The Colorado Xplosion were the Denver franchise in the women’s American Basketball League, which lasted for two-and-a-half seasons from 1996 to 1998. After the 1996 Olympics, two rival women’s leagues sprung up. The bootstrap ABL launched first, played in the winter time, offered the best pay, and initially signed many of the best Olympic-caliber women’s players. The NBA-backed Women’s National Basketball Association had David Stern’s marketing machine behind it, richer owners and better television and media deals. In less than three years, the WNBA and the generally challenging marketplace for women’s pro sports drove the ABL to bankruptcy in December 1998.
But it was fun while it lasted. The Xplosion were a pretty strong club. In the ABL’s inaugural season, they had the second best record in the regular season at 25-15, but were bounced in the first round of the playoff by the Richmond Rage. During their second season, the Xplosion regressed a bit, barely making the playoffs at 21-23. Once again, they lost in the first round, this time to the Long Beach Stingrays. Season three saw the Xplosion off to slow start and in last place in their division at 5-8 when the ABL abruptly shut down on December 22, 1998, having run out of money to continue operations.
Top players included two-time ABL All-Stars Debbie Black and Crystal Robinson. Black, although the shortest player in the league at 5′ 3″, was a tenacious rebounder, who ranked among the league’s top 15 total rebounders during the first two seasons. She also was the ABL’s all-time steals leader and ranked third in assists for the two full seasons the league completed. Robinson led the Xplosion in scoring both seasons was among the league’s top three-point threats.
The Xplosion player who got the most national media attention was 6′ 5″ Sylvia Crawley, who executed a blindfolded dunk at the 1998 ABL All-Star Game to win what was billed as the first ever slam dunk contest for women.
The Xplosion split their home games between McNichols Arena and the smaller Denver Coliseum in each of their season. Attendance was pretty consistent through the team’s brief run, holding a steady average of just under 4,000 per game. A February 1st, 1998 game at McNichols against the New England Blizzard set the club’s all-time mark with 13,489 fans on hand.
November-December 1998: Phoenix Home Life Insurance
The New England Blizzard were a very popular women’s basketball franchise in the short-lived American Basketball League (1996-1998). The Blizzard finished in last place for two of their three seasons of play, but this didn’t seem to diminish the team’s appeal. New England led the ABL in attendance every season, including a peak of 8,857 per game in 1997-98, which was more than double the league-wide average.
Notable players included guard Carolyn Jones, who led the ABL in scoring (21.2 ppg) in 1996-97, and former UCONN stars Jennifer Rizzotti and Kara Wolters. Players like Rizzotti and Wolters were emblematic of the ABL’s noble – some would say indulgent – attitude towards player salaries and benefits. Rizzotti inked a 3-year, $450,000 deal on the eve of the ABL’s final season. Wolters got 3 years at $200,000 per season as a rookie out of UCONN in 1997. Across the league, ABL salaries averaged $80,000 per year in 1997-98, which was more than double the average pay in the rival Women’s National Basketball Association, which debuted in the summer of 1997. As a result, the ABL attracted better players overall, but the NBA-backed WNBA spent much more on marketing and earned better television deals and far larger crowds.
During their debut season, the Blizzard played the majority of their games (12) at the Springfield (MA) Civic Center. In Springfield, the Blizzard were a typical ABL club, averaging 3,406 fans for a dozen home dates, right on par with the league-wide average. But in Hartford, the team was tremendously popular, drafting off the popularity and traditions of the celebrated UCONN college program and pulling an average of 7,412 fans for eight home games. This included a league-record crowd of 11,873 for a January 25, 1997 game against the San Jose Lasers at the Hartford Civic Center. Heading into the 1997-98 season, the Blizzard flipped the script, scheduling sixteen home dates in Hartford and only six in Springfield.
Hartford was also home to one’s of the ABL’s most emotionally and financially engaged boosters: Robert Fiondella, chairman of Hartford-based Phoenix Home Life Insurance and also of the Greater Hartford Chamber of Commerce. The ABL found the sponsorship market for women’s pro basketball to be especially challenging, but Phoenix Home Life was an exception, signing on as one of the league’s first national corporate partners in October 1996.
