If they are remembered for nothing else – and they aren’t – the Erie (PA) Wave of the World Basketball League came up with one of the all-time great cheerleading squad names: the Eriesistibles. What else can be said about the Wave? They plied their trade in a gimmicky basketball league that had a height limit. Two of their players became so disgruntled with the team that they retired to start their own rival WBL franchise. And shortly after the team folded in the middle of its third season, Wave players and staff learned that they had unwittingly taken part in a massive criminal enterprise.
Erie received a WBL expansion entry in early 1990, just 67 days before tip-off of the franchise’s first game. The three-year old World Basketball League had several unique features that separated it from other basketball leagues. Players could be no taller than 6′ 5″ tall. The league played an untraditional May-August summer schedule, allowing minor leaguers from the winter Continental Basketball Association to ply their trade year round. Although the league had only seven franchises in 1990, they stretched across North America from Saskatchewan to Las Vegas to Memphis. To fill out the schedule, the WBL various imported clubs from Western Europe and the Soviet Union, which were not subject to the height limit. These games counted in the standings, but were basically an automatic win. WBL teams routinely pummeled the lumbering foreign clubs, who collectively lost 51 out of the 56 international games played in 1990.
The WBL business model called for the league to hold a 60% equity interest in each club, with local ownership holding the other 40%. During the 1990 season, Erie’s local investor was a car dealer named George Turner. Turner caught the basketball bug as a season ticket holder with the WBL’s nearby Youngstown Pride, located only 100 miles away and considered the league’s model franchise.
The Wave debuted at Erie’s Tullio Arena on May 17th, 1990 against the Calgary 88’s before an estimated crowd of 4,500. Attendance withered thereafter, as did the team’s performance on the court. The 1990 Wave finished in last place with a 12-34 record and posted an announced average attendance of 2,270 per game.
George Turner declined to renew his financial support at the end of the 1990 season. The WBL failed to find new local ownership to replace Turner. When the Wave returned for the 1991 season, they were wards of the league office and its primary patron, WBL founder and Youngstown Pride owner Michael “Mickey” Monus, the President of the Youngstown-based Phar-Mor discount pharmacy chain. The 1991 Wave won 18 games against 33 losses, once again posting the worst record in the WBL.
The Wheels came off for the WBL during its fifth season in 1992. The league’s Canadian expansion of the past few years proved quite successful, as clubs in Winnipeg, Saskatchewan and Halifax drew strong crowds. It was the American franchises – many of whom, like Erie, did not have functional local ownership, – that were bleeding the league dry. On June 15th, 1992 the WBL shuttered both of its poorly attended Florida clubs, the Florida Jades and the Jacksonville Stingrays, in midseason. The remaining clubs found the league office – which owned 60% of the equity in their franchises – unresponsive as bills mounted and went unpaid. The trail of financial problems led directly to the league’s founder and sugar daddy, Mickey Monus and his crumbling house of cards at Phar-Mor.
On July 20th, 1992 the cash-poor World Basketball League shut down the Erie Wave with 13 games remaining on the regular season schedule. The Wave had a record of 12-26 at the time. Attendance for the 1992 season at Tullio Arena averaged just 1,077 fans per game, compared to a league-wide announced average of 3,194.
In late July 1992, several days after the Wave folded, Phar-Mor opened its 300th store. Days later Monus was ousted when company officials discovered Monus and his CFO were maintaining two sets of books, claiming rapid growth and profits while Phar-Mor was actually generating huge losses and falling far behind in payments to its suppliers. Among other crimes, Monus had embezzled close to $10 million from Phar-Mor over four years to underwrite the operating losses of the WBL and its franchises. The entire financial underpinning of the WBL was revealed to be a criminal enterprise, with the local investors and front office managers in the role of unwitting participants. On August 1st, 1992, the World Basketball League folded in the midst of its fifth season, days after the downfall of its patron. Monus’ downfall also cost the jobs of 17,000 Phar-Mor employees – the seemingly robust chain was forced into bankruptcy – and nearly sank the fledgling Colorado Rockies expansion franchise in Major League Baseball, in which Monus was a major investor.
One of the best Wave players was Jamie Waller, a 1987 2nd round draft pick of the New Jersey Nets. Waller led the WBL in scoring in four consecutive seasons from 1988-1991. Waller began the 1991 season with the Nashville Stars and joined Erie midway through, finishing the season with a 26.3 points per game scoring average. Waller was dealt to the Youngstown Pride prior to the 1992 season.
In 2008, professional basketball returned to Erie after a sixteen year absence when the NBA D-League placed the Erie Bayhawks expansion franchise at Tullio Arena. The D-League is the official development league of the National Basketball Association (and has no height limits).
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