Posts Tagged ‘CBA’
In 1972 club joined the Eastern Basketball Association, a long-running Pennsylvania mill town circuit that Sports Illustrated descibed as “The Purgatory League” in a 1971 feature story. The Bullets set up shop in tiny Hamburg, PA (pop. 4,114 circa 2000) in Berks County between the larger cities of Reading and Pottsville. Ann Achenbach of Pottsville owned the club. The team failed to draw fans to the Hamburg Field House from those outlying cities as anticipated. After just 9 games of the 1972-73 campaign, the club relocated to Hazleton, PA, a coal town which had long hosted Eastern League basketball in the decades after World War II.
The Bullets’ “name” player during that 1972-73 campaign was Sonny Dove, the former St. John’s star who was the #4 overall pick by the Detroit Pistons in the 1967 NBA Draft. A modest career in Detroit and later with the New York Nets of the American Basketball Association ended in 1972 and then Sonny found himself in tiny Hamburg, PA.
By the 1974-75 season, the EBA had dwindled to only four teams. Amidst sparse competition, Hazleton advanced to the 1975 EBA championship series, losing to the Allentown Jets 2 games to 1. The Bullets remained in Hazleton until midway through the 1976-77 season, when the club relocated to New Jersey in midseason and finished the year as the “Shore Bullets”.
After the ABA-NBA rivalry ended in 1976 with the demise of the ABA, the number of top-tier professional clubs contracted from 29 to 22. A glut of talented players hit the basketball labor market and encouraged investors to take a new look at minor league basketball. Presented with a preposterous PR opportunity, the EBA accepted an expansion bid from Anchorage, Alaska in 1977. The Anchorage Northern Knights played a mere 4,400 miles away from their closest geographic rival, the Allentown (PA) Jets. Emboldened by the publicity, the EBA re-branded as the “Continental Basketball Association” for the 1978-79 season and began soliciting expansion franchises from as far away as Hawaii.
As the CBA re-positioned itself and expanded, the re-named Jersey Shore Bullets upgraded their arena for the 1978-79 CBA season, moving from Red Bank Regional High School in Silver Lake to the Asbury Park Convention Hall. The 50-year old Convention Hall sat directly on the beach in Asbury Park and, as a concert venue, hosted many of the big rock acts of the 1960’s and 1970’s.
For the 1978-79 season, the Bullets signed the Brooklyn street ball legend Fly Williams. A record-setting (and abrogated) stint at Austin Peay University in Tennessee fueled Williams’ cult status. After two seasons at Austin Peay, he was ruled ineligible on an admissions technicality and joined the St. Louis Spirits of the ABA as their 1974 first round draft pick. He lasted just one season in the ABA and spent the rest of the 1970’s kicking around as a “name” player in the EBA and other hardscrabble minor leagues. In a 2001 New York Times column, the sportswriter Harvey Araton recalled covering a Bullets game as a young reporter and watching Williams wrestle a bear for the halftime show before a small but appreciative crowd at the Convention Hall.
Williams never made it to the NBA. He battled addiction, served considerable time in prison and nearly died from a drug-related shotgunning in 1987. More details on his story can be found at his website.
The Jersey Shore Bullets ceased operations following the 1978-79 CBA season.
Professional basketball came to the island of Puerto Rico in the winter of 1983, when local insurance man Walter Fournier acquired an expansion franchise in the Continental Basketball Association. Fournier dubbed his team the Coquis, named after the tiny tree frogs native to Puerto Rico and the surrounding islands of the Carribean.
The CBA in the early 1980’s was a league on the rise. For most of the post-war era, the league was known as the Eastern Professional Basketball League (or variations thereof) and was a bus league centered on the small mill cities of Pennsylvania. The league began to expand aggressively the late 1970’s, adopting the ambitious “Continental” moniker and adding far-flung teams in Anchorage and Honolulu. The CBA also managed to sign a partnership as the official developmental league of the NBA and the CBA’s top players aspired to land 10-day contacts with NBA clubs to fill in as short-term when their regulars went down with injuries.
Despite the trappings and pretensions, the CBA remained, at its core, a league of near-insolvent clubs dependent on bus travel. The notion of putting a club in Puerto Rico may have had some PR appeal for the league, but the reality was that poor clubs who couldn’t rub two nickels together now had to fund extravagant (by CBA standards) road trips to San Juan to play the Coquis.
Fournier hired Herb Brown as his Head Coach. Brown, the older brother of former ABA star and longtime NBA coach Larry Brown, served a brief tenure as Head Coach of the NBA’s Detroit Pistons from 1975 to 1977. Brown led the expansion Coquis into the playoff with a CBA-best record fo 28-16. After dispatching the Lancaster (PA) Lightning in the first round of the playoffs, the Coquis fell to the Phil Jackson-coached Albany (NY) Patroons in the CBA Semi-Finals. Brown was named CBA Coach of the Year, but the Coquis success on the court was not reflected in the stands. The team drew an average of just 728 fans per game in San Juan during the 1983-84 season.
When the Coquis returned for the 1984-85 campaign, Fournier seemed to have adopted a certain fatalism about the attendance potential in Puerto Rico. For one thing, Fournier believed that Puerto Rican fans would not attend matches during the holidays and he orchestrated a grueling 22-day, 14-game road trip in December 1984 to avoid them.
“I guess it’s a management decision by people who don’t know much about basketball,” Brown complained to Nathan Huang of The St. Petersburg Evening-Independent in the midst of the Coquis’ December 1984 odyssey. “They have absolutely no idea how tough it is.”
