By Ben Joravsky
The last time Mel Johnson saw Freddie Cleveland, Cleveland was darting down an alley behind the McDonald's on Madison Street in Oak Park.
That was after Cleveland had abruptly and mysteriously abandoned his plans to organize a teenage professional basketball league, leaving Johnson and dozens of young NBA wannabes in the lurch. "Freddie probably thought I was going to come after him," says Johnson. "But I don't want to waste any more time with Freddie Cleveland."
Instead, Johnson has given Cleveland's idea a twist. He's created the Teenage Basketball Association, a two-team amateur league of recent high school grads who must attend college in order to play. "I want to use the lure of basketball to get kids to stay in school, get their degrees, and find a career," says Johnson. "I don't want to see more kids lost at age 30 with no idea of what they're going to do."
Johnson's endeavor stems from a lifelong obsession with basketball. "I wasn't good enough to play on my high school team, but I played all the time," says Johnson, who grew up on the near west side. "Isiah Thomas, Mark Aguirre, Darrell Walker, Doc Rivers--I'm proud to say I played them all."
He graduated from Gordon Tech in 1978, earned a degree in criminal justice at Texas Southern University, and then came home to Chicago, where his mother, Sally Johnson, once an aide to Mayor Washington, owns and operates Chicago Architectural Window, a window-installation company. He started his own security firm and went to work as a bodyguard for former CHA chief Vince Lane. He was a criminal investigator in the CHA's gang crimes unit when he decided he needed a new career. "I left the CHA in January," says Johnson. "I was thinking I might go into business with my mom when I read a story about Freddie Cleveland wanting to start a pro league for teenagers. I thought, 'This sounds right.' I always wanted to coach. I always wanted to be around the game."
He found Cleveland's number in the phone book and gave him a call, and eagerly allowed himself to get roped in. "I didn't know Freddie, never even met him before," says Johnson. "He said he was a businessman, said he used to sell used cars. He was pretty smooth, a good talker. He said it was time the colleges stopped exploiting kids from our community, time they made some good money. Maybe it's a situation where I heard what I wanted to hear."
Johnson talked his mother into letting Cleveland use her office for his operation. For about three months Cleveland came in almost every day. "I'd get there in the morning and he'd be on the phones," says Johnson. "He was always on the phones."
By mid-April the papers were running stories about Cleveland, who said he had $15 million worth of corporate backing to put together a league of ten franchises in eight cities, including two in Chicago. They were going to play in big arenas like the UIC Pavilion or the Rosemont Horizon, players would receive at least $100,000, and he hoped to sign Ronnie Fields, Jimmy Sanders, Leonard Myles, and other top high school players. For the lesser talents, Cleveland was calling on kids to pay $100 in advance to try out.
"He had all these kids coming into the office money in hand, to fill out their applications and pay Freddie his $100 nonrefundable fee," says Johnson. "Man, he could talk. He said he was going to have his top team play the NBA champions in a $30 million winner-take-all showdown. He said he was going to make a movie--he told my administrative assistant, Valencia Glover, she'd star in it. He had a couple of associates, guys he had grown up with. One of them used to do something for Earth, Wind & Fire. He was good at writing press releases. They got articles in the Sun-Times, the Tribune, even the New York Times."
Some of the coverage was critical, yet Cleveland was rarely without an answer, no matter how serious the accusation. When reporters discovered he had no corporate contracts to back his promises, he said his league's finances were nobody's business. When critics claimed he was discouraging kids from getting an education, he told Lori Nickel of the Tribune: "We're starting a not-for-profit school, the College of Knowledge. We're looking for a building to put it in, and the players will have to take classes in the off-season."
When Nickel asked about the nonrefundable $100 tryout fee, Cleveland said, "If we didn't have a fee, we'd have 10,000 kids trying out."
On July 26 about 70 kids tried out, but Johnson says Cleveland wasn't there. "I don't know where he was--we couldn't get ahold of him. We made sure the tryout was legitimate, though. We had coaches there and we put the kids through drills. We didn't get any of that fee money, but my mother put up the money to rent the gym and provide food and give those kids their money's worth. Everybody was asking, 'Where's Freddie Cleveland?' I didn't know what to say.
