Posts Tagged ‘One-Year Wonders’
League founder Jim Foster sketched his idea for a 50-yard indoor football game on the back of a manilla envelope while watching the Major Indoor Soccer League All-Star Game at the Madison Square Garden in February 1981. Foster layered a 50-yard carpeted football field over a hockey rink and dispensed with punting, most rushing, and practically all defense. Teams would play eight-on-eight, with all players except the quarterback and kicker playing “Iron Man” football – offense and defense. Taut 30-foot wide nets placed on either side of the uprights kept kickoffs, missed field goals and errant touchdown passes in play.
Armed with an ESPN television deal, Foster launched a preview season in June 1987, featuring four league-owned franchises playing a six-game schedule. Cable TV ratings and attendance were promising, so Foster expanded the league in 1988 by selling limited partnerships to five new investors groups. The six team line-up for the 1988 season included the returning Pittsburgh Gladiators and Chicago Bruisers, along with four expansion teams: the Knights, the Detroit Drive, the Los Angeles Cobras and the New England Steamrollers.
New Jersey toy marketer and philanthropist Russ Berrie was the investor behind the Knights. A self-made millionaire, Berrie started his toy company in garage in 1963, selling inexpensive and often sentimental toys such as Fuzzy Wuzzies, Sillisculpts and troll dolls. By 1988, Berrie’s firm was a public traded company with over $200 million in annual revenue, a sizable chunk of it generated as the exclusive toy licensee of Snuggles The Fabric Softening Bear.
The Knights featured an eclectic cast of pro football castaways. Quarterback Jim Crocicchia was a Wharton School grad from U. Penn who played for the New York Giants as a replacement during the 1987 players strike, as did his favorite receiver Edwin Lovelady. Running back-linebacker Johnny Shepherd was the 1983 Rookie-of-the-Year in the Canadian Football League, and a strike player for the Buffalo Bills. Vince Courville, Derek Hughes, Eric Schubert and Peter Raeford were refugees from the United States Football League, as was Head Coach and General Manager Jim Valek, who once served in a senior executive role for Donald Trump’s New Jersey Generals franchise.
Knights players earned $1,000 per game for the 12-game season, plus a bonus of $150 for each victory. But the Knights didn’t win much. They defeated the Los Angeles Cobras twice on the road, but lost their other ten games, including all six home games at Madison Square Garden, to finish in last place at 2-10. 13,667 curiosity seekers turned out for the Knights debut at the Garden on May 9th, 1988, but the teams remaining games all drew announced crowds of 7,500 or fewer.
Following the 1988 season, Foster’s limited partnership structure fell apart. For their investment, the limited partners received operating rights to their local franchise, but little of the financial and marketing discretion typically accorded to professional sports owners. Player personnel and league marketing decisions remained the domain of Foster, the league’s Commissioner. As Foster, a former United States Football League executive, described it to Sports Illustrated’s Paul Zimmerman:
“We’ve flushed out the big ego guys. We tell ‘em ‘look, you don’t own the team, you rent it.’ That gets rid of the Donald Trumps right away.”
Tom Rooney, director of marketing for the Pittsburgh Civic Arena where the league-owned Pittsburgh Gladiators played, gave a different take on the arrangement to The Pittsburgh Press in November 1988.
“You don’t tell someone who puts in millions of dollars how to run their team. Jim Foster was naive. It’s impractical because of the way of human nature and especially the human nature of people who are worth millions of dollars. They don’t throw in millions of dollars and say ‘Jim Foster, you run the league’.”
The limited partners attempted to buy out Foster during the fall of 1988, but he refused to sell. In February 1989, Detroit Drive officials announced to the press that the 1989 season would be cancelled as a result of the dispute. Ultimately, Foster retained control of his creation but most of the limited partners departed. The Knights pulled out and shut down prior to the 1989 season, as did the Los Angeles and Providence, RI expansion franchises.