The 1984-85 campaign got tougher for Brown. Despite another winning season (27-21), the Coquis entered the final game of the season with a playoff spot on the line against Jackson’s Albany Patroons. Jackson’s assistant Charley Rosen recalled the events that followed years later in his 2011 memoir Crazy Basketball, A Life In and Out of Bounds. Late in the game, Brown stormed onto the court to challenge a call by referee Ken Mauer. According to Rosen, Brown grabbed the lanyard that held the whistle around Mauer’s beck and twisted it until the head official’s face turned blue. Eventually, stadium security intervened, pulling Brown off the referee and letting Mauer live to officiate another day. The Coquis lost and finished out of the playoffs with a 5th place finish. The CBA slapped Brown with a 6-game suspension to start the 1985-86 season, but by then Brown would be with a new club and the Coquis were no more.
Attendance failed to improve during the Coquis second season in San Juan, with the club reportedly drawing less than 500 fans per game. In March 1985, Fournier began negotiating to move his club to Birmingham, Alabama’s State Fair Arena. Negotiations fell through with Birmingham officials in the spring of 1985, but Fournier soon found another suitor in the CBA’s 20-year old Deputy Commissioner Jay Ramsdell.
Ramsdell was a fascinating figure in the history of the CBA and Maine basketball. In 1978, the Maine native approached a minority owner of the CBA’s Maine Lumberjacks club to do an interview for his school newspaper. The owner was impressed with Ramsdell and asked him to fill in on the Lumberjacks game day stats crew. Within a matter of weeks, the 9th grader was appointed the Lumberjacks’ Director of Public Relations. He remained with the club until his high school graduation in 1982. By the age of 20 in 1985, Ramsdell was the league’s Deputy Commissioner and jack of all trades. The Lumberjacks were no more – a new owner named John Ligums moved the club to Massachusetts in 1983 – and Ramsdell convinced Fournier to move his club from Puerto Rico to Maine’s Bangor Auditorium for the 1985-86 season. Ramsdell stepped down from his league office position to serve as the General Manager for the club, which would be known as the Maine Windjammers.
A crowd of 1,722 turned out for the Windjammers home debut against the Bay State Bombardiers (the former Lumberjacks) on December 5th, 1985. But despite some initial big words from Fournier about the potential of the Bangor market, the Puerto Rican-based businessman showed zero interest in the club and quickly withdrew his financial support, leaving Ramsdell to fund operations largely with the gate receipts of the 600 or so fans that showed up at Bangor Auditorium each night that winter.
“The man would not spend any money,” Windjammers Head Coach Gerald Oliver told The Bangor Daily News in 1992. “He set up what we would operate on and it wasn’t even close to what we needed.”
By February 1985, Fournier was officially out and the team was on the block. In March, Ramsdell announce that an “anonymous” group of Bangor businessmen had all but closed on the purchase of the club. That deal fell through, as did a $190,000 sale to a pair of New York investors brokered by Bangor businessman James Clarkson. On the court, the Windjammers didn’t fare any better, finishing in 6th place with an 18-30 record. The CBA terminated the Windjammers franchise on June 18th, 1986. The club lost a reported $80,000 during the 1985-86 campaign and left Bangor owing close to $50,000 in unpaid bills to local vendors.
In July of 1986, John Ligums, the Massachusetts stock broker who owned the Maine Lumberjacks during their final season in Bangor in 1982-83 sold his Bay State Bombardiers franchise to Pensacola, Florida interests. Later the same day, he purchased the moribund Windjammers franchise from the CBA for a price rumored to be in the $200,000 range. Ligums sold the franchise certificate to a Quad Cities Basketball Club, Inc. in Moline, Illinois three months later for a reported $450,000 to $500,000, meaning at least one man made money off of the Maine Windjammers. The Quad Cities group sat out the 1986-87 season and entered the CBA as an expansion team (more or less) named the Quad Cities Thunder for the 1987-88 season.
Jay Ramsdell returned to the CBA league office and his former Deputy Commissioner role after the collapse of the Windjammers in 1986. In 1988, he was appointed Commissioner of the CBA. At 24 years of age, he was widely reported to be the youngest Commissioner of a professional league in American sports history. One year later on July 19th, 1989, Ramsdell died in the crash of United Airlines Flight 232 in Sioux City, Iowa. Ramsdell’s Deputy Commissioner Jerry Schemmel survived the crash and rescued an 11-month baby from the wreckage. He later wrote a book Chosen To Live about the experience. The CBA Championship trophy was subsequently renamed the Jay Ramsdell Trophy.
In the 2000’s, former Windjammers player Sam Worthen became Head Coach of the Washington Generals, the long-time foils of the Harlem Globetrotters.
“Puerto Rico globetrotters bounce on by”, Nathan Huang, The St. Petersburg Evening-Independent, December 29, 1984
“Fans of ‘Jammers are True Owners”, Joe McLaughlin, The Bangor Daily News, December 18, 1985
“Ligums Buys Windjammers” Joe McLaughlin, The Bangor Daily News, July 17, 1986
“Thrillers Take Second Straight From Patroons”, The Schenectady Gazette, February 25, 1987
“‘Jammers Doomed Before First Game”, Mike Dowd, The Bangor Daily News, July 10, 1992
Crazy Basketball, A Life In and Out of Bounds, Charley Rosen, University of Nebraska Press, 2011
Rick Smith’s resume isn’t much to look at. An Air Force brat whose family moved around the country, arriving in Alaska in 1961, two years after statehood and seven years before oil. He attended Anchorage West High School, then a little bit of college but never finished. Worked at putting in railroad ties and driving a truck for Union Oil. Managed a bicycle shop in Anchorage for a while in the 1970’s. It’s not the traditional curriculum vitae you might expect for the man who introduced professional sports to Alaska…or, for that matter, a corporate Vice President of Government Affairs at the center of a corruption scandal that brought down several state representatives and the longest serving Republican Senator in the history of the U.S. Congress. But Rick Smith is both of those things and maybe that’s because his story took place not in Manhattan or Silicon Valley or Washington, D.C., but in boomtown Alaska when crude oil flowed out of the Earth and later spilled into the sea and there was big money to be made in either circumstance.
