Posts Tagged ‘Crime & Punishment’
Remember that Churchill line about the Russians that Oliver Stone lifted for JFK? It’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. It’s a sentiment often shared by fans and observers trying to discern the money men and financing schemes behind the kind of pro sports outfits that swim in the weird end of the pool.
When I ran the Boston Breakers in Women’s Professional Soccer in 2010, the St. Louis Athletica franchise abruptly folded in midseason when Heemal and Sanjeev Vaid – a couple of shady Subway and Papa John’s franchisees in London – stopped making payroll. The collective reaction of WPS officials and St. Louis fans was: “Who the f**k are the Vaid Brothers?” Nobody ever heard of these clowns. We all thought another guy owned the club – you know, the guy who actually owned the club the year before and still liked to refer to himself as the “Chairman” and take part in league conference calls. Turns out he sold it, but forgot to tell anyone.
The Vaids may have been poorly vetted absentee deadbeats, but they weren’t scary. Not scary like the reputed backers of the Major Indoor Soccer League‘s Phoenix Inferno, a blackbox franchise whose personable front man Rick Ragone turned out to have little equity, but plenty of silent partners back in Scarface-era Miami.
Ragone’s story begins in Miami, where as a young man he worked as a PR assistant with the Miami Dolphins. In the early 1970’s Ragone hooked on in the front office of the Miami Toros of the North American Soccer League, where he became an early proponent of the hybrid game of indoor soccer, played on carpeted hockey rinks. At the Toros, Ragone crossed paths with Scottish-born executive Norm Sutherland. The two men kicked around the NASL for a few years and then teamed up to announce the formation of the indoor Major Soccer League in August 1975. Ragone and Sutherland envisioned their league as a summer time rival to the outdoor NASL and claimed they had franchises “90% sold” in six major markets. The project never made it off the drawing board, similar to other efforts that the young entrepeneurs tried to get off the ground in the late 1970’s, including Ragone’s effort to put an NASL team in sleepy Spokane, Washington and Sutherland’s role in another abandoned indoor start-up, 1978’s Super Soccer League.
Nevertheless, Ragone and Sutherland were not the people sold on indoor soccer in the Seventies. Two other men, Ed Tepper and Earl Foreman succeeded in launching the first indoor the league, the Major Indoor Soccer League, in December 1978 with six teams in major East Coast and Midwest cities. Rapid expansion followed and the MISL announced Phoenix, Arizona as the league’s 12th franchise on May 30th, 1980 to begin play that November. Ragone would be the President and purported owner and he tabbed Sutherland as the Head Coach & GM of the club, dubbed the Phoenix Inferno.
The Inferno debuted at the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum on November 21st, 1980, losing 5-4 to the San Francisco Fog before an announced crowd of 11,098. Sutherland last only half the season in the Head Coach role, posting an 8-19 record before being replaced by player-coach Adrian Webster. But Ragone didn’t jettison his old colleague – Sutherland retained his GM role in the front office. The Inferno finished their first season at 17-23, good enough to squeak into the playoffs, where they lost in the first round to the defending champion New York Arrows. At the box office, the Inferno claimed attendance of 152,309 for 21 dates for an average of 7,253.
Barely a month into the Inferno’s second season on December 22, 1981, tragedy struck when Ragone perished along with his father in a four-car accident in Paradise Valley, Arizona. After Ragone’s death, a San Francisco real estate investor named Irv Berger stepped in and assumed control of the franchise in January 1982.
Under Berger, the financial fortunes of the Inferno swiftly plummeted. By December of 1982, just 11 months into his ownership, the Inferno owed more than $110,000 in back payroll taxes to the federal government and another $26,000 to the Arizona Department of Revenue. On December 13th, 1982, IRS agents raided the Inferno offices, seized all the cash on the premises and padlocked the office shut. A bankruptcy court sold a controlling stake in the club to Arizona cable television pioneer Bruce Merrill in January 1983 for $175,000. Under Merrill’s financial stewardship the once-bankrupt Inferno were able to complete the 1982-83 MISL season.
