Love, money, greed, violence and hoops...It sounds like a promo for "Basketball Wives" or another Shaquille O'Neal movie. But sadly, there is no Hollywood setting here. It all took place in Rock Island, Illinois which made up 25 percent of the Quad Cities represented by the Quad City Thunder located in Western Illinois and Eastern Iowa during my time in the CBA.
For the young NBA fans today, C.B.A. stands for collective bargaining agreement, but for myself and any die-hard basketball fan from the 1940's all the way to the new millennium, it stood for, and to me still does: the Continental Basketball Association.
The CBA was to basketball as the current minor league AAA level is to baseball. It was the feeder system (both up and down) for the NBA. Some players were just out of college trying to make it to the big leagues, while other players had a proverbial "cup of coffee" in the NBA and were now back in the minors. The games were played throughout the nation from Albany to Yakima. It produced some of the sport's most recognizable coaches, including Phil Jackson, George Karl, and Flip Saunders.
Further down the food chain, it was a good training ground for front office folk like me. Ten years ago I was just dreaming of the NBA as I accepted the Play-By Play/Director of Public Relations position for the Quad City Thunder for the 2000-01 season.
The CBA was an attractive league for an aspiring announcer for a number of reasons: It was directly affiliated with the NBA, despite the "minor league" level the games were usually high-quality, and the latest development for the league was that it was going to be run by NBA Hall of Famer Isaiah Thomas, as the former Piston great purchased the entire league on Aug. 3, 1999.
Thomas had a vision of turning the league into a college-like system of 200+ teams throughout the country. At this point, Thomas had not yet begun his controversial tenure as President of Basketball Operations with the New York Knicks and his basketball credibility was at an all-time high. Enough for me to buy in and think that the CBA was the best job this side of the NBA.
When I got my business cards, they had the NBA logo on them. I think that might have been the proudest moment I had up to that point. I was on Cloud 9, until...
It took all of two weeks for me to feel like something wasn't quite right with the CBA. I started in August of 2000, and I remember Friday, September 1 the paychecks came. No big deal right? When the delivery came (no direct deposit back then), my co-workers were excited.
Very excited. Too excited. I tried to come up with a million different reasons for the unbridled joy at what should be an innocuous event, but the only one that made sense was the one I feared the most: Checks don't usually come on time.
It became a tradition with the league after Thomas purchased the entire league in 1999 for $10 million dollars. It was widely reported that months later the NBA offered him $11 million, giving him a 10 percent return. Whatever the exact number was that the NBA offered, it was a figure that was well beneath what Thomas was expecting.
So understanding that my financial dreams would have to be put on hold, I tried to make the best of the situation. Not an easy task. The CBA had suffered a great deal since the summer of 1999. Local supporters were turned off, and it was my job to turn them back around. I was told by the CBA brass that the league was healthy and nothing was wrong. So , I spent more than a few of my mornings speaking at Kiwanis Clubs, Rotary Clubs, Corporate breakfasts and the like, telling them about the new direction the league was taking and how exciting it would be to get in on the ground floor.
As I was trying to rebuild the community's support, the front office (two coaches and a General Manager) were constructing a team that on paper looked good. The Thunder had one of the more experienced rosters in the league, with a league high five former NBA players. Players like Jermaine Jackson, Chris Garner, Jonathan Kerner, John Coker, and Jamel Thomas high-lighted the roster. If you have heard of these guys, congratulations, you really like basketball!
Thomas at least had NBA pedigree, his cousin is Stephon Marbury. Thomas was a nice, down to earth guy who was a fan favorite - clearly the black sheep of the family.
As the season approached, the pressure was turned up on the small but willing staff. Pressure to sell more ads, tickets, promo's, furniture (the team rented a small space in the back of a furniture store and it was a joke with the staff that if we helped sell some, maybe they would give us a much needed break on our rent) and whatever else we could find. Every Monday morning there were sales meetings with the league headquarters via conference call.
The head of marketing for the league conducted the meetings and was informed about the revenue details in each market. These meetings were, and still are; the most frightened I have ever been in my life. Words and phrases that I cannot repeat were screamed into the phone at our meager and apparently inept staff (For a visual, picture Alec Baldwin in GlenGary Glenn Ross meets Sam Kinison in Back to School). Things were said about my mother, my unborn children and even some of my extremities...you get the point. Not a great way to start off the week.
