The Fort Lauderdale Sun were an oddball pro soccer entry during the dark years of the mid-1980′s for the outdoor game in the United States.
The United Soccer League formed in February 1984 by a break-away faction of owners from the ramshackle 2nd division American Soccer League (1933-1983). The Sun were a brand new franchise, created to fill the void after the Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the North American Soccer League (1977-1983) moved to Minneapolis three months earlier. The Sun had only a fraction of the budget of the old Strikers clubs, but managed to bring back a handful of ex-Strikers for familiarity, including Peruvian World Cup star Teofilo Cubillas (who agreed to play home games only), Thomas Rongen and player/coach Keith Weller. Other notables included long-time English National Team defender Dave Watson and Scottish international midfielder Asa Hartford, both of whom played for the Sun in 1984 but did not return in 1985.
Original Sun owner Ronnie Sharp was a 36-year old Scottish footballer who starred for the Miami Toros of the North American Soccer League during the 1970′s and then remained in South Florida. Less than a month into the 1984 season, Sharp was arrested in Laredo, Texas and indicted by a federal grand jury for conspiring to smuggle 200,000 pounds of marijuana into the U.S. from Colombia.
Despite the circus atmosphere surrounding Ronnie Sharp, the Sun put together a league-best 15-9 record and advanced to the USL’s best-of-three championship series against the Houston Dynamos in late August 1984. The series came down to a deciding Game Three played at Fort Lauderdale’s Lockhart Stadium on September 1, 1984. Dave Watson was the hero of the game for the Sun, scoring the team’s only goal in regulation and then burying the decisive penalty kick to give then Sun the first (and, as it turned out, only) championship of the United Soccer League.
Following the 1984 season, seven of the nine original USL franchises went out of business. The Sun came back for a second season in 1985 with a new name (South Florida Sun) and a new ownership group of 13 area physicians and businessmen who took over from Sharpe. In mid-June, the Sun signed a three-year contract with former Ajax, New York Cosmos and Dutch National Team star Johan Neeskens to a three-year contract, although the team was already falling behind on payroll to its existing roster. Neeskens played only one league game for the Sun before the league folded in midseason (he would never receive a paycheck).
After the USL died in late June, the Sun drifted along for another couple of weeks, making noise about playing out the summer with a series of exhibitions. But the money was gone and there was no point. The team’s final hurrah was an exhibition against the Topez-Haitian All-Stars of Miami on July 4, 1985 as a warm-up act for the city’s Independence Day fireworks show. The unpaid players split the gate proceeds from the crowd of 3,529 and disbanded four days later.
Colin Fowles, a longtime Striker who signed with the Sun in 1985, was murdered during a recreational soccer game in Miami’s Bunche Park. Fowles was an innocent bystander. The murder was not solved, although authorities suspected a notorious Jamaican drug gang. Fowles was 32.
Sun player/coach Keith Weller died of cancer at age 58 in November 2004.
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.
The experience of writing this blog has only served to heighten a long-simmering suspicion of the personal financial advisor industry. Years ago, I was working for a minor league baseball team when a friend and co-worker asked if his cousin Brendan could come in a buy lunch for the office. The cousin was starting out as an American Express Financial Advisor and he had a monthly quota of corporate lunch presentations to hawk disability policies and IRAs and so on. The thing was, I already knew Brendan. Brendan was a bartender at a place downtown where we watched a few Red Sox playoff games. Call me old fashioned, but I think it’s weird to get financial advice from a kid in his 20′s working two jobs to make ends meet. I said yes because it was an easy favor for a friend and because we’d get a free cold cut platter and because nobody in that front office including me had two nickels to rub together anyway, let alone to invest with Brendan.
The Trenton Lightning of the Indoor Professional Football League were another embezzlement-powered start-up in a remote outpost of the minor league industry. In this case, an American Express Financial Advisor named Philip Subhan secretly diverted money from at least two of his clients to fund his pro sports fantasies. Most of the money – over $100,000 – was stolen from Sandra Kelly, a 90-year old blind widow who trusted Subhan and one of his Amex Financial partners to open her mail and write checks for her using a rubber signature stamp. Soon enough, Subhan began writing checks to himself.