In April 1997, Fiondella and Phoenix Home Life invested an additional $3 million to acquire a 20% equity interest in the ABL, as well as an option to purchase operating rights to the Blizzard franchise. Under the ABL’s single entity structure, all franchises and player contracts were owned by the league, but the sale of operating rights allowed local investors to manage a team’s front office operations and retain all local revenue. Combined with a simultaneous $3 million infusion from Silicon Valley venture capitalist Joe Lacob for league equity and operating rights to the San Jose Lasers franchise, the ABL was able to offset most if not all of it’s reported $4M – $6M operating loss on the league’s inaugural season.
For the 1997-98 season, the Blizzard hired Basketball Hall-of-Famer and former Boston Celtics head coach K.C. Jones to coach the team. Under Jones, the team improved from the last place finish of 1997 to earn the ABL’s fourth and final playoff spot in 1998 with a 24-20 record. The San Jose Lasers swept the Blizzard in a best-of-three series in the first round of the 1998 ABL playoffs.
In November of 1998, Phoenix Home Life Insurance finally exercised its 18-month old option to buy the operating rights to the New England Blizzard. The Sports Business Journal reported that the undisclosed option price was believed to be north of $1.5 million. The timing proved unfortunate for Phoenix, as the league ran out of money barely a month later. On December 21, the league’s board of directors voted to shut down the league immediately – barely one-third of the way through the league’s third season – and file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
At the time the ABL folded, the Blizzard had a 3-10 last place record in their third season and a league-high 4,800 season ticket holders. Of the ABL’s more than 1,000 bankruptcy creditors, Phoenix Home Life Insurance was the largest, owed more than $6 million as the guarantor of a league bank loan.
Professional women’s basketball returned to Connecticut in 2003 with the transfer of the WNBA’s Orlando Miracle franchise to the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville. The franchise was re-branded the Connecticut Sun. Former Blizzard sales executive and General Manager Chris Sienko has been the Sun’s Vice President and General Manager for the past eleven seasons.
The Richmond Rage were a women’s professional basketball team that lasted for just one season in the American Basketball League. The ABL was formed in 1995 with plans for a fall 1996 launch, hoping to draft off of the platform of the 1996 Atlanta summer Olympics and to get the jump on the WNBA, a rival startup backed by the National Basketball Association.
The Rage had a terrifically talented roster, including former University of Virginia star and Olympic gold medalist Dawn Staley (guard), and forward Adrienne Goodson of Old Dominion. Staley and Goodson would both earn 1st Team All-ABL honors, while 6′ 4″ center Taj McWilliams was named 2nd team All-League.
One curiosity on the Rage roster was the presence of U.S. Olympic track & field legend Jackie Joyner-Kersee. The 34-year old medaled in her fourth and final summer Olympics in Atlanta in 1996 just months before the American Basketball League made its debut. Kersee was an All-Pac 10 performer at UCLA in the early 1980′s, but hadn’t played competitive basketball in over a decade when she signed with the Rage in 1996. Kersee made 17 appearances off the bench during the 1996-97 season, but her skills had eroded and she averaged just 0.9 points per game at forward.
Despite the individual talent, the Rage didn’t really put it all together in the regular season, finishing with a modest 21-19 record. But the Rage caught fire for the playoffs, and upset the Western Conference champion Colorado Xplosion to earn a championship series date with the ABL’s best team, the Columbus Quest. Richmond took a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series, but was unable to close out the Quest. Columbus took Games 4 & 5 on back-to-back nights on March 9th and 10th, 1997 to win the ABL’s first championship title.
Off the court, the Rage averaged 3,139 fans per game for 20 home dates split between the Richmond Coliseum and the Robins Center at the University of Richmond. That ranked 6th out of the ABL’s 8 teams, but wasn’t far off the league average of 3,536 per game. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the ABL lost an estimated $500,000 – $600,000 operating the Rage in Richmond during its first season.
The ABL was a single-entity organization, which meant that all teams and player contracts were owned centrally by the league. In July 1997, with ticket sales for the second season lagging in Richmond and the league in dire need of more alluring media markets for sponsors and television partners, the ABL moved the Rage franchise to Philadelphia.
