Music To Their Ears After selling team owners on his plan to turn their league around, Isiah Thomas quickly led the CBA into bankruptcy

April 08, 2001

We are basically the league of dreams.
--ISIAH THOMAS, in a promotional tape for the CBA

Like a modern-day Music Man, he swept through river cities and
mid-major markets with a grand and glorious proposition. It was
the summer of 1999, and Isiah Thomas, dripping charm, unleashed a
polished sales pitch to the owners of the nine franchises in the
Continental Basketball Association, the NBA's de facto farm
system. Guided by what he called "a passion for grassroots
basketball," the former Detroit Pistons star proposed to purchase
the teams and incorporate them into a single entity. He promised
to use his charisma, his contacts and his cachet to transform the
league into what he called "the Microsoft of basketball."

Yet by February of this year, the CBA resembled many a dotcom:
bankrupt and defunct. Betraying both a colossal ego and delusions
of grandeur about the league's value and potential, Thomas, 39,
led the CBA, a going concern for more than half a century, into
ruin. When he had an opportunity to salvage the league--and save
himself millions in personal liability--by selling it to the NBA,
he gave in to hubris, avarice and bad advice and rebuffed the
offer. All that remains of the CBA is a K-2-sized mountain of
unpaid bills, nearly 4,000 creditors and a deep reservoir of
bitterness, most of it directed at Thomas. "The league was doing
fine before he got here," says Clay Moser, former president and
general manager of the Idaho Stampede and a onetime CBA regional
vice president. "In a matter of [18] months he ran it into the
ground." (After initially agreeing to an interview, Thomas
declined to speak with SI.)

Since its founding in 1946, the same year as the NBA's inception,
the CBA had survived persistent adversity and instability. From
the Puerto Rico Coquis to the Topeka (Kans.) Sizzlers to the
Rapid City (S.Dak.) Thrillers, some 100 franchises--nearly two
dozen in the '90s alone--came and went. Rosters were in constant
flux as players were summoned to the NBA on 10-day contracts or
wooed by that deep-pocketed team in the Philippines. The league
changed commissioners as often as some folks switch their
long-distance carriers. Though a few teams turned a profit, most
had six-figure losses each year.

That was all supposed to change under Thomas. His quixotic
business plan foresaw a future that included national sponsors,
webcasts of games, expansion to hundreds of teams
internationally, the sale of chunks of franchises to NBA stars
such as Chris Webber, and the landing of a big-time television
contract. Above all, his vision was to make the CBA an even more
direct pipeline to the NBA, using his connections to forge a
stronger alliance with the league and its commissioner, David
Stern. After seven months of tough negotiations, the CBA owners
agreed in September 1999 to sell their teams for a total of $9
million to IT Acquisitions, a corporation Thomas had set up for
the deal. Thomas paid half up front, and he personally guaranteed
the remaining $4.5 million, due over four years. "There was this
optimism because he was Isiah Thomas and he had access to
boardrooms that none of us did," says Gary Hunter, the CBA's
commissioner when Thomas made the deal. "He was going to take us
to a whole other level."

Unfortunately he did precisely that. While Thomas's mistakes cut
a wide swath, centralizing the league proved particularly
disastrous. When he took control from team owners and transferred
it to the CBA's Phoenix headquarters, he undermined long-standing
relations between teams and local businesses. What's more, for a
league in which team support was regional at best--how many people
outside central Washington follow the Yakima Sun Kings?--his quest
for national sponsors and TV coverage was fruitless. The lone
leaguewide television contract, signed with BET in 2000, was for
14 telecasts at a modest $20,000 per game. The two major
corporate sponsors Thomas enlisted? One was Rimrocka, a clothing
company that provided free warmups and uniforms. The other was
the fledgling shoe company N.E.X.T. Up, whose goods drew
complaints from players for their style and fit.

The league had always operated on a shoestring budget; its
largest single source of revenue was a $2.2 million fee it
collected from the NBA for providing a training ground for
referees and allowing the big league to plunder players such as
Mario Elie, Anthony Mason and John Starks. Thomas, however, spent
liberally. One of his first moves was hiring Don Welsh, a
longtime friend and former hotel executive, as league president.
Though Welsh had no background in sports, Thomas rewarded him
with a salary of $250,000, or roughly $100,000 more than his
predecessor's, plus a loan of $175,000 and a performance bonus.
Thomas installed eight vice presidents--only three based in cities
with a CBA franchise--at an average of $125,000. He also hired his
nephew Larvell Thomas as a sales rep for the Rock Island,
Ill.-based Quad City Thunder. Team employees say that Larvell
didn't show up regularly for work and that he once inquired about
including his girlfriend on the health plan. (SI's attempts to
locate him were unsuccessful.)

