Posted Oct 25 2009 3:22PM
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- Amir Johnson was big at the Sioux Falls Arena on Friday night in a way that his Toronto teammates Chris Bosh and Hedo Turkoglu never will be, with a name recognition way beyond that of Raptors assistant coach Alex Englsih (a Naismith Hall of Famer) or the NBA once-weres coaching on the Minnesota bench (Kurt Rambis, assistants Bill Laimbeer and Reggie Theus).
Johnson actually had face recognition as a member of the Sioux Falls Skyforce's playing alumni. With two productive stints with the NBA Development League squad in 2006-07, the Raptors' new 6-foot-9 forward made friends and won over fans, so the Toronto-Minnesota NBA preseason game the other night was a mini-homecoming. To a place Johnson might never have heard of until he got assigned there by the Detroit Pistons.
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"I didn't really do too much out here, y'know, other than sitting around in the hotel,'' Johnson recalled. "I remember just having the chance to come here and play instead of only practicing with the Detroit team every day. So I was happy to play my game and to play for any D-League team.''
Officially the last player to go from high school straight to the NBA, by virtue of his second-round selection by Detroit at No. 56 in the 2005 Draft, Johnson appeared in only three games as a Pistons rookie and eight more in his second season. But he got court time with the Fayetteville (N.C.) Patriots that first year, and even more after Detroit switched affiliation to Sioux Falls for the following season.
"Amir was probably the best player we've ever had,'' said Mike Heineman, the owner/president of the Skyforce who attended Friday's Raptors-Timberwolves tuneup. "He was an up-and-down type of player, flying around the basket. He was 19 when he was here and it was great to see a young player having so much fun. A lot of guys who get sent down, they struggle to adjust. But Amir had such a great attitude and knew it was the best thing for him at the time, as opposed to being on the end of the Pistons bench. ... It's neat to see a kid grow up before your eyes like that.''
Johnson averaged 18.9 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 3.1 blocks and 35.2 minutes in a total of 22 games with Sioux Falls. In his two stays, Heineman recalled, the Skyforce lost just three times.
Heineman, you should know, is just 32 himself, pretty tender in age for any "slash'' title, never mind owner/president. But minor-league basketball is the family business. Has been ever since 1993, when his father Greg and three partners bought the Skyforce when it was part of the Continental Basketball Association. They were forced to sell when Isiah Thomas took over the league wholesale in 1999, then bought back in after the CBA went bankrupt in 2001. In 2006, after 17 CBA seasons, the Skyforce and franchises in Bismarck, N.D., Boise, Idaho, and Bloomfield, Colo., joined the NBA D-League as part of a major expansion.
A crowd of 5,566 attended the Wolves' 98-90 victory Friday, a solid turnout in what traditionally has been a reliable market for pro hoops. Considering the wild and woolly nature of the CBA -- with teams coming and going almost as fast as players, chronic financial stresses and travel snags lending a "What time can you get there?'' feel to tipoffs -- Sioux Falls was a relative rock of stability.
The franchise has staged nearly 1,200 regular-season and playoff games since its inaugural 1989-90 season. Thirty-seven players have been called up to the NBA a total of 58 times, with familiar names such as Earl Cureton, Quintin Dailey, Bobby Phills, Raja Bell and Stacey King among the many who used Sioux Falls to start, or re-start, their careers. In 2007-08, Bobby Jones turned his Skyforce stay into call-ups to four different NBA clubs (Houston, Miami, San Antonio, Denver).
"I know some guys put their heads down and looked at it as a bad opportunity,'' Johnson said. "Some guys didn't think they were going to make it back up to the NBA, but I was just happy that I was playing ball. That really carried me. I know it's a business, but it was basketball and I was playing. When I left to go back to Detroit, I was like, 'Can I go back [to the NBA D-League] and play?'''
That's the ideal attitude. In terms of logistics, the NBA D-League still is far from ideal, given the need for 30 "parent'' teams to share affiliations with the 16 minor league clubs. Evolving into a 1-to-1 arrangement would allow the NBA franchises to shuttle players back and forth more freely, while installing coaches and styles of play that would mirror what the top club favored.
It might prevent situations like last week, too, when the Atlanta Hawks waived center Courtney Sims, who was the NBA D-League's Most Valuable Player in 2008-09. If the NBA were dedicated to promoting its minor league as legit, while upping the motivation of players competing there, you'd almost expect it to mandate that the MVP each season would be guaranteed a roster spot on some NBA club the following year. Hold a lottery of all NBA teams without 15 guaranteed contracts, say, and have the league pay the guy's rookie salary.
"I'm for it,'' Wolves president of basketball operations David Kahn said, when I ran that brainstorm past him. "Anything the league can do to continue to embellish the relationship is in everybody's interest.''
Kahn is a proponent of the NBA D-League. He spent four years prior to joining Minnesota this summer working with an ownership group (Southwest Basketball, LLC) that operated five NBA D-League teams. He thinks the enterprise already has been a success, from providing a pool of replacement referees for this fall's labor dispute to plugging roster holes at the NBA level. Then, of course, there is the development aspect, its eponymous raison d'etre.
"It would be further along if not for the geographic issues we have,'' Kahn said. "For instance, if Miami had a team in Florida. If we had a team that was maybe a little closer [Miami and Minnesota share the Skyforce].
"The players called up may not be the stars of our league, but there are a lot of significant rotation guys who I think have benefited from this. When you're used to playing every day and then, all of a sudden, you're not, there's nobody who can tell me that's in a player's best interest.''
Not everyone in the NBA D-League, mind you, wants to get called up. Like Heineman, a Sioux Falls native who is thrilled to be running his father's business. The Skyforce generally finish in the black, he said, which enables him to make a living and gives his kids a place to visit their father where he works.
"I really have no aspirations to be in the NBA,'' Heineman said. "I love doing this. We have a six-person staff and it's all-hands on board. It's a small-market team and you get to do everything. I'm a minor-league basketball guy. I've been around it my entire life and I love the environment it creates. I'm going to be around it for a while.''
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here.
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