CEDAR RAPIDS — Surrounded by his father, his friends and autograph-starving fans, Dean Oliver felt right at home.
And even though he was just 27 miles away from his college basketball home — the distance from Carver-Hawkeye Arena to the U.S. Cellular Center, the home of the United State's Basketball League's Cedar Rapids River Raiders — Oliver hopes the stay is temporary.
"Confidence-wise, I know I can get back to the NBA," said Oliver, a former Mason City High standout and Iowa Mr. Basketball. "I just have to take it day by day. It won't happen overnight, so I'm trying to improve every day."
The road back to the NBA, where he played with the Golden State Warriors for the part of two seasons, will take Oliver through the towns of Salina, Kan., Glen Falls, N.Y., Melbourne, Fla., Easton, Penn., and others.
And that's where Oliver feels the pang of the anti-NBA, basketball's version of Double-A baseball.
No more private planes, ritzy hotels and gourmet meals for well-paid athletes. Instead, it's overnight bus rides, burgers if you can grab them and budget hotels for the hungry players who make an average of $400 to $500 per week.
"But I'm still playing the game," said Oliver, averaging 20.6 points (fifth-best in the league) and 7.6 assists per game, which ranks second. "You can't be treated like a king everywhere you go."
But in Cedar Rapids, Oliver, who gets the team's loudest ovation from the home faithful, is a king.
Fans wait with baited breath each time the former Hawkeye star attempts a shot, which they hope ends with the call, "Dean-O for two!" from the public announcer.
"He gives us instant credibility and recognition," River Raiders coach Dave Joerger said. "People know Dean won't be a part of something shady. This is a long-term and stable thing."
So much so that Joerger moved his family to Cedar Rapids. However, if all goes well for Oliver, this won't be a long-term or stable thing.
But right now, both Oliver and the River Raiders need each other.
Cedar Rapids, in its inaugural season in the USBL, needs to fill the stands. Oliver, a drawing card, needs Cedar Rapids for more exposure to NBA scouts.
So far, it's a match made in the City of Five Seasons.
"I haven't had this opportunity in years," Oliver said. "Since I've played pro ball, I've always been a backup. At times it gets frustrating because you don't feel like you're improving unless you're out there playing."
The 25-year-old has hopes of returning to the NBA. So much so, he came back from an achilles tendon tear — typically a 12-month recovery — just six months after surgery.
He spent time with the CBA's Dakota Wizards, which he helped to a league championship as a backup point guard.
Joerger, who coached the Wizards, said Oliver was no better than 65 percent health-wise.
"He has a huge heart," he said. "That's why everyone loves him and that's why I love him. He just competes. To have him close to 100 percent is fun to watch."
Close, being the operative word.
Oliver, who tore his achilles playing in the Prime Time League, a glorified pick-up game, is closing in on 100 percent health, and when he does, he feels the NBA will also be close.
Still, the effects of the injury linger. While he's nearly in tip-top shape, it's the mental aspect he struggles with. Pushing off, Oliver oftentimes thinks about the injury.
"He looks quick, but you can still tell," said Kareem Reid, who faced off against Oliver on Thursday in the River Raiders' win over the Westchester Wildfire and in a 1999 NCAA tournament second-ground game when Iowa beat Arkansas, 82-72. "We're smaller guys, so our quickness is everything. But Dean's the same, he hasn't lost anything."
The key, Oliver said, wasn't what he lost, it's what he needs to get.
Sitting at home Wednesday night, he watched San Antonio Spurs point guard Tony Parker, who has comparable size to him, torch the Los Angeles Lakers for 30 points, mostly off pick-and-roll jumpers and tear drops in the lane.
"If I can turn it on and be automatic, I can be that type of point guard and do Tony Parker-type things," Oliver said.
If Oliver needs a role model of a self-made player turned NBA star, he can look no further than John Starks, the Westchester Wildfire coach.
Starks bounced around in lower-level leagues before becoming a second-team all-NBA defensive team selection with the New York Knicks.
"He's a good little point guard," Starks said. "He's talented, has come from a good program and knows how to play.
"But anyone who comes into this league thinking about ‘me' won't get the call-up. The guys who think about winning, they'll make it."
And the River Raiders have done that thus far. The team is 6-2 and lead the Midwest Division.
"It's been a lot of fun," Oliver said. "I've been pretty fortunate to play with a lot of good players. It's a great opportunity for me to play a lot of minutes, which I haven't done in awhile. It's hard to get a chance like this to play against such good competition this time of year."
Reach Jamie Suhr at 421-0539 or firstname.lastname@example.org