The Lightning belonged to the IPFL (1999-2001), a fly-by-night indoor football operation that attempted to replicate the Arena Football League’s game in smaller markets. Arena Football’s founders actually had patents on the sport and sued the IPFL’s predecessor league for patent and trademark infringement. The IPFL got around the issue by playing without endzone nets, which were the key innovation of the AFL’s game covered by the patents. When Subhan signed on for 2001 with his Trenton franchise, the league had just four other teams, stretched across the country from Boise, Idaho to Knoxville, Tennessee.
IPFL players earned only about $200/game so most of the players were local products. The Lightning roster was heavy on guys from Rutgers, Montclair State and The College of New Jersey. Former Denver Broncos return specialist Vaughn Hebron was the team’s Head Coach and biggest name. That’s him on the cover of the team yearbook at the top of this post.
For a team in such a crummy league, the Lightning actually drew quite well at Trenton’s Sovereign Bank Arena. The club averaged about 3,000 fans per night for three home games in April and May 2001, according to The New York Times.
Decent attendance proved irrelevant for an operation backed by the pilfered life savings of little old blind ladies, however. Sometime in late May 2001 the ownership group fell apart, although whether this timing was due directly to the exposure of Philip Subhan’s criminal schemes is unclear.
The Lightning shut down in mid-season on May 28, 2001. The team played only six of a scheduled sixteen games, losing all of them.
The Hartford Hellions indoor soccer team was the creation of Glastonbury, Connecticut accountant/flim flam man William E. Chipman. Formed on April 26th, 1979 as an expansion franchise in the upstart Major Indoor Soccer League, the Hellions staggered through two losing seasons on the Hartford Civic Center carpet before devout Christians bought the insolvent club, exorcised the (awesome) Satanic logo and branding, and packed the team off to the Bible Belt.
The condition of the Civic Center impaired the Hellions’ launch in Hartford in late 1979. The roof of the five-year old arena collapsed under accumulated snow in January 1978, and the extensive reconstruction took two full years to complete. The Hellions spent the first two months of their inaugural season playing to small crowds at temporary homes in the New Haven Coliseum and later the Springfield (MA) Civic Center. The Hellions finally debuted at the re-opened Hartford Civic Center on February 10th, 1980, dropping a 7-2 decision to the Wichita Wings before an announced crowd of 12,154. By this point, fewer than 10 games remained in the 32-game MISL schedule.
The Hellions finished their inaugural season with a league-worst 6-26 record. Argentinean Eduardo Marasco led the club in scoring with 29 goals and Cypriot Yilmaz Orhan paced the Hellions in total points with 22 goals and 19 assists. Defender Paul Toomey was Hartford’s lone representative in the MISL All-Star Game. Yale grad Roy Messing – brother of New York Cosmos star Shep – handled the bulk of the goalkeeping duties in a platoon system with Paul Hammond and Mike Hewitt.
Following the dismal 1979-80 campaign, William Chipman blew up the Hellions squad and essentially started over with a new Head Coach (John Kowalski), new administrative staff, and an almost completely new roster. Only four returning Hellions suited up for the 1980-81 campaign, which went south almost immediately.
Courtesy of the Dave Morrison Collection – NASLJerseys.com
Only 3,356 fans turned out for the November home opener at the Hartford Civic Center. The club was marginally improved but still a league doormat. The 1980-81 Hellions finished at the bottom of the standings again with a 13-27 record. William Chipman, meanwhile, was not going to be nominated for any Chamber of Commerce Man of the Year awards. Chipman stopped paying the team and his staff in early 1981, causing a threatened player strike in mid-February. Hartford Courant journalist Tom Condon published a litany of Chipman’s sins in a 1993 retrospective, including housing his players in a YMCA, cancelling their health insurance on the sly, alienating the Connecticut Youth Soccer Association, and bouncing checks from Connecticut to California.
