The noise still rang in my ears. It had come with each assault on the basket, each steal, each three-pointer—in screams, cheers and clattering cowbells from people who, vacuum-packed into the stands, had turned the Barre Municipal Auditorium into a multiple fire-code violation. Not 16 months earlier, in December 2005, we had announced to a skeptical state that we existed. And here our pro basketball team, the Vermont Frost Heaves, had just won an American Basketball Association title, sweeping past the Texas Tycoons, 143-95, for Vermont’s first national championship in any professional team sport. As the sports anchor for the local CBS affiliate, J.J. Cioffi, put it in his postgame stand-up that night, “From no one, to No. 1, in just one year!”
We had led the ABA in scoring defense and attendance as percentage of capacity. Pro Basketball News would name us the top team in the minors, the storied Continental Basketball Association and the NBA’s well-funded D-League included. After a parade through downtown Barre, to the everyone-invited potluck in the basement of “the Aud,” our mascot would cavort in the halls of the statehouse, and Patrick Leahy would read a congratulatory resolution on the floor of the U.S. Senate.
“Just a few months ago we were asking you guys for your Social Security numbers,” I would tell the players at a champagne brunch the next morning. “And here we are, asking for your ring sizes. You should all be very, very proud.”
We had made a mockery of the Green Mountain adage that “you can’t get there from here.” Why then did I have a feeling of foreboding in the pit of my stomach?
Countless pro basketball dreams have begun in the Atlanta suburb of Alpharetta, Ga., in the office of the late NBA scouting director Marty Blake. Mine was no different.
Marty prided himself on seeing, or having one of his minions see, every potential NBA prospect on earth. As I sat across his desk that morning, Marty turned to an abiding peeve: the newly reconstituted ABA, an outfit so fly-by-night that he and his network of bird dogs couldn’t get a fix on it, even as the league fielded a team in a high school gym in Gwinnett County, not 25 miles away. That franchise was called the Reigning Knights of Georgia—and for the name Marty, who cut his teeth as a backwater sports promoter and could deploy cornball humor with the best of them, grudgingly awarded style points. But he liked nothing else about the league. As ABA teams popped up around the country and mostly soon disappeared, the churn was exhausting his patience.
“I can’t get rosters,” he grumbled. “I can’t even get a schedule.”
Marty believed it to be a simple matter of quality control. The way he saw it, the ABA permitted any bozo to start a team. “Apparently,” he said, “it costs only $10,000 to get a franchise.”
“For that,” I blurted fatefully out, “I could start a team.”
And write about it, I thought. Several years earlier, with our infant son in tow, my wife, Vanessa, and I had moved from New York City to an old farmstead in the Champlain Valley of Vermont. With 620,000 residents, our adoptive state had a population large enough to plausibly support a team. Vermont is intimate, with only a few major media outlets to get the attention of, and Vermonters fetishize a sense of community and apartness. I imagined a pro basketball team scaled for the state and, with SI.com’s expanding appetite for content, the sports illustrated assignment of a lifetime.
During the mid-2000s, particularly among New Englanders who had grown up on the synergistic stylings of the Boston Celtics, there was a widely held belief that pro basketball was broken. Ask them whether they liked hoop, and people would reliably say yes. But ask them if they liked the NBA, and they tended to hem and haw. Pressed, they’d tell you they didn’t like the soulless arenas, the unaffordable tickets, or the remote players. In Vermont we could redress each of those things, or so I thought. We could bring life back to downtowns, offering fans a chance to watch professional-caliber athletes in classic buildings with a Hoosiers feel. We could get a family of four in the door for $30, thanks to the ABA’s business model, which capped payrolls at $120,000 per team per season. Yet because our players wouldn’t be able to afford an Escalade, none could hide behind its tinted windows, literally or figuratively. They’d instead be out in the community, spreading goodwill.
Like any minor-league team we would need a catchy nickname, to convey a sense of fun and move a few T-shirts—something like the Lansing Lug Nuts or the Macon Whoopees. I had one. During the winter, serial freezes, thaws and refreezes of moisture in the roadbeds of Vermont’s highways lead to upthrusts in the pavement called frost heaves. The frost heave captured what we hoped to be—seasonal, quirky and, for our opponents, an irritating obstacle. The tagline wrote itself: We’re gonna be the bump in their road. Through February and March, as Day-Glo orange frost heaves ahead signs bloomed along roadsides, I’d feel like the Che of guerrilla marketers for circumventing Vermont’s among-the-toughest-in-the-nation billboard law.
When I arrived in New York to pitch my bosses, the hotel clerk checked me into room 802—Vermont’s area code. I didn’t yet know my way around a balance sheet, but knew an omen when I saw one. With editors I hit the right buzzwords. Web-based. Reality series. And, critically, local investors: This wouldn’t cost the magazine a dime, other than keeping me on payroll as I lit out on a Plimptonesque adventure. As for the ABA’s ambient chaos, I tried to jiu-jitsu it into a virtue. “They’ve captured the renegade and unpredictable spirit of the old ABA,” I wrote in a memo. “There’s a gimmicky rule, in line with the original ABA’s three-point shot, kind of like a hockey power play, giving teams three or four points for a field goal scored after an opponent’s turnover in the backcourt.
“And there’s the general flux”—nice euphemism there—“that the league is always in. You probably read about the Nashville team, whose (female) owner fired its (female) coach in the midst of a game this past season. Master P was co-owner of a team in L.A., then had a falling out with his partner, who impounded the uniforms, leaving the team to play in practice jerseys. The 26-1 Utah Snowbears had the ABA’s best record, but didn’t show up for the finals because they couldn’t afford the travel.”
New York signed off. SI creative director Chris Hercik began sketching what would become our “dynamic roadbed” logo. And I phoned Indianapolis, where a former ad man named Joe Newman ran the new ABA out of his basement.
Yes, Joe told me, the rights to a “market reservation” in Vermont were available. Joe would charge me only $5,000. “There are no dues and assessments,” he added. “Actually the league shares its revenues with the teams, not vice versa—which is why we’re growing as we have.”
Never mind that, now a decade on, I’m still waiting on the first penny from the league office.
The old ABA had been a parade ground for letting your freak flag fly, be it the tangle surmounting Darnell Hillman’s head, or the plastered-to-the-forehead look of Billy Paultz. My personal statement would be to create an entirely different pro sports team. We’d sell local food at our concession stands. We’d be the first “climate cool” team in pro sports, traveling to games on a biodiesel bus and offsetting our carbon emissions with renewable energy credits. As the state’s manufacturing sector eroded, we’d model the digital future, using the Web to let fans with a laptop or smartphone vote electronically on team matters. As sprawl and big-box stores threatened to leech the life from Vermont’s downtowns, we’d shore them up by playing in them.
Through all the giddiness, I probably should have lingered longer on why a league with a reputation for unreliability would name a division after Marvin Barnes, the old ABA star notorious for showing up late. And somewhere, faintly, I could hear the murmur of my inner Groucho, wondering if it was such a good idea to join a league that would have me as a member.
In 1976, as part of its merger with the old American Basketball Association, the NBA acquired the rights to the ABA name and its signature red, white and blue ball. Several decades later, for $50,000, the NBA licensed those marks back to the proprietors of the new ABA, Newman and Dick Tinkham, who as co-founder of the Pacers and general counsel for the league had helped hash out the merger with his NBA counterpart, a young lawyer named David Stern.
The reconstituted ABA launched in 2000. After two disastrous seasons, with only seven teams remaining and four ready to fold, the league took a year off to reboot. That’s when Newman hit upon the idea of letting a hundred franchises bloom.
In theory, those cut-rate market reservation fees were ingenious: By making the barrier to entry low, the ABA attracted tight, regional clusters of teams, all within driving distance of one another, which kept travel costs down. But the owner who had gotten his franchise for five figures or less would eventually have to pay the players and the refs, and rent the gym and the bus. From afar I watched as, by Christmas 2004, cancellations and bankruptcies turned several of the league’s divisions into husks. How can you sell tickets, sign up sponsors or design promotions without the confidence that a booked game would actually get played?
Of course if a franchise failed, Joe Newman could simply re-sell the market rights, leaving some new sucker to deal with how toxic the ABA brand had become in that market. Consider Pittsburgh. During the early 1970s, when Marty Blake himself took over the city’s quailing franchise in the original ABA, the team needed a new nickname. Marty called a friend who worked at the Cincinnati Zoo. “I need the name of an animal that’s ferocious but almost extinct,” he said. Blake’s buddy nominated a bird called the condor, and after two seasons the Pittsburgh Condors went the way of the most of the rest of the league. In keeping with that tradition, the Iron City had, since the league’s reconstitution, hosted ABA teams called the Patriots, the Hardhats, the Pit Bulls and, as I looked on, the unfortunately named Xplosion. None had made anything close to a go of it.
Fortunately, we seemed to have a fairly reliable group of owners in our corner of the league, which included Cape Cod, Buffalo and Newark, as well as, for the moment, solid franchises in Rochester and on Long Island—or, as the Long Island owners called themselves, “Strong Island.” Moreover, to our north, there was a team in Montreal, with another in Quebec City set to join the following season and a third in the works for Halifax two years hence. We would sit in the geographic middle, with no opponent more than a day’s bus ride away.
