Lively Tales About Dead Teams

1983-1986 Puerto Rico Coquis / Maine Windjammers

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Professional basketball came to the island of Puerto Rico in the winter of 1983, when local insurance man Walter Fournier acquired an expansion franchise in the Continental Basketball Association.  Fournier dubbed his team the Coquis, named after the tiny tree frogs native to Puerto Rico and the surrounding islands of the Carribean.

The CBA in the early 1980′s was a league on the rise.  For most of the post-war era, the league was known as the Eastern Professional Basketball League (or variations thereof) and was a bus league centered on the small mill cities of Pennsylvania.  The league began to expand aggressively the late 1970′s, adopting the ambitious “Continental” moniker and adding far-flung teams in Anchorage and Honolulu.  The CBA also managed to sign a partnership as the official developmental league of the NBA and the CBA’s top players aspired to land 10-day contacts with NBA clubs to fill in as short-term when their regulars went down with injuries.

Despite the trappings and pretensions, the CBA remained, at its core, a league of near-insolvent clubs dependent on bus travel.  The notion of putting a club in Puerto Rico may have had some PR appeal for the league, but the reality was that poor clubs who couldn’t rub two nickels together now had to fund extravagant (by CBA standards) road trips to San Juan to play the Coquis.

Fournier hired Herb Brown as his Head Coach.  Brown, the older brother of former ABA star and longtime NBA coach Larry Brown, served a brief tenure as Head Coach of the NBA’s Detroit Pistons from 1975 to 1977.  Brown led the expansion Coquis  into the playoff with a CBA-best record fo 28-16.  After dispatching the Lancaster (PA) Lightning in the first round of the playoffs, the Coquis fell to the Phil Jackson-coached Albany (NY) Patroons in the CBA Semi-Finals.  Brown was named CBA Coach of the Year, but the Coquis success on the court was not reflected in the stands.  The team drew an average of just 728 fans per game in San Juan during the 1983-84 season.

When the Coquis returned for the 1984-85 campaign, Fournier seemed to have adopted a certain fatalism about the attendance potential in Puerto Rico.  For one thing, Fournier believed that Puerto Rican fans would not attend matches during the holidays and he orchestrated a grueling 22-day, 14-game road trip in December 1984 to avoid them.

“I guess it’s a management decision by people who don’t know much about basketball,” Brown complained to Nathan Huang of The St. Petersburg Evening-Independent in the  midst of the Coquis’ December 1984 odyssey.  “They have absolutely no idea how tough it is.”

The 1984-85 campaign got tougher for Brown.  Despite another winning season (27-21), the Coquis entered the final game of the season with a playoff spot on the line against Jackson’s Albany Patroons.  Jackson’s assistant Charley Rosen recalled the events that followed years later in his 2011 memoir Crazy Basketball, A Life In and Out of Bounds.   Late in the game, Brown stormed onto the court to challenge a call by referee Ken Mauer.  According to Rosen, Brown grabbed the lanyard that held the whistle around Mauer’s beck and twisted it until the head official’s face turned blue.  Eventually, stadium security intervened, pulling Brown off the referee and letting Mauer live to officiate another day.  The Coquis lost and finished out of the playoffs with a 5th place finish.   The CBA slapped Brown with a 6-game suspension to start the 1985-86 season, but by then Brown would be with a new club and the Coquis were no more.

Attendance failed to improve during the Coquis second season in San Juan, with the club reportedly drawing less than 500 fans per game.  In March 1985, Fournier began negotiating to move his club to Birmingham, Alabama’s State Fair Arena.  Negotiations fell through with Birmingham officials in the spring of 1985, but Fournier soon found another suitor in the CBA’s 20-year old Deputy Commissioner Jay Ramsdell.

Ramsdell was a fascinating figure in the history of the CBA and Maine basketball.  In 1978, the Maine native approached a minority owner of the CBA’s Maine Lumberjacks club to do an interview for his school newspaper.  The owner was impressed with Ramsdell and asked him to fill in on the Lumberjacks game day stats crew.  Within a matter of weeks, the 9th grader was appointed the Lumberjacks’ Director of Public Relations. He remained with the club until his high school graduation in 1982.  By the age of 20 in 1985, Ramsdell was the league’s Deputy Commissioner and jack of all trades.  The Lumberjacks were no more – a new owner named John Ligums moved the club to Massachusetts in 1983 – and Ramsdell convinced Fournier to move his club from Puerto Rico to Maine’s Bangor Auditorium for the 1985-86 season.  Ramsdell stepped down from his league office position to serve as the General Manager for the club, which would be known as the Maine Windjammers.

A crowd of 1,722 turned out for the Windjammers home debut against the Bay State Bombardiers (the former Lumberjacks) on December 5th, 1985.  But despite some initial big words from Fournier about the potential of the Bangor market, the Puerto Rican-based businessman showed zero interest in the club and quickly withdrew his financial support, leaving Ramsdell  to fund operations largely with the gate receipts of the 600 or so fans that showed up at Bangor Auditorium each night that winter.

“The man would not spend any money,” Windjammers Head Coach Gerald Oliver told The Bangor Daily News in 1992.  “He set up what we would operate on and it wasn’t even close to what we needed.”

By February 1985, Fournier was officially out and the team was on the block.  In March, Ramsdell announce that an “anonymous” group of Bangor businessmen had all but closed on the purchase of the club.  That deal fell through, as did a $190,000 sale to a pair of New York investors brokered by Bangor businessman James Clarkson.  On the court, the Windjammers didn’t fare any better, finishing in 6th place with an 18-30 record.  The CBA terminated the Windjammers franchise on June 18th, 1986.  The club lost a reported $80,000 during the 1985-86 campaign and left Bangor owing close to $50,000 in unpaid bills to local vendors.

In July of 1986, John Ligums, the Massachusetts stock broker who owned the Maine Lumberjacks during their final season in Bangor in 1982-83 sold his Bay State Bombardiers franchise to Pensacola, Florida interests.  Later the same day, he purchased the moribund Windjammers franchise from the CBA for a price rumored to be in the $200,000 range.  Ligums sold the franchise certificate to a Quad Cities Basketball Club, Inc. in Moline, Illinois three months later for a reported $450,000 to $500,000, meaning at least one man made money off of the Maine Windjammers.   The Quad Cities group sat out the 1986-87 season and entered the CBA as an expansion team (more or less) named the Quad Cities Thunder for the 1987-88 season.

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Jay Ramsdell returned to the CBA league office and his former Deputy Commissioner role after the collapse of the Windjammers in 1986.  In 1988, he was appointed Commissioner of the CBA.  At 24 years of age, he was widely reported to be the youngest Commissioner of a professional league in American sports history.  One year later on July 19th, 1989, Ramsdell died in the crash of United Airlines Flight 232 in Sioux City, Iowa.  Ramsdell’s Deputy Commissioner Jerry Schemmel survived the crash and rescued an 11-month baby from the wreckage.  He later wrote a book Chosen To Live about the experience.  The CBA Championship trophy was subsequently renamed the Jay Ramsdell Trophy.

In the 2000′s, former Windjammers player Sam Worthen became Head Coach of the Washington Generals, the long-time foils of the Harlem Globetrotters.

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Puerto Rico Coquis & Maine Windjammers sources

Written by andycrossley

September 25th, 2011 at 12:35 am

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