CBA sources also say that under Thomas, the league incurred
considerable new expenses, initially ponying up $30,000 a month
to the MWW Group, a public relations firm in East Rutherford,
N.J. Perhaps the most curious expenditure was paying Gallup
$409,000--roughly 10% of the league office's annual budget--to
commission a study "to assess the league's management culture and
help strengthen the brand." Pressed last year by team executives
about his runaway budget, Thomas smiled and told them that he had
to spend money to make money.

Other times, Thomas was less glib when his business acumen was
questioned. During a September 2000 conference call among team
executives and Thomas, Tommy Smith, then general manager and CEO
of the Sioux Falls (S.Dak.) Skyforce and a four-time CBA
Executive of the Year, expressed doubts about the owner's
commitment to the league. Echoing the sentiment of many, Smith
remembers saying something like, "You promised us the moon and
then didn't even build us the rocket." Three days later Smith
received a call from the league office saying that he would be
paid through the remainder of the year but need not return to
work. "The bottom line is we're talking about a man with a
gigantic ego," former Fort Wayne (Ind.) Fury general manager Rich
Coffey says of Thomas. "If you weren't a yes-man, he didn't want
to hear it."

As the league hemorrhaged money and Thomas found himself dipping
into his personal assets to cover losses, the trappings of the
bush leagues seemed to hold less appeal to him. During a
barnstorming tour in November 1999, Thomas appeared one afternoon
at a La Crosse (Wis.) Bobcats game. According to Diane Bosshard,
the Bobcats' general manager at the time, he couldn't be coaxed
out of the locker room to sign autographs after the game. Telling
Bosshard that he was "too tired," he canceled his appearance
later that evening in Quad Cities, about an hour away, despite a
packed house for Isiah Thomas Night. Grand Rapids Hoops investor
Dan Elve recalls that Thomas came to a Hoops home game but
declined a request to address the crowd. "He thought he was too
good for the CBA," says Moser, who claims that IT Acquisitions
still owes him $25,000. "He just wasn't interested in the
communities."

Before his inaugural season as league owner had ended, Thomas
tried to do what most everyone else in the CBA--players,
coaches, refs, public relations directors--had tried to do:
graduate to the NBA. His last stint in that league had hardly
been an unqualified success: In November 1997 he was forced out
as vice president of the Toronto Raptors after three years.
Still, in April 2000 he met with the Atlanta Hawks to discuss
their coaching vacancy. He was also reportedly a candidate for
coaching positions with the Dallas Mavericks, the New Jersey
Nets and the Washington Wizards. Last July he signed a
four-year, $20 million contract with the Indiana Pacers. "He
convinced us of his vision," says former La Crosse owner Bill
Bosshard (Diane's husband). "Then he realized his business plan
was faulty and figured, 'I better grab a coaching job,' and
abandoned us."

Thomas's supporters, however, say that the move made sense, and
not only for financial reasons. "[In the CBA] you have 1,000
people show up for stale popcorn, cold hot dogs, flat Coke, and
you have dogs jumping through hoops at halftime," says Ivan
Thornton, a New York-based financial adviser to Thomas. "You're
flying around on puddle jumpers getting to and from these cities.
You compare that to the NBA." Another friend of Thomas's surmises
that Thomas was motivated to coach after watching Doc Rivers win
Coach of the Year honors in 1999-2000, his rookie season with the
Orlando Magic. Thomas and Rivers have a rivalry going back to
their high school days in suburban Chicago. "Isiah was like, 'If
he can do it and be successful, why can't I?'" says the friend.

There was one catch. Under the NBA's constitution, no one with a
"management interest" (including a coach) is permitted to hold a
financial interest in another basketball league. One source says
that Thomas didn't believe the league would enforce that
provision because of his stature; later, sources say, he
complained that the NBA had bullied him into abandoning the CBA.
But the NBA made clear to Thomas the ramifications of becoming a
coach. Deputy commissioner Russ Granik says he informed Thomas of
them the month before he spoke to the Hawks. "The first time we
heard he was looking at a coaching job," says Granik, "we told
him he couldn't own the CBA at the same time."