In May 1981, Chipman managed to unload the Hellions on Arizona businessman Ray Kuns and DaveHannah, Executive Director of the Athletes In Action Christian sports ministry for an estimated price of $500,000. The franchise relocated to Memphis, Tennessee’s Mid-South Coliseum. Athletes In Action had little use for the club’s devilish identity and the team was re-branded as the Memphis Americans for the 1981-82 MISL season.
The bloodlines of the Hellions franchise ran until 1985. The Memphis Americans played for three seasons, before Las Vegas interests bought the team in June 1984. The club played one final season as the Las Vegas Americans in the winter of 1984-85. The franchise folded in July 1985.
William Chipman served time in federal prison later in the 1980′s for his role in promoting phony literary tax shelters, a scheme he hatched in collusion with the Westport, Connecticut-based author Robin Moore, author of the best-selling novels (and later Hollywood films) “The Green Berets”, “The French Connection” and “The Happy Hooker”.
“We didn’t borrow any money for this,” Jeffrey Fischer told The Sarasota Herald-Tribune in early 1984, bragging about his new Sarasota Stingers basketball team. “I took what I considered to be risk capital and invested it.”
Technically, this was true. Fischer, a stockbroker for E.F. Hutton in Sarasota, did not borrow any money to run his Continental Basketball Association expansion franchise in the winter of 1983-84. He stole it from his mostly elderly brokerage clients. And he got away with it for an entire season before the Securities & Exchange Commission caught up to him in June 1984.
Journeyman basketball coach Bill Musselman briefly helmed teams in the American Basketball Association, the NBA and the Western Basketball Association. A Sarasota resident, Musselman brought the idea of forming a CBA team to Jeffrey Fischer in the summer of 1983. Fischer paid $180,000 to the CBA for his expansion franchise that August. Musselman signed on as Head Coach and General Manager.
“Bill Musselman was a no-nonsense guy. He was a hard-nosed guy. He was very intense and he played to win. He put his best players out there on the floor and he expected them to play hard for him,” recalled former Stinger Kevin Loder in 2011. ”Bill Musselman and I got along great and I really miss him. He was a guy that was definitely a gift to the game and he was a winner.”
On the court, the Stingers struggled out of the gate. After a 6-13 start, Fischer forced Musselman’s resignation in January 1984. Musselman found a local money guy and offered to buy the team from Fischer instead, but scoffed when Fischer asked for $1 million – a 455% premium over what he paid for the team five months earlier. “Does he think we’re a couple of hayseeds?” Musselman fumed to The Sarasota Herald-Tribune.
The Stingers finished the 1983-84 campaign tied for last place in the CBA’s Eastern Division with a 16-28 record. Three Stingers players – Clay Johnson, Mike Sanders and former Kansas City Kings first round draft pick Kevin Loder earned call-ups to the NBA during the season.
For a man making bad bets with stolen money - the Feds would later show that Fischer defrauded his clients of $2.3 million between 1977 and 1984 – Fischer spent a lot of time crowing to the local media about the alleged details of the Stingers’ finances. His club sold an all-time record of 1,348 season tickets for the 1983-84 campaign. He had to cut off the waiting list of interested investment partners after more than 120 people clamored to get a piece of the Stingers. He expected to make a 40% annual return on his Stingers investment. He was preparing to apply for an NBA expansion franchise for Tampa-St. Pete. None of it was true, but it all made for great press while it lasted.
In June 1984 the authorities caught up to Fischer and froze his assets, which placed the Stingers in limbo throughout the summer. Fischer’s sole minority investor (out of the 120 allegedly clamoring for a piece of the team) Mike Cohn recruited two new partners and rescued the team in August 1984. Then he began to sort through the books.
Fischer’s boasts to the media – and his own partner – were fabrications. Of the CBA record 1,300 season tickets Fischer claimed, Cohn could only account for 300 actual paid tickets. Robarts Sports Arena was routinely papered with free tickets and the club lost about $200,000. Even the NBA expansion papers that Fischer showed to Cohn turned out to be “forgeries…a figment of his imagination“, Cohn told The Sarasota Herald-Tribune.