"But guess what? On the first Monday after the tryouts he came into the office as if nothing had happened. He sat down behind a desk like he owned the world, picked up a phone, and started making calls. I said, 'Wait a minute, Freddie, where were you?' He said, 'I ain't got nothing to explain, but since you're asking, my daughter was sick.' Well, my mother said, 'This isn't going to happen again. Pack up your stuff, you got to go.' And that was it--we kicked him out."
The league was reborn with a new name under Johnson's direction and some financial help from his mother. "I told my son that I'd help him fulfill his dream because I believe in him and I have faith in him," says Sally Johnson. "This is much different than what Freddie Cleveland was talking about. I don't even want to talk about that man."
As for Cleveland, I couldn't find him. His old phone's been disconnected, and there's no current listing under his name. "I happened to see Freddie one day outside the McDonald's," says Johnson. "He was on the pay phone and when he saw me he hung up and bolted down the alley."
In July Johnson drafted 30 players and assigned them to two teams, the Fires and the Knights. "Louis Johnson, who played guard for Crane, was our first pick in the draft," says Johnson. "Our second was John Lucas--he played at Wells. Percy Martin coaches the Fires, Teran Thomas coaches the Knights. These are good guys that I grew up with. I always told them, 'Once I got a chance to do something you're coming with me.'"
The new league is a not-for-profit operation with a strong emphasis on education, says Johnson, adding that the players are required to maintain at least a C average at an area junior college or college. They practice twice a week and play in several Park District tournaments. "I told the players they won't get paid," says Johnson. "I don't make promises I can't keep."
In October Johnson organized a game at Clemente High School, with a halftime performance by Jesse White's tumblers. Last month a squad of his best players scrimmaged against Chicago State. "We lost but it was close," says Johnson. "We gave them a fight."
Mostly, though, his team plays gritty games on dingy courts in Park District field houses. Last week saw the Knights playing a ragtag collection of thirtysomething geezers as part of a seven-team tournament at Gill Park in Uptown. Midway through the second half the Knights' lead hit 60. "The competition's not always this bad," said Johnson as the geezers called time to catch their breath and steady their rubbery legs.
The Knights' star rebounder was Brian Flagg, a rock-chested power forward who played alongside Sherell Ford, Donnie Boyce, and Michael Finley on the Proviso East state champion team of 1991. "I think I could have played major college ball, but I fractured my ankle and that slowed me up," Flagg said after the game.
"That happens," Johnson added. "They have stardom written on their backs, but once they fall the scouts stop looking."
"I just want to keep in shape and maybe be seen by a scout," said Flagg.
Their court leader was Zenus Jones, a zippy little point guard out of Washington High. "I'm going to Olive-Harvey and I'll probably be a physical therapist," Jones said. "But I'm not giving up. Jamie Brandon was in this tournament and look what happened to him."
Brandon--who starred at King High School and went on to play at LSU with Shaquille O'Neal--now plays in the Continental Basketball Association. "A CBA scout came to this very gym about a month ago, saw Jamie play, and signed him up," said Johnson. "Now everybody wants to be like Jamie. They're all hoping to be discovered.
"Is that sad? In some ways yes, in some ways no. If you're 30, yes, it's time to give it up. For the other guys it's exposure. They don't want to play for their colleges. They think they can get better exposure right here in the field house. I tell them, use it as a tool to keep you motivated to stay in school and learn a skill and get your degree. Then, if you're good enough, maybe you'll get your shot in the CBA or overseas. Hey, there's good money to be made overseas."
He paused to watch the next two teams take the court. "Look, I know most of these guys won't make it, even overseas. But how can you tell them not to believe? They won't listen anyway. They won't say it's over until their bodies fall apart. So, yeah, it's a little sad. But you have to have faith. If the game keeps you going, if it keeps you in school, it's for the good. I tell the kids--'Use the game, don't let the game use you.'"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Mel Johnson photo by Jon Randolph.