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Sports | Frost Heaves smooth compared to ABA drama

By Chris Fells | Special to the Vermont Guardian

Posted March 23, 2007

BARRE — If nothing else this season, Alex Wolff has proven one thing — the American Basketball Association may have more than its share of drama, but what people really want is exciting basketball.

And that’s what Wolff and the supporting cast he’s assembled at the Vermont Frost Heaves achieved this season.

His own affable style seeps through the entire organization, which has run to near perfection with great marketing, public relations, but most of all having players who will sign autographs until their hands fall off.

The team has provided a much-needed economic boost to Barre and has given the state a team they can call their own and be proud of both on and off the court.

What hasn’t wowed fans is the way the league, overall, is run.

Curerntly, the league is in a state of chaos.

Lawsuits were filed against league Chief Executive Office Joe Newman in January, and shortly after he was voted out as the league’s top executive. However, because of the legal limbo, he is still running the ABA.

In this past year, the league’s Toledo franchise started the year, folded, come back under another name, folded, came back and then promptly folded again.

Another team actually moved in mid-season. Others folded for a variety of reasons including an inability to pay its players, losing leases on facilities, and overall mismanagement of the teams.

Just this year alone, The Toledo (OH) Ice franchise started the season, folded after three games (including a 191-66 road loss to the Detroit Panthers), then returned with new names (first the Toledo Renaissance, then the Toledo Royal Knights), and then folded again. Another team, the Hammond (IN) Rollers, actually moved in mid-season. A third franchise, the Anderson (Ind.) Champions, were created to play in the same building as a previous ABA franchise, the Indiana Alley Cats, who moved out of the ABA after the 2005-06 season. The Champions' existence made it difficult for the Alley Cats to secure sponsorship or a fan base in their new league, a situation that was remedied only when the Champions folded up after a few contests. Other franchises folded for a variety of reasons, including an inability to pay its players, losing leases on facilities, and overall mismanagement of the teams.

To date, 49 teams have folded since the league's inception in 2000. The league has a reputation for not playing games because of teams folding, or refusing to make road trips to games. Despite this, the league has plans to field 70 teams for the 2007-2008 season adding teams in Las Vegas, Tampa Bay, and Phoenix. In some areas these new teams will compete for fans with existing National Basketball Association franchises.

Newman’s critics tell horror stories of alleged broken promises, giving franchises to anyone whose market reservation check clears, and not conducting any of the due diligence needed to ensure that a team’s owners can secure arenas to play, and can pay team travel and salaries.

Prospective owners, however, know what they are getting into, as Wolff did. They do all the work to learn how to run a franchise, how to plan, and do the constant marketing and public relations it takes to keep thing running..

In other words, a team is more than just putting players on the court.

Still, chaos is what reigns in the ABA. As the league heads toward its championship game, six teams have dropped out of the playoffs, throwing the brackets into pure mayhem.

Originally, it was supposed to be the top 24 teams who advanced, but for various reasons, teams are pulling out. Arkansas pulled out either because of an inabililty to pay their players in a timely fashion, but in a press release, the team said they pulled out because they were upset with their league ranking. Their ranking meant they would have to play a road game despite being one of the top seeds and being assured a home game.

But, the biggest shock came this week, when the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reported that the defending ABA champion Rochester Razorsharks pulled out of the playoffs and announced they would join the Premier Basketball League.

“The confusion in the playoff structure prohibited the defending champions from participating in any games,” team officials said in a statement.

In response, Newman told the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, "It's typical of their lack of morals and ethics. They are garbage as far as I am concerned. They've just thrown a wrench into the playoffs."

Rochester’s problems began when the team was set to play Wilmington, but due to the winter storm that hit the area, the game was postponed.

Making up the game was a challenge as the Razorsharks home arena was booked for the NCAA Division One men’s hockey tournament.

Then, Newman tried to force Rochester to forfeit the game since they could not find another venue. Solutions were proposed by the Razorsharks that allegedly fell on deaf ears.

Newman, in an e-mail, tried to solicit a vote from the league’s owners that would force the forfeit.

“We have tried every way possible to get Rochester to change dates, change venues, work out something else so that we could speed up the playoffs. They have been inflexible,” Newman said.

Wolff, however, is taking the drama all in stride and focusing on doing what the Heaves have done best all year — win games.

“We're disappointed and frustrated about the chaos in the brackets and the league at large. The litigation and franchise foldings were huge distractions, but through it all we've controlled what we could: Played 36 games, 18 home and 18 away; met our payroll; filled the seats; and have been in the community. And we know that Wilmington or Mississippi will be in Barre on Tuesday night for our semifinal,” Wolff told the Guardian.

Still, Wolff and others believe the league has enormous potential as the Heaves have proven in Vermont.

The ABA prides itself on providing affordable entertainment, and easy fan access to the players. The 3-D rule, having only seven seconds to cross half court, and the 13th man are unique and draw fans to the arenas.

The ABA’s problems to date have not been in the ideas and energy teams bring to the courts and the communities, but the league’s lack of structure.