The basketball scheme started in the bike shop. Or rather The Bicyle Shop, the popular Schwinn dealership where Smith worked as a manager for his high school friend Mike Shupe. The year was 1977. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline opened up to start pumping that precious oil discovered in Prudhoe Bay nine years earlier down to the port of Valdez. The population of Anchorage had doubled in the intervening decade, primed by oil and aviation. Anchorage, Smith felt, was ready for its own pro sports franchise, specifically a basketball team.
Trouble was there was no minor league basketball on the West Coast of the United States. And even if there had been, would it have mattered? The closest major Western city – Seattle – was nearly 2,400 miles away. Seattle is closer to Detroit, Michigan than it is to Anchorage. In fact, there was only one league still playing minor league hoops in the late 1970’s. The Eastern Basketball Association had been plugging away in the armories and Catholic youth halls of industrial towns in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York since 1946. Naturally, Smith and his cohorts decided to apply for an Eastern Basketball Association expansion franchise. After all, as Smith liked to point out, Alaska is not only the Westernmost point in the the United States, but it is also the Easternmost point in the country, straddling the 180th meridian as it does.
Suspending their disbelief – and sensing a rare opportunity for publicity – the existing EBA owners voted to admit Smith’s Anchorage Northern Knights in mid-September 1977 for the modest sum of $8,000. The Northern Knights closest geographic rival would be the Allentown (PA) Jets, a mere 4,400 miles away. The bizarre arrangement required some financial and logistical gymnastics. The Northern Knights would play 21 of their 31 games at home, including the first 16 in a row. They would pay the airfare and lodging for all of their opponents in Anchorage and would play baseball-style homestands, facing each club two or three times during the course of each rival’s annual visit to Alaska. The Northern Knights themselves would take just one annual road trip, swinging through the other nine EBA cities on one marathon stretch in the middle of the season. The Knights anticipated an annual expense budget of $300,000 due to the travel requirements, a figure which dwarfed the planned $110,000 budget of the EBA’s Long Island Ducks expansion team and the $35,000 it would take to operate the league’s oldest franchise, the Allentown Jets.
The Northern Knights set up shop at West High School, alma mater of Smith and his boss/co-investor Mike Shupe. The 4,000 gymnasium was the largest arena in Anchorage at the time. The gym sold out for the Knights’ November 1977 debut against the Wilkes-Barre (PA) Barons. The goofy circumstances attracted Sports Illustrated writer John Papanek, who was on hand to witness the Knights and Barons shatter both backboards while showboating during pre-game warm ups. After a two-hour plus delay to scour Anchorage for spare backboards, pro basketball finally made its debut in Alaska, albeit with an impromptu “no dunking” rule in force for the first game.
Under Head Coach Bill Klucas, the Northern Knights put together the best regular season record (24-7) in the EBA in 1977-78, before falling in the playoff semi-final to the Lancaster (PA) Red Roses. The Knights were also a hit at the box office, averaging over 2,000 fans per game, in a league where the average draw was approximately 750. Nevertheless, the travel expenses were a substantial and unique burden and the Knights lost a reported $100,000 during their first season – more than the entire expense budget of many of the less popular Eastern clubs.
The Knights returned under Smith’s direction in November of 1978. Emboldened by the addition of Anchorage and the resulting national attention, the sleepy Eastern Basketball Association had re-branded itself for the 1978-79 season as the rather more grand Continental Basketball Association. Klucas’ Knights were strong again, posting a 24-12 record and advancing to the CBA Championship series, where the Rochester Zeniths swept them in four games.
The Knights finally put it all together in their third season in the winter of 1979-80. Guard Brad Davis, a disappointment to the Los Angeles Lakers as their first round pick in 1977, revitalized his career in Anchorage while helping to lead the Knights back into the CBA Championship Series. Forward Ron Davis (no relation) earned CBA Most Valuable Player honors. The Northern Knights avenged their 1979 finals loss to Rochester, taking the Zeniths to the series limit before finishing them off with a 109-99 victory in the seventh and deciding game.
By the time the Knights’ fourth season kicked off in the winter of 1980, the novelty factor was long gone. The wacky Knights who endured 5,000 mile road trips to play in a “nickel and dime Pennsylvania mill-town circuit”, in the words of Sports Illustrated‘s Papanek, were now just another member of the Continental Basketball Association’s Western Division. They had new and (relatively) proximate rivals in burgs like Lethbridge, Alberta and Billings and Great Falls, Montana. Now that the CBA was truly national, the Knights no longer needed to play unbalanced schedules or take month-long road trips. Local enthusiasm for the Knights had faded along with the notoriety. The club’s second home game of 1980 drew an all-time record low of just 270 fans to West High School. The Knights tried to inject some enthusiasm by signing Don “Slick” Watts, a cult hero to Seattle Supersonics fans of the 1970’s, now 29 years old and trying to show NBA scouts that he still had a few miles left on the odometer. But Watts didn’t care for Anchorage and left the team after less than two weeks.
The Knights changed hands several times, shuffling among various members of Rick Smith’s group of 75 or so investors who put up the original $40,000 to launch the club in 1977. The Knights reportedly lost $250,000 during their first two seasons under Smith as team President, before Smith and his primary partners handed the keys to Roger Jacobsen, a minor original investor and Knights season ticket holder, who became the new sole owner in October 1979. Jacobsen lost $200,000 in one year at the helm. Less than a year later, the Knights were in the hands of a new group headed by Mike Shupe, another original investor and Smith’s old boss at The Bicycle Shop.
