Larry Brodsky, the leading receiver of the USFL's Tampa Bay Bandits—the team that has promised to secede from the league on July 14 rather than play fall football in '86—thinks he has a handle on where he'll be next spring. "With Tel Aviv."
Zenon Andrusyshyn, the 37-year-old, German-born, Canadian-reared kicker for the Bandits, has a line on a team in the hinterlands. "Pencil me in with the Antarctic Stiffs," says the Z-Man. "They're in a winter league. They play year round."
Defensive end James Ramey will be packing for a much longer trip. "I'll be playing in the semidusk region of the planet Nemular," says Ramey, who has traipsed through the Florida bush in the middle of the night, a wire coat hanger attached to his head, searching for UFOs and listening to "communiqués" from other beings. "Nemular is near Zorn, on the other side of the moon. It's a lot cooler there than it is in Tampa. Besides, they play football without clothes on."
Pretending they'll be banished to outpost franchises in farfetched leagues is one of the ways the Tampa Bay Bandits stay sane these days. Ever since April 29, when John F. Bassett, the team's principal owner, said he would strike out on his own and prove that spring football can work, the Bandits have been unsure about the future. Here they are, members of the most successful and best-marketed franchise in the USFL—on Sunday they were tied for second in the Eastern Conference with a 9-5 record and averaging 32,000 fans per home game—and suddenly they feel as if they're wearing black hats, that they're outcasts, rebels, for their owner's cause. Marcus Quinn, the free safety, says, "We call Mr. Bassett 'the Al Davis of the USFL.' "
June 2, 1985
Bassett claims he's taking his team elsewhere, to a place where they play spring football. Where that is, only Bassett knows. He talks about "the new league," a yet-to-be-named, still-in-the-conceptual-stage, made-for-TV, worldwide sports and entertainment extravaganza. But to get a peek at the papers for Bassett's "new league," you've got to sign a confidentiality agreement—in triplicate. He says he has commitments from potential owners in 10 American cities. But he won't name the cities. He has no commitments from sponsors, and although sources say Bassett has shown his plan to ABC, no network has agreed to come aboard.
"To the outsider, this all looks like a lot of trauma," says Andrusyshyn, playing the part of team philosopher. "But we know we will determine our own fates. We've got to live for today, because who knows about tomorrow? Goals should be set in concrete, but plans should be sketched in sand."
Bassett remembers the day eight years ago when he promised his wife, Susan, that he wouldn't get involved in another sports venture. He had just survived a bout with skin cancer, and he had decided to mellow out—grow a beard, spend more time with his family, guide the tennis career of his daughter Carling and, above all else, get out of pro football.
He had grown up in Toronto, in a fiercely driven family that many consider to be Canada's Rockefellers. The family had made its fortune in newspapers, radio and television. John W., Bassett's father, was part owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1961 to '69, and until 1974 was the principal owner of the city's CFL Argonauts. John F, a member of the Canadian Davis Cup team in 1959, shared his father's taste for pro sports franchises; he served on the board of the Argonauts for several years and then was the owner of both the Birmingham Bulls of the WHA (1973-79) and the Memphis Southmen of the WFL (1973-75).
But when he made that promise to Susan, Bassett didn't figure the USFL would come along in 1982. "I wasn't even going to get involved," he says. "But I remember when I first met the other owners. I looked around the table. In the WFL, I was the richest owner, but in this league, I was among the poorest. That made me feel good, confident. I thought they'd really be astute, budget-conscious guys."
Bassett couldn't resist. He loved the USFL's concept: spring football on a shoestring budget. Pay big bucks to a superstar or two; pay the rest about $30,000 each. He wooed the Tampa fans. He was the People's Owner, and his Bandits were the People's Team. He created Bandit Ball—a wide-open, adventurous game on the field, complete with crazy marketing schemes off it. He burned mortgages. He gave away cars and a $1 million annuity. He kept his payroll in the bottom half of the league, and he stayed within his budget.
But there was trouble right from the start. "Everybody else was spending his way out of the spring," he says. "You could just see the league coming apart. Guys would lose three games, and they'd go out and buy the Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive line. They'd win the championship, but they'd lose $10 million!"
Looking back now, Bassett says those actions shouldn't have surprised him. "I hadn't realized that these guys all started out in their minds as winners," he says. "They hadn't ever lost. Not until they got involved in sports. Every Sunday afternoon, there's a winner and a loser. And they didn't like to lose.
"At one of our meetings, before the thing even started, each owner was asked to write down what he thought his team's season-ticket base would be. I wrote 20,000. And that's what I had the first year. Almost everybody else wrote 30,000, 40,000. They were living in a dream world. They thought just because they had a football team, everybody would run out and support it.
"They spent too much on every conceivable budget item. People didn't act in a professional, businesslike manner, except our team. The original concept worked; it was the people who screwed it up. Now, instead of making money, we're losing our asses. Our payroll is 2½ times what it's supposed to be. We never budgeted $800,000 this year to help save the L.A. franchise.