In April 2006, one in Joe’s stream of carny-barking e-mails landed in my inbox. “We have great new owners to complement our terrific 2005-2006 owners. Things are very bright indeed.”
But not bright enough to keep league executive Ricardo Richardson from bolting a few weeks later. He had tried in vain to get Joe to demand $3,000-per-team payments into a travel contingency fund to ensure the integrity of the schedule. “Bottom line,” he told our director of operations, Mike Healey, “I felt that this year would be worse than last.”
At the league meeting the following fall, Joe said, “We guarantee that every team that begins play in November will complete its 36-game season.”
These, I would discover, were not words to take to the bank. “As you know, there have been some problems in the first two months of the season and it has been necessary for the league to suspend or cancel some teams for failure to meet league standards or requirements,” Joe wrote in an e-mail just after Christmas.
At the All-Star break I did a quick count. The ABA had begun the season with 48 teams. Thirty-two were still playing.
As a journalist suddenly serving as team president and GM, I couldn’t have chosen work that demanded a more radically different skill set. Instead of submitting text to be polished by editors and backstopped by fact checkers, I’d supply the last word on everything. And after 25 years of collecting a paycheck, I’d now be cutting them—as long as I could entice enough sponsors, and recruit enough investors, so those checks wouldn’t bounce.
I cold-called some prospects, and haunted entrepreneurs’ forums for others, looking for people willing to embrace basketball, Vermont, and the possibility that we might fail to beat the ABA’s long odds. At one point, massaging expectations, I said, “For ‘liquidity event,’ please think in terms of the day we uncork a bottle of champagne upon winning a title.”
One day I turned up at Peak Pitch, an event hosted by two local venture capital firms. In this slopeside twist on the elevator pitch, a “Vermontrepreneur” could spend the ride up a chairlift at Bolton Valley Resort trying to wheedle money out of investors. Leaving the chairlift after laying my pitch on a venture capitalist named Matt, I realized I’d committed a sin as much entrepreneurial as journalistic: I’d buried the lede. Before Matt could plant his poles, I called out, “Oh, and one of every 12 users of the Internet has played some sort of fantasy sports. The Frost Heaves will do them one better. We’ll let fans help run a real team over the Web!”
I never did receive Matt’s request for wiring instructions. But I locked down enough co-owners to forge ahead. Several came in at small amounts but brought symbolic value. Tom Brennan, freshly retired as the University of Vermont’s basketball coach after the Catamounts’ NCAA tournament upset of Syracuse, was then the most popular figure in the state. Jerry Greenfield, the back half of Ben & Jerry’s, was at first reluctant because, as he put it, “everything I invest in winds up failing, with one notable exception.” But he eventually agreed, and to sanctify the deal sent me off with a thermal tote of pint cartons.
Local investors helped spread word through Vermont’s business community, where we desperately needed to find sponsors. Jerry put in a word with Ben & Jerry’s to underwrite the cost of that biodiesel bus. And the ABA had a couple of wrinkles to which we could sell the naming rights. One was that extra point after a backcourt turnover, thanks to the 3-D Rule, which Dick Tinkham had devised to shake pro basketball out of its half-court stupor. The ABA’s other saleable innovation was its 13th-Man Rule. For every game, the home team could suit up anyone from the community who would be eligible to play. Teams used it to build promotions by partnering with a nonprofit or celebrating a local hero. Maryland had suited up 7'7" Gheorghe Muresan, the former Washington Bullet; Strong Island had plopped Ed (Cookie) Jarvis, a 6’6”, 419-pound competitive eating champion, on its bench.
As a way to underscore its motto of “110% Banking” (by which 10% of profits go back to the community), Northfield Savings Bank bought the 13th-Man sponsorship. But most of our efforts to find sponsors would founder. We were caught in the start-up’s conundrum. Show us you can succeed and we’ll support you. But if no one supports us, how are we ever going to succeed?
Anticipating that vise, I weighed where we would play. We really had only two choices. Burlington was a lively city at the center of Chittenden County, home to the state’s most influential media and one-fourth of its population. But people there had plenty to do, and during the winter University of Vermont hockey and men’s and women’s basketball cast a long shadow.
Central Vermont, on the other hand, was another world. Less than an hour down Interstate 89 lay the hubs of Montpelier, pop. 7,700, the only state capital without a McDonald’s; and the old granite-quarrying town of Barre, pop. 9,200. Barre was a one-stop refutation of every stereotype about Vermont. Industrial and ethnically diverse, the city, as legend has it, had gotten its name from a resident who won a fistfight back in the 1790s. Then, over the years, it had filled up with immigrants who cut granite from the nearby quarries or carved stone in the sheds. Once known as “New England’s Chicago,” the city had been down at the heels for decades because of cheap foreign competition. But if central Vermont tended to be smaller and poorer, its towns also leaned more toward hoop than hockey. They more sorely needed a cause to call their own. And Barre had something that, paired with a building in Burlington, made for a thematic whole.
Covering college basketball over the years, I’d fallen in love with musty old places like the Palestra in Philadelphia and Mac Court in Eugene. Vermont had two such basketball temples. Each accommodated 1,200 to 1,800 people and featured an intimacy that, I was not too virtuous to calculate, would make for a homecourt advantage if we could only fill them with people.
“The Aud” in Barre was a WPA project from the ’30s, made from the very stuff pulled from those quarries. For two weeks a year the state tournament kept a ball bouncing on its floor, and as a result generations of Vermonters had grown to know and love the Aud, once listed by USA Today among the nation’s “Ten Great Places to Watch High School Hoops.”
Burlington’s answer to the Aud was Memorial Auditorium. Darker and a decade older, it had a Phantom of the Opera vibe, thanks to a stage at one end and a balcony, ringing the other three sides, which could block a shot launched from too deep in the corners. But it too made you want to start a team to play in it.
At the time Vanessa and I met, she lived down a dirt road in Windsor County from a Vermonter named Fred Ladd, who for decades had worked his family’s dairy farm. Fred once explained to her the equilibrium of a barn in use. The animals’ body heat helps keep the structure sound and the pipes from freezing, and a barn begins to die soon after the animals are taken from it. Vanessa, who had agreed to serve as assistant G.M., instantly recognized the relevance of Fred’s words to what we were doing: Two old buildings in two downtowns needed new life. If we couldn’t decide on one or the other, we’d play in both. It was a foretaste of what would soon become my management style: indecisiveness.
In fact, this decision would turn out to be inadvertently ingenious. By playing in two pockets of the state, we would double our exposure and with it our potential fan and sponsor bases. People unwilling to commit to a full 18-game “I-89” season-ticket plan could justify a nine-game “Exit 7” or “Exit 14” package at about half the price. We would have just enough presence in both markets that each daily paper made sure to cover us, and two radio stations wound up broadcasting all our games, home and away, something no other team in the league could claim.
By December 2005 it was time to go public with our plans. The Frost Heaves, I wrote in a grandiose manifesto for the magazine, would be “built for both the 21st century and the state they call home: part reality series, part high-tech demonstration project, part New England town meeting, part local hero.”
It had been 8 below zero when Vanessa and I left for the hour-and-40-minute trip to Barre for the introductory press conference. “If we could start our cars this morning,” I said from the lectern, “we can start a pro basketball team in Vermont.”
As I rehearsed that line during the drive over, it sounded like the usual bulls--- spewed at press events—pithy and stuffed with bravado.
At the time I said it, I didn’t entirely believe it. But I soon began to. The idea had indeed struck in a moment of whimsy, and romance helped sustain it. Yet over a year’s gestation we had lashed a mission to the team, and people apparently liked what they heard. In a state where strangers think nothing of pulling one another out of snowbanks, scores of Vermonters reached out with offers to volunteer. We logged more than 100 merchandise orders from all over the world during the first two days, which had us pulling hats and T-shirts from boxes stashed between the old cow stanchions of our dairy barn, then repairing to a spare bedroom to stuff them into Tyvek mailers in our pajamas. By the end of December no holiday cards had gone out, but we had sold thousands of dollars in gear.
When the first envelope arrived with a check for a season-ticket deposit, Vanessa and I threw looks at each other that said, “Guess we’re going to have to go through with this.”
The vision of social responsibility had resonated with people as much as the basketball. “I’d like to buy two season tickets,” one transplanted Vermonter wrote. “But since I live in Ohio, I’d like to donate them to a local Boys & Girls Club, YMCA, YWCA, etc. How do I do that?” The inquiry inspired a program called the Jack Frost Seats, through which anyone could underwrite tickets that let kids sit, Nicholson-like, in the front row.
The only discordant notes came from those who, having watched the ABA lose franchises at the rate of one per week since the current season began, thought we had cast our lot with a turkey. The former p.r. guy for the Erie Wave of the World Basketball League during the early Nineties provided some solace. “Everyone’s minor-league basketball story concludes with the phrase ‘until the franchise folded,’” he wrote. “I’d love to start a basketball team in a stable minor league. Problem is, there aren’t any.”