The Philadelphia Rage never regained the form of their first season in Virginia, falling to last place in 1997-98 with a 13-31 record. The league’s third season in 1998-99 was cut off abruptly when the ABL shut down three days before Christmas in 1998 and later declared bankruptcy.
Rare program from the second – and, as it turned out, final – All-Star game for the short-lived American Basketball League (1996-1998), played at Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando in January 1998.
The game itself was something of a dud. The West All-Stars led 54-27 at the half and ran away with the game in a 102-73 laugher. Shalonda Enis (15 pts.) of the Seattle Reign earned MVP honors, but the real star of the weekend was 6′ 5″ forward Sylvia Crawley of the Colorado Xplosion. Crawley won what was billed as the first ever women’s slam dunk contest during the halftime festivities, besting 6′ 7″ Kara Wolters of the New England Blizzard with a successful blindfolded, one-handed dunk on her first try. Crawley had been dunking in practice since her freshman year at the University of North Carolina, but had never dunked in a professional game.
Before the game, American Basketball League CEO Gary Cavalli told the media of his hope that the ABL’s next All-Star Game would be an inter-league exhibition against the stars of its bigger and richer rival, the Women’s National Basketball Association. But there would be no more ABL All-Star Games. The troubled league ran out of money 11 months later and folded on December 22, 1998.
Team Colors: Black, Goldenrod, Crimson & Forest Green
Owner: American Basketball League
The Seattle Reign were a cleverly named women’s professional basketball team that competed for two-and-a-half seasons in the American Basketball League (1996-1998). The Reign had a modest but dedicated fan base that consistently filled the 4,500-seat Mercer Arena to three quarters of capacity, creating a better atmosphere than many ABL clubs that played in oversized buildings. The Reign also played occasional home dates at KeyArena, home of the NBA’s Seattle Sonics.
The ABL was founded in late 1995 with the aim of capitalizing on the expected strong performance of the United States women’s basketball team at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. The NBA was backing a rival start-up – the WNBA – which would fill dates at NBA arenas during the slow summer months and wouldn’t start until 1997. As expected, the Americans won Gold in Atlanta. Thanks to an earlier start in October 1996 and more generous salaries and benefits, the ABL initially lured the majority of the Olympic champions to their league.
The Reign used their 1st round draft pick in 1996 to select 29-year old Venus Lacy, a 6′ 4″ center on the U.S. Olympic team. Lacy signed with the ABL and was expected to be the Reign’s dominant presence. Instead, she had a cursed campaign that included an arthroscopic knee surgery in midseason, followed less than two months later by a serious car accident which ended her season. Lacy was shipped to the ABL’s Long Beach Stingrays expansion franchise after the season and was never a major factor for the Reign. Seattle finished the ABL’s inaugural season 17-23 and out of the playoffs.
Prior to the ABL’s second season in 1997-98, the Reign added two outstanding rookies to the roster. Kate Starbird came out of Stanford University as the all-time leading scorer for that powerhouse program and as the Naismith Award winner as the nation’s College Player-of-the-Year. Starbird also had Washington state ties as a graduate of Lakes High School in Lakewood. The 22-year old’s three-year ABL deal came with a base salary of $150,000 plus perhaps another $100,000 in endorsements, which The Seattle Times speculated was the richest contract in the women’s game at the time.
6′ 1″ forward Shalonda Enis out of the University of Alabama was less heralded than Starbird, but ended up more impactful, finishing 5th in the ABL in scoring (18.0 ppg) and winning league Rookie-of-the-Year honors.
Despite the arrival of Enis and Starbird, the Reign finished last in the Western Conference at 15-29.
The Reign returned for a third season in October 1998, but by this time the ABL was financially hobbled by extravagant salaries, lack of sponsor & television interest, and competition from the far wealthier (but lower paying) WNBA. The Reign played only 15 games of the 1997-98 season before the ABL ran out of money and closed its doors on December 22, 1998.
The Reign played 49 regular season home dates during their two-and-a-half year history and averaged 3,374 fans per game over that time. During the Reign’s debut season in 1996-97 they sold 1,155 season tickets according to The Seattle Times.
