Whoop Dreams The strange tale of the California Sea-Kings ... and how a legal battle may prevent their return to Monterey

By Mark C. Anderson

California Sea-Kings basketball games are strange from the start. In fact, the strangeness starts before tipoff, as the Monterey-based pro team warms up with un-matching hoodies, T-shirts and sweatshirts using red, white and blue basketballs with a dinginess that suggests they might date back to 1976.

That’s when the original American Basketball Association—made most famous by Julius “Dr. J” Erving and George “The Iceman” Gervin—merged with the National Basketball Association. (Its relaunch as a lower-level developmental league happened in 1999, in partnership with the NBA.)

The playful pregame includes low-percentage long range shots from all over the court and goofy dunk attempts, and then, before the game can begin, the visiting team shoots free throws because the Sea-Kings don’t meet the league standard for proper court markings or a league-specific “3D” light (more on that in a minute).

The Sea-Kings, one of the league’s newest teams, play their home games at Monterey Peninsula College’s gym—at least it did until a recent playoff game was scheduled elsewhere. On a good day 100 or so fans attend games governed by atypical rules: Players can’t foul out, half-court violations happen in seven seconds instead of eight (as with most basketball leagues) and, most strikingly, when there is a backcourt turnover, the 3D light comes on (if there is a 3D light), and the scoring system changes: A two-pointer becomes a three-pointer, a three-pointer a four-pointer and a half-court shot a five-pointer.  

As ABA chairman and co-founder Joseph Newman puts it, the league and its 120-plus teams—like Stockton Team Trouble, Laredo Swarm and Pensacola Lightning—succeed because of those quirks. “We found the NBA game was basically boring, and we put in a couple of our own rules to make it higher-paced, with more scoring and better defense,” he says.

At a pair of January games at MPC against the San Diego Surf and Henderson Hawks, the rules contribute to offensive shootouts, and not much D. During one speedy stretch against the Surf, 6-foot-10-inch Sea-King standout Tylisman Armstrong banks in a three-pointer, star point guard and team captain Greg Foster weaves through traffic then pulls up to swish his own three, and crafty power forward Mikel Brigham hammers down a dunk.

Amid the fast-forward action, an announcer provides basic narration through a blown-out mic. A fan yells at the opponents’ star player, who looks like LeBron James’ skinnier and hairier stunt double: “Quit whining!” he says. “You’re 6-foot-7!” When a baby in the stands starts crying, everybody in the gym can hear him. As savory smells from the oil-drum barbecue outside waft into the gym, both teams surpass 100 points by early in the third quarter.

Upping the strangeness in the San Diego game, the undermanned Sea-Kings suit up two players they added to the team a few hours ago. The rumor in the bleachers is that they grabbed them from pick-up games at Monterey Sports Center. One 350-pound big man doesn’t look game-ready, but manages to chug up and down the court in two minutes of limited action before returning to the bench to drink Kirkland water from a miniature plastic bottle. After a lot of see-saw scoring, ultimately the Sea-Kings win both games going away, then stick around to high-five fans.

A talk with team owner and CEO Wash Stallworth between those games also proves strange. The long-time government employee first introduced the team for a brief stint in 2010, when The Monterey Herald reported players weren’t being paid as promised, and were owed several thousand dollars apiece.

“We ask [team owner Wash Stallworth] what is going on as far as getting paid,” the piece quotes a player. “He said he’s waiting on sponsors, that sponsors have to go through a process. He’s been telling us that since December. It’s almost February.”

Back at MPC in 2018, Stallworth was optimistic about the new—albeit newly shorthanded—Sea-Kings.

“We feel good about ourselves,” Stallworth says. “We only have five players, but we’ll meet [our] quota…and we don’t have a coach. I’m coaching the team now. I’ll have to talk to you a little later about what happened to coach. He left—and took six players. We were having a bunch of issues. We know it, and we have to take care of those things.”

He was right. Those issues—and what happened to coach—are now being addressed. The sobering reality for Stallworth is they could be taken care of in a different sort of court.

