For nearly six decades the Continental Basketball Association has been the preserve of players trying to resuscitate their careers. In the past decade players such as Bruce Bowen, Anthony Mason and David Wesley toiled in the CBA before moving on to the NBA. Says Wesley, "The CBA is the league of second chances."
Lately the league itself is making a comeback. The CBA commences its 57th season on Friday night, an achievement few could have envisioned 18 months ago. In the summer of 1999 Isiah Thomas bought the CBA with designs of making it "the Microsoft of basketball." Thomas committed a series of financial blunders, and midway through the 2000--01 season the nine-team league ceased operations and filed for bankruptcy. All that was left was nearly $5 million in bills and a conga line of creditors. When the NBA announced in the spring of '01 that it was starting its own developmental league (the NBDL), it looked as if the CBA would be shuttered forever.
Yet in the summer of 2001 a group of 10 former CBA owners and investors convened in a Minneapolis hotel and discussed relaunching the league. The $2 million subsidy the CBA received annually from the NBA was no longer available, so the owners pulled out their checkbooks and ponied up $500,000 in start-up costs. To avoid creditors, they reincorporated as Professional Basketball Associates d/b/a CBA, then paid an additional $22,000 to the bankruptcy trustees to acquire the intellectual property rights--the logos, the team names, the historical records--from the old CBA.
The league, which resumed play last November, rose from its ashes. Commissioner Gary Hunter says that two of last season's eight teams made a small profit, two broke even and four lost money, but none in excess of $200,000. Against all odds, CBA teams outdrew NBDL clubs by nearly 50%, averaging 2,372 fans per game to the NBDL's 1,635. "Even at the lowest point we all had a vision that the CBA would be back," says Hunter, who was the commissioner before Thomas's stewardship. "But no one thought it would be this quick."
Perhaps most gratifying, the CBA regained its toehold as the self-proclaimed "second-best basketball league in the world." Playing a brand of ball that resembles the NBA on a sugar high--running and gunning from opening tap until the final buzzer--six CBA players were signed by NBA teams last season and 17 were invited to NBA camps this preseason. The 2002--03 Miami Heat features three CBA refugees: forward Ken Johnson and guards Mike James and Sean Lampley. "We're thrilled the CBA is back in business," says Portland Trail Blazers assistant general manager Mark Warkentien. "If your goal is to get to the NBA, there's no better place to be."
While the CBA has always operated on razor-thin margins, owners have cut costs more than ever. The average payroll for a 10-man roster is about $150,000, or roughly 15% of expenses. (In the past, teams have spent up to $400,000 on player salaries.) To reduce travel costs, teams fly to a hub airport and then charter buses to games. The biggest blunder of Thomas's regime was his quest to centralize operations and transfer control to the league office. Recognizing that the CBA is, at heart, a community league--how many fans outside greater Boise follow the Idaho Stampede?--the promotions and sponsorship sales are done locally. "We're a lot more economical than we were under Isiah," says Hunter.
The turnaround has been so successful that NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik recently met with CBA executives, hoping to merge the league with the NBDL. (The two sides could not agree on terms.) What's more, Hunter can tick off a list of markets--Toledo, Vancouver, Las Vegas and Kansas City--that have expressed interest in buying a CBA team. (The $100,000 franchise fee will double on Jan. 1.) The commissioner is flattered but wary. "We want to grow, but we want to grow soundly," Hunter says. "We've seen what can happen when you rush things."
CBA 2003--02 Here is how the league's two conferences are aligned for this season, which begins on Friday
Gary (Ind.) Steelheads
Grand Rapids (Iowa) Hoops
Great Lakes (Mich.) Storm
Rockford (Ill.) Lightning
Dakota (N.Dak.) Wizards
Sioux Falls (Idaho) Skyforce
Yakima (Wash.) Sun Kings