Russ Berrie passed away suddenly at the age of 69 on Christmas Day 2002. After his Arena Football investment collapsed at the end of 1988, Berrie turned his attention to the Senior Professional Baseball Association, a Florida-based winter league for ex-Major League players aged 35 and over. At one point, Berrie traded 500 teddy bears from his toy & gift company to the Winter Haven Super Sox for 48-year old pitcher Luis Tiant.
Former Knights Head Coach & General Manager Jim Valek died in 2005.
In 1996, the Arena Football League sold a franchise to ITT-Cablevision, operators of the Madison Square Garden. The New York Cityhawks attempted to make a go of it, but the second time was not the charm. The Cityhawks departed for Hartford, Connecticut in 1999 after two seasons of wretched attendance, marking the final effort of the Arena League to conquer Manhattan.
The Carolina Lightning were a minor league basketball outfit that lasted little more than a month in the all-but-forgotten All-American Basketball Alliance (AABA) in the winter of 1978. Based out of the Winston-Salem Memorial Coliseum, the Lightning played ten games between January and early February 1978 before the comically under-capitalized AABA imploded around them.
The eight franchises of the AABA – which also included Indiana, Georgia (Macon), Kentucky (Louisville), New York (Westchester), Richmond, Rochester and West Virginia (Wheeling) – intended to play a 74-game schedule. The start-up league promised a standard base salary of $9,600 per player plus 4% to 8% of franchise profits (haha).
The Lightning were built by 23-year old player-Head Coach Mike Dunleavy. The University of South Carolina grad made the Philadelphia 76ers as a 6th round longshot in 1976, but was cut in mid-November 1977 after appearing in a just a handful of games during his second NBA season. Dunleavy latched on with the new AABA shortly thereafter and in one month’s time cobbled together an experienced roster.
34-year old Ed Manning had nearly a decade of service in the NBA and the American Basketball Association, including three seasons with the ABA’s Carolina Cougars, who had occasionally played in Winston-Salem. Manning’s 11-year old son Danny, a future #1 overall NBA draft pick and All-Star, occasionally attended practice with his father. Bob Bigelow was the 1975 1st round draft pick of the Kansas City Kings, recently released and playing minor league basketball in the Eastern Association back home in Massachusetts when his friend Dunleavy called. Norton Barnhill was a Winston-Salem native who had earned a cup of coffee with the Seattle Supersonics the previous season as a rookie out of Washington State. Melvin Watkins was captain of the UNC-Charlotte 49ers Final Four team the previous spring of 1977 and was later drafted by the NBA’s Buffalo Braves before landing with Dunleavy and Co. back in North Carolina.
“Indiana had signed a bunch of the old Pacers’ stars from the ABA,” recalled Bob Bigelow. “They had Freddie Lewis, Roger Brown, Mel Daniels. Roger was a great player. Not a Hall of Famer, but maybe he should be. They were all in their mid-to-late thirties by then and had probably been drinking more beer lately than playing basketball.
“Roger Brown was going to guard me. I told Dunleavy ‘I’m going to run this old man into the ground!'” Mel Daniels was a terrific player. Maybe 6-9, 255 pounds. By this time he was huge – more like 6-9, 300 pounds. My biggest concern was that he was going to fall on me. We played them in that big 18,000-seat arena in Louisville. There couldn’t have been more than 500 people there.”
The situation in Carolina was no better. One Lightning home game at Memorial Coliseum drew only 170 fans. Team President Richard Pollak admitted to The Associated Press that the players only received $300 each for eight weeks work after his investment partners withdrew.
“I was living in an apartment with Mike Dunleavy and his wife,” said Bigelow. “One day the Carolina owner called up and told Mike ‘we’re cancelled’. Mike said ‘the game?’ And the guy said ‘No. The league.’ And that was it. I packed up my stuff and drove home to Winchester, Massachusetts, one day ahead of the big blizzard of ’78. I got home just in time to dig out my parents’ 80-foot driveway.”