When he couldn’t afford to pay me he didn’t respond to phone calls, and he makes me the problem

Laurian Watkins has seen some things through his lifelong relationship with basketball, which has involved stints that criss-crossed the globe, from Saskatchewan province to the Philippines to Saudi Arabia, and work with the NBA’s Sacramento Kings, Memphis Grizzlies and his own Los Angeles-based Pro Skills Sports Academy. His hiring to start the season was a coup for Stallworth: In addition to his lengthy resume, Watkins brought along a group of talented players he had been grooming for overseas play and the NBA developmental league.

He ticks off his most incredible hoops memories, like the Los Angeles Lakers game he attended when Kobe Bryant scored 81 points, and the time when he was coaching in Syria and the epithets exchanged between Christian and Muslim fans got so intense officials stopped the game. But the most outlandish thing basketball has given him happened at the condos down at Monterey State Beach this December.

Maybe he should’ve seen it coming. While going undefeated to start the Sea-Kings season—beating several nationally ranked teams—and earning enthusiastic media attention, Watkins observed troubling signs. Money for rental vans and team meals was limited. He saw his players get moved from motel to motel. After one player was cut, the young man claimed he hadn’t been paid by Stallworth and came down to the team office looking for a fight. And not long before the incident by the beach Watkins received a letter of termination with the Sea-Kings motto (“Where Basketball Is Played At Its Finest”) along the top.

The letter accused him of “trying to convince the players to take adverse actions against the organization,” and “taking privilege (sic) company information.”

Watkins believes his firing, 64 days into a 219-day contract, was illegal and more about Stallworth’s inability to pay him wages owed than anything else. Watkins was startled by the move, but set about arranging his affairs to move back to Los Angeles to seek work in player development with the NBA’s L.A. Clippers.

“When he couldn’t afford to pay me he didn’t respond to phone calls,” Watkins says, “and he makes me the problem.”

Later he adds this via email: “I am so disappointed in Stallworth and how he attempted to manipulate me and use me and my resources to build a product then discard me like I did not exist. He took more from me than just a job, he took a part of me that belongs to honest [and] hardworking people who respect this game and the Monterey Peninsula community who trusted and supported the efforts of the product we produced.”

Watkins kept his Monterey Beach condo through the end of the month because he had paid for it already. On this December afternoon Watkins was returning from his step-son’s basketball game at UC Berkeley to find his one-bedroom apartment occupied with Sea-Kings players.

“There were air mattresses all over the place, beer bottles, tequila bottles,” he says. “They were on my computer, using my toiletries, wearing my clothes. Craziest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”

He realized Stallworth, whose name was also on the lease—and who was responsible from moving the team from motel to motel—had obtained a key from management.

Watkins called the police. “How you gonna put six grown men in a one-bedroom place?” he wonders aloud. Photos he took with his smartphone corroborate the bizarre tale.

Stallworth says Watkins exaggerates. “Nothing was touched,” he says. “It was not a big thing.”

What surprised me is that the ABA has league owners who are exploiting these athletes

Watkins has retained the services of Newport-based Turlington Shy, who issued Stallworth a detailed demand letter requesting personnel and payroll records in keeping with California Labor Code. The letter goes on to allege wrongful termination, breach of contract, violation of a range of California Labor Code Sections and “a failure to compensate any of his players pursuant to their respective player agreements.” The pre-trial settlement amount set forth in the letter is $222,000. The subsequent complaint was filed April 6 in the Monterey County Courthouse, just as the ABA national championship wound down in Austin, Texas. It also asks for back payment due three players (Cory Blackwell, Zach Hinton and Gary Ricks).

When asked what surprises him the most about the strange sequence of events, Alan Turlington, who authored the filings, takes a moment to reflect.

“It’s not that there are seedy characters and unscrupulous people,” he says. “What surprised me is that the ABA has league owners who are exploiting these athletes. They’ve been aware of Wash Stallworth’s conduct.

“I can’t say they’re negligent in a legal sense, but from a common sense (perspective), one of first action items is to use the discovery process to find out how involved (the ABA) is in selecting league owners. One guy can do a lot of harm, but he’s not going to do as much if he’s not enabled by league itself.”