The club was non-competitive in its final season in the winter of 1981-82, finishng in last place with a 14-32 record. The Northern Knights played their final game in March 1982 and folded shortly thereafter.
Rick Smith, the public face of the Knights franchise for the first two seasons, faded into the background after the sale to Roger Jacobsen in late 1979. In 1989, Smith latched on with Bill Allen’s VECO Corporation, a services and logistics company for the oil exploration industry. VECO had filed for bankruptcy in the early 1980’s, but rebounded when it landed huge contracts to clean up Prince William Sound in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez disaster. After working on the spill clean up, Smith became close with Allen and worked his way up through VECO to the role of Vice President of Community & Government Affairs.
In 2006, FBI and IRS agents raided the offices of seven members of the Alaska state legislature, seizing evidence related to illegal payments made to influence the lawmakers by VECO’s executives, employees and its political action committee. In 2007, Bill Allen and Rick Smith plead guilty to charges of extortion, bribery and conspiracy in federal court. The same year, the VECO corruption scandal enveloped Republic U.S. Senator Ted Stevens, when The Anchorage Daily News reported that Bill Allen and VECO had overseen and allegedly paid for a major renovation of Stevens’ home. Appointed in 1968, Stevens was the longest serving Republican Senator in United States history. In 2008, he was indicted and convicted in federal court on charges related to the VECO gifts, although the verdict was overturned in 2009 due to prosecutorial misconduct. Stevens died in a plane crash in 2010.
Rick Smith, who cooperated with federal investigators along with his boss Bill Allen, received a sentence of 21 months in prison and a $10,000 fine in October 2009.
After winning a CBA title in Anchorage in the spring of 1980, guard Brad Davis joined the NBA’s expansion Dallas Mavericks for the 1980-81 season. Davis spent 12 seasons with the Mavs and, during his final season of 1991-92, became the first player in franchise history to have his number retired by the club.
Ron Davis, the 1979-80 CBA MVP, got back to the NBA with the San Diego Clippers, appearing in 64 games during the 1980-81 season.
Northern Knight Tico Brown went on to play 10 seasons in the CBA, retiring in 1988 as the league’s all-time leading scorer with 8,538 points. He never played in the NBA.
“North For Sure But Also East”, John Papanek, Sports Illustrated, February 27, 1978
“Basketball’s Miracle Worker” Bill Wilson, The Anchorage Daily News, September 7, 1978
“Red Ink Doesn’t Discourage Knights Boss”, Frank Gerjevic, The Anchorage Daily News, April 28, 1979
“New Owner, New Life for Knights,” Frank Gerjevic, The Anchorage Daily News, October 23, 1979
“Big Payoff Not Likely For Knights Owners”, Clint Swett, The Anchorage Daily News, October 23, 1980
“From Kingdome to West High: Slick Joins the Knights”, Clint Swett, The Anchorage Daily News, December 10, 1980
“Veco’s Smith Gets 21-month Sentence, $10,000 Fine”, Lisa Demer, Richard Mauer & Sean Cockerham, The Anchorage Daily News, October 28, 2009
The Washington Lumberjacks were a one-year wonder in the short-lived Western Basketball Association, a seven-team minor league loop that played one season in the winter of 1978-79.
The Lumberjacks moniker was rather misleading. The club was based out of the Tri-Cities region of Kennewick, Pasco and Richland nestled in the Southeastern corner of Washington state. The Tri-Cities don’t fit the Easterner’s vision of the Pacific Northwest as a rain-soaked range of old growth forests where environmentalists and sawmill workers do battle over the fate of the lumber industry and the Northern spotted owl. Southeastern Washington is a semi-arid steppe, with little rain and no timber. Prior to World War II, the area was a lightly inhabited agricultural community. In 1943, the federal government seized the nearby small town of Hanford, Washington by eminent domain and established the Hanford Site. The massive – and, at the time, top secret – nuclear complex played an integral role in the Manhattan Project, producing plutonium for the atomic bomb tests at Los Alamos, New Mexico and, ultimately, for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan on August 9th, 1945. Despite the extreme secrecy of the mission, the scale of the project brought more than 50,000 government workers and contractors to the region, fueling the growth of the Tri-Cities in the war years and beyond.
By the time minor-league basketball arrived in the fall of 1978, the nuclear reactors of the Hanford Site had been largely de-commissioned. But the Tri-Cities continued to grow and Hanford continued to play a critical role in the local economy as the site’s focus switched from plutonium production to energy research. The communities of Kennewick, Pasco and Richland still lacked a multi-purpose arena, however. The newly formed Washington Lumberjacks intended to play most of their games at the 4,880-seat Art Dawald Gym in Richland, home of the Richland Bombers high school basketball team, who sported a mushroom cloud logo. Pasco High also hosted a handful of games, including the Lumberjacks’ home debut on November 18, 1978.
Columbia Pacific Resources, Inc. purchased the Lumberjacks membership in the Western Basketball Alliance for $20,000 in August 1978. Michael McDermott, an Executive Vice President with the company, served as the club’s President and was named Chairman of the WBA’s Board of Governors.
The Western Basketball Association business model called for total annual operating budgets of approximately $350,000. Of this amount, teams could spend up to an $82,000 cap on a roster of 11 players. Nine players were designated as travel players and could expect to earn $7,000 to $8,000 for the WBA’s five-month season. Two other players could be listed as home-game players only and would earn $1,500 to $2,000, while holding down part-time jobs outside of the club. The Lumberjacks intended to travel by commercial air to visit WBA opponents in Fresno, Great Falls (Montana), Las Vegas, Reno and Tucson. Lumberjacks GM Kevin Veleke pegged the air travel costs at approximately $40,000 in a pre-season estimate, or more than 10% of the team’s entire budget. Veleke told The Spokane Spokesman-Review in October 1978 that the Lumberjacks figured they needed to average 2,500 paid tickets per game to break even.
