Mike Heineman addresses the crowd at a Skyforce game.
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In Sioux Falls, It's All About Family

by Stuart Winchester, D-League.com

South Dakota doesn’t strike most people as being very corporate. This state on the vast Great Plains is more likely to conjure images of family businesses than big-box chain stores or shopping malls. But while many may picture a small farm or the butchers, bakers and shopkeepers of tidy downtown strips when they think of a family business, rarely do such suggestions summon thoughts of a professional basketball team.

But in Sioux Falls, S.D., one of the most prominent businesses in town is the NBA Development League’s Skyforce, jointly owned by the father-and-son team of Greg and Mike Heineman, who run the operation with a family structure focused on teamwork and community. “These guys represent all that is good about the D-League: they contribute to Sioux Falls, they care about the league succeeding as a whole, and they put an entertaining team on the floor every single night,” said NBA D-League President Dan Reed.

Greg – who runs another business, Williams Insurance – first bought into the team in 1992, when it was still a member of the Continental Basketball Association (CBA) and Mike was just 15. That ownership group worked to build the Skyforce into a local institution averaging 5,000 fans per night, a tremendous turnout in a city that had fewer than 125,000 residents at the time.

The younger Heineman, now 31, went to every game he could until traveling off to the University of Nebraska for college, where he spent a stint as the manager of the men’s basketball team. While Mike was away, Greg sold his ownership stake in the team under pressure from the CBA, which was going through a restructuring under new ownership. When Mike arrived home from Lincoln in early 2001, the team was just re-emerging from what had turned out to be a difficult period in the CBA. Attendance had plummeted across the league, and even Sioux Falls’ dedicated fan base had waned. After Greg repurchased his share of the team, Mike went to work to help bring the Skyforce back. They took the Sioux Falls franchise over to the International Basketball League (IBL) for the remainder of the season and, when the CBA and IBL shut down at the conclusion of the 2000-01 season, worked with other CBA owners to revive their former league and teams.

But Mike hardly directed the comeback from an executive suite. In fact, it was no forgone conclusion that he would work for the team at all; he just happened to graduate from Nebraska at the same time Greg bought the team back. And there was no favoritism in this family business; Mike started in an entry-level position, working his way up.

Now in his ninth season with the team, Mike is part owner and president of the Skyforce, a loosely defined position that allows him to influence all parts of day-to-day operations. Despite the executive title, Mike gives a humbling description of the job. “We really have to do it all here,” he said. “When a player comes and goes, we wash the sheets and get the room ready for the next guy. When you’re cleaning out the apartments in April, it’s really not that glamorous.”

Working in his hometown has plenty of perks, however. “My wife and kids get to come into my job every night,” Mike said. “Seeing them up there watching the games is really cool. It’s the same with the families of every staff member.”

While the Skyforce is consistently characterized as a family business by staff, the description applies more to the feel of the place than its actual structure. The Heineman family is spread out. Mike’s younger brother, Nick, runs a specialty meat store, and his older brother, Robb, is an owner of Major League Soccer’s Kansas City Wizards. But the entire Skyforce staff of five considers themselves part of the family.

Vice President and General Manager Jeremy DeCurtins is in his 11th season with the team. “I feel like part of the family even though I’m not blood,” DeCurtins said, recalling the years of grinding through different leagues to make the team work. “We’ve been through a lot. In the dark days of the CBA, when some of the teams went dark, we never missed a tip-off at home.”

“Jeremy’s the reason we are where we are today,” said Mike.

In 2006, the Skyforce looked at the direction the NBA D-League was heading in, and decided to leave the CBA and link with the sprawling NBA family tree. The benefits were immediate. “In the CBA, we had to fight for every meager bit of information we could get,” said Mike. “Now, with the NBA affiliation and the staff they have helping us, it’s tough to keep track of all the information we get.”

The Skyforce has always been popular – especially in a state with no professional sports teams and no major college teams – but the draw of players who are potentially one day from putting on an NBA uniform has been great, and attendance numbers have rebounded from their CBA lows. In particular, the affiliations with the Skyforce’s parent organizations, the Charlotte Bobcats and Minnesota Timberwolves, help tremendously. Sioux Falls uses these family connections in special promotions for the team, including a Timberwolves/Skyforce weekend this season, in which the two teams will make appearances on one another’s home court.

In any family, the youth helps their elders, and the Skyforce have benefited the NBA in important ways. While it has been steadily gaining recognition and praise, the NBA D-League is still an evolving organization, and none of its original teams remains from its tip-off seven years ago. Now in its 20th year of operations, with an established community presence and fan base, Sioux Falls is one of the longest-standing minor league basketball teams in the United States, and therefore acts as a model franchise for the NBA D-League. “The Skyforce has proven that if you have strong ownership and good operations, minor league basketball can be quite successful and sustainable,” said Reed, the NBA D-League president.

In keeping with NBA family tradition, the Skyforce has a deep stake in its community. In 2008, the team held its seventh annual Roger D. Larsen Benefit Golf Tournament – in honor of one of Greg’s original ownership partners, who passed away several years ago – to raise scholarship money for a student to attend Dakota State University. The team made the decision at the inaugural event that 100 percent of the money raised would go to the scholarship, and 100 percent of the expenses – food, greens fees, prizes – would be covered by the Skyforce.

In many cases, the proceeds from donations go first to cover expenses, and the leftovers go to the charity. Not so with the Skyforce. But, hey, what would you expect from family?