“At that particular time they were trying to create a large critical mass <of teams> in the CBA. Let’s just say there was not a lot of scrutiny about the background checks, if you will, of where and how someone makes their money,” said Kevin Loder. “At any rate, players were removed from that. We just assumed that whoever was a part of <ownership> was capable of delivering. That kind of thing happened overseas as well and so those were common place stories when you were playing in these leagues that were not the NBA. Stability was in the NBA.”
Reorganized in the front office, the Stingers continued to struggle on the court in their second season. The club finished in 7th (last) place in the East with a 21-27 record. After the 1984-85 season, the Stingers moved 15 minutes north up Interstate 75 to the Manatee Civic Center in Palmetto, Florida. The club played one final season in the winter of 1985-86 under the name “Florida Stingers” at the 3,900-seat Manatee. The Stingers averaged 1,096 per games during their lone season in Palmetto and once again finished out of the playoff hunt with a 21-27 record.
In July 1986, new ownership purchased the franchise and relocated the team to Charleston, West Virginia for the 1986-87 CBA season.
Bill Musselman had great success in his next two CBA coaching stops with the Tampa Bay Thrillers and Albany Patroons. He leveraged his CBA track record to return to the NBA, where he was named the first head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves when that expansion franchise began play in 1989. Musselman coached the T-Wolves for their first two seasons of existence and joined the Portland Trailblazers as an assistant coach in the late 1990′s. Musselman suffered a stroke following a pre-season game in October 1999 and died due of heart and kidney failure in May 2000 at the age of 59.
Former Stingers Head Coach Bill Musselman died on May 5, 2000 of heart and kidney failure after a series of ailments. He was 59.
Remember that Churchill line about the Russians that Oliver Stone lifted for JFK? It’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. It’s a sentiment often shared by fans and observers trying to discern the money men and financing schemes behind fringe pro sports operations.
When I ran the Boston Breakers in Women’s Professional Soccer, the St. Louis Athletica franchise abruptly folded in the middle of the 2010 season when Heemal and Sanjeev Vaid - a couple of fast food franchisees in London – stopped making payroll. The collective reaction of WPS officials and St. Louis fans was: “Who the hell are the Vaid Brothers?” Nobody ever heard of these dudes. We all thought another guy owned the club – you know, the guy who actually owned the club the year before and still liked to refer to himself as the “Chairman” and take part in league conference calls. Turns out he sold it, but forgot to tell the Commissioner or anyone else.
The Vaids may have been poorly vetted absentee deadbeats, but they weren’t scary. Not scary like the reputed backers of the Major Indoor Soccer League‘s Phoenix Inferno, a blackbox franchise whose personable front man Rick Ragone turned out to have little equity, but plenty of silent partners back in Scarface-era Miami.
Ragone’s story begins in Miami, where as a young man he worked as a PR assistant with the Miami Dolphins. In the early 1970′s Ragone hooked on in the front office of the Miami Toros of the North American Soccer League, where he became an early proponent of the hybrid game of indoor soccer, played on carpeted hockey rinks. At the Toros, Ragone crossed paths with Scottish-born executive Norm Sutherland. The two men kicked around the NASL for a few years and then teamed up to announce the formation of the indoor Major Soccer League in August 1975. Ragone and Sutherland envisioned their league as a summer time rival to the outdoor NASL and claimed they had franchises “90% sold” in six major markets. The project never made it off the drawing board, similar to other efforts that the young entrepeneurs tried to get off the ground in the late 1970′s, including Ragone’s effort to put an NASL team in sleepy Spokane, Washington and Sutherland’s role in another abandoned indoor start-up, 1978′s Super Soccer League.
Nevertheless, Ragone and Sutherland were not the only people sold on indoor soccer in the Seventies. Two other men, Ed Tepper and Earl Foreman succeeded in launching the first indoor the league, the Major Indoor Soccer League, in December 1978 with six teams in major East Coast and Midwest cities. Rapid expansion followed and the MISL announced Phoenix, Arizona as the league’s 12th franchise on May 30th, 1980 to begin play that November. Ragone would be the President and purported owner and he tabbed Sutherland as the Head Coach & GM of the club, dubbed the Phoenix Inferno.
