Have I Got A League For You! New CBA owner Isiah Thomas is selling a high-scoring, high-quality brand of minor league hoops, but is NBA commissioner David Stern buying?

February 07, 2000

In the Old Testament, the Book of Isaiah is filled with
messianic hope. In the front offices of the Continental
Basketball Association, the book on Isiah Lord Thomas III is
that he's something of a savior too. How does the former Detroit
Piston account for his evolution from point god to the Profit
Isiah? "Basically, you become a brand," he explains. "Isiah is a
brand. It's a brand that's accepted internationally. But what
the brand really [represents] is credibility, trust, loyalty.
Now, if you can put a credible business behind that...." The
brand flashes his famous smile. It's still bright enough to
blind a ref.

In October the brand bought the CBA, paying $10 million to take
over a league in which seven franchises had folded over the
previous two years. At first glance it didn't look like Thomas's
best move: Last season the nine surviving franchises together
lost more than $2 million. Although attendance was growing--the
average draw of 3,809 per game was a league record--the figure
concealed a more dire situation. "Isiah saved the league," an
assistant at one of the most financially troubled teams says.
"Three teams stayed in business last year just because of rumors
of this deal. If they had folded, no more CBA. You can't play
with six."

Taking over failing businesses is nothing new for Thomas. In
1992, while still a Piston, he and a partner bought the bankrupt
American Speedy Printing Centers. Today it's the fourth-largest
quick-printing chain in the U.S. "Turnarounds are very
interesting," says Rick Inatome, a business associate of
Thomas's. "Momentum is everything, and Isiah is a mastermind of
momentum."

Just as he did with Speedy Printing, the CBA's new owner
immediately started calling on troubled franchises. He huddled
with the front-office staffs of the Connecticut Pride and the
Quad City Thunder, and he reassured corporate sponsors of the
Rockford Lightning and the Yakima Sun Kings. "One thing Isiah
has learned is, there are many forms of capital in business,"
Inatome says. "Both of these deals required social and charisma
capital."

During a stop in South Dakota in November, Thomas projected his
star wattage and major league glamour on Terry Schulte's Chevy
dealership, which sponsors the Sioux Falls Skyforce. "That's a
sharp outfit you got on there," Schulte said, noting Thomas's
subtle country-squire ensemble: a herringbone jacket of russet
tweed over a five-button caramel-colored waistcoat. "You didn't
buy that in Sioux Falls, I can tell you that."

Inatome is right: Already the momentum seems to have shifted.
After half a season under new leadership, CBA attendance and
corporate sponsorship revenue were up 10% over last season.
Thomas predicts that the league will even show a modest profit
this year. He says that more than 40 cities have contacted him
about joining (in many cases, rejoining) the league, and he can
now talk seriously about creating regional rivalries, with
Bridgeport (Conn.) and Springfield (Mass.) to join Hartford in
New England; Detroit, Flint (Mich.) and Gary (Ind.) to add a few
more notches in the Rust Belt; Anaheim, Fresno and Pomona,
Calif., along with Everett and Spokane, Wash., to hang on the
Pacific rims along with the Sun Kings. Even Wilkes-Barre--whose
Barons were one of the original teams in the league when it
began business 54 years ago as the Eastern Pennsylvania
Basketball League--is ready to lace up the Chucks and try it
again.

Thomas is not without competition in this vast expanse of what
he calls "emerging domestic sports markets." If you're the type
who likes a nice league prospectus for bedtime reading, you
already know about the IBL (the brazenly ambitious International
Basketball League) and two leagues still on the drawing board:
the CPBL (the delightfully oxymoronic Collegiate Professional
Basketball League) and the NRL (the National Rookie League, with
its players' curiously short shelf life). The IBL, which has
been running and gunning in eight cities since November, pays an
average $50,000 per player over a five-month season--roughly
twice the CBA average--although IBL contracts forbid players to
accept NBA call-ups. The CPBL and the NRL hope to tip off in the
next two seasons.