The nine-man traveling squad rule was a clear effort to reign in two of the largest operating costs in the league – salary and travel expenses. But it also posed a problem based on the rules of basketball. Namely, what to do when players began to foul out late in games. The WBA came up with a novel solution. Players could remain in the game after drawing six fouls. After a player’s seventh foul, the opposing team not only received two free throws, but they also took possession of the ball out of bounds. What the WBA could not solve through roster depth, they hoped to solve through deterrence.
33-year old John Wetzel coached the Lumberjacks. The former NBA journeyman spent seven seasons in the NBA with the Lakers, Hawks and Suns between 1967 and 1976. Roster notables included former Seattle Supersonics (1974-1976) forward Talvin Skinner, center Jeff Cook of Idaho State, a 1978 draft pick and training camp cut of the Kansas City Kings, former University of Washington star guard Chet “The Jet” Dorsey and former All-Big Ten forward Walter Jordan of Purdue. Veteran Louie Nelson partnered with Pete Maravich in the backcourt of the New Orleans Jazz in the mid-1970’s and William “Bird” Averitt won a championship with the Kentucky Colonels of the ABA.
Two months into the 1978-79 season, the Lumberjacks announced plans to relocate six league games to the Spokane Coliseum to test it out as a WBA market. The ‘Jacks were averaging approximately 1,250 fans per game at Richland High School at the time. The experiment failed when the first two games in Spokane in January and February 1979 both drew fewer than 700 fans in the 5,400-seat building.
The Lumberjacks finished the 1978-79 season in second place with a 29-19 record. They lost to the 3rd place Reno Bighorns in the WBA’s semi-final playoff series. Center Jeff Cook and forward Walter Jordan were named first team All-Stars and Cook took home league Most Valuable Player honors as well.
In June 1979, the Western Basketball Association announced a merger with the Continental Basketball Association (CBA), a primarily East Coast-based minor league which also (inexplicably) had a franchise in Anchorage, Alaska. The new league would be called the United Basketball Association, with CBA Commissioner Jim Drucker as it chief. The seven WBA clubs would form the UBA’s Western Divsion, along with the Anchorage Northern Knights and an expansion team in Honolulu.
The same month, the New Orleans Jazz of the NBA relocated to Salt Lake City, Utah. This deprived the Utah Prospectors franchise of a venue to play UBA games for the 1979-80 season and started a domino effect of folding franchises among the former WBA franchises. Lumberjacks owner Michael McDermott had been a key figure in the merger with the CBA in his role as Chairman of the WBA Board of Governors. But by August 1979 he had changed his mind and withdrawn his club from the new UBA, under the guise of a year off to re-organize. McDermott claimed that the WBA clubs had substantially higher budgets than the old CBA clubs and he was unhappy that the Eastern teams had not moved to raise their organizations to what he perceived as WBA standards in the two months following the merger.
“”They (the Eastern teams) do not put on the the show that we do,” McDermott told The Anchorage Daily News, “They don’t even come close.”
Whether this was a legitimate management dispute or simply a cover story for folding after a single season is unclear. Whatever shortcomings the CBA clubs may have had, their owners were the ones who had the stomach to continue, while McDermott and his Western clubs did not. All seven WBA franchises folded. The UBA merger dissolved and the CBA continued under its original name.
The Lumberjacks never did re-organize and were not heard from again after the summer of 1979.
Lumberjacks Jeff Cook and Walter Jordan both leveraged their WBA exposure to land jobs in the NBA. Jordan lasted a single season with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1980-81. Cook enjoyed a journeyman’s career in the league that lasted from 1979-1988.
Lumberjacks Head Coach John Wetzel latched on with his old team, the Phoenix Suns, as an Assistant Coach. He served as Suns Head Coach for a single season in 1987-88, posting a 28-54 record. Wetzel was one of three Head Coaches in the seven-team WBA who also had head coaching gigs in the NBA, along with Herb Brown of the Tucson Gunners and Bill Musselman of the Reno Bighorns.
In 1988, Kennewick, Washington opened the Tri-Cities Coliseum, a 6,000-seat multi-purpose arena. Minor league basketball returned to the region in the fall of 1992 when the Tri-City Chinook of the Continental Basketball Association took up residence. That club lasted until the the spring of 1996.
Downloads & Further Reading:
“Tri-Cities gets pro hoop franchise”, United Press International, August 17, 1978
“Lumberjacks could help”, Harry Missildine, The Spokane Spokesman-Review, October 25, 1978
“Lumberjacks will play here”, The Spokane Spokesman-Review, January 10, 1979
“Lumberjacks made good show in first year”, Hec Hanock, The Tri-City Herald, March 4, 1979
“West owners say year off wise choice” Frank Gerjevic, The Anchorage Daily News, August 18, 1979
“Crime & Punishment” – it’s one of the most popular tags here on Fun While It Lasted. These are the stories of sports teams & owners brought down by their own criminal mischief. Typically, these stories revolve around financial scams and embezzlement, such as Mickey Monus’ looting of millions of dollars from his Phar-Mor pharmacy chain to fund the World Basketball League or the fugitive mortgage broker Philip Breen’s adventures with Other People’s Money in the Senior Professional Baseball Association.
Drug trafficking is a less common theme in pro sports, although not unexplored (see our article on the front office cocaine ring at the Denver Comets). Today we have our second entry in the Cocaine Chronicles, with a dash of arson thrown in for good measure. Meet the Philadelphia Kings of the Continental Basketball Association.
