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1992-1994 Fargo-Moorhead Fever

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Continental Basketball Association (1992-1994)

Born: 1992 – The Tulsa Zone relocate to Fargo, North Dakota.
Died: May 1994 – The Fever relocate to Mexico City (Mexico City Aztecas).

Arena: Fargodome (8,100)

Colors: Teal & Black

Owners: Horn Chen, Ray Compton & Bob Salyers

The Fargo-Moorhead Fever were a well-traveled Continental Basketball Association franchise that stopped for two seasons at the Fargodome in North Dakota.  (The Fever also claimed neighboring Moorhead, Minnesota as a host community).

The franchise started out as the Detroit Spirits in 1982 and later wandered to Savannah, Georgia and Tulsa, Oklahoma.  In June 1991, when the club was known as the Tulsa Fast Breakers, the team was acquired by reclusive Chicago-based sports investor Horn Chen and two business partners.  Chen’s other investments have included numerous minor league hockey and baseball teams and the Ottawa Rough Riders of the Canadian Football League.  He was also the founder of the Central Hockey League.  After one final year of operation in Tulsa, Chen and his partners moved the club to Fargo for the 1992-93 CBA season.  Chen is mostly non-communicative with the media and public – in typical fashion, he is the only owner whose picture did not appear in the Fever yearbook.

The CBA was the Official Developmental League of the NBA at the time.  Like most CBA clubs, the Fever employed a roster of overlooked free agents and washed out draft picks looking for a shot at (or return to)  the NBA.  The CBA sent dozen of players each season to the NBA, typically on short-term 10-day contracts to fill-in for injured or suspended players.

A few former NBA 1st round picks suited up for the Fever including Roy Marble (#23 overall, Atlanta Hawks, 1989), Bernard Thompson (#19 overall, Portland Trailblazers, 1984) and Leon Wood (#10 overall, Philadelphia 76ers, 1984).

In May 1994, the Fever franchise was sold to OCESA, a concert promotion and facility management company in Mexico, run by Doug Logan.  OCESA moved the franchise to Mexico City for the 1994-95 season, where it was known as the Mexico City Aztecas.  The Aztecas lasted only one season south of the border before moving back to the United States.  Logan later became the first Commissioner of Major League Soccer.

Fargo-Moorhead got a new minor league basketball team in 1995 – the Fargo-Moorhead Beez.  The Beez played from 1995 to 2002 before folding.

Written by AC

January 21st, 2013 at 4:03 am

February 4, 1982 – Lancaster Lightning vs. Alberta Dusters

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Lancaster (PA) Lightning vs. Alberta Dusters
February 4, 1982
McCaskey High School Gymnasium
Attendance:

Continental Basketball Association Programs
40 pages

 

The Lancaster Lightning had a nice little run out in Pennsylvania Amish County from 1981 to 1985 as a member of the Continental Basketball Association (1946-2009).  Lancaster had a long history of supporting minor league basketball dating back to the 1940’s.  Traditionally, Lancaster’s pro baseball and basketball clubs were known as the Red Roses.

The last basketball version of the Red Roses left Lancaster in 1980 to try their luck in the big city at Philadelphia’s Martin Luther King Arena.  There the former Lancaster club – now known as the Philadelphia Kings – was purchased by a cocaine-trafficking dentist named Larry Lavin who used the CBA club to launder his drug profits.

The Lightning were actually the former Kings, hurriedly moved back to the peace and tranquility of Lancaster under the ownership of local urologist Dr. Seymour Kilstein. Moving with the club from Philadelphia was former NBA All-Star Cazzie Russell.  Russell played for the Philadelphia Kings, but hung up his high-tops to focus on head coaching duties with the Lightning.

Under Russell, the Lightning were 34-12 and the best club in the 8-team CBA, a tiny league which nevertheless had teams spread across the continent from Bangor, Maine to Anchorage, Alaska.  In April 1982, the Lightning beat the Billings (MT) Volcanos in a best-of-seven series to win the 1982 Continental Basketball Association crown.

The Lightning drew national press attention later on in 1982 when Steve Craig, one of the club’s young guards out of Brigham Young University married Mormon pop/television star Marie Osmond.  Craig and Osmond later divorced in 1985.

