Back then, Omaha was a proving ground.
It was the Continental Basketball Association, and certainly not the NBA. And the NBA could seem so, so far away.
It wasn't the glittering, still-new Ralston Arena, where they gathered Saturday, but the outdated and dim Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum.
But it was the Omaha Racers basketball team, and many of the former players from its eight-year run (1989-1997) were on hand for a reunion that also helped commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Racers' CBA championship of 1993.
“It's where I became a pro,” said Tim Legler, who earlier had told kids at a clinic that he wouldn't have had the career he had without his time in Omaha. “I developed my confidence, my physical tools, my range improved to become a 3-point shooter. And I was playing against great players every single night and getting challenged every single night. That's where it happened for me.”
Legler, overlooked coming out of college at La Salle, came to Omaha from Rochester of the CBA when the team relocated.
He played five seasons in Omaha, with intermittent NBA callups between stints, before carving out his niche as one of the NBA's best 3-point shooters. He won the league's 3-point shootout in 1996, the year he led the league in 3-point percentage and finished second in voting for the league's sixth man of the year.
Now he's an NBA analyst for ESPN.
Jim Thomas' story was different. He was widely known among basketball fans, a starting guard on Indiana's 1981 NCAA championship team who was on the Final Four's all-tournament team. He'd played two full seasons in the NBA and parts of two others, but was 32 and still playing with a purpose on the Racers' championship team.
“It helped to identify and kind of define me,” Thomas said. “I was at a crossroads in my career. I always had aspirations of getting a callup, but I also knew that if I didn't I wanted to achieve something.”
That CBA title was it.
Thomas said he still thinks about the championship series win over the Grand Rapids Hoops, as well as the emotional semifinal series victory over the Rapid City Thrillers.
“A little more than you'd think,” said Thomas, now an Atlanta Hawks assistant coach. “It was a great series.”
For Mike Thibault, the only coach the Racers ever had, Omaha was the right job in the right place at the right time.
“It was such an important time in my family's life,” Thibault said. “It's a great place to raise a family. It was just a perfect fit for us.
“And it was a perfect fit for me basketball-wise, because it was a chance for me to test out what I wanted to be as a coach. I could become me.”
Previously an NBA assistant, Thibault returned to the league in 1997 before becoming a WNBA head coach in 2003. After 10 years coaching the Connecticut Sun, he's now leading the Washington Mystics.
There were plenty of former Racers who turned out for the daylong event that also included a shooting contest and a pickup game.
There was Omaha legend Dean Thompson. And the talented Bart Kofoed. Cedric Hunter, Bruce Chubick and Rod Mason, local heroes. There was the relocated Jerome Coles. And Ronnie Grandison, Kelsey Weems, Chip Engelland and Deryl Cunningham all made it back. There were more, too.
Some keep in touch — Mason texts Legler when he's on the air, Legler texts him back during commercials. Others hadn't seen one another in years.
Some pass through Omaha from time to time, others haven't been back.
“I feel bad,” said Thomas, trying to remember the Omaha restaurant where he'd loved the nachos. “It's been 20 years. It's great being back. I saw the new ball stadium, the convention center and even this place here (the Ralston Arena). Wow, it's amazing.”
There's a whole development where the Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum used to be: shopping, a movie theater and other establishments. But the memory lives on.
“It was sad when I heard they ripped Ak-Sar-Ben down,” Legler said. “I was fortunate to play in what I think were two of the best shooting venues on Earth. One was the Palestra (his homecourt in college), and the other was Ak-Sar-Ben.”
Said Thomas: “It was a great place. It was a little old and a little worn, but it was home. It was all we knew.
“We greatly appreciated the fans' support. I'm sorry they weren't able to keep it going, but for the time it was there, it was wonderful.”
From time to time, there's a professional basketball buzz around town. And maybe the Ralston Arena would be the place. It certainly looks the part.
Most recently, there was interest from the National Basketball Development League, also known as the D-League, the modern equivalent of the CBA.
The Ralston Arena “is the perfect place,” Thibault said. “You'd have to have several investors to do it, and I don't know how it works with the D-League.
“But it's ironic that the D-League has exactly the plan in place that we in the CBA presented to them at one time. They said then, 'No, we're not ready for that.' ”
Back then Thibault was on the NBA-CBA relations committee. The D-League, with 17 teams for 2013-14, is slightly more like baseball's minor league system. Fourteen of the teams this season will be affiliated with a single NBA team.
“I'm going to be biased and say I liked the old CBA more,” Thomas said. “Because it tested your determination to see it through.”