After getting out from under his Inferno financial woes, Irv Berger gave an interview to The Arizona Republic in February 1983 revealing more details of the Inferno’s financial history and ownership structure. Despite Ragone’s public representations, the majority ownership in the club during Ragone’s (and later Berger’s) tenure was held by a group of Cuban exiles in and around Key Biscayne and Hialeah, Florida.
The group included the Reverend Manuel A. Espinosa, a controversial right wing radio host in Miami with ties to the anti-Castro paramilitary leader and accused terrorist Dr. Orlando Bosch. Espinosa was profiled in Soldier of Fortune magazine in 1980. Two other Inferno investors, Rogelio “Roger” Novo and Emilio Palmar co-owned Roger’s-on-the-Green, a golf course restaurant and lounge in Key Biscayne, Florida. In 1982, Ricardo “Monkey” Morales was shot in the head and killed there during an argument with another patron. During the 1960’s and 1970’s Morales was involved with violent anti-Castro mercenaries, while simultaneously working as an informant for the CIA, FBI and DEA. By his own admission, Morales was part of the October 1976 bombing of Cubana Air Lines flight 455 in the sky off Barbados, an act of terrorism for which Dr. Orlando Bosch was arrested and tried in Venezuela. The bombing killed 73 people on board including all 24 members of Cuba’s Olympic gold medal fencing team. Conspiracy theorists have speculated on Morales as a possible participant in various Cuban exile scenarios of the JFK assassination.
The Arizona Republic article cited accounts from Inferno staff members that Ragone would periodically fly off to Miami and return with “suitcases full of cash”. For his part, Berger came off as somewhat rattled by the experience. Noting that he only met one of the Cubans (Novo) one time, Berger told the paper: “I hear this group is very dangerous. You better watch your step. They’re very heavy people.”
Meanwhile, back in Phoenix, Bruce Merrill set about re-branding his formerly bankrupt club. He fired Sutherland and replaced him with former San Diego Clippers (NBA) GM Ted Podleski. Podleski, a conservative Christian, blanched at the Inferno name and replaced it with the dullest identity imaginable: for the 1983-84 season, Arizona’s MISL entry would be known as the Phoenix Pride. Podleski also dispensed with the Inferno’s flashy yellow, red & black color scheme and substituted coloring more suitable to his bland new vision: beige.
The 1983-84 Phoenix Pride campaign was an unmitigated disaster for all involved. The club finished in 6th (last) place in the MISL’s Western Division with an 18-30 record. Merrill, for his part, lost $2.2 million operating the Pride, a figure that United Press International sportingly referred to as “a league record”. In June 1984, Merrill announced the club would fold if he could not find a Greater Fool buyer within one month. Failing to do so, he terminated his membership in July 1984.
At least some members of the group of Cuban exiles behind the Inferno were, in fact, “very heavy people”, as Berger had warned.
Rogelio Novo, the Inferno investor and restauranteur who witnessed Morales’ killing, met a gruesome end of his own in January 1985. He died of a shotgun blast to the head and his body was dumped in an undeveloped area in Pembroke Pines, Florida.
Another Cuban exile Inferno investor, Reverend Manuel Espinosa, was politely asked to move out of his Hialeah, Florida housing unit when components for an unexploded bomb were discovered beneath his car in 1983. He died of natural causes in the late 1980’s.
After the Pride folded in 1984, pro indoor soccer returned to Phoenix with the Arizona Sandsharks of the Continental Indoor Soccer League in 1993. That club lasted five years from 1993 to 1997.
Several former Inferno staff members have gone on to business careers of great acclaim. Former broadcaster Marc Middleton is the CEO of Growing Bolder Media Group and host of the Growing Bolder television show syndicated on PBS channels nationwide.
Former Vice President of Sales and Marketing Tim Pearson later became Chief Marketing Officer for consulting giant KPMG and is a New York Times best-selling author of several business marketing and branding books.
