing streak, could prompt Red Bull to replace him. If that happened, Greer would be back at square one. He'd fly home to Milwaukee or to Sacramento, where he trained with other unsigned players last summer. He would try to stay in shape and wait for another job, possibly in an American minor league or elsewhere abroad. For Greer and the hundreds of other Americans who play as hired guns around the world, it's hard to predict where your drop-step or turnaround jump shot will take you next.

The Philippines has been crazy for basketball for at least 70 years. In a country with more than 7,000 islands and 170 distinct languages, it's one of the few things nearly everyone has in common. Pristine outdoor courts with expensive fiberglass backboards and overhead lights, built by NGOs and religious groups, rise out of the rubble of some of Manila's most run-down slums. Filipinos of all ages can proudly name members of the 1936 national team that placed fifth in the Olympics and the bronze-medal team from the 1954 World Championships. The PBA, founded in 1975, was the first professional basketball league in Asia, and today its games draw thousands of fans: families, groupies, transvestites, and elderly women all come together to cheer for players and taunt referees. At college games brawls erupt between high-ranking government officials and assorted tycoons who are among the alumni in the stands.

Greer landed at Ninoy Aquino International Airport well past midnight on September 19 with his girlfriend of nine years, Sherita Sanders. A Red Bull assistant coach and company driver picked the couple up and took them to their new home: the Holiday Inn Galleria Suites in Manila. On the ride Greer saw Filipinos eating barbecue outside dimly lit karaoke lounges along EDSA, Manila's smoggy, often clogged main traffic artery. "I was like, this is something different," he says. "This is something odd."

He got to sleep around three or four, then reported for his first practice at nine the following morning. Red Bull's practices are held at RFM Gym, a stuffy sweatbox without air-conditioning where players are usually drenched before the end of warm-ups. The team was already halfway through their three-week preseason. The managers, having seen video of Greer's college games and checked out his reputation as a scoring machine with scouts, were excited about their young import. Head coach Yeng Guiao expected Greer's scoring average at DePaul would translate to between 25 and 30 points per game in the PBA. Greer's duties would also include defending the other teams' best players, averaging at least ten rebounds a game, and acting as a team leader.

The first game of the season was less than two weeks away, which didn't leave Greer much time to earn his teammates' trust and respect. The PBA's 16-game regular season is too short, however, for teams to wait for local players to jell with mercurial foreign stars who prefer to lead by example. Guiao said he prefers imports with take-charge personalities and wished that the mild-mannered Greer could be "more passionate, more emotional, more vocal." Instead Greer, who says he's never been a "vocal type of leader," spent most of his time in between drills waiting alone on the sideline. Sometimes he'd bring a folding chair and have a trainer massage his calves and thighs. He rarely challenged his teammates to play harder.

"You want him to get angry," Guiao said. "You want him to shout at his teammates. That actually helps teams." But Greer felt apprehensive about declaring himself top dog when he still couldn't remember his teammates' first names. "I was nervous because I didn't know what to expect from them or how they were gonna react towards me," Greer said. "A lot of these guys been playing on this team for more than three or four years, and you just want me to come in and be a leader? How is that possible?"

Red Bull's players seemed capable of dealing with their tight-lipped star. If an attempted entry pass to Greer was stolen, his teammates would ask Greer what sort of pass he wanted and where to throw it next. When they set up on defense, the players looked to Greer to know where on the court they needed to be. "They know I'm not a real talkative person," Greer explained. "They kind of watch and look at how I'm reacting to certain things, and then they react to that."

Greer's individual play at the start of the season was spectacular. In his first game he scored 37 points and collected 15 rebounds. He topped that performance with 40 points, 13 rebounds, and four blocks in the second game, a one-point win over the Alaska Aces that Greer sealed in the closing seconds with a dunk over opposing import Artemus McClary. But it was a one-man show. Greer took 63 shots in the first two games and scored nearly half of the team's combined 153 points, but had only four assists. In the fourth game, an 84-77 win over the Air 21 Express attended by more than 12,000 fans, he scored a comparatively subdued 25 points while his teammates played a larger role. Afterward Guiao said the team was "trying to veer away from our import trying to score 40 points but with little contribution from our locals."

Six games into the season, Red Bull's 4-2 record was among the best in the league. Greer was averaging more than 30 points a game and was the league's leading scorer. He was playing so well that concerns about his ability to lead the team were forgotten. The coaches believed the team had a chance to win its first championship since 2002. Even Guiao, who dispenses a lot more criticism of his players than he does compliments, sounded bubbly. "I have no doubt that he's a great player," he said. "I think Q is the best import of the conference right at this point."

With things going smoothly on the court Greer settled into the comfortable but uneventful life of an American basketball player in Manila. He and Sanders lived in an upscale two-room suite paid for by the team, and a personal driver chauffeured them everywhere. Around the city Greer had reached a level of celebrity on par with movie stars and supermodels. He had to get used to wide-eyed stares and hearing people call out his name in a mock stadium announcer's voice on an almost daily basis. "It's kind of cool," Greer said. "It's nice to know that the people recognize me and just like me and look up to me."