Then Marty Blake left a voicemail: “Congratulations, you’re in the business. For a coach, you might want to consider Clair Bee, Red Holzman and Ghost Johnson.”
There was a message, Condors-like, in Marty’s slate of candidates. All three were dead.
Expansion teams in pro sports had long given fans the chance to vote on a nickname or mascot. I decided to put before ours a much more consequential decision, one that the president and G.M., Mr. Let’s Do Both, couldn’t bring himself to make. In April we presented two finalists for our coaching job to a vote of our online community, the Bump in the Road Club.
I made sure I’d be comfortable with either. One, Rus Bradburd, had paid his dues as a big-time college assistant, first to Don Haskins at UTEP and then Lou Henson at New Mexico State. Rus had discovered Tim Hardaway in Chicago, the city they both called home, and more recently he had led the Tralee Tigers to an Irish Super League title. I loved his memoir, Paddy on the Hardwood, a tale of self-discovery embedded in an account of that championship season. Rus wasn’t just a writer, but a recreational fiddler—just the kind of character who, in style and outlook, figured to be a fit for Vermont.
The other, Will Voigt, had grown up on the edge of the state’s Northeast Kingdom, in an old farmhouse with a hoop in the barn out back. Ponds don’t come much smaller than his hometown, Cabot, with its tiniest-in-the-state high school; or fish any bigger than Will, who had been valedictorian of his class.
Like many young Vermonters, Will itched to see the world when he turned 18. So he lit out for California’s Pomona College, where he stumbled into an internship with the Clippers. That in turn led to stopovers in the video room of the San Antonio Spurs; at Texas as an aide to Rick Barnes; and on a bench in Bergen, Norway, where he now served as head coach of the Ulriken Eagles. But the thing that leaped out from his résumé was a season spent at Metro State, a Division II power in Denver, assisting Mike Dunlap, who had been the longtime coach there. For a story on the decline of fundamentals, I had once attended a Metro State 6 a.m. practice, which is all footwork and positioning, no balls allowed. Will might have been young—barely 30, and from photos I found on the Web, even younger in appearance—but his pedigree suggested an old basketball soul.
If Rus had any electoral tricks up his Chicago sleeves, he didn’t use them. Most of our voters were Vermonters, and Will won the balloting by almost two-to-one. Embracing his runner-up status, Rus sportingly offered to appear if we agreed to stage Second-Fiddle Night, where he’d play Irish folk tunes and read that undiscovered Robert Frost poem, “The Coach Not Taken.”
One thing hadn’t occurred to me: When you let the fans choose your coach, you’re not in the best bargaining position. We agreed to supply Will with a place to live, a car, and a living wage. And I signed off on a bonus of $20,000 should we happen to beat out that mass of other ABA teams for the title. The prospect seemed too remote to be a dealbreaker. Besides, as Will helpfully pointed out, if we were to win a championship, we could surely cover the cost with all the sponsorship money flooding our way.
When we had announced the team’s existence that December day, life was fairly simple. The Frost Heaves were a logo, a Web site, and those boxes of gear in the cow barn. The full-blown cares of pro sports ownership seemed months away.
Those months passed quickly. We’d need workmen’s comp? A liability insurance policy for how much before we could even host a tryout camp? But I thought they’d rent us the building for a third of that!
A bionic to-do list sometimes left me fearing I’d lost my mind. I began to misplace some things and forget others. The assistant GM had her moments too, but given my own lapses, I won’t make much of how Vanessa left two deceptively light cardboard boxes, still full of uninflated red, white and blue mini basketballs for our Have-a-Ball Kids Camps, by the road for recycling, never to be seen again.
She more than made up for it with an idea for a mascot. A regular if usually unwelcome feature along Vermont’s roads is a moose—and in light of what a frost heave is, we decided to call him Bump. To create Bump, we hired the dean of mascot makers, a Quebecois named Jean-Claude Tremblay, who had designed hundreds of such creatures, including Youppi! of the late Montreal Expos, and Champ, of our baseball neighbors, the Class A New York-Penn League Vermont Lake Monsters.
We drove with our kids, Frank, 4, and Clara, 3, to the Montreal suburbs to fetch Bump. He was gloriously goofball, with a Day-Glo orange bump road sign on the back of his Frost Heaves jersey and half an ABA basketball sitting yarmulke-like atop his head. Jean-Claude’s son, Dominic, pulled on the costume while the kids waited in the parking lot, then enchanted them with a halting, slapstick entrance in which he somehow maneuvered Bump’s antlerspan of almost six feet out the doorway.
After this show, we entered the Tremblays’ factory—a catacombs of drafting tables, fabric rolls and disembodied heads smiling from walls—but not before Dominic had ducked inside and changed out of Bump’s costume. Which meant that, so far as our kids were concerned, the huge black bag we slung into the back of the car contained a living, breathing, napping moose.
“I want to show Bump around the house,” Frank said during the ride back.
Bump wasn’t only the strangest thing we had ever brought through customs; he was a Santa-sized fiction Vanessa and I would be obliged to maintain. But at $3,300, he was a steal. He became the face of the team months before we had a team. He would do duty in Memorial Day parades, at county fairs, and at a Lake Monsters game for Champ’s birthday party, sometimes, unbeknownst to Frank and Clara, with mom or dad in the suit.
The issue that most consumed us now was how we would populate our roster. For all the bush-league features of the ABA, we regarded one as a huge advantage. Just about every player was a free agent on a one-year contract, so if you could persuade a guy to sign for the year, he was yours. If we wanted to assemble a team of pressers and deflectors for the high-school dimensions of our old gyms, we could go out and get them. If we wanted guys with local pedigrees, we could sign them too. And no parent club would disrupt team chemistry by assigning or recalling a player during the season.
Alas, we had huge disadvantages too. That $120,000 payroll cap for a five-month season lagged behind the D-League’s, the CBA’s, and most European clubs'. Further, because the D-League was the NBA’s own, any prospect with ambitions to play in the Show would choose the “Down Low,” where scouts could follow his progress.
So our task was to highlight what made us distinct. Our small market had already embraced the team. We would supplement salaries with housing and meals. Our coach had a bulging Rolodex of contacts as well as player-development cred and that connection to the NBA; put in a good season with us and you could move on to a better-paying gig overseas. The quality of our roster would be down to Will’s ability to network, evaluate and jawbone, and creatively slice up the payroll pie.
No sooner did we announce a date for our first open tryout camp than the e-mails began to pour in from guys eager to show us what they’d got: silkyslimm21, and hoopsoul23, and igetbuckets, and bigfella52, and flyingohsohigh, and swoosh1223, and realmainevent, and hoopdream31, and ballaboveall, and one Marcus Birdsong who, invoking the former NBA All-Star, assured us that “I take after my uncle Otis.”
The open tryout was really a way to suss out the handful of locals we were determined to include on the team. Will found most of our players by working his network. Antonio Burks, a 6'5" forward from Stephen F. Austin, had played for him in Norway. Antonio seemed to haul his heavy legs around the floor with great effort, but he was slow the way Larry Bird was slow, fully aware of the accuracy of the parabolic threes that left his left hand and thus the power of suggestion in his shot fake.
Six-seven forward John Bryant had been a two-year captain at St. Joseph’s as the Hawks won 96 games, including 27 during their undefeated 2003-04 regular season. He was a rebounder, screen-setter and master of enough subtle basketball arts that Temple coach John Chaney had notoriously sent into a game a player with orders to “send a message” to Bryant. That player succeeded in doing so, breaking Bryant’s arm, and J.B. handled the aftermath with a grace that foreshadowed the even temper he would bring to our locker room.
On a tip Will found, playing in a pick-up game at UVM’s Patrick Gym, a 6'8" forward who was a former Big South Defensive Player of the Year. Issa Konare had played for the junior national team of his native Senegal, then made his way to North Carolina’s High Point University, where he met his Vermonter wife, Samantha. A team in France had put an offer on the table, but if Issa were to leave the U.S. without a green card he risked being unable to return. So while he and Sam and their infant daughter hunkered down in Richmond, Vt., waiting for the INS to come through, Will persuaded Issa that our offer beat playing random pick-up. Marooned at our practice facility after Sam would drop him off and head to work for the day, he’d sleep on tumbling mats between morning and afternoon workouts.
Finally, Rus Bradburd made good on gracious notes he sounded after losing the coach vote. He hooked Will up with the two best players he knew from Ireland. One, a forward named Tyrone Levett, had worn out his Tralee Tigers. When Alabama State landed its first-ever NCAA bid in 2001, Ty was the 6'5", 220-pound guy who got them there by posting up and sinking threes. “He pulls up his elbow pads and goes to work,” Rus told us. “If Joe Frazier were a swingman, this would be him.”
The other, Travarus Bennett, had played for Rus in the Auld Sod. Driving up from his home in Mississippi, Travarus wound up calling us from the New York-Canadian border after he missed Vermont. But it was well worth the trouble to navigate him back to Burlington, for Travarus, a 6'7" former Big Ten co-Defensive Player of the Year at Minnesota, had averaged seven deflections a game. Or as one of Travarus’ college coaches had put it, “He’s not vertical. He’s horizontal.”