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
“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
The New York Express, Shep Messing told Newsday in October 1986, will be “better run as a business than any team in the history of professional soccer.” Bold words from the former New York Cosmos star, who brought a Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL) expansion franchise to Long Island in the fall of 1986 with the help of two novice sports investors and an unlikely financing scheme.
The MISL granted a franchise to Messing and his partners Stan Henry and Ralph McNamara on May 15th, 1986. Messing would play the role of local hero and front man. At the age of 37, he also appointed himself the presumed starting goalkeeper for the Express. Henry and McNamara were the money men – sort of. They expected the bulk of the team’s operating capital to come from a sale of public stock. Henry ran an empire of Pennysaver advertising circulars on Long Island, and served as Board Chairman of the Express. McNamara was a managing principal at the Long Island brokerage firm of MacPeg, Ross, O’Connell and Goldaber. He took the title of CFO of the Express and his firm marketed the financial scheme behind the enterprise – a $5.3 million public stock offering intended to finance operations of the club for its first three seasons.
As the broker of record, McNamara had a legal obligation to be more cautious in his forecast for the Express than Messing’s best-organization-in-the-history-of-soccer antics. “Public offerings are calculated risks,” McNamara told Newsday, “We are going to make an effort to field a team and see what the community will bear. We think it will work.”
There was little evidence to support Messing’s irrational exuberance or McNamara’s meaured optimism. The MISL had a few great success stories in the early-to-mid 1980’s, but its adventures in New York City were not among them. The New Jersey Rockets and the late era New York Cosmos had both failed after short runs at the Brendan Byrne Arena in the Meadowlands sports complex. Most troublesome for the Express was the legacy of the New York Arrows. The Arrows were one of the league’s founding franchises in 1978. Like the Express, they played on Long Island at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Under Yugoslav Head Coach Don Popovic, the Arrows became a dynasty, winning the first four MISL championships from 1979 to 1982. Messing starred in net for the Arrows, while a collection of Slavs and Hungarians including Steve Zungul, Branko Segota, Juli Veee and Fred Grgurev provided the offensive firepower. Despite the championships, the Arrows were never a success at the gate. The Arrows filed for bankruptcy and folded in the summer of 1984, leaving behind a pile of unpaid bills and a community skeptical of the MISL brand.
After two road losses to open the season, the team debuted at home on November 21st, 1986. An announced crowd of 10,570 watched them lose to the Kansas City Comets and drop to 0-3. The match up for the debut on Long Island may have been a bad omen – Comets majority owner David Schoenstadt owned the New York Arrows in 1984 when the club plunged into bankruptcy.
The Express kept losing into December. When the club reached 0-10, the axe fell on Head Coach Ray Klivecka. Messing turned to his former Arrows coach, Don Popovic. Popovic arrived in late December and began supervising training sessions, but seemed in no hurry to sign a contract.
“After being with two clubs in two years, I want to be sure this team will be here longer than one year,” Popovic told The Pittsburgh Press.
Unwilling to sign but also unwilling to leave, Popovic continued to run Express training sessions. But by league rule, Popovic could not be in the team bench area unless he was under contract. On one night, Popovic sat in the stands, attempting to orchestrate the match from the front row.
“<Popovic> sat behind the glass and relayed changes to one of the players and sometimes directly to me,” recalled interim Head Coach Mark Steffens. “He didn’t change a lot of things, just a player switch or two.”
Eventually, Popovic descended to the bench for a single match, despite never signing a contract. He resigned the same night.
Meanwhile, the stock sale was a bust.
“Let’s just say the money never really existed and the ‘game plan’ for selling stock was less than stellar,” says Buchdahl. “Before the season even started, I think many people knew there was a little smoke and mirrors happening with the financing. But I also think Shep thought he could convince someone to give us the money we needed.”
In January, Express GM Kent Russell and Assistant GM Joel Finglass bolted for front office roles with the MISL’s Dallas Sidekicks. 24-year old Micah Buchdahl became acting General Manager, presiding over remnants of a staff that no longer received paychecks. The Express missed their $75,000 player payroll on February 1st, 1987, forcing the league to draw down the club’s $250,000 letter of credit to cover it.