Larry Lavin began selling cocaine as a undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania in the mid-1970’s. By the time he enrolled in Penn’s dental school, he was a full-fledged dealer with an increasingly sophisticated distribution network in Philadelphia. Between 1978 and 1984, the FBI estimates that Lavin and his associates – a white-collar cabal of dentists, lawyers, accountants and others known as “The Yuppie Conspiracy” – distributed up to 110 pounds of cocaine per month in 14 U.S. States and Canada. By 1980, Lavin had earned more than a million dollars cash from dealing. Under pressure from his fiancee to go straight, Lavin began seeking means to launder his cash holdings into a seemingly legitimate income stream. A Philadelphia attorney introduced him to Mark Stewart.
Mark Stewart dabbled in various enterprises in Philadelphia and Atlantic City. He was the business manager for Freddie Shero, the two-time Stanley Cup winning head coach of the Philadelphia Flyers. He promoted the occasional boxing card. He got involved with money-losing real estate development deals, which he subsequently sold as fraudulent tax shelters to Shero and others, including Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Jerry Robinson and running back Reggie Wilkes. Lavin initially placed $500,000 with Stewart’s various enterprises which then paid Lavin a modest laundered salary in return.
Infused with Lavin’s cash, Stewart went on a shopping spree, starting a limo company and promoting a soul music label among other projects. In June 1980, Stewart persuaded Lavin to purchase the decrepit Philadelphia Arena at 45th & Market Street in West Philadelphia for $100,000. Larmark, Inc., one of Stewart’s laundering entities for Lavin’s cocaine sales, became the owner of record. The arena, opened in 1920, had a long history hosting boxing, wrestling and ice hockey, but had fallen into disuse after the construction of the Spectrum in 1967. Throughout the 1970’s, it was used mainly to house Philadelphia’s public television station. Stewart renamed the building Martin Luther King Arena as a community relations move aimed at the arena’s primarily African-American neighbors.
Martin Luther King Arena re-opened as an entertainment venue on June 20th, 1980, offering a closed-circuit feed of the “Brawl in Montreal” boxing match between Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran. But Stewart couldn’t get his newly installed satellite equipment to work. The showing had to be cancelled, leading to a mini-riot by the boxing fans lined up outside.
Later in 1980, Lavin gave Stewart $25,000 in drug money to help purchase the Lancaster (PA) Red Roses of the minor league Continental Basketball Association. The small city of Lancaster, nestled in Pennsylvania Dutch country, had hosted a series of minor league basketball teams – all known as the Red Roses – dating back to 1946. The latest incarnation of the Red Roses started up in 1975. Stewart relocated the franchise to the Martin Luther King Arena and dubbed it the Philadelphia Kings as part of his ongoing MLK tribute act. Stewart hired long-time Philadelphia 76ers star Hal Greer to run the building and serve as the Kings Head Coach and General Manager.
Greer was one of the all-time great figures in Philadelphia 76ers history. The guard from Marshall University played his entire 15-year NBA career for the Syracuse Nationals/Philadelphia 76ers franchise, earning 10 All-Star appearances and retiring as the 5th all-time leading scorer in NBA history. During the 1967 playoffs, Greer averaged nearly 28 points per game as the 76ers won their first NBA title.
The Kings also signed former NBA star Cazzie Russell. The New York Knicks made Russell the #1 overall pick in the 1966 NBA Draft out of the University of Michigan. He went on to win an NBA title with the Knicks in 1970 and earned an All-Star nod with the Golden State Warriors in 1972. His NBA career ended in 1978.
By January 1981, the Kings were two months into the CBA season. Russell was a bright spot, averaging 19 points a game to that point. Kings leading scorer Norman Black earned a call-up on a 10-day contract to the Detroit Pistons of the NBA. Otherwise, the Kings were a disaster. The Anchorage Daily News reported that Philadelphia Kings attendance through the first two months averaged approximately 150 fans per game in a city that already had the NBA, Villanova and Temple college basketball, Flyers hockey and Eagles football during the winter months.
At the end of the 1980-81 CBA season, the franchise was sold and relocated back to Lancaster, Pennsylvania where it became known as the Lancaster Lightning. Russell moved with the team and became its Head Coach for several years.
In the summer 1981, Lavin and his partners stopped giving money to Stewart. The Kings had been a disaster and the arena had become a financial sinkhole. Stewart hatched a plan with two employees of his Celebrity Limousine Service (another Lavin-funded entity controlled by Stewart). The conspirators paid $12,500 to a Pagans motorcycle gang member named James “Horrible” Holt to burn the building down. On October 4th, 1981, Holt torched the Martin Luther King Arena. The blaze destroyed the building’s roof, but did not bring it down. The damaged building sat vacant and unoccupied until August 1983 when a second suspected arson finished the job, burning the building to the ground.
Hal Greer was honored with induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1982. In 1996, the NBA named Greer to its 50th Anniversary All-Time Team, honoring the Top 50 players in league history.
Cazzie Russell coached in the CBA throughout the 1980’s. In November 2011, he will be inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.
Mark Stewart was indicted in January 1985 for selling the fraudulent tax shelters that resulted in large IRS debts owed by Flyers coach Freddie Shero and Philadelphia Eagles players Jerry Robinson and Reggie Wilkes. In September 1986, Stewart was indicted on arson charges for the 1981 fire at Martin Luther King Arena. During the same year, Stewart pleaded guilty to helping Lavin launder his money and was sentenced to four years in prison. Stewart’s arsonist, gang member James “Horrible” Holt was murdered in 1984.