When the season began, the play was good but the players began to feel the dark cloud that new ownership had brought to the league. During interviews, questions about teams folding midseason, would checks be on time, and what the future held for the league were more prevalent than the typical basketball fare of, "What was the big difference in the first half to the second half?", or "What were the keys to your great shooting?".
Still, I saw some good basketball. I saw former University of Michigan Fab 5 star Jimmy King score 50 points, several triple-overtime thrillers, and even some real solid NBA call-ups. In particular, Raja Bell who played for the Yakima Sun Kings. In fact, Bell would go on to be a part of the 2001 Philadelphia 76ers that went to the NBA Finals. Despite the adversity, it was moments like that which made the adventure all worthwhile. Strictly as a broadcaster, things were good - to a degree. The league was so broke that radio announcers were not able to travel with the team. Instead, they created the "CBA Radio Network". What that meant was that the local announcer would announce the home game, and the feed would be picked up and broadcast in both team's markets. Because of that, all announcers were supposed to be more neutral, as opposed to being a homer.
I was initially disappointed, but when things started to turn sour in the Quad Cities front office, it was a bit of a blessing. I will protect the names and positions of those involved, but office politics and unprofessional behavior conspired to make life very difficult for almost everyone there. It grew so bad that I ended up loathing the team and anyone part of it except for the players. I still did my job(s), but it was tough.
Along with sales conference calls, we had broadcast conference calls to touch base with all the announcers from each team to get extra info on the opponents we would be seeing that week. Usually the meetings turned into General Manager's getting on the call and yelling at the other announcers for being too biased and critical of the visiting teams. All the announcers faced the wrath, except me. I was commended for my impartial approach to the broadcast. One opposing GM even told me that, "You sounded like you even wanted us to win!"
I had to fight as hard as I could to not laugh out loud and say, "I did want you to win, I hate this team!"
I instead just said "It is what the league wants, and I'm a company guy." (I threw up in my mouth a little after I said it).
When it got to late January of 2000, I had not been paid since just before Christmas. The team was a disappointment, and the community had lost their ties to the team. Throughout the previous decade, the Quad Cities Thunder had been wildly successful, but now had lost their touch with the town. Sportscasters would go out of their way to take shots at the team.
One day I called up a long time anchor who had taken a shot at the team during his sportscast that was probably pretty funny. However, as the PR director I felt the need to call him and discuss his comments. He had no intentions of apologizing for them and we agreed to disagree about the state of the league and hung up.
When the All-Star break approached, everyone was excited to re-charge their batteries and come back with a new outlook. The first day back from the break, our GM came to us at noon and said "You've all been working so hard today, take the rest of the week off."
It was a Wednesday, and the GM NEVER thought we ever worked hard. While I had hoped to have a new outlook on my CBA life, it didn't happen. So, without any questions, I took her offer and ran to my car. I went and grabbed a bite to eat, saw a movie, and got home just in time for the news at 6:00 p.m.
I tuned into my good friend the sportscaster to see what he had to say. Funny thing, he said the CBA had folded and that the league was done. "HA!" I exclaimed. Without putting any of the day's events into consideration, I once again called up this broadcaster and read him the riot act. I questioned his professionalism, his ability, his receding hairline, his beady eyes, and even his tie. All the pent up frustration came out on him, and then I asked where he got such bogus information.
He simply and calmly said: "Your GM called me at noon and told me." I said: "Oh, see you later," and hung up the phone.
Sure enough, shortly thereafter, my GM called me with the news.
I didn't know how to feel. Initially I was angry for being left out of the loop, but that was par for the course with the front office. Then I was relieved. Relieved that I had taken all my personal belongings with me prior to the All-Star break thinking the league had to be close to folding. (Good thing too - the back of the furniture store where we entered was boarded up due to back rent and I would never step through the doors again).
However, the overriding sentiment was sadness. I knew that I wasn't going to call another game that year, and with the CBA folding, there really were not any good minor league opportunities available. I did make the most of my time in the league. I networked well, and it was that networking that would lead me to my "big break" - getting a job with the Minnesota Timberwolves the following year.
As for the owner of the now-defunct CBA, Isaiah Thomas, he would coach the Indiana Pacers for the remainder of the season. He did not pay the rest of the front office staffers across the league the money they were owed. Personally, I was owed almost $4,000.
Now that it is 10 years in the past, I can look back and laugh at what a crazy six months it was. I had my "cup of coffee" in the CBA, and I'm better for it.
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