“<Sometime> in the middle of December or January the fella <Stan Henry> called me and asked me to come out on the Island to dinner,” recalled MISL Commissioner Bill Kentling. “Mitch Burke, the deputy commissioner, and I drove out on a snowy night and had a lovely dinner. We sort of kept waiting for the reason for the dinner and we got the check and we were paying and he said to us ‘Oh by the way, I’m not sure I can make payroll this week.’
I said “I’m sorry…perhaps we should sit at the bar for a moment and talk about this.” And he was just out of money or chose to be out of money, you’re never sure.”
Messing announced the immediate dissolution of the team and the initiation of Chapter XI bankruptcy proceedings on February 17, 1987 during the MISL All-Star Break. Although the Express finished with a record of 3-23, they did manage to win their final game, a 6-5 overtime victory against the Los Angeles Lazers at the Forum on Valentine’s Day 1987. The Express drew an announced average of 5,212 fans to their 13 home dates at the Coliseum, numbers that Micah Buchdahl admits were routinely fudged. For their three victories, the Express lost a reported $3 million during nine months of operation.
Buchdahl expropriated much of the club’s office equipment and held it hostage in his aunt’s garage in a failed effort to receive his final five weeks of missed paychecks. Read his highly entertaining behind-the-scenes account of the Express here.
Express defender Andranik Eskandarian, the former Iranian World Cup and Cosmos star, delivered the final judgement to The Chicago Tribune: “This team should never have been let in. I don’t think the league is going to last long if it’s going to be like this.”
Express co-owner Ralph McNamara’s firm closed in the wake of the October 1987 stock market crash. His broker’s license was revoked in 1991. In the late 1990’s he reappeared in Clearwater, Florida operating a fake venture capital scam under the alias Ralph Deluise. McNamara was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison in 2007.
Shep Messing plead guilty and received probation in 1991 in the wake of a securities probe into an investment scam that targeted NBA players represented by agent Harvey Lakind, including Darryl Dawkins. He remains a soccer icon in New York and has enjoyed a long career as a soccer commentator and broadcaster for ESPN, NBC and MLSNet.com among other outlets.
Rick Davis was elected to the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2001.
Former Express Assistant GM Joel Finglass married Dallas Cowboys cheerleader Kelli Finglass (nee McGonagill), who is now the Director of the cheerleaders and a star of the long-running CMT program Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making The Team.
The original Major Indoor Soccer League folded in July 1992.
1986 New York Express Stock Offering Circular (57MB – download only)
If they are remembered for nothing else – and they aren’t – the Erie (PA) Wave of the World Basketball League came up with one of the all-time great cheerleading squad names: the Eriesistibles. What else can be said about the Wave? They plied their trade in a gimmicky basketball league that had a height limit. Two of their players became so disgruntled with the team that they retired to start their own rival WBL franchise. And shortly after the team folded in the middle of its third season, Wave players and staff learned that they had unwittingly taken part in a massive criminal enterprise.
Erie received a WBL expansion entry in early 1990, just 67 days before tip-off of the franchise’s first game. The three-year old World Basketball League had several unique features that separated it from other basketball leagues. Players could be no taller than 6′ 5″ tall. The league played an untraditional May-August summer schedule, allowing minor leaguers from the winter Continental Basketball Association to ply their trade year round. Although the league had only seven franchises in 1990, they stretched across North America from Saskatchewan to Las Vegas to Memphis. To fill out the schedule, the WBL various imported clubs from Western Europe and the Soviet Union, which were not subject to the height limit. These games counted in the standings, but were basically an automatic win. WBL teams routinely pummeled the lumbering foreign clubs, who collectively lost 51 out of the 56 international games played in 1990.