Knowing that Thomas had to sell the league, a group of seven
former team owners called a meeting last June with Thomas and
his representatives at the O'Hare Hilton in Chicago. The group,
which still hadn't been paid $4.5 million of the original $9
million purchase price, was prepared to forgive that debt and
assume most of the others to take back the league and restore
local ownership. At the appointed time, neither Thomas nor his
representatives appeared. After half an hour, the group called
Welsh. "Where the hell are you?" he was asked. Welsh apologized
profusely, then said, "Isiah won't let us attend."

The NBA also offered to buy out Thomas. It had already announced
plans to launch a developmental league, and building it around
the existing infrastructure of the CBA made sense. Thomas claims
that the NBA offer was for $11 million, which would have
represented a handsome 22% return on a short-term investment.
(Granik says the league offered less than that but enough to
make Thomas whole on the original purchase price; Thomas would
also have received a share of future profits and not be exposed
to future losses.) Regardless, a sale would have enabled Thomas
to pay off the balance of his debt and freed him to join
Indiana. Sources say, however, that Thomas declined, citing
advisers who had told him that the league was worth $20 to $30
million. Shortly thereafter, the NBA announced that the
developmental league would consist of new franchises in the
Southeast. Thomas wouldn't receive another offer that came close
to the NBA's.

Unable to sell the league last summer, Thomas was prohibited from
taking over the Pacers until he placed the CBA in a blind trust
administered by Thornton. The NBA ordered Thomas to sell it
within one year. When the 2000-2001 season commenced, the CBA was
unraveling fast. Even after receiving season-ticket and
sponsorship revenues up front, the league started with a deficit.
Rumors abounded that the entire season would be scrapped. It
wasn't, but after one month of play the CBA had lost more than $1
million and was struggling to make payroll on time. "We didn't
talk basketball before the games," says Raja Bell, a star guard
for the Sun Kings. "It was, 'Do you think we'll get paid on
Friday?'"

Though it had always been a magnet for NBA scouts and an ideal
showcase for CBA talent, the Feb. 7 All-Star Game was canceled.
"It would have cost us anywhere from $250,000 to $350,000," says
Welsh, "and we did not have the cash to do it." On Feb. 8, the
CBA was officially euthanized. The league issued a four-paragraph
fax announcing that it was suspending operations and returning
teams to local ownership. "Though disappointing to me personally,
the decision allows basketball to continue in the cities that
have supported the CBA for many years," said Thomas, who,
according to the league, advanced funds to pay players through
their last games. Team executives, however, likened the maneuver
to borrowing a car and returning it without an engine. On Feb.
23, the CBA filed for Chapter Seven in a Grand Rapids bankruptcy
court, submitting 744 pages of unpaid bills, totaling at least
$4.7 million, and 101 pages of unpaid wages. The league listed
its only assets as old uniforms, 12 cars, some office equipment
and the value of its team logos.

Thomas's defenders say that once he was ordered to place the
league in a blind trust, the CBA's fate was sealed. "I cannot
overemphasize how dramatic his departure was and what it did to
our plans," says Welsh. "When you look at his original business
plan, it made a lot of sense. There is no doubt that with Isiah's
background, knowledge and contacts, if he had been allowed to
open doors for the CBA while coaching in the NBA, we would not be
having this conversation."

Still, many wonder about Thomas's motives for buying the league
in the first place. Did he really think the CBA was a potential
cash cow? "It was a good deal," says Joe Lombardo, a friend and
financial adviser of Thomas's. "We felt it could be turned
around." Or was this another case of a former athlete succumbing
to hubris? "He thinks of himself in the same class as Michael
Jordan and Magic Johnson," says Coffey, "and he thought he could
be a big businessman too."

The fallout from the CBA's demise will continue for months, if
not years. Creditors seeking payment for services, back wages and
unpaid rent are lining up to attach IT Acquisitions' minimal
assets. In Grand Rapids, the CBA owed Van Andel Arena more than
$100,000 in unpaid rent for Hoops games. The Hoops switched to
another minor league, the International Basketball League, but
arena officials, uncertain about the status of the team's
ownership, had changed the locks on the doors. Unable to retrieve
its uniforms, Grand Rapids had to play its first IBL game in Fury
jerseys borrowed at the last minute from Fort Wayne and worn
inside out.

Lawyers retained by several creditors are considering trying to
recover money directly from Thomas, who has paid off $2.7 million
of the original purchase price but still owes $1.8 million based
on his personal guarantee. "What makes you really sick," says
Coffey, "is that Isiah let this league die, and he makes $100,000
a week now."