We still didn’t have anything resembling a point guard. But playing on 86-foot courts, we were quite happy with horizontals.
I was traveling in Europe when word reached me that Will had signed Travarus. That same day, in downtown Zurich, I spotted in the window of a sporting goods store a poster of former And1 player and streetball legend Randy (White Chocolate) Gill, now starring for the ABA’s Maryland Nighthawks. Some Swiss pedestrian was surely left wondering why a guy wearing a hint of a smile was speaking audible English at a plateglass storefront.
“And we,” I said, locking eyes with White Chocolate, “just signed a guy who’s gonna shut your ass down.”
Vermonters compensate for long winters with summertime fairs and festivals, where they make social hay while the sun shines. We dispatched our new signees to as many of these events as we could, usually with Bump as chaperone. Our team would be almost entirely black, and Vermont is one of the two whitest states in the union, but our signees interacted easily with everyone. Guys like Kevin Mickens and Markus Austin may have been city kids from Baltimore and White Plains, respectively, but most of our players had small-town, country backgrounds, and even those who didn’t began to set a tone that locals warmed to.
In the meantime, Will found a couple of guards. Tyrone Barley had been John Bryant’s teammate at St. Joe’s, the sixth man and defensive specialist on that 2003-04 Hawks team. He sent us a game tape of him playing in Austria, scoring over hapless Tyroleans. Puzzled, Will called him up. “When I talked to [St. Joe’s] coach [Phil] Martelli, he said you’re this great defender,” he said. “All I see is you scoring. There’s no defense. I don’t think this is going to be the right fit.”
Barley quickly sent a second tape, and what Will saw left him astonished. “He’s completely shutting down Chris Paul [in the Hawks’ 2004 NCAA tournament defeat of Wake Forest], to the point where Wake moves Chris Paul off the ball,” Will would tell me. “The best ballhandling point guard in the NBA right now, and he literally could not bring the ball up the floor.”
Will had staged a tryout camp in northern New Jersey where another player caught his eye. Melvin Creddle wasn’t more than 6'1", and he had played only a few seasons of organized ball, at Cisco (Tex.) Junior College and then Division II Mount Olive College in North Carolina. But the legend of this North Jersey streetballer, known on local playgrounds as “Problem Child,” was about to jump the Hudson.
Mike Healey and I had been tending to league business at a motel near LaGuardia Airport over a weekend with instructions from Will to bring Melvin home with us. Melvin took a bus from Newark to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, then navigated public transport to Queens, where we found him on a prearranged corner. He slept virtually the whole drive to Vermont.
I didn’t realize that sleep wasn’t Melvin’s natural state. In practice he would play so hard that guys doing drills elsewhere in the gym sometimes stopped and stared. One day we panicked when he collapsed during a workout. Fearing he might have a heart problem, we took him to the hospital for a battery of tests. It turned out Melvin was simply someone capable of playing himself to exhaustion.
Off the court he was just as guileless and direct. When I showed up at practice to pass around copies of our yearbook, hot off the press, Melvin scrunched up his forehead. He had a problem with the cover, which came graced with a banner reading inaugural season.
“Why,” he asked me, “couldn’t you just say ‘First?’”
At the league’s fall meeting in Indianapolis, with barely six weeks to opening night, Joe sprang a surprise. He had somehow cajoled former Detroit Pistons seven-footer John (Spider) Salley to take on the role of ABA commissioner. Salley’s duties would be mostly ceremonial, but Joe seemed to have scored a coup by landing a guy with four NBA championship rings and late-night talk show experience.
That day Salley swore to us that he wouldn’t do to the ABA what his old teammate Isiah Thomas had done to the CBA—essentially run it into the ground: “I love to laugh and giggle and smoke cigars and drink cognac, but I have a reputation and a name. My father taught me never to embarrass my name. Growing up it was always funny enough with the name Salley.”
When someone asked what he was going to do about the deadbeats and no-shows, he pledged to “go gangsta” if necessary. “If you miss a game, you’re gone,” he said. “If you’re hurt, we’ll try to help you—but if you’re dying, we’ll shoot you.”
Those of us in the room loved it. But then we would have. We’d shown up.
Afterward we were treated to another one of Joe’s Amway-style seminars, this time on the twin economic fundamentals of minor-league hoops: (1) You’ll need about $400,000 to operate your team for a season, and (2) The more you can reduce that figure with trade and barter, the better off you’ll be.
In light of the latter, we heard from Charles Wilkerson, a constitutionally cheery man who owned two ABA teams in Arkansas, the Aeros and the River Catz. As proprietor of the American Exchange Network, he was also known as the Baron of Barter. I wanted to believe that his good humor followed from encounter after encounter in which, to hear him tell it, everyone walks away happy.
“Once,” he told us, “I traded bat manure for a 747.”
The room turned another notch more attentive. As it happened, the bat guano hadn’t been traded straight up for that airplane—there were all sorts of other trades in between. But Baron Wilkerson reset my horizons of what was swappable.
I contemplated our wish list. Could we trade for an extra set of 24-second clocks, which we’d need to equip our second venue? Swap a half-dozen Bump the Moose store appearances for 15 jackets with quadruple XL sleeves?
In both cases, no. But we did exchange equity in the team for office space. We traded an arena banner and a yearbook ad to the Vermont Air National Guard for a color guard plus security at our Burlington games. And an appliance store got arena signage in exchange for the flat screen on which our guys watched Will’s video edits.
Our pledge to feed the players forced us into more dealmaking. While breakfast was included at the MainStay Suites, the players’ budget extended-stay hotel, that left 14 lunches and dinners each week, at least until the season started and the guys would collect per diems on the road. So restaurants and fast-food places found themselves with ads, signage and tickets in exchange for feeding 15 ravenous men. Like the man said, souk and ye shall find.
And then, a few weeks after the season began, John Salley’s relationship with the league changed and the owners never heard from him again.
Ifelt pretty chesty the day I walked into our practice facility in Essex, Vt., and saw, arrayed before me for the first time, a full set of under-contract Frost Heaves.
I told them how minor-league sports is about “touches”—allowing people, particularly kids, to interact with pro athletes on a personal level. I shared what Tom Brennan liked to say: that Vermonters will embrace anyone unless given some reason not to. I told them how a woman had called our office that very morning, to rhapsodize about how much her boy loved our guys because several had smiled at him the previous day at practice. And I emphasized how we’d taken a risk with TV ads touting our “players you can look up to”—but were confident that none of them would fall from their pedestals. “We don’t expect you to be perfect,” I said. “We’re still learning, and I’ve made all sorts of mistakes. But we’re trying to do something special here.”
Finally, I launched into a spiel about freedom and unity. “Freedom and Unity” is the Vermont state motto, an invocation of individualism and community. A basketball team, I told them, sought out that same golden mean where everyone worked together, yet any one of them could seize the main chance if that’s what the moment demanded.
With the players standing before me in a semicircle, it seemed only natural to end by huddling up, hands in the middle, for some concluding exhortation—the kind I’d seen teams incant on so many occasions, in practice or when breaking timeouts.
“O.K.,” I said, mincing toward the middle, the players closing in. “On three.”
Our hands rested one upon the other. Silence hung in the gym. Boy, did it hang. Finally, patiently, Will spoke up.
“You need to tell us what we’re supposed to say.”
“Right. Like I said, we’re still learning. Um, O.K. . . . ‘Attack,’ on three.”
The guys came through, covering for the owner. “One. Two. Three. Attack!”
Unbeknownst to me, Will was about to introduce a powerful exercise in those concepts of freedom and unity. The sister of a friend of his from Cabot led musical and theatre groups, and she used a communication technique called “the Circle.” Will saw its application to any type of ensemble. “It starts with that bond, in that group, with everybody connecting as one,” he would explain to me. “We might silently reflect on team, and what we mean to each other, and what each of us could bring to the table. And then we might talk out loud about it.
“It’s not all, ‘Rah-rah, we just won a championship,’ but people talking about their lives and fears and love for one another. You get all these amazing things that, especially with men, you don’t see a whole lot of.
“Our guys really bought into it. And the more the team takes ownership of the experience, the better it’s all gonna end up.”
It’s the ABA” had become a fatalistic refrain, invoked when anything obstructed our path. But until that first season began, the phrase had always pertained to things organizational. In our opener, in Quebec City against the Kebekwa, we ran red-white-and-blue into the legislated chaos of the 3-D Rule.
We played a first half of almost perfect basketball. We locked down their guards and fronted their bigs into irrelevancy. Antonio Burks dropped 17 points in the second quarter, including five majestic threes, to send us to the locker room with a 56-33 lead.
Intellectually, we knew it was coming. Other ABA coaches had shared tales of 3-D’s tidal-force effect. At halftime, Will talked about it: How the Kebekwa would press, force a turnover or two, get the sellout crowd of 900 into things, and make the refs less and less inclined to intervene, our NBA-worthy first half notwithstanding.
Even so, we couldn’t stop what Quebec City brought to us: Forced turnover after turnover. Steal, layup, foul. Three, sometimes four, points per trip, all thanks to the 3-D Rule. We were lucky, frankly, to force overtime before les Kebs flattened les gels se souleves (that’s Frost Heaves en francais) 108-100.