NBA commissioner David Stern has added his voice to this chorus,
going on record about his league's need for its own minor
league, one he hopes to have in place within the next 18 months.
What could this mean for the CBA, which has been the NBA's
affiliated developmental league for 20 years, operating under an
agreement that covers player call-ups, referee training and
substantial subsidies to the CBA league office? If Stern should
form his own minor league, the effect on Thomas's league would
be disastrous: Few players would play for CBA pay without the
prospect of reaching the NBA. Perhaps in an effort to protect
his investment against such a blow, Thomas has gathered a lineup
of NBA stars--Glen Rice, Jalen Rose, Damon Stoudamire and Chris
Webber, among others--interested in buying shares (which would
never exceed 49%) of expansion franchises. Such sales would
bring the league (and Thomas) short-term capital and, perhaps, a
crossover following of big-city fans.

Stern is noncommittal about the NBA's plans. "We continue to
analyze the best minor league relationship for the NBA, and that
may or may not be the CBA," he said in November, calling
attention to the CBA's recent history of financial instability.
But, Stern acknowledged, "because Isiah seems to be earnest and
active and brings a good deal [to the table] as a manager," the
NBA renewed its affiliation contract with the CBA through this
season.

At week's end business between the two leagues was being
conducted as usual: Swingman Mark Davis jumped from the La
Crosse (Wis.) Bobcats to the Golden State Warriors on Jan. 18.
But the one-year term looks a lot like a tryout for Thomas, and
Stern has mused publicly--perhaps as a negotiating tactic--about
establishing an NBA minor league in Europe. There's a sense of
deja vu to this game of brinkmanship: Thomas was head of the NBA
players' association during collective bargaining with the
owners in the early '90s. He and Stern speak highly of each
other's skills at the negotiating table. In fact, Thomas's
acquisition of an entire league can be seen as a sort of homage
to Stern. The new CBA mimics the business model that Stern
established for the WNBA, replacing the old model (a
confederation of separately owned franchises) with a single
entity responsible for all league decisions.

Do these two entities, the NBA and the CBA, need each other?
Logic suggests that they do, but the two men don't. "The exact
form that an NBA developmental league would take is still open
to question," Stern says. Thomas quixotically claims that the
CBA is a "business opportunity that stands alone. If the NBA
participates, that's great. If it doesn't, it's still great. If
the NBA decided one day to say, 'We're not going to take players
from the CBA,' I think small-town America would still want
basketball."

Outside the offices of the Sioux Falls Skyforce, at the Western
Mall, there's always a fresh pot of coffee for the exercisers.
"We don't open the door too fast," general manager John Etrheim
says, "or we might clip one." On Nov. 1 at noon, a few hours
before Thomas's press conference to reaffirm the CBA's
commitment to Sioux Falls, the mall was deserted except for
pairs of senior citizens walking and chatting amiably. When
Thomas and his entourage arrived, the exercisers passed him
without a glance.

The Skyforce is, in many ways, a model CBA franchise.
Season-ticket sales are strong (3,600), and the team led the
league in attendance the past two seasons and at week's end was
averaging a league-best 5,120 per game. The franchise has the
kind of corporate fingerprint that Thomas likes: Local
companies, such as J&L Harley, and national concerns with branch
offices in Sioux Falls, such as Gateway computers, fill the 23
skyboxes and the courtside seats at the 29-year-old arena. And
fans come a long way for the games: Mike Luken and his
17-year-old daughter, Jennifer, drive 100 miles each way from
Watertown, S.Dak. They get the chance to talk on the road.
They've barely missed a game in the seven years since Jennifer's
mother died.

Skyforce CEO Tommy Smith, who's got the boots and the big ring
and the bonhomie that go with his Nashville accent, explains the
team's philosophy. He doesn't care that it would pass for heresy
in the world of big-time sports. "We don't want the numbers on
the scoreboard to determine whether you're having a good time,"
he says. "I don't believe that winning is the only thing that
determines your happiness." Apparently Thomas doesn't think this
is heresy; in December he appointed Smith general manager of the
Quad City team as well.