Professional women’s basketball returned to Seattle in 2000 with the arrival of the Seattle Storm expansion team in the WNBA. The Storm have since won two WNBA championships in 2004 and 2010.
In 2013, Seattle’s new entry in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) gave new life to the “Reign” nickname, adopting the identity of Seattle Reign FC. Reign FC owner Bill Predmoreacknowledged that the name was in part a tribute to the original Reign basketball team.
The ABL got out of the box first in the winter of 1996-97 and beat out the WNBA to sign a majority of the 1996 Gold Medal winners from the United States Olympic Team. These included Oregon native Katy Steding (pictured on the Power’s inaugural season media guide, above right) who was assigned to the Power.
Portland’s best player, however, and one of the most dominant in the ABL’s brief history, was 6′ 2″ center Natalie Williams. Williams is the daughter of former NBA player Nate Williams and was a two-sport All-America at UCLA in basketball and volleyball. Williams won the ABL’s Most Valuable Player award during the 1997-98 season, when she led the league in scoring and rebounding and finished fourth in blocks.
Following her MVP campaign, Williams exercised a clause in her ABL contract to request a trade to the Long Beach Stingrays franchise for the 1998-99 season, in order to be closer to her Southern California home. The ABL was a single-entity league and all players were under contract to the league rather than individual franchises. At first the move appeared to severely hobble the Power, who had improved from the worst team in the ABL in 1996-97 to conference champions in 1997-98. But the Stingrays turned out to be in brutal financial condition and the league contracted the team during the summer of the 1998. With the Southern California franchise out of the picture, Williams returned to Portland for a third season.
The ABL itself was running out of money, despite the contraction of the weak Long Beach and Atlanta Glory franchises during the summer of 1998 and across the board pay cuts for league employees. The ABL managed to get a third season underway in November 1998 and the league was counting on the potential of an NBA player lockout that fall to bring new media and fan attention to the league. It didn’t happen and by December the league was out of cash. Portland was atop the Western Conference with a 9-4 record when the ABL suddenly went out of business three days before Christmas on December 22, 1998. The league later declared bankruptcy, leaving the WNBA as the winner of the women’s basketball wars of the mid-1990′s.
Professional women’s basketball briefly returned to Portland in 2000 with the formation of the WNBA’s Portland Fire franchise, backed by Portland Trailblazers owner Paul Allen. Like the Power, the Portland Fire lasted only three seasons folding after the 2002 season.
The Philadelphia Rage were a women’s professional basketball team that operated for a season-and-a-half in the American Basketball League. The franchise started out in Virginia as the Richmond Rage during the ABL’s 1996-97 inaugural season and advanced to the 1997 ABL Championship Series, losing to the Columbus Quest.
In July 1997 the Rage relocated to Philadelphia due to poor ticket sales and the small size of the media market in Richmond. In their first season in Philly, the Rage split their games between the Palestra at the University of Pennsylvania and the brand new 10,000-seat Apollo at Temple University. Attendance in Philadelphia was notably lousy. During the 1997-98 season, Philadelphia ranked 8th out of the ABL’s 9 teams with average crowds of 3,238 for 22 home dates. For the aborted 1998-99 season, when the Rage played solely at the Apollo, attendance was far and away the weakest in the league, with only 1,495 per game showing up for six dates.
The 1997-98 Rage club was terrible on the court, despite the presence of three women’s game legends on the roster in Adrienne Goodson, Taj McWilliams and Philly native Dawn Staley. The Rage finished in last place in their division with a 13-31 record.
As the 1998-99 season began, the Rage seemed poised to turn things around, despite the loss of Dawn Staley, who jumped to the ABL’s much stronger rival, the Women’s National Basketball Association, during the offseason. Hall-of-Famer Anne Donovan was the new coach and had the Rage off to a 9-5 start before the league ran out of money just before Christmas. The league had kept the true severity of its financial pressures quiet and many players, fans and employees were caught off guard when the ABL abruptly closed its doors on December 22, 1998.
Anne Donovan (Head Coach)
Rage guard Katrina Price died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on January 18, 1998, less than a month after the ABL folded. She was 23.