Afterward Will called it the worst loss he had suffered as a head coach. Our guys’ failure to communicate on the floor was his biggest disappointment. He sat on several timeouts as the lead bled away but had his reasons for not calling them. I was left impressed how Will could pull back from the moment to see the big picture. “After a while guys have to figure it out for themselves,” he told me. “This is a journey.”
Our hotel in Quebec City featured an adjoining nightclub called The Ozone. With a game in Montreal against the Matrix the next day, Will told everyone to steer clear of it. Just to be sure, he decided to work on his video edit in the lobby, from a spot with a clear view of The Ozone’s entrance. Unbeknownst to the players, he witnessed two of them “partaking.”
After gathering the team together the next morning, he asked each to identify himself. One of the two, forward Lester Strong, raised his hand. The other, a shooting guard named Aaron Cook, didn’t.
Will sat Aaron that day. It wasn’t about setting himself up as the authority figure, he told me later, but about telling one’s teammates the truth. “I scared the bejesus out of him, but it was the start of the whole process,” Will said. “You never know when lessons are presented in the course of a season, and it just happened that most of ours were frontloaded.”
In Montreal we beat the Matrix 94-83. But the trip’s value lay in what had transpired in Quebec City: that lesson in the 3-D Rule, which would eventually become much more friend than nemesis; and the evolution of Aaron, a former captain at Hartford who, as Will would later put it, “ended up being an absolute gem of a kid and a player.”
Sure that he was only one misstep from getting cut, Aaron desperately tried to help the team. Though a confident shooter, he had a complex about his ballhandling, and out of that insecurity asked Will what he could do to improve. Will gave him a handful of exercises, and soon Aaron and Melvin, who never slept anyway, were up all night in their room at the MainStay, pounding the carpet with two-ball drills.
For our home opener in Barre a week later, 1,200 people showed up, including Gov. Jim Douglas, who threw up the jump ball. The Northfield Savings Bank 110% Community All-Star, Barre mayor Thom Lauzon, went 0-for-2 from the line, but everyone else scored as we beat Quebec City easily.
Before the game the circulation director of the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus asked if the newspaper could hand out cowbells at the entrance. I worried that we’d alienate fans before we had any. But hundreds of ringing bells had a low, rattling sound that somehow drew people into the action. Fans made a point of bringing their bells to subsequent games, and soon we were cranking out Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper” laced with that Saturday Night Live More Cowbell routine.
Then on Dec. 14, almost exactly a year after the issue date of the SI in which we announced the birth of the team, the twin banes of our opener in Quebec City—the 3-D Rule and Aaron Cook—gloriously combined.
It was a frigid Thursday night in Burlington. We were 8-2, hosting the team we then led by a half-game in our division, the defending champion Rochester RazorSharks. They had a stacked roster thanks to their owner, a medical entrepreneur and real-estate baron, who maxed out the salary cap and steered all sorts of additional if permissible perks his players’ way.
We led most of the game. Sank threes when we needed them. Played great defense, led by the horizontal exertions of Travarus Bennett. But we were careless with the ball during the fourth quarter, and Rochester—a veteran, well-coached team—stood up seven with 23 seconds to play.
Good chunks of that late-arriving crowd were early to depart, casualties of a school night and what looked to be a foregone conclusion. Then, without warning, Aaron knocked down a three-pointer. As the RazorSharks tried to inbound, Rochester’s Demond Stewart got whistled for tripping, and because the foul was considered a turnover in the backcourt, the 3-D lights around the backboard lit up. Tyrone Barley found Aaron just beyond the top of the key, where he rose and released a shot that splashed through the net, counting for four and forcing overtime. That’s where Barley sank a huge three-pointer of his own, and our defense delivered three straight turnovers to seal a 95-93 win.
One of those down-the-stretch turnovers had come thanks to Barley, and only months into the season did Will figure out how he had done it. “He had this amazing ability to spin 180 degrees and step on your foot while jabbing up at the ball,” he reported. “What’s causing you to cough up the ball is that someone’s stepping on your foot, when to all eyes it looks like it’s deflected. Nobody in the building has any idea what happened.”
Will realized that Barley had used the same trick on Chris Paul in that NCAA tournament game tape he had sent us. Now he had done it to some RazorShark in front of 500 people. “He’s the only guy,” Will said, “I’ve ever seen play defense backwards.”
After the game I told a friend that I’d been disappointed by the size of the crowd.
“I’ll guarantee you this,” he replied. “Everyone who did come tonight will be back.”
We arrived in Montreal two days later to a melodrama playing out behind the scenes. The Matrix players, unpaid since the season began, had run out of patience with owners Serena Locker-Coles and her husband, Melvin Coles, who had made his money importing incense. Two weeks earlier the players had been promised that the team’s ownership would be reassigned, but the league had done nothing. Now they were refusing to play.
We found all this out in the lobby of our hotel two hours before tipoff. Montreal coach and G.M. Pascal Jobin informed ops director Mike Healey, whereupon we got Joe Newman on a conference call—if Mike’s cell phone being passed around the lobby can be considered a conference call. Joe promised new ownership by the end of the evening. But, he said, the players needed to play, tonight.
We easily defeated Montreal’s quorum of seven, and won again the next day, by which time the team had been vouchsafed to its physical therapist, who in a clean break with the Coles era rechristened the franchise the Montreal Royal. Turmoil like this was standard for the ABA. Scan the league Web site and you’d find team after team with its record frozen for months at 4-6 or 1-3. Call its office and the phone would be disconnected—but in the strange cryogenics of the league, the team never folded, but was rather “suspended” or “under reorganization.”
In a week we were booked to play the Brooklyn Wonders in Barre. To us, the expression “Will Wonders ever cease?” had long since stopped being a rhetorical question. When an answer came—yes, apparently—Indy promised to deliver a replacement.
But before then, on Dec. 21, we returned to Memorial for the first time since the Rochester miracle. Sure enough, for our defeat of the Newark Express, most of the witnesses to Aaron and Tyrone’s magic seemed to have come back and brought a friend. Even as the UVM men played up the hill, we drew 900.
On Dec. 30 and 31 we scored narrow victories over Cape Cod in back-to-back matinees in Barre. People dragged to the Aud family and friends home for the holidays to see an apparition: a bunch of black guys coached by some kid from Cabot playing it old school, while a moose gamboled in the stands amidst people ringing cowbells. In the second of those games, sustained by our first sellout crowd, we clawed back 10 points in the final five minutes to win. As they would do at every home game, our guys showed their love in return, inviting local youth-league players into the pregame layup line, and staying on the floor postgame until the last autograph-seeking kid had left.
When you’ve got something going, a kind of sustained endorphin rush kicks in, mitigating the sobering effect of something like, say, a financial statement. And so it was that every home game began to seem like a Disney episode, even when things went wrong. With the Chicago Rockstars running an hour late because of snowdrifts on I-89, that night’s 110% Community All-Star, local comedian Rusty (The Logger) DeWees, grabbed the microphone to riff on the preposterousness of the words “versus Chicago” actually appearing on the marquee at the foot of Auditorium Hill. At Bump’s Birthday Party, the Lake Monsters’ Champ and UVM’s Rally Cat both showed up for a full-court mascot game during an extended halftime. During our first Burlington sellout, against the Strong Island Sound in January, 110% Community All-Star Matt Johnson, a former star at UVM, came off the bench in the final minutes to toss in our 18th three-pointer of the game.
We had tried hard to sign recent UVM star Taylor Coppenrath, who chose to play in Europe for real money. We sort of made up for it on Legislators’ Night in Barre, after guest player Bill Doyle, a state senator, pleaded a bad back (“From too many people leaning on me,” he explained). Doyle enlisted as his substitute Taylor’s dad, George, another state senator, which allowed us to send out a press release headed coppenrath to suit up for frost heaves.
Beyond our venues, we had gotten an unlikely purchase on the Zeitgeist. A contributor for msnbc.com counseled men eager to impress women not to wear a Vermont Frost Heaves sweatsuit to bed. An impresario with a Montpelier hip-hop label released Bump the Rap, which was pretty catchy despite the long groan of an actual moose call. For the annual sex survey in the Vermont alt weekly Seven Days, Bump collected a vote in the category of, “If you could have sex with a prominent Vermonter, he or she would be?”
In February the Maryland Nighthawks came through Burlington with their new signee, 7'9" Sun Ming Ming, the tallest pro basketball player ever and sixth-tallest man alive. The local papers played eagerly along. Colchester’s Vermont Maple Inn fits guestroom with special bed extension and custom linens! Down in Alpharetta, Marty Blake was smiling.
Nearly 1,200 people filed into Memorial to watch the big guy mess with our heads. Sun didn’t have a bad touch. He sank three free throws in four tries. But we were able to rule the opened-up floor during Sun’s long stretches on the bench to claim a 113-104 victory, our 12th in 13 games. The sap buckets hadn’t yet been hung on the maples, and there we were, 24-4.