When Thomas walked in, the Skyforce staff members--including
John Hovda, who dons a woolly wolf suit to become Thunder, the
team mascot (a big draw for the 10-and-under crowd)--were
noticeably nervous. But once it became clear that Thomas hadn't
flown halfway across the country to fire them all, they relaxed
and asked the sort of questions you put to a new boss: health
insurance, 401(k)s. Thomas went around the table, asking them to
tell him their names and something about themselves. "I had
pictures of you on the wall when I was in school," said Amy
Meyer, the office manager, blushing.

Jeremy DeCurtins, an operations assistant, said he was a wide
receiver on the University of Sioux Falls football team that won
an NAIA Division II national championship a few years earlier.
Thomas extended his hand. "Hello, champion," he said. "You know,
there aren't too many of us around."

Isiah Thomas often speaks in the first person plural. Sometimes
it's the royal we, and why not? How many kings had better days
than Thomas did? (O.K., sure, but against the Lakers?) Sometimes
it's the corporate we: Thomas as the new voice of the CBA or as
the brains of Isiah Investments. But usually he seems to be
invoking an actual community, one to which he belongs and on
whose behalf he has chosen to speak, vividly, as if the entire
collective were there with him, or at least on hold on his cell
phone: the Pistons, past, present, and future; former Indiana
players who still jump at the voice of Bobby Knight; all world
champions who currently walk the earth. Sometimes, Thomas's we
is an irresistible bit of flattery; he invariably explains the
new CBA rule forbidding the double team by saying, "So what
we're going to do is bring the game back to the grassroots
level, where it used to be when we would go to the park, and it
was five-on-five, me against you." The room grows silent for a
moment as everybody in earshot who has ever touched a basketball
searches his muscle memory for one single shot to put up in that
ideal park Thomas has just conjured.

His sense of community is infectious. But businessmen who find
themselves across the table from the new owner of the CBA should
ignore the cherubic smile and the big ol' eyebrows like those of
the Wise Potato Chips owl. Concentrate instead on the scar over
the left eye. During a 1991 game in Utah in which Thomas was
scoring at will, the Jazz's Karl Malone planted an elbow there,
knocking Thomas out and opening a gash that required 40
stitches. Thomas took his stitches and returned to the game.
That's the man you can't see under the makeup and the bright
lights of NBC studios.

"Isiah is not a basketball player who went into business--he's a
businessman who happened to play basketball," says Bruce Stern
(no relation to David), the founder of the National Rookie
League. Bill Ilett, a former owner of the CBA's Idaho Stampede,
sat with his fellow owners during negotiations that preceded the
mass sale to Thomas, and he reports, "Isiah didn't need his
lawyers."

Thomas is going to need that savvy if he hopes to stabilize a
foundering minor league and make it profitable. "You want to
know a sure way to make a small fortune?" Charley Rosen, former
coach of the defunct Savannah Spirits, asks. "Start with a big
fortune and buy a CBA team."

But, as always, Thomas refuses to think small. "We want to be
the Microsoft of basketball," he says, and he doesn't seem to be
kidding. He envisions as many as 300 teams, in what he calls
"tier 2, tier 3 cities." He hopes to own arenas in all of them,
simulcasting games on each team's Web site. (Isiah Investments
also runs Enlighten Sports, which produces Webcasts for the
basketball and football teams at Georgia and Michigan.) National
corporate sponsors could reach grassroots America two ways, with
ads at the arenas and on the Web. The CBA and the NCAA are close
to an agreement on a series of exhibition games before the start
of next season. Thomas has also organized a tour this summer
during which CBA players will face club teams in China, Japan,
Lebanon, the Philippines and South Korea. "We'll do a WCBA,
too," he says.