The Lasers split their home games between the San Jose Event Center, where they held the majority of their games, and occasional dates at the larger San Jose Arena. The Lasers averaged 3,181 fans per game in 1996-97, but picked up considerably the next season to 4,773. The Lasers drew 4,447 through seven home dates in 1998-99 before the ABL abruptly shut down and declared bankruptcy on December 22, 1998 midway through the league’s third season.
On the court, the Lasers posted losing records during both full ABL seasons, but still managed to sneak into the playoffs both years. Their best performance was in the 1997-98 campaign, when they advanced to the playoff semi-finals before losing to the eventual champions, the Columbus Quest.
The ABL was a single-entity organization with league ownership of franchises and player contracts. Similar to Major League Soccer, the ABL did allow investors to purchase operating rights to individual franchises, although few teams found such investors. The Lasers were an exception. Venture capitalists Joe Lacob of Kleiner, Perkins, Caulfield & Byers made an equity investment in the ABL in the spring of 1997 and later purchased operating rights to the Lasers shortly before the team’s second season got under way.
Following the demise of the ABL, Lacob became a minority partner in the Boston Celtics in 2006. In 2010, a Lacob-led group acquired ownership of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors for $450 million.
The Noise were an expansion club for the ABL’s third and final season in the fall/winter of 1998-99. Two clubs were added to the league, with the Chicago Condors being the other new entry. The timing of the expansion was rather curious, as the single-entity ABL was in serious financial distress and was simultaneously contracting clubs in Atlanta and Long Beach and imposing salary cuts across the league. Former Chicago Condors GM Denise Hodgeslater told Lena Williams of The New York Times that league CEO Gary Cavalli called her on the day of the press conference to introduce the Condors to Chicago to tell her the league was out of business, only to call back moments later and say everything was fine and to proceed with the event.
The Noise signed a couple of players of local repute, including former University of Tennessee All-American point guard Michelle Marciniak and 1996 U.S. Olympic gold medalist Venus Lacy, a 6′ 4″ center originally from Chattanooga.
The Noise debuted on November 6th, 1998 with a 84-67 loss on the road at Chicago. The team flew back to Tennessee for their home debut the following evening against the league’s two-time defending champions, the Columbus Quest. An announced crowd of 5,052 showed up at Nashville Municipal Auditorium to check out the Noise. The team dropped its second straight, 84-76.
The Noise started the season notably weak, losing their first seven games. Attendance was grim. Five of the next six home games drew less than 2,100 fans to the Municipal Auditorium. The team began to rally on the court in late November, but by this point the ABL itself was in its death throes. Starved for national sponsorship dollars and without a significant television deal, the league abruptly terminated its season on December 22, 1998 and declared bankruptcy shortly thereafter.
The Noise played their final game, an 80-73 home victory against the Seattle Reign on December 20, 1998. The club’s final record was 4-11 at the time of the shutdown.
Back in the spring of 1997, I was a senior wrapping up my studies at Emory University in Atlanta. My girlfriend at the time was in grad school at Ohio State University in Columbus. I headed to Columbus for spring break and we spent the week tugging each other in the opposing directions of our respective obsessions.
The first night of my visit she rented some bleak, sub-titled epic about families torn apart in the Chinese Cultural Revolution. I retaliated the next evening with tickets to a Columbus Invaders indoor soccer game at the antiseptic Battelle Hall downtown. There were about 40 other people in the 6,000-seat building and I will be the first to admit that it sucked. A few nights later it was her turn again – a modern dance troupe led by Mikhail Baryshnikov appeared on campus. There were about 40 other people at that one too.
On one of my last nights in town, I dragged Stephanie back downtown to Battelle Hall. I remember her being exasperated, but I guess I didn’t care because we went anyway. I was determined to see the fifth and deciding game of the American Basketball League (1996-1998) championship series between the Columbus Quest and the Richmond Rage.
In fact, I showed far more determination to support the Quest than the citizens of Columbus seemed to. They had rewarded the Quest, far and away the best team in the newly launched women’s basketball league, with the worst attendance in the eight-team circuit (2,679 per game). To the extent that the people of Columbus cared about women’s basketball, their loyalty lay with the Lady Buckeyes of Ohio State, who averaged nearly 4,000 fans per game at the time, according to a Sports Illustrated piece on the Quest’s meager box office.
