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Basketball in Winnipeg

by Chris Greenaway
December 22, 1999 - International Basketball Association (IBA)

Is Winnipeg Finally Ready to Embrace Pro Basketball Again?

By Chris Greenaway

For five years the International Basketball Association's Winnipeg Cyclone have played in the Winnipeg Convention Centre in front of about 1,500 fans a game. Few media outlets have tried to cover the team, and until Darryl Dawkins came to town, the team was barely reported in the newspapers at all with the exception of the scores.

The tide is finally turning this season with coach Dawkins returning to the team in 1999 as a player as well as a coach. One fan compared seeing Dawkins in action to seeing Bobby Orr coming back to play for the IHL's Manitoba Moose. That is high praise for a basketball player trying to sell the game in a hockey town. Recently the Cyclone drew the largest crowd in their five-year history when a sellout crowd of over 3,000 packed the "Wind Tunnel." That is nearly double the team's average in their entire history. It was a great game which brought back memories of how it used to be here.

Back in 1992, Winnipeg joined the World Basketball League, infamous for being the 6'4" and under league. The Thunder played in the Winnipeg Arena, and on the night before the opening tip- off, Winnipeg hoops fans staged a pep rally for the team. That event drew about 4,000 fans. That night fans saw an open practice and a great fireworks show with the NBA callibre mascot Kaboom. The next night, the Thunder had a complete sellout of over 16,000 people. Winnipeg drew about 8-9,000 fans a game that year despite a poor on-floor product and a summer schedule. All was not well in the WBL, though, because that opening night crowd outdrew the entire WBL combined, not per game but for the entire season. The pep rally alone outdrew Jacksonville's entire season attendance. Teams were moving weekly and folding altogether, yet the Thunder had an NBA atmosphere. That was despite the fact that the Thunder weren't very good, something that could have changed because nearly every player in the league wanted to be traded to Winnipeg.

Even with the league collapsing around the team, the Thunder still continued to pack the lower bowl of the Arena. The league finally folded following a four-team playoff in which the Thunder went the distance with the eventual champion Dayton Wings in a hard-fought five-game series. As a side note, all of the games were played in Winnipeg in front of huge crowds. For two more years the Thunder struggled along in leagues that never caught on or folded completely before the team finally threw in the towel for good in 1994.

In 1995, the Winnipeg Cyclone brought pro basketball back to town, but this time the responce was lukewarm. Attendance was very light and the coverage the team received was far less than the old Thunder. Unlike the Thunder or the CBL and WBL, the IBA was a solid circuit with good teams and decent attendance. This time, however, the fans in Winnipeg were more wary of the product on the floor since the atmosphere was far less overblown.

I knew then as I do now that after the excitement of the Thunder and the crash that followed, it would take a long time to get that kind of feeling for basketball back in Winnipeg. Last week's record crowd was the largest for basketball in Winnipeg since 1994, despite the fact the team isn't doing nearly as well as last year when they won the Central division title. With a solid league in which to play, committed ownership and a much more competitive team with an NBA legend at the helm, it looks as if Winnipeg is finally ready to take pro basketball back into its heart. City hoops fans are saying amen to that.

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