The WBL business model called for the league to hold a 60% equity interest in each club, with local ownership holding the other 40%. During the 1990 season, Erie’s local investor was a car dealer named George Turner. Turner caught the basketball bug as a season ticket holder with the WBL’s nearby Youngstown Pride, located only 100 miles away and considered the league’s model franchise.
The Wave debuted at Erie’s Tullio Arena on May 17th, 1990 against the Calgary 88’s before an estimated crowd of 4,500. Attendance withered thereafter, as did the team’s performance on the court. The 1990 Wave finished in last place with a 12-34 record and posted an announced average attendance of 2,270 per game.
George Turner declined to renew his financial support at the end of the 1990 season. The WBL failed to find new local ownership to replace Turner. When the Wave returned for the 1991 season, they were wards of the league office and its primary patron, WBL founder and Youngstown Pride owner Michael “Mickey” Monus, the President of the Youngstown-based Phar-Mor discount pharmacy chain. The 1991 Wave won 18 games against 33 losses, once again posting the worst record in the WBL.
The Wheels came off for the WBL during its fifth season in 1992. The league’s Canadian expansion of the past few years proved quite successful, as clubs in Winnipeg, Saskatchewan and Halifax drew strong crowds. It was the American franchises – many of whom, like Erie, did not have functional local ownership, – that were bleeding the league dry. On June 15th, 1992 the WBL shuttered both of its poorly attended Florida clubs, the Florida Jades and the Jacksonville Stingrays, in midseason. The remaining clubs found the league office – which owned 60% of the equity in their franchises – unresponsive as bills mounted and went unpaid. The trail of financial problems led directly to the league’s founder and sugar daddy, Mickey Monus and his crumbling house of cards at Phar-Mor.
On July 20th, 1992 the cash-poor World Basketball League shut down the Erie Wave with 13 games remaining on the regular season schedule. The Wave had a record of 12-26 at the time. Attendance for the 1992 season at Tullio Arena averaged just 1,077 fans per game, compared to a league-wide announced average of 3,194.
In late July 1992, several days after the Wave folded, Phar-Mor opened its 300th store. Days later Monus was ousted when company officials discovered Monus and his CFO were maintaining two sets of books, claiming rapid growth and profits while Phar-Mor was actually generating huge losses and falling far behind in payments to its suppliers. Among other crimes, Monus had embezzled close to $10 million from Phar-Mor over four years to underwrite the operating losses of the WBL and its franchises. The entire financial underpinning of the WBL was revealed to be a criminal enterprise, with the local investors and front office managers in the role of unwitting participants. On August 1st, 1992, the World Basketball League folded in the midst of its fifth season, days after the downfall of its patron. Monus’ downfall also cost the jobs of 17,000 Phar-Mor employees – the seemingly robust chain was forced into bankruptcy – and nearly sank the fledgling Colorado Rockies expansion franchise in Major League Baseball, in which Monus was a major investor.
One of the best Wave players was Jamie Waller, a 1987 2nd round draft pick of the New Jersey Nets. Waller led the WBL in scoring in four consecutive seasons from 1988-1991. Waller began the 1991 season with the Nashville Stars and joined Erie midway through, finishing the season with a 26.3 points per game scoring average. Waller was dealt to the Youngstown Pride prior to the 1992 season.
In 2008, professional basketball returned to Erie after a sixteen year absence when the NBA D-League placed the Erie Bayhawks expansion franchise at Tullio Arena. The D-League is the official development league of the National Basketball Association (and has no height limits).
Downloads & Links:
“World Basketball League his chance to make Waves”, Paul Jayes, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 14, 1990
“The Short, Unhappy History of the Erie Wave”, GoErie.com, March 19, 2008
This is FWiL’s first profile of a so-called “phantom team”. While it’s not unusual for minor league sports teams to shut down after a single campaign (see our One Year Wonders tag for an ever-growing list), there are considerably fewer instances of clubs that assemble a team only to fold before playing a single match. This is the story of one such phantom club, the Phoenix Fire of the American Soccer League.
