DeMarco Polk once had a bright basketball future.
He is a former Mr. Basketball in Tennessee, but poor grades kept him from qualifying for a Division I scholarship — limiting his chance to play in front of scouts for the NBA and overseas leagues.
Now the 29-year-old guard is one of many in minor leagues around the country, hoping for a second chance. Polk plays with the Middle Tennessee Storm, one of four teams in the newly formed Central Basketball League.
"It allows me to showcase my talent, to let people know that I still have it," said the 6-foot Polk, who averaged 24 points a game this season and was named the league's MVP.
Storm owner Carlin Alford said Polk is a "microcosm of what we want in this league," which includes teams from Illinois, Kentucky and Missouri.
"Here's a guy who was the best player in the state of Tennessee, who never went to a Division I college," Alford said. "And now he's making good on all of that talent. The CBL is a platform for him."
While minor leagues provide opportunities, they're far from the glamour of the NBA or even those overseas leagues where good paychecks make up for being far from home. Minor league players often use buses, vans, or even car pool to get to games in high school gyms, recreation centers or YMCAs. Some players make as little as $100 a game, and nearly all have other jobs to pay the bills.
Even in the 93-team American Basketball Association, which plays in cities from Los Angeles to New York, league CEO and co-founder Joe Newman said teams "fly less than five percent" and try not to travel more than four hours to a game.
"Most of our players have jobs and family ... so we try to contain it into that four-hour bracket, so they can go to a game on a weekend and come home so they do not miss work," Newman said.
Most of the teams in other leagues also try to accommodate their players, usually scheduling games on the weekends to avoid conflicts with work.
The CBL has even gone as far as to schedule Saturday games at night so some players can observe the Sabbath.
"I'm a big Sabbath keeper," Polk said. "It's nice that we play at 8 o'clock when the sun goes down."
One perk in larger leagues such as the ABA and the 17-team Independent Basketball Association, which merged with the Premier Basketball League, is that players can make as much as $500 a game in a season that may have as many as 30 games.
"The challenge from a business standpoint is how to make sure ... that it's a win-win for both the organization as well as the players," said Barry Bradford, president of the now IBA-PBL. The league plans to add five more teams next year to those already in New York, New Jersey, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and California.
Nevertheless, minor league teams face stiff challenges when it comes to funding, with help coming mainly from community sponsorships and ticket sales. There are no national sponsorships. The CBL, though, is expanding and adding a fall league of five to 10 teams for players not as skilled as players currently in the CBL, said John Guy, the league's director of operations.
"They still want to play, and they want to keep stats ... and they want a trophy," he said. "So let's let those teams play against each other."
Don Sanchez, owner and head coach of the ABA's Los Angeles Slam, said financial challenges are "just the nature of the business" for minor league basketball.
"If you're not a superstar, then it's going to be hard to draw those crowds," said Sanchez, who has several former NBA players on his roster each year. "If you can make some money with your team, then you're an exceptional team and an exception to the rule."
Some players want to see the leagues succeed with money not the biggest drawing card. They just want to play the game they have loved since they were kids.
Ricardo Hill, 36, played a little more than 10 years in the NBA and overseas before taking a year off to deal with a family situation. He began playing again last year in the IBA-PBL and said it helped him rekindle his "love for the game."
"When you been playing for money so long, you forget why you really play the game," said the 6-9 Hill, whose play at just about every position on the court has drawn the attention of several NBA teams.
"It wasn't about the money when you first picked up the ball. It was because you loved to compete. You loved the way basketball took your mind away from everything else going on in your world."
Jerry DuPree played in the NBA and overseas. Now 31, DuPree said playing in the ABA has helped him test his knees after two major reconstructive surgeries, as well as improve his "basketball IQ," among other things.
"It ... helps you in a sense of getting that basketball feel; the traveling, the team camaraderie, the competition level," he said.
Bradford said there's nothing wrong with players aspiring to play in the NBA or overseas. He also wants them to be realistic. That's why his league not only helps players connect with scouts but also sponsors and people in the community for long-term job stability.
Polk understands that reality. He has a 9-year-old daughter and has been married nearly three years. But he's not giving up on the possibility of playing overseas — or at the highest level.
"Ever since I was a kid, I've wanted to play in the NBA," he said. "It's my dream."
He and others toiling in the minor leagues are not about to stop trying, no matter how long the odds.
Central Basketball League: http://www.centralbasketballleague.com/
American Basketball Association: http://www.abalive.com/
Independent Basketball Association/Premier Basketball League: http://iba-pbl.net/