Ihad grand ambitions to empower our fans—to let them use digital devices to tell us, for instance, who ought to be starting the second half. If the team were being launched today, it would be easier to do. But our most engaged followers lived in Washington and Orange counties, hilly and hardscrabble parts of the state with spotty cell coverage, where people were lucky to have dial-up service if they were wired at all. The best we could do was ask Bump in the Road Clubbers to nominate an emissary for the ABA All-Star Game in Halifax. They chose Aaron over Antonio by one vote.
I felt inadequate on another, more consequential front. When I had spoken with editors about a Web-based reality series, words like “rollicking” and “zany” had come up. That was what New York expected and what I had hoped to deliver. But as the reality of running the team began to emerge, it became harder and harder to fire off real time updates to SI.com and the magazine, much less light and amusing ones. Everything had become too real. As teams around the ABA wobbled or disappeared, I worried about compounding the chaos by making too much light of the league—that it might undermine the sale of tickets and sponsorships that were critical to our success, which was my obligation to our investors.
All sorts of people had thrown in their lot with us beyond the team. A few weeks before the season, a Barre resident had been driving north on I-89 with her 10-year-old daughter when they noticed a man waving frantically at them from a mud bog several hundred feet off the highway. The man had been hunting alone when he suffered a heart attack. The woman slammed on the brakes and drove in reverse in the breakdown lane for nearly a mile. While her daughter phoned 9-1-1, she made her way over fences and through mud to the hunter’s aid. He was rushed to the hospital, treated and released.
They were precisely the kinds of local heroes we hoped to highlight as 110% Community All-Stars. The mother, a Navy veteran who volunteered at our concession stand, and her daughter, a local youth-league player who adored Aaron Cook and had already become a fixture courtside, were practically members of the team already. So the 10-year-old suited up as our 13th Man, while mom and dad looked adoringly on.
The following fall would come news that police had cited the mother to appear in court on charges of embezzling $15,000 from her former employer. Several days later staff at a motel on the Barre-Montpelier Road found her dead in the bathroom of one of their guestrooms. The woman who had saved a stranger’s life had taken her own.
The news would hit us like a sucker punch. Our players and coaches didn’t just know that young fan. They had shared a bench and a locker room with her, and would do what they could to support her and her father.
It was a powerful lesson. A circumscribed mission to provide “affordable, fan-friendly entertainment” was one thing. But sometimes the entropy of life leads you inexorably toward greater entanglement. And so we tried to honor every request from a non-profit, whether for donated tickets or items for silent auctions. We collaborated with the Red Cross, the March of Dimes, Special Olympics and anti-hunger organizations. We sent players and coaches and Bump to schools and retirement communities. After a family in Will’s hometown got burned out of its home over the holidays, staff at nearby Twinfield High decided to turn a scheduled game against Cabot High into a fundraiser with a potluck ham dinner. We agreed to hold an open practice beforehand, which helped goose the gate and raise $2,500.
Having turned all things basketball over to Will, I tried to make a mark elsewhere. I chose the song we’d play after a win. (The Impressions’ "We’re a Winner.") After a loss. (Curtis again: "Keep on Pushin’".) The Frost reference in our ads (“Stop By Our Hardwoods on a Snowy Evening”) and the bad pun in our ticket brochure (“You ‘Aud’ to be a part of it.”) If a ref’s whistle had Will up pleading his case, our sound man would punch up the first words of James Brown’s “Please, Please, Please.” When Bump took the floor, we’d cue up a snippet of Woody Allen’s routine about a moose loose in a singles bar: “The moose mingles. Does very well. Scores.”
But we had one victory I could take some credit for. The story began in early December, when we had traveled to Strong Island. The Sound went up 19. We made a run to close within four, but they went up by 19 again, at which point Michele Wuestman, the team’s co-owner, found me in the stands to ask, “How does it feel to get your ass kicked?”
We used one more run to force overtime. There Strong Island beat us, but only because a short bank shot from Burks at the buzzer skidded off the rim.
When we returned a month later, I asked Will for a chance to talk to the players pregame. I reminded them of our last trip, of how we’d twice come back and nearly won. And, trying on indignation for size, I made sure they knew about Michele’s comment. As I recounted my humiliation, Melvin stood before me in the center of the locker room, eyes widening. Moments later, in a frenzy, he led the team out on the floor.
We trailed by a basket in the final two minutes, but again Aaron came through. With the 3-D lights on, he curled around a screen, took a sideline inbounds pass, and rose to sink a three-pointer worth four that gave us a 96-94 win. Melvin and the guys had upheld my honor. By mid-February, we had moved into the top spot in the ABA Power Rankings, a position we held going into the last week of the regular season.
Our final two games took place in Quebec, bookending our opening two. No one was tempted to do any late-night clubbing after we beat Montreal on Saturday, especially with clocks set to spring forward an hour, and a 1:35 p.m. tipoff awaiting us against the Kebekwa the next day. We knew the stakes: Lose, and we’d forfeit the No. 1 seed. Win, and every one of our playoff games would take place in Vermont.
Quebec City jumped all over our weary rear ends. For 50-plus minutes we held a lead just once. Down 14 points with 3:35 to play in regulation, watching the Kebs sink virtually everything they threw up, we seemed finished.
Then Ty Barley bottomed out a couple of three-pointers. Aaron added one of his own. Barley connected yet again. Despite that flurry we seemed to take a step back for every two forward, and with 12 seconds to play the Kebs still led 97-94, with one of their players lining up a free throw.
He missed. Burks grabbed the rebound. He pitched an outlet to Tyrone Levett, who found Cook up the left sideline. With one crisp pump fake Aaron sent his defender sailing past him. Then he set his feet, rose and, doing his usual imitation of a hood ornament, forced overtime with a shot that ripped through the net.
The Kebs scored first during the three-minute extra period. But Levett wrestled free for a layup, Barley did the same, and we claimed a 101-99 lead to somehow, improbably, finish the job. The 40 cowbell-equipped fans who made the schlep up for the weekend joined our players in the scrum on the floor. We had wound up our inaugural—or as Melvin would put it, first—season with a 30-6 record, the best in the league.
This being the ABA, the playoffs would not be fully populated. Charles Wilkerson’s 25-2 Arkansas Aeros announced their withdrawal because of, management said in a statement, “inconsistent direction from the league office.” Joe claimed he had kicked the Aeros out for failing to pay players and staff. Apparently the Baron of Barter’s dealings with the ABA had not been ones in which both parties walked away happy.
The Rochester RazorSharks, who finished just behind us in the division, suddenly withdrew too. Their owners had already begun, with several other franchises disgusted with Joe’s leadership, to plot to form a new league.
Fifty teams had started the season. About half that number still had a discernible pulse. And there was Joe, astride the rubble, promising no fewer than 70 for next fall.
We sailed through our first playoff game, in Barre against Strong Island, a.k.a. Team How Does It Feel To Get Your Ass Kicked. Our next, in Burlington, we won with more difficulty, over the Bellingham (Wash.) Slam. That sent us back to Barre to face the Wilmington (N.C.) Sea Dawgs in a semifinal, which no one in Vermont remembers for anything other than one moment in the second half. That’s when Melvin drove into the lane, the Wilmington defense parted, and he sailed into a dunk that led more than 1,300 fans to practically lift the old building off its stone moorings. From the granite sheds to the Berlin Mall to WDEV Radio’s Music to Go to the Dump By, the debate would rage: Did Melvin get more air on the dunk? Or at the beginning of the ensuing timeout, when he dashed over to give a teammate an aerial chest bump?
The 113-85 victory ensured that, two days later, the erstwhile Chicago of New England would welcome the Texas Tycoons for the ABA title game. If, that is, the Tycoons showed up.
The league office had pledged that the championship game would be played by the end of March. To us, that assurance meant everything. We had players with contracts to fulfill overseas. Our deal with the MainStay didn’t include lodging beyond March—and, frankly, we didn’t have the means to pay salaries any longer. Besides, in the 48 hours since beating Wilmington, we had already printed, advertised and begun to sell tickets to the final.
At first Texas owner Charles Key balked at playing so soon. He said he wanted prize-fight-style build-up; we feared he also wanted time to make the case for a change in venue, our best-record prerogative notwithstanding. Joe broke the impasse, ordering the Tycoons to git to Vermont ASAP. On the morning of the game I learned to great relief that an American Airlines flight had left DFW for Boston with their players aboard. Just to make sure, we dispatched a van to Logan Airport to fetch them.
The Tycoons were a swaggering bunch, deep and fast and averaging 132 points a game. For more than two months they hadn’t failed to break 100, much less lost. And they sank their first two three-pointers to seize a 6-2 lead.
But from that point on, with our fans ringing their cowbells and holding signs like don't mess with vermont, we had our way with them. By the end of the first quarter we had taken a 42-18 lead and drained the game of enough suspense for a party to break out. Ty Levett wound up leading us with 33 points and nine rebounds. More meaningfully, by the time the buzzer sounded everyone had scored, just as in our home opener.
Though the league would make good on its promise to reimburse us for the cost, we had to purchase the championship trophy.