From personal experience, I lay part of the blame on Battelle Hall itself. The 6,000-seat arena is buried within the imposing Greater Columbus Convention Center, which looks like a big city courthouse. It’s a big rectangular room full of cheap modular seating that is snapped together like Legos and has all the charm of an Amazon.com shipping & fulfillment center. Walking down the street outside you’d have not the slightest clue that a pro team made its home there, much less that a game was going to happen on any particular evening.
But on this night, March 11, 1997, the fans came out. The arena was pretty much full and the Quest announced a sellout o 6,313. It was, after all, the championship game – Game 5 of a best-of-five series to determine the best women’s basketball team in, I suppose, the world at that time. (The rival WNBA would begin operations just three months later and drive the ABL out of business within 18 months).
I bought a program and learned a little more about the Quest and their opponents from Virginia. The Quest were 31-9 in the regular season, plus a two-game sweep of the San Jose Lasers in the semis. They had the best player in the league in 26-year old Nikki McCray, a 5′ 11″ guard out of Tennessee who wore her hair in braided rows and won a Gold Medal with the U.S. Women at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. She would go on to win the ABL’s Most Valuable Player honor. Quest Head Coach Brian Agler was named Coach of the Year.
The Richmond Rage werea little better than mediocre that year, finishing 21-19. But they peaked late and also swept their way through the semis for their date with Columbus. The Rage were led by McCray’s Olympic teammate Dawn Staley.
The Quest got the better of it on this night, pulling away 77-64. The atmosphere was terrific, proving that a great crowd can enliven in the dullest of surroundings. Tonya Edwards was the leading scorer for the Quest with 23 points and Staley was the top threat for the Rage with 19. In an appealing sub-plot, 35-year old Valerie Still of Columbus was named Series MVP. Still was the oldest player in the ABL. Without a viable women’s pro league in the United States between 1981 and 1996, Still kept her career alive in Italy for a dozen seasons before coming back to finish her career in the ABL and the WNBA.
After the season, Nikki McCray bolted the ABL for the NBA-backed WNBA. McCray earned $150,000 a year in the ABL, which placed her among the league’s top earners. She earned a bigger payday and better stability from the WNBA’s Washington Mystics. But McCray was the exception rather than the rule. Most ABL players stayed loyal to the scrappy independent league for a simple reason – typically, the ABL paid much better than the WNBA. The average ABL salary in the first season was $70,000 plus generous benefits. The WNBA didn’t come close, choosing to put its money into promotion, rather than players’ pockets.
As mentioned earlier, Head Coach Brian Agler won ABL Coach-of-the-Year honors in 1997, but he really deserved them more in Year Two (when he didn’t win). Despite losing McCray, the league’s reigning MVP, Agler led the Quest to an even better 36-8 record during the 1997-98 season. The Quest repeated as champions, coming back from a 2-0 deficit in the ABL championship series to defeat the Long Beach Stingrays 3 games to 2. Attendance even ticked up to 3,500 per game.
The ABL suffered from anemic corporate sponsorships, flat attendance, obscure television deals and the NBA threat. Heading into Year Three in the fall of 1998, the league cut costs across the board. But it wasn’t enough. Two months into its third season, the ABL abruptly shutdown and declared bankruptcy with debts of $10 million. The date was December 22, 1998.
As always, the Quest were atop the league standings at the time. Columbus had an 11-3 record when the ABL folded. Over the league’s two-plus years of operations, the Quest’s regular season and playoff record was a remarkable 86-24.
After the league folded, Brian Agler became Head Coach of the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx expansion franchise, leading that club from 1999 to 2002. Five Quest players followed Agler to the Lynx, including Tonya Edwards and Valerie Still. Although Agler could not repeat his ABL success with the Lynx, he would later win a WNBA title as Head Coach of the Seattle Storm in 2010.
1998 ABL Championship Series, Game 5. Quest vs. Long Beach Stingrays. March 15, 1998