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STOKES HOPES FOR A SHOT AT THE NBA

Leonard Stokes says it to himself every day. He'll be standing outside the three-point arc in the Flickinger Center, making shot after shot, and he'll think to himself, "Man, if only I had known this when I was younger."

Stokes has had a fine basketball career. He was The Buffalo News Player of the Year in 1999. He led Turner-Carroll to two state championships. He was a star at Cincinnati, where he led the Bearcats in scoring as a senior and once scored 39 points in an NCAA Tournament game.

But Stokes' ultimate dream -- playing in the NBA -- has eluded him. Scouts admired his overall game, his 6-foot-6 size, his defense. It was his shooting that scared them off. In today's NBA, when teams are looking for a swingman to fill out a roster, they want a guy who can make a big outside shot -- a Mario Elie or Bruce Bowen type.

So after spending last season in the National Basketball Development League, Stokes came home to Buffalo and went to work in ECC's downtown gym, making himself a shooter.

Joe Corey, ECC's basketball adviser, introduced Stokes to Tim Sullivan, a shooting expert and former Canisius College walk-on.

Sullivan, 44, is obsessed with the science of shooting a basketball. He quit his job as a teacher to do it full time. He invented a shooting device that was recently issued a U.S. patent. Like Stokes, all Sullivan needs is a break, a chance to prove himself in the basketball world. For the last 40 days, he has been working with Stokes and the ECC players, such as former Seneca star Michael Norwood.

"I was skeptical at first," said Norwood. "A lot of the techniques and equipment he uses, like his special braces, seem awkward at first. But once you go through the routine you notice a big change."

It's a little heady, hearing Sullivan talk about procedural cues and kinesthetics. But it comes down to four basic principles: Keep the shooting thumb in front of the pinky; hold the ball over the shooting-side toe; have the elbow above the eyebrow on release; and stay on line until the ball goes through the net. Eventually, it becomes motor memory.

Sullivan's shooting glove keeps the shooter's fingers spread. His harness locks the elbows in place against the chest, a sort of hoop straitjacket. He thinks of the glove and harness as a ruler, a way to draw a straight line to the basket.

"Leonard is a very passionate young man," Sullivan said. "He really wants to play. So he'll do whatever it takes. His response has been outstanding. He's standing out at the NBA range and really succeeding. He's very pleased and excited."

He ought to be excited. It's working. Stokes was making about 50 percent of his three-pointers from NBA range when he began working with Sullivan. Now he makes 75 percent to 80 percent on average. When he's really hot, he'll hit 45 out of 50.

"It's unbelievable," Stokes said. "My confidence has gone up. Shooting with him every day has helped me a lot."

Now it's time to test it for real. Stokes will leave Thursday for training camp with the Asheville, N.C., team in the NBDL, the NBA's developmental league. A year ago, Stokes led the league in steals in half a season. This year, it's about his jump shot.

Stokes says he's certain his new shooting skill will translate to the floor, and that people will notice. He's not looking for a cup of coffee. He wants a real NBA career.

"The GMs always said I needed to work on my shooting," Stokes said. "So that's what I've been doing the last few months. The way I look at it, there won't be any excuse for them not to take me next time. When I get my chance, I'm going to make the most of it."

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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