The question I fielded most frequently about the team was this: Are any of your guys good enough for the NBA? In the blush of the following morning, the answer came to me: Evidently, right now, no. But most had been missing only one thing: an inch; a first step; a consistent jumper; a handle in traffic. Gather together a dozen such guys, and they’d be constantly looking to cover for one another’s weaknesses. And in that sustained awareness of their teammates lay an opportunity, the chance to be more essentially a team.
This had been the closest thing to a college atmosphere you could find in the pros—“postgrad basketball,” if you will. John Bryant would tell me that even his unbeaten St. Joe’s team had guys chasing their own agendas, whereas our first season in Vermont had been magical. “We’re all going through the same struggle of making it, of playing professional basketball for a living,” John said. “As cutthroat as that world is, it didn’t feel that way. Coach Voigt did a wonderful job of balancing family with competitiveness. At the end of the day the consensus was we wanted to win, and I’m going to do my best to take you out of that spot because that will help us win.”
The Circle had a lot to do with delivering everyone to that place. “After the games, instead of a coach being the guy, what’s better than hearing, positive or negative, from your teammate, your brother?” John explained. “It makes you grow up in a way. And if I’m going to tell my peer something about how he’s performing, I’m going to have to step my own game up. So it’s very beneficial to a guy to hear something from a teammate or a friend, and equally beneficial or even more so to be the person who steps forward and says it.”
Will was soon named ABA Coach of the Year. The Vermont town meeting had done right by us: The fans had chosen Will, who had in turn, like a selectman, chosen the men he would lead. As I told the crowd at the championship potluck, “Is democracy the greatest form of government or what?”
Soon the fire marshal would summon Mike Healey to a meeting and, with photos from inside the Aud the night we won the title, make his case. “There were,” he told Mike gravely, “at least 1,800 people in the building.”
Mike had the perfect response. “Yeah,” he said. “And it was awesome!”
When our investors assembled for the annual meeting of Bump in the Road Enterprises LLC, I offered to order a championship ring for every one of them, as long as they paid for it. I pledged that we’d do all we could to leverage the artistic success of Year One into sponsorship sales for Year Two. And, after a hard swallow, knowing we still owed Will his $20,000 bonus, I showed them the source of my developing ulcer.
We had nothing in the bank. Nothing.
At the league meeting that June, Joe peddled a new promise: Within three seasons revenue sharing would cover every team’s operating costs. He also announced that the ABA would be going public later that year, in an offering to be led by the guy who used to be married to the actress who played Meadow on The Sopranos. Lucky us: As owners, we had the privilege to get in on the ground floor.
In Vermont, we had more urgent purposes to dedicate any spare capital. By screening a highlight reel, we excited enough businesses to collect $280,000 in sponsorships by the time our second season tipped off. Leading the way was the Vermont State Employees Credit Union, which ponied up $50,000 of support over two years. VSECU even offered customers a special Bump certificate of deposit, whose interest rate “Bump-ed up” a tenth of a point with every victory.
Even so, we remained far from breaking even. The late Winston Lee, a Chinese-American businessman who owned the ABA’s Beijing Aoshen team, had figured it out, and kept many of us trying and hoping. As a condition of granting Joe Newman the right to use the old ABA marks, the NBA barred the new ABA from playing any games in China, territory on which David Stern had his own designs. So Lee based his team in Singapore, and every few weeks picked up the tab to fly some ABA team over for a couple games, beaming each back to China on one of his networks. The gym essentially served as a TV studio, with each game featuring a storyline tailored to Chinese viewers—Ao-Shen, a mainstay of the national league and representative of the capital, taking on some random band of villainous Americans.
Stateside, Joe continued to pass out market rights left and right. Two newcomers to our division, the Corning (N.Y.) Bulldogs and Syracuse Bullies, lasted only weeks. In some large markets, like greater Chicago, Joe actually chartered more than one team. The ABA was a weed of growth, death and regeneration. Our radio color man, Joe Salerno, nailed it one night during the pregame show while rounding up action elsewhere in the league. It was a soundbite worthy of the ABA’s tombstone, if the league were actually capable of dying. “What can you say about a league,” he said, “where Manchester is in Singapore to face Beijing, and Chicago at Chicago can’t get played?”
In Season Two for the new year’s first weekend matinee in Burlington, we vowed to make the moment count. We arranged to bring in our archrival, the Manchester (N.H.) Millrats, and sent word to local leagues and rec departments that any kid 14 or under wearing a basketball jersey would get in for half-price. We correctly figured that each would have to bring along a mom or dad who’d pay full freight, for we drew our biggest Burlington crowd of the season—1,100, many of them kids, including 80 from a middle school in Richmond, Vt.
The first worrisome sign came just after tipoff. No one in the officiating crew had worked a Vermont-Manchester game before, and the refs clearly didn’t understand the importance of sending an early signal to deter extracurriculars. By halftime two scuffles had broken out. Finally, as we held a decisive lead in the final minute, a Millrat landed a sucker punch at the back of the head of our center, Erik Nelson. Before players from emptying benches could make more mischief, the officials declared the game over and us the winner, even though 37 seconds remained.
It was a hollow victory. But we had one more Burlington promotion in store: a movie tie-in with the soon-to-be-released Will Ferrell vehicle Semi-Pro. The film featured a fictitious team called the Flint Tropics, whose players wore bountiful Afros and played with a red, white and blue ball. Try as I did, there was no luring Ferrell himself to the game, much less get him to suit up as a 110% Community All-Star. But a former UVM player had served as an extra in the film, and he was ready to fly in from California to do guest-player honors. We readied a deal with a local theatre to offer reduced admission to anyone with a Frost Heaves ticket stub. That’s when I got a call from Mike Healey.
“Have you seen the trailer?” Mike asked.
I hadn’t seen the trailer.
“You’d better watch the trailer.”
I agreed to watch the trailer.
There, in the trailer, was Will Ferrell, turning twitchily from side to side as a fight breaks out, saying, “Somebody hit somebody!”
After The Brawl at Memorial, we just couldn’t do it.
In the meantime we had again racked up the best record in the league. No team besides the dreaded Millrats had been able to beat us. But there would be no tucking into home cooking during the playoffs again, because Quebec City had stepped forward to host the ABA’s Elite Eight.
We beat the San Francisco Rumble in the quarterfinals and, waiting for our semifinal, watched the San Diego Wildcats build a 25-point lead over Manchester, then hold on to win in overtime and bounce the ’Rats from our path. But we needed a break like that. Having beaten the Texas Tycoons to earn the other spot in the final, we holed up in the locker room before the title game, counting our casualties. Issa lay supine on the floor, his back an irredeemable mess. Brett Gravitt, our valiant swingman from South Alabama, was on crutches. J.B. and yet another former Hawk, Dwayne Lee, the point guard who had played for Hall of Fame coach Bob Hurley at St. Anthony’s High of Jersey City, sat in street clothes. And we had long since lost Terrance Green, a rugged guard from the University of Nevada, to a knee injury.
How, then, did we beat San Diego for our second title? The 87-84 victory was down to many little things—Issa’s inspirational first-quarter cameo; the inside presence of Dokun Akingbade, a 6'9" center from George Washington; and closeout plays in the final minutes by a couple of holdovers from our first season, Burks and Austin, as well as Dwuan Rice, a 5’11” point guard who had starred at Division II Cal State-Bakersfield.
We finished with a better record, 37-4, than the year before, but it all seemed like much more of a struggle. And there was nothing like having to find thousands more in bonus money, for players and coaches alike, to flatten the bubbles in the champagne.
Although we had never cancelled a home game in two seasons, we experienced too many close calls. We knew that Joe’s promises of revenue sharing and a fully honored schedule would never come to pass. After bolting before the playoffs the previous season, Rochester had led the founding of the smaller, Northeast-focused Premier Basketball League. So with Quebec City, Manchester and Halifax we decided to join the PBL, which in turn agreed to waive entry fees, cover our travel costs for the first season, and thoroughly vet any new ownership group. The PBL trafficked in its own pie-in-the-sky: At one owners’ meeting we were told we’d all get rich as millions of basketball-loving Chinese watched Webcasts of PBL games. But in exchange for the security of knowing that opponents would show up, I was prepared to put up with a certain amount of hot air.
Then, in September 2008, just as we tried to sell sponsorships and season tickets, the economy melted down. My dream had always been to replicate the Green Bay Packers model of community ownership, much the same way two Vermont businesses, Ben & Jerry’s and the Mad River Glen ski area, had used crowdsourced capital to become brands with grassroots appeal. But to do that we first had to take the team to a stable place, and we weren’t yet anywhere close. We had tapped out local sources of investment, to say nothing of what Vanessa and I could shovel into the breach. I was still team president, but before Season Two I had yielded G.M. duties to Mike Healey and returned regularly to the pages of SI. At the conclusion of Season Three, I stepped away from the team entirely.
As Vanessa and I looked back, the adventure already had a surreal, did-that-really-happen quality. In branding and pure basketball terms, the Frost Heaves had been a massive success. We had hosted the equivalent of 18 parties a year for 1,000 or more people a pop, and fed, lodged and paid the entertainment, and done it all with two full-time paid staff and, otherwise, part-timers, contractors, interns and volunteers.