Larry Lavin was arrested in 1984. Lavin and his wife and child went on the run, living under assumed identities for more than a year in Virginia. He was arrested in 1986 and pled guilty later that years to conspiracy, drug distribution and tax evasion charges. The Yuppie Conspiracy and the Lavin-Stewart partnership was chronicled in the 1987 book Doctor Dealer by Mark Bowden, later the author of Black Hawk Down. Bowden’s book was a key source for this article.
Doctor Dealer, Mark Bowden, Grove Press, New York, 1987, 2001
“Greer, Russell Bring Kings to Anchorage”, Clint Swett, Anchorage Daily News, April 10, 1981
“Blaze 2nd “Suspicious” Fire at Arena”, Julia Lawlor, The Philadelphia Daily News, August 25, 1983
“Grand Jury Indicts Promoter for Allegedly Helping Coach, Athletes with False Tax Returns”, United Press International, January 22, 1985
“Trio Tied to Torched MLK Arena”, Jim Smith, The Philadelphia Daily News, September 26, 1986
Maybe we should blame it on Morrie Silver. In 1956, faced with the loss of his city’s beloved Red Wings minor league baseball club, the Rochester, New York businessman rallied more than 8,000 of his fellow citizens to purchase stock in Rochester Community Baseball, Inc. in order to buy the team and its ballpark from the St. Louis Cardinals. Today the Rochester Red Wings are the longest running team in the history of minor league sports and remain community-owned under the auspices of Rochester Community Baseball, which continues to be traded as an over-the-counter stock.
Silver’s so-called “72-day Miracle” in Rochester has inspired numerous imitators but few equals. Virtually all efforts to finance minor league sports franchises through public stock offerings have ended in abject failure. The Chicago Hustle of the Women’s Professional Basketball League and the Jacksonville Bulls of the United States Football League tried (and failed) to dig out of accumulated debts through the issuance of stock. The New York Express soccer team tried to fund their 1986 start-up with a massive $5.3 million offering – few were interested and the team folded before finishing their first season.
Hartford Sports & Entertainment Group formed in early 1993 for the purpose of bringing professional basketball to downtown Hartford, Connecticut. Like the New York Express, Hartford Sports formed with the intent to fund operations with the proceeds of a public stock sale. On May 26th, 1993, Hartford Sports struck a deal with Albany-based sports investor Joseph O’Hara to lease his Capital Region (NY) Pontiacs franchise in the Continental Basketball Association and relocate it to the Hartford Civic Center for the 1993-94 season. The three-year agreement allowed Hartford Sports to lease and operate O’Hara’s CBA club for a fee of $100,000 per season. At the time, the CBA was the Official Developmental League of the NBA. Dozens of CBA players made the jump to the NBA each year,typically on short-term 10-day contracts. Overlooked players such as Michael Adams and John Starks broke out as NBA All-Stars after first gaining notice in the CBA.
The Hellcats debuted at the Civic Center on November 20th, 1993 against the Columbus (OH) Horizon before a CBA record crowd of 11,762. Two weeks later, 10,346 packed the Civic Center to watch the Hellcats play an exhibition against Magic Johnson’s All-Stars. General Manager Rich Coffey told The New York Times that the Hellcats sold 2,384 season tickets and inked $300,000 in corporate sponsorship for the 1993-94 season.
Despite a losing record of 18-38 in 1993-94, the Hellcats announced an average attendance of 5,003 per game which ranked second in the 16-team CBA. In pre-season interviews, Hartford Sports President Michael Kerski pegged the team’s breakeven attendance at 4,000 paid customers per game. But the notion of a “breakeven attendance figure” is often more about spin rather than substance, meant to assure local media and sponsors that the owners have a clear-eyed business plan. A breakeven calculation based on ticket sales would quickly fall by the wayside if the team underperformed in other key areas, such as expense controls or corporate sponsorship. The Hellcats posted an operating loss of $590,386 for the 1993-94 season.
There was another problem. Without deep-pocketed ownership to backstop the team’s finances, Hartford Sports relied on the success of the public stock sale to generate working capital. Hartford Sports offered 100,000 shares valued at $10.00 each. Investors had to make a minimum purchase of $2,500 for one investment unit of 250 shares. Ultimately, Hartford signed on over 150 shareholders, but most were small businessmen and private individuals who purchased only the $2,500 minimum stake. The corporation managed to raise only $410,000 from the planned $1 million offering.
In the spring of 1994, Hartford Sports partnered with the Connecticut Development Authority (CDA), the financing arm of Connecticut Department of Economic Development, to obtain a $1.25 million loan package to provide more working capital. The CDA provided a $250,000 direct loan from the Connecticut Growth Fund and guaranteed an additional $1 million loan from Shawmut Bank. Several Hartford Sports board members and Hellcats General Manager Rich Coffey, the CBA’s Executive-of-the-Year for 1993-94, expressed concerns about the additional debt burden and terms and parted ways with the organization.
The loan contained several challenging provisions. The CDA wanted the asset value of the franchise as collateral against the debt it had guaranteed. Hartford Sports was required to purchase the Hellcats outright from Joseph O’Hara rather than renew their lease option. In addition, Hartford Sports agreed to purchase an inactive Arena Football League franchise – the Cincinnati Rockers – and move it to the Civic Center in the spring of 1995. Finally, the lease required Hartford Sports to radically modify their lease with the state-run Hartford Civic Center. The Hellcats paid a flat rental fee of $4,000 per game during the 1993-94 season. For the 1994-95 campaign, Hartford Sports agreed to pay the greater amount of $8,100 per game or $4,000 + 15% of the game day box office receipts. Although the Hellcats rent would more than double, Hartford Sports still would not receive any share of Civic Center concessions or parking revenue.