One early reason to believe in Thomas is that so far, he has
gotten the basketball end of it right. Immediately after buying
the CBA, he announced rules changes. This would be a
suit-and-tie league; no surprise there, given Thomas's snappy
dress. The playoffs would be single-elimination, like the NCAA
tournament, with the championship game to be played on (how's
this for a made-for-TV decision?) the Sunday of Final Four
weekend. Best of all, from the players' point of view, is the
new prohibition against double-teaming until the last five
minutes of games. Now guys who actually can go for 60 have the
chance to, and NBA scouts won't find that they've driven all the
way to Schenectady only to watch the best scorer on the floor
passing out of the double all night.

Thomas seems to be taking the CBA's role as a developmental
league seriously. He and his head of basketball operations,
Brendan Suhr, the former Pistons assistant (and, until October,
owner of the Grand Rapids Hoops), have instituted a training
program that includes daily weightlifting, cardiovascular
workouts, and drills to improve ball handling, post moves and
movement without the ball. Players have to shoot 3,000 shots a
week, or 500 a day (100 from each of five spots on the floor).
"Our primary goal is to develop players," Suhr says. He and
Thomas refer to their league as the "Harvard of basketball
education."

John Starks of the NBA Warriors, a onetime Cedar Rapids Silver
Bullet, attests to the college atmosphere of the CBA: the
rabidness of the fans, the camaraderie on the teams and the
general lack of cash. "You have to stick together," says Starks.
"On the road you try to find buffets, to stretch the dollar."
Scoring in CBA games may have risen under Thomas, but so far
salaries haven't--the storied hunger of the CBA player is,
apparently, not just metaphorical. "Go ask George Karl or Flip
Saunders," Suhr says, referring to two former CBA coaches now
dealing with NBA egos (in Milwaukee and Minnesota,
respectively). "Some nights I bet they wish they were here,
because they know the players play hard."

The rule against double-teaming certainly hasn't hurt. Halfway
through the five-month season, more than two thirds of CBA teams
are averaging more than 100 points a game. In a fast-paced,
up-and-down game at the Hartford Armory on Dec. 4, the Pride
exploded for 122 points against the Bobcats, and won by only
seven. Boston Celtics head scout Leo Papile, who watched from
the sidelines that day, may have groused about the rule against
double-teaming--"If a player can't spin the double," he says,
"he's going to end up right back on the bus"--but the guys on
the court love it.

Thomas watched the CBA All-Star Game from the Jack Nicholson
seats in the Sioux Falls arena on Jan. 18. He and Suhr drove to
the game in a new Caddy that disappeared from its parking spot
while they were inside. (Schulte, the auto dealer, sold it to a
couple who wanted to buy a car that had carried the NBA legend.)
Ten days later Thomas spoke about the difference between
All-Star games at the NBA and the minor league level, but he
might as well have been talking about his own experience as the
new head of the CBA. "In the NBA the All-Star Game is always a
showcase of talent, with great plays and slam dunks from the
best of the best, but there's no sense of urgency," he said.
"Here, where you have to compete to impress the scouts, every
play is a life-and-death situation. It makes it a great game to
watch."

The $10 million question is, Will David Stern keep tuning in?

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JEFFREY LOWE COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO IT'S NO PARTY The CBA All-Star Game, unlike its NBA counterpart, was a no-holds-barred tryout before big league scouts. COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN POINT MAN Thomas trusts that his toughness and vision will make him as big a winner in management as he was on the court. COLOR PHOTO: DAVID WALBERG THE LONG VIEW Thomas believes that even if the NBA turns its back on him, the CBA can thrive, but the chances of that are slim.

"Isiah saved the league," a CBA assistant says. "Three teams
stayed in business just because of rumors of this deal."

"Isiah is not a basketball player who went into business," says
Bruce Stern. "He's a businessman who played basketball."

"We want to be the Microsoft of basketball," Thomas says, and he
doesn't seem to be kidding. He envisions 300 teams.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)