But as a business, ours had been a futile effort to get multiple tumblers to spin into place at once. That initial season we had the buzz, the gate and the merchandise sales, but almost no sponsorship. For Year Two we found sponsors, but as the novelty wore off the first three things began to stall out. By Year Three we frantically tried reducing expenses, but couldn’t cut our way to sustainability in the midst of the Great Recession. In the end we were closely tied to the very thing we had hoped to be, Main Street Vermont—but when the mom-and-pop businesses wobbled, we did too.
First Barre mayor Thom Lauzon and then G.M. Mike Healey saw the team through Season Three. Finally, in a gesture that contained the germ of my Green Bay fantasy, a core group of devoted Bump in the Road Club members banded together to start a fourth season, with the entire operation based in Barre. But dedicated as those new owners were, there simply weren’t enough of them, and they couldn’t scare up broad enough support, to sustain the team past January. The Frost Heaves joined the roll call of minor-league basketball teams to start but not finish a season.
If anyone from our organization were to have a shot at The Show, it wouldn’t be a player, but our coach. With that second title Will had again been named ABA Coach of the Year, and after he led us to the PBL playoffs in Season Three, he was hired by the Bakersfield (Calif.) Jam of the NBA’s D-League. He left there in 2014 and now coaches the Shanxi Dragons in China.
The Jam were owned by Stan Ellis, an engineer, inventor and math whiz who had made a fortune as an energy entrepreneur. But for all his smarts, Ellis had found profits even more elusive than we had. Between 2006 and ’09, spending $7,500 per date to play in the 10,000-seat Rabobank Arena in front of perhaps 1,000 fans, the Jam lost nearly a million dollars each year. Only a few months before hiring Will, Ellis had actually shut the Jam down.
But D-League executives, desperate to keep Bakersfield in a division near franchises in L.A. and Idaho, appealed to Ellis and his business partner, David Higdon, to reconsider. So Jam executives floated a counterproposal. The team had begun building a practice facility between the suburbs of Oildale and Fruitvale, names that tell you everything about where the region’s economic power lies. What if the Jam played there, turning home games into a high-end networking experience for Bakersfield’s oil-and-ag elite? Without any real choice, the D-League office gave Ellis and Higdon its O.K., and the Jam had new life.
In December 2013, as Will began his fifth season in Bakersfield, I went out to see for myself what a boutique minor-league operation looks like. Season-ticket holders sat courtside, at round tables bedecked with white linens. They could cut a deal in the cigar room commanding one end of the floor, and lubricate a client at the bar overlooking the other, and evacuate all those libations in bathrooms with buffed stone and gleaming fixtures. Capacity at the Dignity Health Events Center maxed out at 550, but no one could get in the building without dropping at least $1,500 per seat per season, and the cost of each of four “lofted executive suites” over one baseline ran $40,000 a year. Yet the Jam enjoyed the highest season-ticket retention rate in the league. At a typical game you might find a pistachio baron; a grape grower; or the CEO of Grimmway Farms, which ships more carrots than anyone in the U.S. “About $50 billion in the local economy can be traced to our little building,” Higdon told me.
The previous season the team had still lost money, but only $50,000, much of it from having to make an extra trip back east to make up a game lost to a snowstorm. That was a far cry from a million a year. With the move from downtown, Higdon said, “We reduced our expenses by $500,000. We were no longer buying ads or paying rent. We needed fewer staff. This was luck, not a grand vision at all. It’s funny: We couldn’t give away tickets to a Jam game downtown, but here we can sell a $40,000 suite.”
In Vermont we had our Jack Frost Seats, donated for deserving kids. In Bakersfield, everyone got the full Nicholson treatment—because by local standards they were all Nicholsons.
Indeed, the Jam were the anti-Frost Heaves, a place to hear the clinking of cocktail glasses instead of the tintinnabulation of cowbells. But to reach profitability in minor-league basketball was such a strenuous lift, I couldn’t help but admire an organization that came so close. Even if, to me, the Jam’s success was a kind of cosmic joke at the expense of our vow to accommodate a family of four for 30 bucks.
John Bryant, who was Will’s top assistant and is now with the D-League’s Delaware 87ers, provided at least some consolation when he filled me in on the Jam’s mascot, a kit fox named Swish. “I can’t describe it, but I see them running around at night,” J.B. said. “They almost have a deer look. If you’re driving they’ll stop and look at you and then scurry away.
“Bump was way better.”
Something else had been better in Vermont: the ability to conduct basketball affairs with free rein. In the D-League, a parent club can raid its affiliate’s roster at any time, and assignees from the NBA come with a tag that reads, “Play me.” As a result, Will hadn’t been able to implement anything like the Circle. “The challenge in the D-League is all the turnover and the different agendas,” he told me. “It’s just so much harder to create that atmosphere.”
While I was in “the Bake,” Will, John and I reminisced about the three years we had shared, telling stories and swapping updates. At Barre’s Thunder Road, Bump the Moose lived on as Speed Bump the Racing Moose, with the basketball on his head replaced by a pair of old-time motoring goggles. If you go to the “Vintage Teams” section at Prepsportswear.com, you can find Vermont Frost Heaves gear alongside that of the Seattle Rainiers, Bradenton Juice and Hollywood Stars. (“Vintage” sounds so much better than “defunct.”) As for the ABA, it was the same old, same old: As of February, I counted more than 60 teams on its Web site, but from our era only the San Francisco Rumble and Newark (now New Jersey) Express remained. Joe Newman retired as CEO last June and passed control to Ron Tilley, the co-owner of the Arizona Scorpions; the new CEO had already learned the art of the Pollyanna soundbite, pledging to The New York Times that he would “continue to develop one of the best leagues in the world.” Nice touch there with “continue.”
Conversation became difficult when we turned to J.B.’s old St. Joe’s teammate, Tyrone Barley. Since leaving us, he had played a season in New Zealand and, with his wife, Fran, and their daughters, settled in Collingdale, Penn., taking a job as a counselor at a residential facility for troubled youth. And he had run into trouble of his own.
Early on the morning of Feb. 20, 2013, in West Chester, Penn., he had used a gun to hold up three women. Soon he was leading police on a high-speed chase that ended with the cops cornering him in a parking lot, where they subdued him with a Taser. In the moments after his arrest, he pleaded with the officers to shoot him. He said his life was over; he spoke of gambling debts. Later, brought into a Chester County courtroom in leg irons, he told the judge, “No one deserves to have their lives threatened, and I did that.” He received a 10 to 20 year sentence that he began serving last year.
We knew Ty for having been a killer at the chessboard, as well as the player who had outwitted Chris Paul, and won us that Rochester game, in part by inventing an extralegal way to fleece a guy of the ball. That he had been drawn into gambling didn’t surprise me; if there were some angle to play, he could be counted on to find and deploy it. But he had also been a criminal justice major who wanted to become a correctional officer. I wondered if he had subconsciously chosen to hang out around that line between obedience and deviance so he could reconnoiter the borderlands—learn the rules in case he would someday need to break them.
Will told me about having to fine Barley heavily for breaking a team rule. But suspecting that Ty carried around a gunnysack of unresolved issues from his childhood, Will took a chance. During a session of the Circle he staged an intervention, offering to apply the amount of the fine to therapy. “You’re the smartest guy I’ve ever been around,” Will told him, the team hearing every word. “There must be something eating you up. I want to help you with this. I want to use this money to get you help, but you have to agree to it.”
Ty wanted no part of it, and the missed opportunity still haunted Will and John. “It was a ‘Circle moment,’” Will said. “The guys saw it. And look at where we are now. If he could have just extended his hand, do we avoid all this stuff?”
One day, four years after the team folded, I found myself back in central Vermont, chaperoning a field trip from our kids’ elementary school. We had taken the Ben & Jerry’s factory tour and, now, after surveying the quarries around Barre, deep and wide enough to supply rock for another 10,000 years, we made a pilgrimage to Hope Cemetery at the northeast end of town, where the most beautiful specimens of granite end up.
Walking the gravel paths that wind among the plots, in a quiet interrupted only by kids’ voices dying off in the distance, I found myself thinking back on the journey in which this town in these hills figured so centrally. The gravestones around me came from the same quarries that had built the Aud. Many of the names chiseled on them could be found on our season-ticket list: Comolli and Allen; Bellavance and Benoit; Cody and Fraser.
And it was then, there, that it came clear. Barns represented the quaint, whiskered, postcard Vermont. What we had done wasn’t at all about barns, much less animals in barns. It had been about people, and the forces that led them to want to fill up stone-and-brick buildings, especially in the winter.
Fired not by money, but by the American romance of a ball and a basket, young men, virtually all of them black, had come to Vermont from Alabama and Arkansas and Mississippi, and Newark and Baltimore and Jersey City, to see what they could achieve, individually and collectively, as free men and unified teammates. Vermonters, virtually all of them white, turned out to watch them try because, I think, they recognized what they and their forebears had dedicated their lives to—hard work in the service of a common goal, with their reward something more than just cash in their pockets.
Our players had been delighted to discover so many locals who wanted to acclaim them for what they earnestly wanted to do. Our fans had been equally pleased to see their love requited. At first blush those fans and players had nothing in common. And by the end we all realized that, in fact, they had so very much.