After their bizarre sojourn in the AABA, Dunleavy and Bigelow both returned to the NBA in part-time roles by the end of the 1977-78 season. Dunleavy went on to a lengthy NBA career. He later became a sought-after NBA Head Coach, leading the Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks, Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Clippers in a twenty-year uninterrupted run from 1990 to 2010. He earned 1999 NBA Coach-of-the-Year honors with Portland in 1999.
Bob Bigelow is a respected speaker and clinician, who has lectured worldwide on the role of youth sports in child development. His book Just Let The Kids Play was released in 2001.
The All-American Basketball Alliance of 1978 is not be confused with the bizarre plan announced by a Georgia-based boxing and wrestling promoter in January 2010 to form a whites-only basketball league in the South also known as the All-America Basketball Alliance. Needless to say, the universally reviled plan was never pursued beyond the initial press release, although it did attract attention (and ridicule) from everyone from The Daily Show to the NAACP.
The Michigan Travelers were a blink-and-you-missed them entry in the International Women’s Professional Softball Association (IWPSA) during the league’s inaugural season in the summer of 1976. The IWPSA was the brainstorm of the tennis star and women’s sports pioneer Billie Jean King, the dominant female softball pitcher of the era Joan Joyce, and the serial sports promoter Dennis Murphy. The league reportedly grew out of a casual conversation between King and Joyce at an ABC Superstars competition. King brought in Murphy, who had been an executive in the upstart American Basketball Association and World Hockey Association and who had helped King launch the co-ed World Team Tennis in 1973.
The IWPSA debuted on May 28th, 1976 with ten franchises scattered nationwide. Besides Michigan, the league included the Buffalo Breskis, Chicago Ravens, Connecticut Falcons, Pennsylvania Liberties, Phoenix Bird, San Diego Sandpipers, San Jose Sunbirds, Santa Ana Lionettes, and Southern California Gems. Each club played 60 doubleheaders for a total of 120 games between May and September.
IWPSA double-headers consisted on seven innings per game. Single games, when played, would be nine innings. Teams were allowed to carry between 15 and 20 players on the active roster. Pitchers were not allowed to appear as pitchers in consecutive games.
The Travelers played their lone season at Memorial Park in East Detroit. They finished in 5th place (last) in the IWPSA’s Eastern Division with a 42-77 record.
The Connecticut Falcons defeated the San Jose Sunbirds for the first league championship. All ten franchises managed to complete the 1976 season, but several folded soon after and did not return for 1977, including the Michigan Travelers.
The IWPSA itself lasted four seasons, shutting down after the 1979 campaign.
“Women’s Pro Softball Gets Official Welcome”, The Meriden (CT) Journal, April 7, 1976
Minor league baseball’s Rocky Mount (NC) Pines were a one-year wonder in the single-A Carolina League in the summer of 1980. The team has attracted a minor cult following among baseball people due to its 24-114 record (.174 winning percentage), one of the worst in the history of the game.
The Pines were independent – no Major League parent club – which was one of the reasons for their epic futility. Of the 136 minor league teams active in the summer of 1980, the Pines were the only one to make a go of it without Major League affiliation.
The Pines owner, a 63-year old former minor league ballplayer named Lou Haneles, operated a handful of low-level minor league teams over the years, typically running them as independents and stocking the rosters with wanna-be pro ballplayers from his chain of instructional baseball schools. During the summer of 1979, Haneles owned the independent Newark Co-Pilots of the short-season New York-Penn League.
Carolina League President Jim Mills approached Haneles’ Co-Pilots manager Mal Fichman about moving up a competitive notch in 1980 by fielding a team in his Carolina League, which was expanding from six to eight teams. Rocky Mount, North Carolina’s Municipal Stadium sat empty and available after hosting Carolina League ball from 1962-1975. Fichman cobbled together the 1980 Pines roster from a handful of ex-Co-Pilots, some training camp cuts from Major League organizations and a group of dreamers that paid $220 apiece to attend instructional camps/tryouts run by Fichman and Haneles in Florida.