The A-list status that made Greer the most popular man in every mall he visited also made him a target for scam artists. Once a man threw himself in front of the Red Bull team van and demanded payment for injuries he claimed to have suffered. "The guy walked on the left side of the car, and then he walked back in front of the car, and traffic wasn't moving," says Sanders. "He had a bowl of rice and a Red Bull in his hand." When the driver eased off the brakes, Sanders says, "The guy threw himself on the car, threw his rice all over the windshield, and then scraped his food off the car back into his bowl." The driver ended up throwing 100 pesos at the guy to make him leave.

Adjusting to the Philippines was easy for Greer. All he did was play basketball, eat, take naps, and hang out with his girlfriend. A self-proclaimed homebody, he's nothing like the trash-talking, stereotypical American athletes many Filipinos expect. His hooded eyes display little emotion. He keeps a restrained smile on his face during conversation, polite but never exuberant. His voice, steady and smooth, rarely rises from its calm and humble tone. Even the typical difficulties foreigners living in Manila face--endless gridlock, overwhelming diesel fumes, loneliness--failed to faze him.

Greer and Sanders almost always ate at American chain restaurants like Chili's and TGI Friday's, and spent their evenings at the multiplex or watching pirated DVDs in their hotel room. Killing time became a way of life for the couple. "Trying to find something to do--that's our adventure for the day," Sanders said. "We play Monopoly a lot. That'll take four or five hours of your day, going around and around." The monotony was A-OK with Greer. "I'm pretty much happy with that," he said. "I'd rather chill and just relax and enjoy my time, just me and my girl."

Sanders, who met Greer when they were freshmen in high school, had more trouble adjusting. She'd spent the last four years working full-time, studying at Marquette University, and driving to Chicago to watch Greer's DePaul games. "I was busy all the time," she said. In Manila, with nothing to do for the first time in years, she passed time in Internet cafes, writing to friends back home. "I think they hate it too, because they have to write back," Sanders said. "I have time to do nothing but write long e-mails, and they don't."

Sanders looked forward to game days because it meant an opportunity to socialize with the players' wives and girlfriends behind the Red Bull bench. "There's not really anyone else to talk to," she said, "so when we get to the games I usually sit next to the coach's daughter, and we sit there most of the game talking to each other."

Even Greer admitted suffering from occasional homesickness. He said there were times when he felt he'd do almost anything for a cheesesteak from Taste Buds on Chicago's west side or chimichangas from Taco & Burrito Palace. He wished he could get a haircut, but he didn't trust Filipino barbers to give him a proper fade. The one positive thing about being sent home early, he said, would be getting to spend Christmas or New Year's with his family. He especially missed his old DePaul teammates. In Manila, he said, "I haven't really hung out with none of my teammates or any other players."

By early November Greer was relaxing on the court as well as off. In two consecutive blowout losses to the Alaska Aces and the Coca-Cola Tigers, which dropped Red Bull to 4-4, he averaged less than 17 points per game and made only 27 percent of his shots. Days later, Guiao and other members of the Red Bull coaching staff called Greer and Sanders in for a meeting. They told Greer that his body language on the court made him look like he didn't care about winning, and that he needed to play harder in practice to inspire his teammates to do the same. "He's not going to make an extra effort," Guiao said. "He'll do the thing that you ask him to do, but he's going to do the minimum."

Greer told the coaches he sometimes took breaks in practice because he didn't want to wear himself out before games. "I was participating in all the drills, and I wasn't getting much of a breather," he said. "I felt that I'm out here doing a lot of the work, and I need a break too. They was looking at it like, he's the import--he don't need no breaks."

The next game may have been Greer's best performance of the season. He tallied 37 points, 16 rebounds, and nine assists in a win over the Barangay Ginebra Kings. He scored on jump shots, three-pointers, put-back dunks, and impossible-looking one-handed floaters. He toyed with defenders, slicing through three or four Barangay players at a time with hesitation and crossover dribble moves before dishing to his teammates for easy baskets. Even at his best, however, Greer oozed nonchalance. He trotted up the court on offense while his teammates held the ball and waited to pass to him and got back slowly on defense. During timeouts he stood in the huddle with his hands on his hips, head drooping to the side, looking far too casual for a player working on a triple-double.

The disconnect between Greer's body language and his prodigious output confounded his PBA coaches. He outplayed rival imports while skulking around the court like he'd had a pregame cocktail of Prozac and sleeping pills. He was still the PBA's leading scorer, and Red Bull was one of the top three teams in the league, but with the postseason only weeks away Guiao felt his team wasn't good enough to win a championship. The thought of replacing Greer crossed his mind, even though he knew it was a risk. "We're reaching a point where it's better to make a wrong decision than not make one at all," he said.

The threat of being replaced didn't bother Greer, Sanders said, but she hated the uncertainty: "The hardest part has been not knowing what's gonna come next, not knowing if he'll be on this team today or tomorrow. Do you really get settled, or do you keep everything packed up and wait for the phone call?"