On June 22, 1994, Hartford Sports announced the purchase of both clubs, paying $700,000 to take ownership of the Hellcats and $200,000 to acquire the Arena Football franchise, which would now be known as the Connecticut Coyotes. After paying the two franchise fees, some overhanging debt from the Hellcats first season, and legal fees associated with the loan process, Hartford Sports was left with a new $1.25M debt obligation…and less than $100,000 of new working capital heading into their second Continental Basketball Association season.
The dominoes fell quickly for Hartford Sports & Entertainment after that. Hartford Sports went most of the summer without a General Manager for the Hellcats and Coyotes properties until Casey Kahler arrived in mid-August of 1994. The corporation issued a prospectus in mid-October that projected necessary sales of 5,000 Hellcats and 10,000 Coyotes tickets per game to meet its debt and payables obligations. During the offseason, Hellcats season ticket sales fell from 2,400 to 1,800 for the club’s second season. Hartford Sports missed its very first interest payment on the loan package in November 1994. Shawmut Bank notified the team it was in default on the $1 million loan on December 14th, 1994.
On the court, the Hellcats assembled a rogues gallery of basketball curios during their brief run in the CBA. There was the 7′ 5″ center Chuck Nevitt, one of the four tallest player in NBA history. And Bo Kimble, who led 11th-seeded Loyola-Marymount’s improbable and inspiring run to the Elite Eight in 1990 after the death of his teammate and friend Hank Gathers. During their final days, the Hellcats traded for the controversial former Georgetown star and 1988 U.S. Olympian Charles Smith. Smith joined the Hellcats in December 1994, several months after his release from a two-year prison term for killing two Boston University students in a March 1991 hit-and-run incident. Smith had been with the Boston Celtics at the time, playing on a 10-day contract after a call-up from the CBA.
On January 20th, 1995 the CDA took over the operation of the Connecticut Coyotes franchise from Hartford Sports, seeking to sell the team as a hedge against the now toxic loan. The Hellcats staggered on through January 1995, “flat broke” in the words of Hartford Sports board member Tom Drohan. The team charged fans to shoot baskets on the Civic Center floor following home games in order to generate meal money for upcoming road trips. A late January road trip to Grand Rapids, Michigan was funded by drawing down on a letter of credit posted with the CBA league office – a rarely used last resort measure.
The Hellcats gave up the ghost on January 30th, 1995, cancelling a scheduled home game against the Mexico City Aztecas and folding in midseason. Connecticut Development Authority spokesman Joe Cohen provided a damning epitaph in a press interview:
“I don’t think it’s so much an example of Hartford not being able to support a CBA basketball franchise as it is a reflection of weak management that took what was a strong concept and ran it into the ground from a business standpoint.”
Brian Foley, a health care entrepeneur from Avon, Connecticut, agreed with Cohen’s assessment. He stepped forward in February 1995 with an offer to purchase the shuttered Hellcats franchise from the CBA for $750,000. The league initially balked, which meant the club could not be resuscitated in time to play out the 1994-95 schedule. Foley eventually purchased the former Hellcats franchise in May of 1995 for an estimated $450,000. Foley re-branded the club as the Connecticut Pride and entered it in the CBA for the 1995-96 season.
Meanwhile, the CDA-managed Connecticut Coyotes debuted at the Civic Center on May 13, 1995, losing to the Orlando Predators 45-43 in front of an announced crowd of 7,643. The Arena Football team flopped on the turf and at the box office. Under coach Rick Buffington, the Coyotes finished 1-11, losing all six of their home games in Hartford. The Coyotes average attendance of 7,853 for six games ranked 11th in the 13-team AFL. In October 1995, the CDA unloaded the Coyotes to Benjamin Morris and Scott Gerard, both of Connecticut, for $750,000.
“This is my first venture of this type, but it’s somewhat similar to what I do,” Morris told The Hartford Courant. “I usually buy undeveloped or rundown real estate properties, and I see a lot of parallels.”
Morris brought in Larry Kuharich, who coached the Tampa Bay Storm to the 1993 Arena Bowl title, to replace Buffington. Kuharich signed the young quarterback Aaron Garcia to lead the team on the field. Garcia, in his second AFL season, had a strong campaign throwing for 31 touchdowns against only 4 interceptions. But overall, the product was the same. The Coyotes finished 2-12, dropping their two-year cumulative record to a woeful 3-23 with only two wins for the home crowds in Hartford. Attendance figures remained near the bottom of the league in 1996 with a purported average of 7,850 per game.
In September 1996, Morris negotiated to sell his Arena Football franchise to ITT-Cablevision, owners of Madison Square Garden. The Arena Football League blocked the sale, wishing to sell their own New York City expansion team to ITT-Cablevision. Morris took legal action against the league. In October 1996, the parties reached an undisclosed settlement, the net result of which was that Morris sold or returned the Coyotes back to the league, who dissolved the franchise during the first week of November. The league subsequently sold an expansion franchise to ITT-Cablevision which began play at the Madison Square Garden in 1997 as the New York Cityhawks.
Brian Foley operated the Connecticut Pride, formed out of the ashes of the Hellcats, in the CBA until the end of the 1998-99 season, when CBA owners sold the entire league to Isaiah Thomas for $10 million. Foley lost an estimated $2 million in the CBA during his four years of ownership. Thomas fared worse, running the entire league into the ground in less than two years. The CBA shut down in 2001 and the Pride followed shortly thereafter.
The New York Cityhawks fared poorly in Manhattan. After two seasons at the Garden, the club’s owner relocated the team to Hartford, giving the city it’s second helping of Arena Football. The renamed New England Sea Wolves fared no better than the Coyotes before them, lasting only two years at the Civic Center (1999-2000) before leaving town for Toronto.