"It's very difficult to keep your enthusiasm up in the face of horrible decisions. And some of them I've made, I'll admit that. We never should have given Eddie Einhorn [the owner of Chicago's USFL franchise, which is inactive this season] the chance to negotiate with television for a fall league. But at the time, we were at the end of our second year, and we had lost $100 million. We were forced to go to the fall. When he couldn't negotiate a TV contract within 60 or 90 days, we should have either gone out of business or voted to go back to the spring."
Even now, as he sits in a sea of red ink, Bassett doesn't want to give up on spring football. But he says it may be time to give up on the USFL. "I may say the hell with it and fold [the Bandits]," he says. "I'm the only one left from Day One. We're the only team in the same town, with the same owner and coach."
The headaches started last November. "I thought it was all caused by the frustrations I was having with the USFL," Bassett says. "I went home [to Toronto] for a full physical. They gave me the works. No problem, said I could play for my team. Then, the doc said he'd also give me a CAT scan."
On Feb. 23, the day the Bandits opened their season against Orlando, a Dr. Richardson of Toronto called Susan to his office and told her the results of the CAT scan: two spots on the brain. "One was deep and one wasn't," Bassett says. Susan waited until the game was over, then phoned her husband in Tampa. He flew home immediately to Toronto and got the bad news: two brain tumors. He underwent radiation treatments once a week for three weeks, 4½ minutes on each tumor. (He will soon find out if an operation is necessary, or possible.)
"This time, it's more difficult for me to deal with," he says, comparing this to his bouts with skin cancer in 1976 and '77. "I take the attitude that the most important thing is how you deal with pressure and stress. And how you deal with life. I said to myself, 'Look, there's nothing you can do about this.' So I'm going to will it out. I'm going to work hard. I'm going to do the best I can do.
"You can't see yourself going through this. It's really tough to think it's happening to you. It's like, when your mother's dying, you say, 'That can't be my mother dying. It's somebody else's mother.' The indecision is so hard. I look out at the tennis court now, and it's really tough not to know for sure that I'll be watching Carling play tennis five years from now."
Bassett returned to Tampa for the March 16 game against Arizona. The Bandits beat the Outlaws 23-13, and coach Steve Spurrier presented the owner with the game ball. "He was so moved," Spurrier says. "He told me that was the first game ball he'd ever gotten." Two weeks later Andrusyshyn told his teammates about Bassett's health. "We came together that day for a common goal: to achieve our team's destiny, to win the championship for Mr. Bassett," Z-Man says.
Since then, the Bandits have gone 6-4, good enough to keep them near the top of the Eastern Conference. One reason for Tampa Bay's success is the John Reaves to Brodsky connection, one of the league's most productive. Reaves, 35, has been unflappable; he's currently second in the USFL to Houston's Jim Kelly in total yards passing (251 completions in 451 attempts for 3,473 yards and 21 TDs). But the Bandits' biggest surprise has been Brodsky, 25, a slow-footed, ex-Miami Hurricane receiver, who had been cut by one NFL team (Kansas City) and one USFL team (Houston) before joining the Bandits last year in a backup role. On Sunday, Reaves found Brodsky only three times for 47 yards as the Bandits lost to the Generals 28-24, but with four games left, their championship cause is still alive.
In the meantime, Bassett had come up with a cause of his own: He had to save the USFL; he had to keep it in the spring. "I had to keep busy. I had no interest in lying in bed, reading Tolstoy," Bassett says. He began work on his "new league" and began making overtures to at least eight of the top college players in the NFL draft. He drew up a 60-page prospectus and began flying around the country or inviting USFL owners to Tampa to explain how the plan would work. He believed he had "at least 10" USFL franchises ready to join the new league, but on April 29, at the USFL owners' meeting in Teaneck, N.J., his plan was resoundingly defeated.
"I came up with a program to guarantee them at least a $1.5 million profit or a maximum of $9 million," Bassett says. "It would be properly marketed, properly managed. It wouldn't allow any of the excesses the original concept did. All the power would come from the league office, not from the individual teams. They didn't like it because it gave me control of the league."
Bassett then announced he would secede from the USFL. The USFL claims the Bandits' players are bound to the league—and not to Bassett—and that there is no way they can secede with their owner. Bassett is trying to solve that legal problem now. He also has put negotiations with college players on hold. "It's premature to talk about the new league," he says. "I'm so tired now." However, several Bandits say they would like to find a way to go with him, if he secedes.
Says Brodsky, "The players don't feel stabbed. He's not taking anything away from us. He's doing this for us. We wanted to play in the spring, for him, in the USFL. He's doing this for the fans, the Bandits and the league. We believe in him."
Becoming rebels with a cause, the Bandits say, has made them feel unbeatable. Says Quinn, "It seems like we're on a mission. It doesn't matter who's in our way. We want to prove that Mr. Bassett's right."
Andrusyshyn remains, as always, philosophical. Says the Z-Man, "We were a group of individuals who were brought together this season under a lot of pressure. There was a lot of turmoil for a moment; then we banded together like a chain, and we became very strong.
"We look at this moment and realize it will never repeat itself. This could be it. There may never be another Bandits. So we're going to make sure we're the best we can be."