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Kilstein moved the Lightning to Baltimore in 1985 and sold it to new owners in Rockford, Illinois in 1986.  The franchise endured as the Rockford Lightning until 2001, when the club went out of business as part of the broader bankruptcy of the Continental Basketball Association.

After 26 years apart, Steve Craig and Marie Osmond remarried in 2011.

 

Written by AC

December 22nd, 2012 at 5:14 pm

December 13, 2001 – Gary Steelheads vs. Dakota Wizards

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Gary (IN) Steelheads vs. Dakota Wizards
December 13, 2001
Genesis Convention Center
Continental Basketball Association Programs
36 pages

Isiah Thomas talked a big game when he bought controlling interest in the venerable Continental Basketball Association for $10 million in late 1999.  Blathering to Sports Illustrated in a February 2000 profile, Thomas declared that he would transform the CBA – for decades a charmingly ungovernable minor league money-pit – into “the Microsoft of basketball”.  He envisioned expansion growth to 300 small market teams (up from just nine when he bought in) and even the formation of a WCBA minor league for the women’s game.

Thomas was five years removed from his NBA playing days at the time.  The Sports Illustrated piece was just one of many that followed a consistent (and deeply flawed) media storyline about Thomas and the CBA.  The notion was that the smooth-talking, stylish basketball star would deliver a much-needed dose of Madison Avenue panache and boardroom sophistication to the slack-jawed yokels who ran minor league basketball in places like Sioux Falls and Grand Rapids.  Isiah Thomas would be the best thing to happen to these rubes since rural electrification.

As it played out, Thomas was the rube (and a “nasty, imcompetent” a-hole, according to this 2006 New York Daily News evisceration).  The men he bought the CBA from were a motley bunch.  But the best among them had operated their clubs for a decade or more on razor thin margins.  They understood the peculiar economy of the minor leagues in a way Thomas did not, and apparently didn’t care to.  Within 18 months, Isiah Thomas bankrupted the venerable 55-year old CBA.

Among his many failures at the CBA, Thomas failed to attract the legions new franchises he promised.  In fact, he signed on just one: an expansion franchise for Gary, Indiana, announced in February 2000.  It’s not surprising that the one place Thomas closed a deal for the CBA was in Indiana, where he was still revered for delivering a national championship at IU under Bobby Knight.

Under the structure of Thomas’ CBA management scheme, his holding company would own 51% of the Gary Steelheads.  A group of local investors headed by Jewell Harris Sr. purchased the remaining 49%.  Jewell Harris was a Gary power-broker; former majority whip of the Indiana state house of representatives, chief political adviser and campaign manager to Gary’s Mayor Scott King, and a prominent businessman in his own right.  In addition to his partial ownership of the Steelheads, Harris was involved with a much higher profile minor league project in Gary: the 2001 construction of RailCats Stadium for the city’s independent baseball team.  Harris’ Enterprise Trucking and Waste Hauling was a sub-contractor on the $45 million project.

Just a few months after the Gary franchise was announced, Thomas accepted a job as Head Coach of the NBA’s Indiana Pacers. NBA rules required Thomas to divest himself of the CBA, but he found there were no buyers.  (Thomas had already foolishly brushed off an offer from the NBA and David Stern to buy the league from him on favorable terms.)  Thomas placed the CBA into a blind trust and walked away, leaving the entire league starved for cash as the Steelheads entered their inaugural season in the fall of 2000.

By February 2001 the CBA was insolvent and unable to make payroll for its players or team staff.  The league officially folded on February 7, 2001 in the middle of its 55th season.  In a few cases, the former team owners who sold out to Thomas in 1999 came back to save their teams.  Others simply folded.  In the case of the Steelheads, Jewell Harris Sr. stepped up to take on full operations of the club and the team was able to continue on.

The surviving CBA owners bought the league name and trademarks out of bankruptcy and revived the CBA for the 2001-02.  The program above is from December 2001, early in the Steelheads’ second season, with the team now firmly under the control of the Harris family.