As arenas from Hartford to Boise, Idaho, scramble to fill dates
the CBA vacated, fans look elsewhere for their hoops. Consider
86-year-old Herb Brautzsch, sales manager for a packaging plant
in Fort Wayne. When the Pistons left for Detroit in 1957,
Brautzsch vowed he would buy season tickets if pro basketball
returned. When the Fury started, in 1991, he ordered four
courtside seats, and for a decade he rarely missed a home game.
"They were my guys, and I miss them so much," he says. "I drove
three hours to Bloomington to watch the [Indiana] Hoosiers play,
but it wasn't the same." With the league bankrupt, he received no
refund on his $2,800 ticket package. His sole consolation: His
tickets are good for two-for-one dinner vouchers at Mad Anthony
Brewing Company, a local pub.

Like Brautzsch, former team owners lament the passing of the
quirky, fan-friendly league. Jay Frye, who owned the Fury, grew
sentimental walking around the team's practice facility. "The
team was five percent of my income," says Frye, who is owed
$380,000 by Thomas from the purchase of Frye's stake in the Fury.
"And 80 percent of my enjoyment." Adds Bill Bosshard, "Some
people do the United Way; I did minor league basketball. Both are
great for the community."

After the season was aborted, the CBA players dispersed,
continuing to pursue their NBA ambitions. The luckiest ones
caught on with teams overseas. Among the less fortunate was
former Yakima forward Carlos Daniel, who took a pay cut, moved
into a room at a Days Inn and joined the Sioux Falls IBL entry.
But that's not the worst part. During a CBA game earlier this
season, Daniel had caught an elbow in the mouth and chipped his
tooth. With the CBA in bankruptcy, he'll have to pay for the
dental work himself. "The way the whole thing went down, there's
a bad taste in my mouth," he says without irony. "Then again, at
least I have a job now."

Not so scores of other former CBA employees. In Fort Wayne, Kent
Davison spent last week cleaning out his office at the team's
practice facility. After 28 years of advancing through the
coaching ranks--from high school to junior college to the USBL--he
took an assistant's job with the Fury in 1998. When the team's
head coach, Keith Smart, accepted a post with the Cleveland
Cavaliers last summer, Davison was promoted. "It was slow
progress," he says wistfully, "but I felt as if I had reached a
goal."

Little did he know that his tenure would last 20 of the scheduled
56 games. With a wife, two children and no salary or severance,
he's back to sending out resumes and working the phones looking
for someone--anyone--to give him another shot on the bench. "I feel
I'm back to square one," says Davison, who, like many former CBA
employees, admits to guilty pleasure in watching Thomas's Pacers
struggle to qualify for the playoffs.

As Davison slalomed between boxes of files, stacks of unopened
fan mail for long-departed Fort Wayne players such as Priest
Lauderdale, and hundreds of Fury Frisbees that were supposed to
be part of a halftime promotion, he pointed to a sign. A gigantic
placard, festooned with the pre-Thomas mission statement of the
defunct league, was propped in a corner. Davison couldn't
suppress a bittersweet smile as he read aloud: The CBA
organization, through teamwork, mutual respect and a burning
desire to be the best, will continue to build on the legacy of
the CBA through more than half a century of providing first-class
entertainment to fans in emerging sports communities throughout
the world.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: JEFFREY LOWE Music to Their Ears After selling team owners on his plan to turn their league around in 1999 (above), Isiah Thomas led the CBA into bankruptcy [T of C] COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY DANIEL ADEL COLOR PHOTO: STEVE WEWERKA BEREFT In La Crosse, the Bosshards feel Thomas deserted them. COLOR PHOTO: TODD ROSENBERG FORT WAYNE FURIOUS Coffey (far left) no longer has a team to run, and Frye is owed $380,000 personally guaranteed by Thomas. COLOR PHOTO: TODD ROSENBERG PRICE OF LOYALTY Brautzsch's $2,800 in season tickets now fetch him an occasional free-dinner coupon at a Fort Wayne brewery. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER

Thomas promised to turn the league into "the Microsoft
of basketball."

Thomas is "a man with a gigantic ego," Coffey says. "If you
weren't a yes-man, he didn't want to hear it."

Thomas griped that the NBA bullied him into abandoning the CBA.

"Some people do the United Way," says Bill Bosshard. "I did
minor league basketball."

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