There’s little reason for me to write much here the season itself, because it would all be redundant to E.M. Swift’s rollicking September 1980 profile of the Pines for Sports Illustrated, which provides the definitive account.
The citizens of Rocky Mount took little interest in the Pines. The club reported attendance of 26,702 for the season, of which nearly half the tickets were given away for free. The tight-fisted Haneles lost $80,000 by his own estimation to The Los Angeles Times.
By Swift’s account, Haneles never attended a single game to see his team play. He considered folding the club in midseason in June 1980 and after the season attempted to move the club to Hagerstown, Maryland. The Carolina League revoked the franchise and sold it to Lou Eliopoulos in December 1980, who promptly relocated it…to Hagerstown, Maryland. Haneles responded by suing everyone in sight – the Carolina League, Mills, the governing body of minor league baseball and its President, and Major League Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Haneles sought $5 million in damages for restraint of trade and violation of anti-trust laws.
According to The Los Angeles Times, a U.S. District Court judge in Tampa, Florida named George Carr gave a gloomy assessment of Haneles’ legal prospects during court proceedings in late 1980:
“(Haneles) likelihood of prevailing on the merits is somewhat less than the likelihood of the Rocky Mount Pines prevailing over their opposition during the past season.”
Pro baseball never returned to Rocky Mount, NC after the Pines’ lone season in 1980. But the Carolina League franchise itself still exists today. The team played in Hagerstown as the Hagerstown Suns from 1981 to 1988. In 1989, the franchise shifted to Frederick, Maryland as the Frederick Keys, who continue to play to this day.
Former Pines catcher David Littlefield, who appeared in 11 games for Rocky Mount in 1980, later became General Manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates (2001-2007).
Lou Haneles briefly invested in the Miami Tropics of the low-level United States Basketball League in the late 1980’s. He spent his later years on a quixotic quest to get a Major League team to offer a contact to a 59-year Cuban gas station owner named Raul Hernandez. He passed away in 2006 at the age of 90.
In 1980, it was exceptionally unusual to find an independent team active in minor league baseball. By the mid-1990’s entire independent leagues had sprung up around the country. Mal Fichman managed in several, winning three championships in the Midwest-based Frontier League. Fichman later became a scout specializing in the independent leagues for the San Diego Padres and Philadelphia Phillies. Through his efforts, more than 160 independent league players gained contracts in organized baseball and 17 ultimately reached the Major Leagues with the Padres. Fichman declined an interview request for this post.
“It’s Been Some Rocky Year”, E.M. Swift, Sports Illustrated, September 1, 1980
“Rocky Mount Team Gets A New Owner”, The Associated Press, December 25, 1980
“Team’s Misfortunes Blamed on Broken Promises”, Barry Siegel, The Los Angeles Times, June 30, 1981
“Lou’s Last Pitch”, Robert Andrew Powell, The Miami New Times, October 22, 1998
“167 Signings on Mal Fichman’s Resume in Eight Seasons of Independent Scouting”, Bob Wirz, Independent Baseball Insider, Vol. 5 No. 38, 2007
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
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
The Virginia Wave was a short-lived franchise in the all-but-forgotten Women’s American Basketball Association which operated in the autumn of 1984.
The WABA was the brainchild of Bill Byrne, a Columbus, Ohio-based sports promoter who had launched the American Professional Slo-Pitch League (men’s softball) and the original Women’s Professional Basketball League (WPBL) in the late 1970’s. The WPBL flamed out in 1981 after completing its third season and the WABA represented Byrne’s attempt to learn from the mistakes of the first league and to capitalize on the expected Gold Medal performance of the U.S. Women’s Olympic basketball team at the 1984 Los Angeles summer games.