The Steelheads had some highlights under the Harrises.  In January 2005, the CBA All-Star Game drew 6,000 fans to the Genesis Center.  Announced attendance peaked at around 2,700 during the 2003-04 CBA season.  But for the most part the Steelheads were a losing proposition.  The team operated in the red for all six seasons of existence of Jewell Harris Sr.’s ownership from 2000 to 2006.  The team was also dependent on unusually generous public subsidies from the City of Gary, which flowed from casino revenues.  Long-time Mayor Scott King was an early booster of the Steelheads to the civic and corporate communities, but buzz around the team faded after King had a falling out with Jewell Harris and distanced himself from the team.

Harris Sr. pulled out of the CBA and shut down the Steelheads in July 2006.  The very same week he was indicted on federal fraud and money laundering charges related to the construction of Gary’s minor league baseball stadium back in 2001.  It seems Harris pilfered $1.5 million dollars from the City of Gary in a double-billing scam related to hauling debris away from the stadium site.  He was convicted in 2008 and is currently serving a six-year federal prison sentence.

Harris’ son, Jewell Harris Jr., organized a new investment group that revived the Steelheads for a couple more grim seasons in progressively cheaper minor leagues.  The Steelheads competed in the summer-season United States Basketball League in 2007 and then moved to the cut-rate International Basketball League in 2008.  By this point, Steelheads attendance had dwindled to just a few hundred fans per game at the Genesis Center.  The team suspended operations indefinitely in 2008, citing the financial crisis, and never returned.

Downloads:

Gary Steelheads vs. Dakota Wizards Game Notes – 12/13/2001

Gary Steelheads Sources

Written by AC

December 8th, 2012 at 5:36 pm

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.

Downloads:

Puerto Rico Coquis & Maine Windjammers sources

Written by AC

September 25th, 2011 at 12:35 am

1980-81 Philadelphia Kings

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Crime & Punishment” – it’s one of the most popular tags here on Fun While It Lasted.  These are the stories of sports teams & owners brought down by their own criminal mischief.  Typically, these stories revolve around financial scams and embezzlement, such as Mickey Monus’ looting of millions of dollars from his Phar-Mor pharmacy chain to fund the World Basketball League or the fugitive mortgage broker Philip Breen’s adventures with Other People’s Money in the Senior Professional Baseball Association.

Drug trafficking is a less common theme in pro sports, although not unexplored (see our article on the front office cocaine ring at the Denver Comets).  Today we have our second entry in the Cocaine Chronicles, with a dash of arson thrown in for good measure.  Meet the Philadelphia Kings of the Continental Basketball Association.

Larry Lavin began selling cocaine as a undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania in the mid-1970’s.  By the time he enrolled in Penn’s dental school, he was a full-fledged dealer with an increasingly sophisticated distribution network in Philadelphia.  Between  1978 and 1984, the FBI estimates that Lavin and his associates – a white-collar cabal of dentists, lawyers, accountants and others known as “The Yuppie Conspiracy” – distributed up to 110 pounds of cocaine per month in 14 U.S. States and Canada.  By 1980, Lavin had earned more than a million dollars cash from dealing.  Under pressure from his fiancee to go straight, Lavin began seeking means to launder his cash holdings into a seemingly legitimate income stream.  A Philadelphia attorney introduced him to Mark Stewart.

Mark Stewart dabbled in various enterprises in Philadelphia and Atlantic City.  He was the business manager for Freddie Shero, the two-time Stanley Cup winning head coach of the Philadelphia Flyers.  He promoted the occasional boxing card.  He got involved with money-losing real estate development deals, which he subsequently sold as fraudulent tax shelters to Shero and others, including Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Jerry Robinson and running back Reggie Wilkes.  Lavin initially placed $500,000 with Stewart’s various enterprises which then paid Lavin a modest laundered salary in return.

Infused with Lavin’s cash, Stewart went on a shopping spree, starting a limo company and promoting a soul music label among other projects.  In June 1980, Stewart persuaded Lavin to purchase the decrepit Philadelphia Arena at 45th & Market Street in West Philadelphia for $100,000.  Larmark, Inc., one of Stewart’s laundering entities for Lavin’s cocaine sales, became the owner of record.  The arena, opened in 1920, had a long history hosting boxing, wrestling and ice hockey, but had fallen into disuse after the construction of the Spectrum in 1967.  Throughout the 1970’s, it was used mainly to house Philadelphia’s public television station.  Stewart renamed the building Martin Luther King Arena as a community relations move aimed at the arena’s primarily African-American neighbors.