Joe Newman, ABA chairman and cofounder, is copied on the demand letter Turlington sent Stallworth. Newman has also been contacted by individuals representing players who say their clients haven’t been paid either.

Newman is quick to point out that ease of ownership is a strength of the league. “Most of the owners are family men and family women, pastors, insurance people, military people who don’t want them to take money they’ve earned or pensions or savings and throw it down a black hole and put their retirement at risk,” he says. “If you are fairly competent and follow a plan, you can be successful and profitable. We make winning the game the burden, and not the financial part.”

He is also quick to add that the ABA has nothing to do with any brooding legal battle, as the league is set up as a member organization.

“The court determines what [Stallworth] did, not me,” Newman says. “I’m a third party. I have no authority over him, OK? I don’t have anything to do with a contract or non-contract…right now he meets the standards of the ABA and operated within the code of conduct.”

Stallworth agrees wholeheartedly.

“I believe in doing things the right way,” he says.

We lost focus for a short time. It just slipped through our hands

A strange thing happened after the Sea-Kings Facebook page announced its March 16 ABA playoff game against the Oakland Bay Hawks would take place at Watsonville High at 7:30 p.m. (and not MPC). The fans who showed up found the gym dark, with no sign of either team. The only indicator a game might be happening on the high school campus was a flyer on the gym window affixed with blue painter’s tape. The court floor was prepped for a volleyball game.

Sea-Kings superfan Steve Prodes of Monterey has attended nearly all of their games and was among those there in Watsonville. “It’s hard for the average person to follow this team,” he emailed after the no-show. “A team is not a plant. You can’t just stick it in the ground to be successful. Players need attention to detail to be successful at the ABA level. They need front office leadership with a bank account. The players for the Sea-Kings deserved better.”

Several days later, team officials had no further information on what happened with the playoff game or a Sea-Kings season which was originally planned to run through May. Stallworth says it was out of his hands, and that he wants to get the names and contacts of all the fans who showed up to “send a gift and appreciate them.”

“There was a mix up with officials that’s not our fault,” he says. “If one of us could’ve been there, we would’ve.”

Stranger still, Newman and the ABA arranged for the Sea-Kings to join the Elite 8 national championship tournament, as part of a play-in game versus the Port City Tornadoes.

“There was confusion over the [Watsonville] playoff game,” Newman says. “We made a special case for two teams that got caught up because of their remoteness, and because the [Sea-Kings] had a good team and a fan base that’s deserving.”

In Austin, on April 2, despite nearly a month of rust gathering between games, the Sea-Kings won convincingly, 120-100, led by Greg Foster’s 23 points.

“Everybody was playing together, with a lot of energy,” Foster says. “Everybody wanted to win, and we were passing the ball a lot, and creating a lot of pressure on the ball.”

Two days later, they lost a close game to the highly-seeded host Austin Bats. After surrendering a 20-point lead, the Sea-Kings fell behind 12, then fought back, only to fall 119-116.

“We lost focus for a short time,” Foster says. “It just slipped through our hands.”

Foster represents much of what is right about the ABA, a floor leader and approachable ambassador for the Sea-Kings who now returns to Indiana to train youngsters and other athletes in basketball and general fitness. This was originally a story about guys like him, who honor the stated ABA motto of “Keep the Dream Alive,” even if it means moving across the country, scraping to get by, and not necessarily knowing where you might sleep on a given night. He maintains he was paid on time by Stallworth, and did his best to ignore all the distractions from what was happening between the lines.

“I tried to get everybody focused on what we can handle, and that was on the court,” he says.

He adds that he’s open to a call from Stallworth to return next season, but isn’t holding his breath. To anyone familiar with Monterey’s pro basketball team, that sounds like a wise scouting report for the strange-but-true Sea-Kings type of game.

Mark C. Anderson grew up on the Monterey Peninsula and spent more than a dozen years as a writer and managing editor at the Monterey County Weekly. He is spending 2018 traveling the world and writing from various locations; this is his first piece for Voices of Monterey Bay.

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