by Paul Reeths
January 11, 2008 - American Basketball Association (ABA)
Just six weeks into its seventh season, dissatisfaction appears to be growing inside the American Basketball Association. A slew of defunct teams, cancelled games and other problems have many team owners and general managers questioning the strategy and leadership of the league.
Though the lineup changed constantly throughout the off-season, 36 teams made up the ABA's schedule on opening night. A month and a half later, just 21 remain active. Of the 15 teams that have folded, left the ABA or simply stopped playing games, four never even took the court in an ABA regular season contest this year.
Gone are the Anderson (Ind.) Champions, Chicago Throwbacks, Cicero (Ill.) Cometas, Corning (N.Y.) Bulldogs, Detroit Panthers, Los Angeles Push, Minnesota (St. Paul, Minn.) Ripknees, Orlando (Fla.) Aces, Peoria (Ill.) Kings, Rochester (Minn.) Fire, Sacramento (Cal.) Heatwave, South Chi-Land (Chicago) Inferno, St. Louis Stunners, Strong Island (Long Island, N.Y.) Sound and Syracuse (N.Y.) Raging Bullz.
The entire Midwest Division finally collapsed when the Throwbacks left the ABA to join the new Premier Basketball League last month. Chicago was the last of nine ABA teams in the area to bolt the league. The PBL was born out of eight former ABA franchises that left the league, most of them shortly after last year's campaign. Several departed after disagreements with ABA CEO Joe Newman.
"We are not where we wanted to be at the beginning of the season," said ABA Director of Team Operations Brad Hester. "We've had a lot of problems. There's plenty of blame to be passed around. The league office didn't do what it needed to do, and some of the teams didn't do what they needed to."
Though every team is supposed to play a 36-game slate, the league has played less than half its scheduled games to this point, and more than 100 additional games will be cancelled because of the teams that are no longer playing. Other teams have cancelled games without explanation. Additionally, several dozen more contests were never scheduled, and teams have resorted to playing semi-pro or amateur teams to fill their home dates. The Atlanta Vision for instance, has played just three ABA games and have only 12 more scheduled against league opposition.
In an email sent to Newman and the ABA office, Texas Tycoons General Manager Mike Senters expressed his frustration with the constantly eroding schedule. "What are we actually selling to the public? Fast paced, fan friendly, affordable, cancellations?" he asked, while noting he wanted the league to improve.
"The only true answer as to why so many games have been cancelled is that we allowed these teams on the schedule in the first place," added Hester. "We as a league office have to do a better job of monitoring who we allow in, when we allow them in, and make certain they have good venues and adequate financing. We need to do a better job of due diligence to ensure we don't have continuing issues."
While the ABA has struggled to take the court in the U.S., it has managed to stage several games in Singapore, thanks in large part to the owner of a Chinese team in poor standing in his own country. His Beijing Aoshen Olympian functions as the home team in Singapore and pays for all travel and lodging for the visitors. Though most of the games have been played, there have been complaints about the accommodations.
Houston Takers owner Larry Leonard blamed the mildew-ridden hotel in which his team stayed after several of his players became ill. Others cited a different distraction.
"Our hotel was small and cramped," said Maywood (Cal.) Buzz General Manager Burrell Lee. "There were hookers everywhere, knocking on our door in the hotel."
"The accommodations have changed," said Hester, noting the last team to travel to Singapore stayed in a much better hotel. "The first three teams to go over there stayed in different establishments and those were not what they needed to be. If those teams were put in harm's way, that's an issue we need to address."
Officiating has been another point of contention between the league and several of its teams. The ABA mandates teams pay a three-man referee crew $600-650 per game, an amount well above the going rate according to several teams who have urged the league to instead hire NCAA-approved officials for less. Maywood has refused to use ABA officials, and has instead worked with referees from the Los Angeles Pro Am. The league has not sanctioned the Buzz.
More concerning, according to several teams, are reports that ABA Director of Officials Tom Chichester may take more than half of the total fee for games he works. Chichester has been based in Singapore for much of the season training local officials, and his involvement there has also led to questions.
"It is amazing to me that a referee (Chichester) can be permitted by the league to referee games for a home team with a billionaire owner that is paying him a weekly salary plus living expenses (in Singapore)," said Manchester (N.H.) Millrats GM Ian McCarthy. "In any other league that type of conflict of interest would not be allowed, but in the ABA anything seems to go."
The Aoshen Olympian is 9-1 at its home in Singapore.
Hester confirmed the ABA is reviewing its referee arrangements but added that changes will not occur until next season.
"The referees have been identified as an area in which we need to improve, monetarily for the teams and with the process itself," said Hester. "We have some refs coming from Florida for games in San Diego. That doesn't make any sense. Our director of officials is in Singapore, so we haven't been able to sit down and discuss this with him yet."
Off the court problems are the larger focus of the league and its teams.
The Boston Blizzard recently sent a skeleton crew on a road trip while team management tried to secure a new venue. The First State (Dover, Del.) Fusion, Georgia (Macon, Ga.) Gwizzlies and Houston Takers each cancelled home games for nearly a month. The Takers and Atlanta Vision recently switched venues as well. The San Francisco Rumble folded earlier in the season only to be resurrected after missing several games. The uncertainty has left teams in Texas, Miami, and New Jersey scrambling for opponents to fill home dates.
Some teams are missing even the most basic necessities. Despite league mandates, the Westchester (N.Y.) Phantoms and West Texas (Midland, Tex.) Whirlwinds do not have functioning websites. The Phantoms also have not released a logo.
Note: OurSports Central no longer actively covers the American Basketball Association (ABA) as a professional league due in part to its inability to publish and play a schedule and the transitory nature of many of its teams. For information on professional minor leagues, please see OSC's basketball section.