Leonard E. Lesser formed Phoenix Professional Sports, Inc. for the purpose of attracting professional soccer to Arizona for the 1980 season. The insurance executive set his sights on the top level of the game in the United States at the time – the North American Soccer League. Lesser’s group found a motivated seller in Harry Mangurian, owner of the NBA’s Boston Celtics and principal investor in the NASL’s struggling Memphis Rogues, a losing club that drew poorly at Memphis’ cavernous Liberty Bowl.
Phoenix Professional Sports announced an agreement in principle to purchase the Rogues for $2.6 million on June 28th, 1979. Lesser indicated that Phoenix Professional Sports would seek to relocate the team to Arizona for the 1980 season, playing either at the 21,000-seat football stadium at Phoenix Union High School or the 70,000-seat Sun Devil Stadium on the campus of Arizona State University in Tempe. The announcement effectively made the Rogues lame ducks in Memphis, with six weeks remaining in the 1979 NASL regular season.
Mangurian called off the sale a little more than a week later on July 7th, 1979, alluding to unspecified terms that Lesser’s group had failed to meet, but providing no elaboration to the press. Denied the Rogues, Lesser turned his attention to the American Soccer League, an unruly second division league with clubs spread from Albany to Sacramento. ASL clubs operated on much smaller budgets than NASL clubs. Where NASL clubs primarily shared multi-purpose NFL and Major League Baseball stadiums, ASL teams played in a hodge podge of modest venues, ranging from minor league baseball stadiums to small college football stadiums.
On September 25th, 1979 the American Soccer League awarded a 1980 expansion franchise to Phoenix Professional Sports. Lesser immediately introduced 39-year old Scotsman Jimmy Gabriel as Head Coach. Gabriel was a long-time Everton and Southampton midfielder who arrived in the United States in 1974 to play for the NASL’s Seattle Sounders. Gabriel took over head coaching duties for the Sounders in 1977 and led the team to the NASL Soccer Bowl, where they lost to the New York Cosmos. Gabriel resigned his position with the Sounders in August 1979 after a losing campaign. Lesser began talks with Phoenix College to use their Hoy Stadium for home matches.
The Phoenix Fire assembled in Arizona in late February 1980 for pre-season training. The roster included 1978 ASL Most Valuable Player Jimmy Rolland as well as English midfielder Harry Redknapp, a former teammate of Gabriel’s at the Seattle Sounders. The club played several exhibition matches in preparation for their ASL opener on March 22nd, 1980 against the Golden Gate Gales, another ASL expansion club.
The Fire players received paychecks on March 1st, 1980, but Phoenix Professional Sports missed the next payroll. On March 19th The Arizona Republic reported that the team was on the brink of folding, a charge denied by Lesser. Gabriel, meanwhile, scrambled to help his players find new teams for the 1980 season.
The ASL postponed the Fire-Gales opener on March 22nd and gave the franchise one week to put its finances in order. With their ASL debut cancelled, the Fire played a fundraising match for its unpaid players against an Arizona amateur team on March 22nd instead. The club officially folded on Thursday, March 27th, 1980 after failing to meet the ASL’s deadline to find new investors.
In January 1981, a grand jury indicted Lesser on 14 charges related to the Fire, including conducting a fraud, securities fraud, theft and falsification of corporate records. Prosecutors alleged that Lesser misrepresented the financial resources of the team to attract investors, diverted corporate funds for his own use, and then falsified the team’s balance sheets and check books to prevent his investors from learning the true state of the team’s finances. One investor claimed losses of $70,000 to Lesser, while another claimed a loss of $44,000. Investigators pegged the total scale of the fraud to be approximately $250,000. In December 1981, Lesser was sentenced to serve one-year in the Maricopa County Jail in Phoenix.