Then a week before Christmas, playing against Air 21 in the second-to-last game of the regular season, Greer scored only nine points, went 4-for-21 from the field, bricked nine out of ten free throws, and had seven turnovers. Several times he failed to seal off his defender and deny access to the passing lane. Shawn Daniels, Air 21's import and Greer's primary defender, wound up collecting six steals. The rest of the team, however, thrived without help from their star, winning in spite of his miserable night.

Guiao now believed that even when Greer played well he wasn't the best choice for the team. Guiao worried that the Filipino players were in such awe of Greer's talent that they deferred to him and didn't get involved in the offense. "He's so good as an individual the rest of the team's talent is suppressed," he said.

Less than a week after Greer's nine-point debacle and three weeks away from the playoffs, Red Bull brought in James Penny, a 29-year-old, six-foot-six leaper, as a possible replacement. Penny played for Texas Christian University in the mid-90s and his professional career has included stops in the U.S. minor leagues, Canada, Argentina, the Dominican Republic, China, and Lebanon. According to Penny, Red Bull team officials told him they needed a replacement because Greer was injured. "I honestly thought he was hurt," Penny said. "Usually when something like this happens the team is struggling. You don't come in and try to replace somebody who's the leading scorer in the league with his team being in second or third place."

Team officials called Greer hours before Penny arrived and told him the new import would be in practice the next day. They planned to watch the two face off, then choose whichever player looked better. Greer said he felt "kinda shocked" when he heard he'd be playing for his job at the next practice. "I just thought they should have informed me and let me know ahead of time," he said.

The team wound up taking its time with the decision, watching Penny and Greer throughout the week. During a full-court scrimmage at Penny's second practice, Greer showed flashes of brilliance--a dunk over Penny and two other players and a crossover that left Penny flat-footed at the top of the key--but Penny's team was more cohesive. He passed to backdoor cutters for easy layups and set screens that gave his teammates open jumpers. As the two continued practicing together the tension between them evaporated. Penny even encouraged Greer to start acting like the vocal leader the team wanted. "To me, he's been here working his butt off the whole time," he said. "I told him, 'It's your job, man. Don't let anyone take your job from you. If they ask you to do something like be more of a leader, then why not do it?'"

Red Bull's final regular season game, against Coca-Cola, was two days before Christmas. If the team won, they would tie for second place and force a one-game playoff for an automatic semifinal berth. Penny had been in the country less than a week and was still suffering from jet lag. Guiao decided it was too risky to play him and penciled in Greer as the starter. It seemed like the last chance for Greer to prove his worth to the team, but hours before what could have been his last game in a Red Bull uniform, he was as blase as ever. "If they don't like me being myself, which I have been since I got here, so be it," he said. "If they decide to replace me, that's on them. It's really not in my control."

The threat of replacement did seem to affect Greer's performance. He looked like he was running harder than in previous games, and he avoided taking many of the long-distance shots that drove his coaches mad. With 20 seconds left and the game tied, he stood at the three-point line with the ball in his hands. He blew by his defender, jump-stopped a few feet away from the basket, and drew a foul when three opposing players pounced on him. He made one of two free throws to clinch the game. The win was enough to earn Greer another chance to play, this time in the one-game playoff for second place against Barangay Ginebra. He scored 37 points and grabbed 13 rebounds, but he had zero assists and Red Bull lost.

Later that week, Penny officially replaced Greer. In Red Bull's first playoff series, he led the team to a three-game sweep of the Alaska Aces. "I am more convinced now that Penny is the right import for us," Guiao told the Philippine Daily Inquirer. "He's some sort of savior." Six weeks later, Penny led the team to a 4-2 defeat of the Chunkee Giants in the Fiesta Conference best-of-seven championship series.

Before leaving the Philippines in early January, Greer said he wasn't disappointed with the way the season ended and looked forward to his next job. "I know what I've accomplished and I'm gonna leave with my head up high," he said. "My agent's got a list of things lined up for me when I get back. It's just a matter of choosing the best job for me. This is just the beginning. There's a lot of basketball still left in me."

Greer was right. By the second week of February, before the PBA playoffs had even ended, he was playing for the Tulsa 66ers, one of eight teams in the NBA's National Basketball Developmental League. He spent most of his first week in Tulsa sitting on the bench, playing only 11 minutes and scoring two points in his first four games. But Greer slowly worked his way into the rotation. In back-to-back games on March 3 and 4, he scored 16 points in 9 minutes and 14 points in 13 minutes. These quick bursts of baskets hinted at a role Greer might be able to play in the NBA--a bench player who can provide instant offense and swing the momentum of a game.

NBDL rosters are dense with young talent, and getting noticed by NBA scouts will not be easy for Greer. Most NBDL players are former college stars just like him. He won't be scoring 27 points per game, he won't have a driver, and it's highly unlikely he'll become a celebrity, even in Tulsa. But he's one step closer to the NBA--and he'll be able to get a haircut.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jun Mendoza, Rafe Bartholomew.

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