They get to the promised land, clap their hands together and say, “We’re here. Let’s party.” Out comes the Dom Perignon. The spoon goes up the nose. And ego pays the bills. They are suddenly big stars, these professional basketball players, and they act as if it were always meant to be that way.

Lots of them, anyhow. And then there is the occasional guy who tossed his first jump shot into an old bicycle rim that was welded to a pole in the alley behind his house. And he doesn’t forget. He never forgets. “Just happy to be here,” is his credo. And he is — remember this word? — sincere.

Earl Cureton doesn’t know where that bicycle rim went, but he thinks about it now and then. And he hasn’t strayed so far from the alleyways of east side Detroit that he couldn’t go back and look for it if he wanted.

Happy to be here. You could engrave that on an ID bracelet for Cureton, the 28-year-old Pistons forward. He is not what you’d call an NBA star. Not yet. But he’s come a good distance from the days when he was last off the bench for the Philadelphia 76ers.

And even then, his attitude was, well, grateful, no matter how odd the role. The Sixers used to offer this promotion: Whenever they scored more than 125 points, everyone in the Spectrum got a free Egg McMuffin from McDonald’s. And it was — guess who? — Earl Cureton, the Emperor of Garbage Time, whom the Philly fans wanted to lead them to breakfast utopia.

“I hit so many of those 125th points, they started to call me Earl McMuffin,” he remembers. And he laughs.
‘Do something with your life’ A lot of players wouldn’t. Laugh, that is. Not about being bona fide bench warmers. But Cureton — who has gone from an average of four minutes a game with Philly to 26 minutes with Detroit — has never been that way, perhaps because he never expected to get even this far.

“If you would have seen me early in college,” he says, “you would’ve said, no way, man, uh-uh. You want to play in the NBA? Come on. That’s a joke.”

He leans back in his couch — a wide beige couch inside a softly carpeted rec room inside a sleek town house in West Bloomfield. It’s no joke anymore. Cureton has made it.

And yet there is still something about him, a paperweight of a past that keeps him from floating off into Ego-land. Maybe it was that bicycle rim in the alley. Maybe it was the Detroit buses he used to ride from one neighborhood league to another. You can’t get too cocky riding a bus.

“I once worked as a janitor in a paint company,” he says. “I’d see the full-timers there. They said, ‘Get out. Do something with your life. You don’t want to be here 30 years like us.’ “

Somewhere — maybe there, maybe at home, which he shared with eight brothers and sisters — Cureton learned the meaning of appreciation. He sees former court mates struggling in the real world. And so he plays NBA basketball as we all might imagine playing it; like someone who just won life’s lottery.

He has become, to many fans, sort of adorable — if you can use that word for someone 6-feet-9 — not for his cuddliness, but for his countenance. His smile is a killer, and ranks second on the team only to Isiah Thomas’ — which is sort of like ranking second to Superman.

People like to see players smile. It reassures them there is a game underneath all that money. Today, planes instead of buses On a wall of Cureton’s house is a framed newspaper article about him, written in Italian. He did a stint in Italy in between the Sixers and the Pistons. He wasn’t there two weeks when his deal fell through. “I had won an NBA championship ring in June (1983),” he says,
“and in August I was unemployed.”

He kept working out. Eventually another team called. And then the Pistons. He has evolved into an important reserve on Chuck Daly’s team, and has played well during the Pistons’ latest tango with success. He was averaging 8.7 points and 6.5 rebounds this season going into Monday’s game against Chicago.

His goal now is “to be a starter in the NBA.” This summer, as usual, he will play basketball, trying to improve, jumping back and forth between Philadelphia and Detroit, just as he did between neighborhoods as a kid. “The only difference is that now I take planes instead of buses,” he says.

Around him are chips of success, a giant-screen TV, a magazine’s worth of furniture. And within him is everything it took to get him here.

“I’d like to see that bicycle rim again,” he says, his eyes going distant for a moment. “Maybe I’d hang it up, right over there, above the TV set.” It is a tribute to the former Earl of McMuffin that neither item would look out of place.

CUTLINE Earl Cureton

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