“Playing site only problem for Rogues”, The Associated Press, June 29, 1979
“Fire Flickers in Phoenix”, The Associated Press, March 19, 1980
“Fire given hope”, The Associated Press, March 24, 1980
“Pro soccer figure indicted for fraud” The Milwaukee Journal, January 13, 1981
Untitled Associated Press report, December 2, 1981
The International Volleyball Association (IVA) launched in 1975, seeking to capitalize on the popularity of volleyball at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The 1970’s saw an explosion of team sports concepts – from World Team Tennis to indoor soccer – all seeking to establish themselves as the sport of the future and challenge the NBA and NHL for space on the cover of Sports Illustrated. The hijinks of the Denver Comets ownership, however, seemed better suited for the pages of High Times.
The league was the brainchild of Hollywood producer David L. Wolper, who owned the Los Angeles Stars franchise. Celebrity ownership was the rule of the day in 1975, with Motown Records impresario Berry Gordy backing the San Diego Breakers and co-ed sports enthusiast Wilt Chamberlain owning (and occasionally playing for) the Southern California Bangers.
By the time Denver joined the IVA as an expansion franchise in 1977, the celebrities had mostly lost interest and moved on, although Chamberlain remained as league President and occasional guest star on the court. Following the 1976 season, Volleyball magazine publisher James L. Bartlett III invested in the league and imposed centralized cost controls on the franchises. For the 1977 season, total operating expenses were capped at $150,000 with a $55,000 player salary cap. The IVA decided to showcase its new Denver club by awarding it the league’s All-Star Game on July 17th, 1977, which would feature an appearance from Chamberlain and a national broadcast on CBS Sports.
On the court, the Comets signed 1968 and 1972 U.S. Olympian Jon Stanley as player-coach. Stanley led the Comets to the best regular season record in the IVA in 1977 at 22-14, although the club would fall to the El Paso-Juarez Sol in the first round of the playoffs. Over the next several seasons, the California-based clubs dominated on the court while Denver and the Tucson Sky had the most success at the turnstiles. The Comets’ announced attendance hovered near 3,000 fans per game at the Denver Auditorium Arena.
On July 14th, 1979 the Comets defeated the Albuquerque Lasers at the Auditorium Arena. Following the match, arrest warrants were served at the arena on Comets President Robert Casey, general manager, David Casey, ticket director James Killingsworth and concessions manager Barry Beard. Simultaneoously, investigators seized 200 pounts of marijuana from the home of a Comets administrative assistant. The grand jury indictments and arrests marked the culmination of a 16-month investigation into a multi-million dollar international cocaine and marijuana trafficking ring run by the Caseys. The Colorado Organized Crime Strike Force dubbed the sting as “Operation Spike”. Members of the investigative team reputedly made up their own custom “Operation Spike” Comets t-shirts.
In all, 23 men and women were indicted by the grand jury. By the time the trials began in November 1979, 13 defendants had pleaded guilty, including the Casey brothers and Killingsworth. The prosecution’s case alleged that the Caseys served as major marijuana and cocaine importers and suppliers to dealers throughout the American West and British Columbia. Supporting evidence included 780-hours of phone wiretaps recorded between March and May 1979 at the Comets’ offices and the homes of the Caseys and Killingsworth. An unnamed IVA player told Molly Ivins of The New York Times that rumors had circulated within the league about the Caseys’ drug ties: “I think it was fairly common knowledge around the league.”
Remarkably, the Comets returned in 1980 under the new ownership of Bill Johnson. But the IVA was in very wobbly shape. IVA owners voted to terminate the Seattle Smashers franchise just days before the season opened due to insufficient funding. As in the similarly precarious Women’s Professional Basketball League, league investors were demoralized by U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s decision to boycott the 1980 Moscow summer Olympics, denying the sport a major platform of exposure that IVA proponents had been counting on for years.
The Comets played matches throughout May and June, but by July the league was on its last legs. In mid-July, the Salt Lake Stingers refused to fly to Denver for a scheduled match. Calling the demise of the league “inevitable”, Stingers GM Tony Lovitt told the Associated Press there was no point in paying for the airfare.
The Comets hosted the final match in IVA history, hosting the San Jose Diablos on July 15th, 1980. No record of the outcome remains online. The league quietly folded the next day without completing the 1980 season.
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