Tuesday, Dec. 23, 2003 | 9:43 a.m.
When Roy Hammonds played professional basketball in Seoul, South Korea, in 1996, the former San Jose Spartan required a new jersey for every game.
After each, he signed the jersey before awarding it to a kid who had been doing well in school. To this day, he receives letters, in English, from those children he affected in South Korea.
"I did all those things that made a world of difference," Hammonds said. "I was one of the better players in Seoul. But, on top of that, I was a national icon because I did the positive things. They tell me how much of a difference I made in their lives."
That is what the well-traveled Hammonds hopes to accomplish with his Las Vegas Rattlers, the new American Basketball Association team that made its hometown debut Monday night at the Event Center Las Vegas on Sunset just east of Las Vegas Boulevard.
After four consecutive road defeats to open the truncated season, the Rattlers beat the Tijuana Diablos, 100-90, before a near-capacity crowd of about 1,000.
Hammonds, Percy Miller (the artist known as "Master P") and coach Joe "Jellybean" Bryant, Kobe's father, highlighted their commitment to the community at a noon press conference at the Event Center, then they went into action.
The trio, with other Rattlers and members of the team's front office, took two dozen underprivileged children on a holiday spree to area toy and clothing stores. The troupe will visit an area children's hospital Christmas Eve.
Tijuana is also today's opponent, scheduled to start at 7 p.m. Fans who bring canned food, a toy or clothing for the underprivileged will receive free admission. Otherwise, face value on each ticket is $25.
"With me, it's been nice just getting out here and being a part of the community, showing Las Vegas that this is a great thing," Miller said. "The biggest obstacle is we started three weeks behind."
That has made assembling a roster difficult. Former UC-Irvine center Dave Kaufman of Boulder City and ex-Pepperdine small forward Tommy Prince are Rattlers.
Miller, a 6-foot-4, 200-pound guard, went through the Charlotte Hornets' training camp during the strike-shortened 1998-99 season, but he didn't make the cut. The following season, he scored eight points in an exhibition game for the Toronto Raptors.
He was waived, however, just before the season started. He said he needs about three more weeks to get himself into optimum playing shape.
"I'm working on it, polishing up my tools," said Miller, 33. "In three weeks, I think we'll definitely be where we need to be. Right now, I get my shot off. But I'm one of them Gary Payton-type players. I'll get the ball to the right man, and I'll hustle.
"Exciting ballgames, that's what fans will see."
Miller spoke highly about new additions "Helicopter" John Humphrey and Dennis "Spider" Chisolm, of "And1" fame.
"I signed Master P for the Chicago (ABA) team three years ago," said Rattlers general manager Ruby Richman. "Now, he just has to sharpen his skills. He'll be one of the better players in the league."
About the delay in securing a venue and announcing the team, Richman only said that "some personalities" conflicted with attempts to play at Cox Pavilion on the UNLV campus.
That's where the former Las Vegas ABA team, the Slam, called home.
Miller, who has been friends with Hammonds for 15 years, elaborated, saying that a conflict between former Rebels coach Jerry Tarkanian, who was working for the Rattlers, and UNLV administration kept the Rattlers out of any UNLV facility.
So the Rattlers cut ties with Tarkanian about a month ago, according to Miller, then still weren't able to play at Cox. Tarkanian was out of town and could not be reached for comment Monday.
"It's sad that Jerry isn't involved with this team," Miller said. "When Roy first started this, he had the Tarkanian family involved. I think there's still bad taste (between UNLV and Tarkanian), even though those guys are great people.
"The city should give Jerry Tarkanian a shot, man. Life happens. You have to move on. I don't see why those guys couldn't be a part of this. He's one of the best coaches you'll ever meet, a legend."
The Runnin' Rattlers?
"We want to see some high-flyin', fast-paced basketball, 'cause this town loves basketball," Miller said. "It's a great situation. It's an untapped market ... that excitement hasn't been back in the city, and this is a good opportunity to revamp those fans."
Including tonight, the Rattlers play 13 more home games. Long Beach, on Jan. 20 and 21, should be an intriguing draw. If, that is, Sunday signee Dennis Rodman is still on that team in a month.
Hammonds confirmed that he bought the rights to the franchise a year ago for about $50,000.
"A steal," said the six-year Las Vegas resident who met with Jackie Robinson, a former UNLV player who ran the Slam, a few times to devise a successful business plan.
Be prepared for an assault on the senses. Music blares from the speakers during games, as does a roving sideline loudmouth with his constant commentary. He was 20 feet on the court Monday night when an official had to physically move him.
Bring a ski jacket, too, because the poorly lighted Event Center resembles a chilly hoops hangar.
Hammonds hopes to help some players go back to school and get their degrees, and to teach others about life.
"I'm focusing on providing the opportunity for these young guys," he said. "I come in every day and talk with them, 'Let's do this to make your life better. Hey, pull your pants up. Comb your hair.' The necessities. Some kids don't know that.
"That's my biggest thing. I want to give back to these guys because some of them just don't know. When it's all said and done for them, they have nothing."
He also has no time for the inevitable negativity associated with such a semi-pro venture in a city that has seen plenty of them die quick deaths.
"I don't practice negativity," Hammonds said. "I'm a positive person. I have said, 'Hey, I know you don't want to give us a chance to make it here in town. But if you're not going to write anything nice, don't write anything at all. Put something positive in there.'
"How could you take that away from these kids?"