Martin Luther King Arena re-opened as an entertainment venue on June 20th, 1980, offering a closed-circuit feed of the “Brawl in Montreal” boxing match between Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran.  But Stewart couldn’t get his newly installed satellite equipment to work.  The showing had to be cancelled, leading to a mini-riot by the boxing fans lined up outside.

Later in 1980, Lavin gave Stewart $25,000 in drug money to help purchase the Lancaster (PA) Red Roses of the minor league Continental Basketball Association.  The small city of Lancaster, nestled in Pennsylvania Dutch country, had hosted a series of minor league basketball teams – all known as the Red Roses – dating back to 1946.  The latest incarnation of the Red Roses started up in 1975.  Stewart relocated the franchise to the Martin Luther King Arena and dubbed it the Philadelphia Kings as part of his ongoing MLK tribute act.  Stewart hired long-time Philadelphia 76ers star Hal Greer to run the building and serve as the Kings Head Coach and General Manager.

Greer was one of the all-time great figures in Philadelphia 76ers history.  The guard from Marshall University played his entire 15-year NBA career for the Syracuse Nationals/Philadelphia 76ers franchise, earning 10 All-Star appearances and retiring as the 5th all-time leading scorer in NBA history.  During the 1967 playoffs, Greer averaged nearly 28 points per game as the 76ers won their first NBA title.

The Kings also signed former NBA star Cazzie Russell.  The New York Knicks made Russell the #1 overall pick in the 1966 NBA Draft out of the University of Michigan.  He went on to win an NBA title with the Knicks in 1970 and earned an All-Star nod with the Golden State Warriors in 1972.  His NBA career ended in 1978.

The immortal Chubby Cox

By January 1981, the Kings were two months into the CBA season.  Russell was a bright spot, averaging 19 points a game to that point.  Kings leading scorer Norman Black earned a call-up on a 10-day contract to the Detroit Pistons of the NBA.  Otherwise, the Kings were a disaster.  The Anchorage Daily News reported that Philadelphia Kings attendance through the first two months averaged approximately 150 fans per game in a city that already had the NBA, Villanova and Temple college basketball, Flyers hockey and Eagles football during the winter months.

At the end of the 1980-81 CBA season, the franchise was sold and relocated back to Lancaster, Pennsylvania where it became known as the Lancaster Lightning.  Russell moved with the team and became its Head Coach for several years.

In the summer 1981, Lavin and his partners stopped giving money to Stewart.  The Kings had been a disaster and the arena had become a financial sinkhole.  Stewart hatched a plan with two employees of his Celebrity Limousine Service (another Lavin-funded entity controlled by Stewart).  The conspirators paid $12,500 to a Pagans motorcycle gang member named James “Horrible” Holt to burn the building down.  On October 4th, 1981, Holt torched the Martin Luther King Arena.  The blaze destroyed the building’s roof, but did not bring it down.  The damaged building sat vacant and unoccupied until August 1983 when a second suspected arson finished the job, burning the building to the ground.

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Hal Greer was honored with induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1982.  In 1996, the NBA named Greer to its 50th Anniversary All-Time Team, honoring the Top 50 players in league history.

Cazzie Russell coached in the CBA throughout the 1980’s.  In November 2011, he will be inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.

Mark Stewart was indicted in January 1985 for selling the fraudulent tax shelters that resulted in large IRS debts owed by Flyers coach Freddie Shero and Philadelphia Eagles players Jerry Robinson and Reggie Wilkes.  In September 1986, Stewart was indicted on arson charges for the 1981 fire at Martin Luther King Arena.  During the same year, Stewart pleaded guilty to helping Lavin launder his money and was sentenced to four years in prison.  Stewart’s arsonist, gang member James “Horrible” Holt was murdered in 1984.

Larry Lavin was arrested in 1984.  Lavin and his wife and child went on the run, living under assumed identities for more than a year in Virginia.  He was arrested in 1986 and pled guilty later that years to conspiracy, drug distribution and tax evasion charges.  The Yuppie Conspiracy and the Lavin-Stewart partnership was chronicled in the 1987 book Doctor Dealer by Mark Bowden, later the author of Black Hawk Down.  Bowden’s book was a key source for this article.

Downloads:

Philadelphia Kings Sources