World Basketball League (1989)
Born: November 1988 – WBL expansion franchise.
Died: 1989 – The Counts cease operations.
Arena: Worcester Centrum (13,800)
Team Colors: Burgundy, Royal Blue & White
Owner: Robert W. Shoemaker, III et al.
My God…I remember watching this team on SportsChannel New England when I was in the eighth grade. By “watching” I mean clicking over to catch a few minutes of World Basketball League action during the commercial breaks on Dear John or Head of the Class.
There were two things about the Worcester Counts and the World Basketball League that intrigued me. The first was that the ball they played with was awesome. It was a bright white globe with all of the continents of the world painted on in maroon. (Years later former WBL PR Director Jimmy Oldham told me the league only had 2-3 of these balls and they were shipped around the country for use on SportsChannel games).
The second was that the Counts had Keith Smart. I wasn’t a huge hoops fan, but I vividly remembered watching Smart hit “The Shot”for the University of Indiana in the 1987 NCAA Championship game to beat Syracuse with only four seconds left.
At 13 years old, it made an impression on me that Smart could go from the pinnacle of the college basketball world to playing minor league ball in a nearly empty Worcester Centrum in just over 24 months.
7,056 fans turned out for the Counts first game at the Centrum on May 10th, 1989. According to former Counts PR man Rob Ekno, the big crowd was the result of his frantic, last-minute efforts to paper Worcester with free tickets:
“The guy who owned the Counts, his name was Rob Shoemaker. He was a Harvard Business School graduate. So, presumably well-versed in business. He was promised by the World Basketball League that he was going to make “X” amount of dollars and there would be “X” amount of attendance and so on. When I got to meet Rob, he told me the league said to him that he could expect about 6,000 or 7,000 people a game.
“To cut down on travel expenses and stuff, the Counts and the World Basketball League set up the schedule with back-to-back games. A team would fly in from Youngstown, Ohio, for example, and they would play us at the Worcester Centrum on Friday night and then play again on Saturday night.
“I told <Rob> “Listen, this is Worcester. You’re in the middle of Massachusetts. People either go to Cape Cod on the weekend or they go to Misquamicut State Beach down in Rhode Island, or wherever. Not a whole lot of people stay around Worcester on the weekend. You’re playing your games on Friday and Saturday nights – back-to-back games against the same exact team that people don’t know anything about. I know that this league promised you certain things, but I’m just giving you my experience from the Arena Football League and I don’t believe you’re going to get the attendance you are expecting.
“Shoemaker put his trust in the league, of course, because he had already sunk his money into the team and he didn’t want to think he was investing in a failure.
“So it was about a week-and-a-half before the first game and the gentleman who was the Director of the Centrum called me into his office and said “Look, you gotta help us out here. There’s only about 2,000 tickets sold.” I said “I’ve been trying to tell these guys that all along, but no one is listening to my experience here.” So I went out and in ten days I hit every business, every school, every charity…everybody who would take a hundred, two hundred, four hundred tickets to give away. And if you look at the attendance for the first night, it was a full house.
“But then the second game dropped way off and from there it was down to a 1,000 people a game after that.”
Perhaps Worcester fans simply weren’t interested in the WBL’s perplexing line-up of opponents, which included geographically irrelevant “rivals” from places like Youngstown, Ohio and Calgary, along with European tomato cans like the Estonian National Team and Computerij of Holland. Since the WBL had only five franchises, league officials imported the (terrible) clubs from Europe to pad out the schedule. During the summer of 1989 the Europeans posted a collective record of 1 win and 49 losses against the five WBL clubs.
“We did have Keith Smart. All the guys were great guys,” recalled Ekno. “They all had dreams, obviously, of playing in the NBA. The whole premise of the WBL was that you had to be 6’ 5” and under. It was all about the passing and the speed. You didn’t see a whole lot of slam dunking and if you did, it was of the more spectacular, fast break variety. The idea was to get the ball up and down the court as quickly as possible, get it in the hoop and play a little defense.
“We had Norm Van Lier, the former Chicago Bulls star, who was the assistant coach. Norm was promised an apartment and all this other stuff but it never came through for whatever reason. So Norm and I ended up being roommates for the summer. That was an interesting experience for sure. I learned a lot about the behind-the-scenes workings of pro and college basketball from Norm. He would have been the dominant personality on that team.
“We also had a gentleman named Keith Gatlin and he was actually Len Bias’ roommate when Bias OD’d and died. So that was quite the learning experience from him as well.”
The Worcester Counts folded shortly after the 1989 season ended. The WBL hung on for three more years, but folded in 1992 when league investors learned that league founder Mickey Monus was underwriting the league’s substantial losses by embezzling millions of dollars from his Phar-Mor discount pharmacy chain.
Keith Smart played a decade in the American minor leagues and in the Phillipines. Today he is the Head Coach of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings.
==Worcester Counts Games on Fun While It Lasted==
|1989||5/10/1989||vs. Youngstown Pride||??||Program||Game Notes|
|1989||5/20/1989||vs. Las Vegas Silver Streaks||??||Program||Game Notes|
|1989||6/7/1989||vs. Youngstown Pride||??||Program|
|1989||7/17/1989||vs. Calgary 88's||??||Program|