Announced in March 1984, Byrne’s initials plans called for a summer-time league, composed of 8-12 franchises playing a 22-game schedule. Individual player salaries would range from $5,000 to $10,000 and total annual operating budgets were pegged around $300,000. But Byrne’s plans and financial backing were in constant flux. The planned summer schedule was quickly pushed back to the fall. Nine cities were represented at the WABA’s college and veteran draft in Columbus on April 25th, 1984, but only five of these cities made it to the opening bell in October.
“Bill Byrne was having difficulty getting owners to put up the money for all the teams,” recalled Columbus Minks player Molly Bolin, who lived with the Byrne family during the 1984 season. “He would not let that stop him and believed that if he got the league started, people would believe and the money would fall into place.”
One of the cities that fell by the wayside was Baltimore, Maryland. The unnamed Baltimore team took part in the WABA draft in April 1984, selecting two-time Clemson University All-American Barbara Kennedy with its first round selection. Long-time Morgan State men’s basketball Head Coach Nat Frazier signed on to coach the squad and serve as General Manager. But in mid-September 1984, less than a month before the start of the season, the WABA pulled out of Baltimore and relocated the franchise to Norfolk, Virginia and the city’s 10,000-seat Norfolk Scope. The Scope was the home of the powerhouse Old Dominion University women’s basketball program, which had produced one of the women’s game’s greatest early stars, Nancy Lieberman, who played for the WABA’s Dallas Diamonds franchise. The league hoped local enthusiasm for ODU women’s hoops would rub off on the WABA brand. The team would be called the Virginia Wave.
The WABA’s chaotic pre-season carried over into a dysfunctional, under-capitalized season that launched with six teams on October 9th, 1984. Wave players, along with players on the Atlanta Comets and Columbus Minks, did not receive paychecks. With the exception of the Dallas Diamonds franchise, crowds of 500 or less were the norm throughout the league.
Lacking funds for air travel, the Wave endured epic bus trips, including a brutal late November swing that took the club from Atlanta (where less than 100 fans turned out) to Dallas to Houston for three games in four days. As it turned out, these would be the Wave’s final games:
“The players and I were discouraged prior to <the Dallas> game because we had not been paid for the season. We talked to our coach and he assured us that we would be paid prior to game,” recalled Wave captain Barbara Kennedy. “So we played professionally and fought hard to beat Dallas. When we returned back to Virginia, we thought that the check was valid but it was not good. Then immediately we checked out of the hotel and departed to our destinations. Again, we lifted our heads and left Virginia but <it was> bitter because we were losing our passion for the game, leaving our teammates and starting over. That was a sad day for us.”
On November 28th, 1984 Byrne announced that six to twelve games would be cut from the end of the WABA regular season schedule.
The following day, disgruntled WABA investors led by Dallas owner and league finance committee chaiman Ed Dubaj forced Byrne to resign. Dubaj shuttered the league office in Columbus and immediately cancelled the remaining games of the three most financially troubled franchises – Atlanta, Columbus and the Wave. The Wave finished their only campaign with a 5-9 record, eight games shy of completing their 22-game schedule.
The WABA made brave noises about returning in 1985 with a new league office in Dallas led by Dubaj, but was never heard from again after a hastily scheduled championship game between the Dallas Diamonds and Chicago Spirit in December 1984.
“We laughed, cried and were grateful for the experiences and memories,” said Barbara Kennedy in 2011. “We certainly wanted to finish the season but the league had some challenges. But what I can say is that my teammates were close and stayed strong throughout the time and we will always remember our times together and remember <that> we were pioneers. I am proud of my teammates, our coach, the league and thankful for the opportunity, the resources and the many memories…I loved all my experiences.”
Barbara Kennedy-Dixon was named to the Atlantic Coast Conference’s 50th Anniversary Team in 2002. Today she is Associate Athletic Director/Senior Women’s Administrator at her alma mater, Clemson University.