Every year since the ABA/NBA merger, there has been a Pepperdine basketball player in the NBA, but that improbable streak will almost certainly end this season.
Everyone knows that Gonzaga is the leading basketball school in the West Coast Conference, right? It goes without saying. And if I were to ask you, which WCC school has had a player in the NBA for the most consecutive seasons, you'd no doubt answer Gonzaga. And you'd be wrong. Because even given the remarkable 19 year career of John Stockton (and for the first 18 of those 19 years, he was the only Zag in the assoc), the contiguous history of Bulldogs in the NBA only stretches back to 1985. Pepperdine's unbroken pro basketball legacy goes back further.
What if I were to ask you about some of the really powerful schools from the big, powerful conferences? What about Georgetown, or Arizona, or UConn? Believe it or not, there has been a continuous string of Pepperdine players in the NBA stretching back further than any of those iconic basketball schools, not too mention many other big hoops schools.
There has been a Wave on an NBA roster every season since the NBA/ABA merger in 1976. If you consider ABA history as well, the streak goes back even further, to Bird Averitt starting in 1973. Georgetown? Their current history starts with John Duren in 1980. UofA? Steve Kerr and Tom Tolbert, 1988. UConn? Cliff Robinson, 1989.
To be certain, the bulk of the Pepperdine streak is courtesy of two players, whose careers spanned almost three decades. The late, great Dennis Johnson, a 2010 Hall of Fame inductee, joined Averitt in the NBA during the merger year in 1976-1977. He played 14 seasons for the Sonics, Suns and Celtics, winning titles in Seattle and Boston. Three seasons after DJ's retirement, Doug Christie entered the league as a Lakers rookie. Christie would play 15 seasons, for seven different NBA teams, most notably Sacramento. He ended his career back in LA, this time with the Clippers for a brief seven game cameo in 2007.
Supplementing the work of Johnson and Christie, some lesser known Waves have done yeoman's work keeping the streak alive, sometimes in unlikely fashion. After Johnson had retired and while Christie was still in Malibu wearing blue and orange, the 1990-91 season began without any Pepperdine representation. But Anthony Frederick, who had been kicking around the European leagues and had appeared in 46 games for the Pacers a couple of seasons before, signed a 10 day contract with Sacramento in January 1991. He parlayed that 10 dayer into a second one, and eventually signed for the remainder of the season, appearing in 35 games for the Kings that year. The next season he signed in Charlotte, and played 66 games for the Hornets, even starting 26 of them.
Unfortunately for Frederick, his NBA career ended there, as he did not make an NBA roster in 92-93. But fortunately for the streak, that was Christie's rookie campaign.
The streak looked to be in jeopardy again towards the end of Christie's career. In 2005, Christie signed with Dallas, but he was waived less than a month into the season when his surgically repaired ankle was slow to heal. Not to worry though - Alex Acker had been the final pick in the 2005 draft and had impressed the Detroit Pistons enough to make the team. The streak was safe.
Or was it? The 06-07 season began with Christie starring in a reality TV show instead of the NBA, and Acker still the property of the Pistons, but playing in Greece for Olympiacos. It seemed like the streak would end for sure this time.
Enter Yakhouba Diawara. After exhausting his eligibility at Pepperdine and going undrafted, Khoub returned to his native France to play pro ball. After a couple of seasons in Europe, he managed to stick with Denver in 06-07, remaking himself as a defensive stopper on the wing (he was a post scorer in Malibu). In 08-09, when Diawara signed with Miami and Acker returned to the NBA from Europe, it seemed as if the streak was on solid footing once again.
But not so. Acker wasn't re-signed by the Clippers in 2009 after he was traded there by Detroit, and he returned to Europe after he failed to secure another NBA gig. Meanwhile, Diawara found himself buried deep on the Heat bench, playing only 44 minutes last season after playing over 800 the season before. Both players are signed to play in Europe this season, Acker in France and Diawara in Italy. With no help on the horizon, it looks like the streak will finally end, after 37 seasons. And lest you conclude that this is just a story of six players, let me add that 13 different Waves have played NBA basketball over those 37 seasons, however briefly. Not bad for a little WCC school.
But wait. Is that a glimmer of hope I see? When the Lakers announced their training camp invitees Friday, who should be included but a former Wave, Russell Hicks. Might Hicks defy the odds, make the Lakers' roster and keep the streak alive? In a word, no. This is a guy who was a seventh round pick in the D-LEAGUE DRAFT last year. It's hard to say what he's doing in camp with Kobe and Pau, but I'm guessing that Mitch Kupchak owed someone a favor. Let's face it - it can't be easy getting players to show up at a camp where you know there's no chance to make the team, but at least Hicks will have some stories to tell his grandkids.
There's still a chance of course. Maybe Acker or Diawara will return from Europe and sign a 10 day contract somewhere. It's certainly no less likely than the Anthony Frederick scenario. Perhaps Christie will unretire again, at the age of 40 (OK, that one's pretty unlikely).
But for the time being, it looks as if a noble tradition of Pepperdine players in the NBA will finally end this season. There is no joy in Firestone Fieldhouse tonight.