The Inferno debuted at the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum on November 21st, 1980, losing 5-4 to the San Francisco Fog before an announced crowd of 11,098. Sutherland lasted only half the season in the Head Coach role, posting an 8-19 record before being replaced by player-coach Adrian Webster. But Ragone didn’t jettison his old colleague – Sutherland retained his GM role in the front office. The Inferno finished their first season at 17-23, good enough to squeak into the playoffs, where they lost in the first round to the defending champion New York Arrows. At the box office, the Inferno claimed attendance of 152,309 for 21 dates for an average of 7,253.
Barely a month into the Inferno’s second season on December 22, 1981, tragedy struck when Ragone perished along with his father in a four-car accident in Paradise Valley, Arizona. After Ragone’s death, a San Francisco real estate investor named Irv Berger stepped in and assumed control of the franchise in January 1982.
Under Berger, the financial fortunes of the Inferno swiftly plummeted. By December of 1982, just 11 months into his ownership, the Inferno owed more than $110,000 in back payroll taxes to the federal government and another $26,000 to the Arizona Department of Revenue. On December 13th, 1982, IRS agents raided the Inferno offices, seized all the cash on the premises and padlocked the office shut. A bankruptcy court sold a controlling stake in the club to Arizona cable television pioneer Bruce Merrill in January 1983 for $175,000. Under Merrill’s financial stewardship the once-bankrupt Inferno were able to complete the 1982-83 MISL season.
After getting out from under his Inferno financial woes, Irv Berger gave an interview to The Arizona Republic in February 1983 revealing more details of the Inferno’s financial history and ownership structure. Despite Ragone’s public representations, the majority ownership in the club during Ragone’s (and later Berger’s) tenure was held by a group of Cuban exiles in and around Key Biscayne and Hialeah, Florida.
The group included the Reverend Manuel A. Espinosa, a controversial right wing radio host in Miami with ties to the anti-Castro paramilitary leader and accused terrorist Dr. Orlando Bosch. Espinosa was profiled in Soldier of Fortune magazine in 1980. Two other Inferno investors, Rogelio “Roger” Novo and Emilio Palmar co-owned Roger’s-on-the-Green, a golf course restaurant and lounge in Key Biscayne, Florida. In 1982, Ricardo “Monkey” Morales was shot in the head and killed there during an argument with another patron. During the 1960′s and 1970′s Morales was involved with violent anti-Castro mercenaries, while simultaneously working as an informant for the CIA, FBI and DEA. By his own admission, Morales was part of the October 1976 bombing of Cubana Air Lines flight 455 in the sky off Barbados, also tied to Bosch. The bombing killed 73 people on board including all 24 members of Cuba’s Olympic gold medal fencing team. Conspiracy theorists have speculated on Morales as a possible participant in various Cuban exile scenarios of the JFK assassination.
The Arizona Republic article cited accounts from Inferno staff members that Ragone would periodically fly off to Miami and return with “suitcases full of cash”. For his part, Berger came off as somewhat rattled by the experience. Noting that he only met one of the Cubans (Novo) one time, Berger told the paper: “I hear this group is very dangerous. You better watch your step. They’re very heavy people.”
Meanwhile, back in Phoenix, Bruce Merrill set about re-branding his formerly bankrupt club. He fired Sutherland and replaced him with former San Diego Clippers (NBA) GM Ted Podleski. Podleski, a conservative Christian, blanched at the Inferno name and replaced it with the dullest identity imaginable: for the 1983-84 season, Arizona’s MISL entry would be known as the Phoenix Pride. Podleski also dispensed with the Inferno’s flashy yellow, red & black color scheme and substituted coloring more suitable to his bland new vision: beige.
The 1983-84 Phoenix Pride campaign was an unmitigated disaster for all involved. The club finished in 6th (last) place in the MISL’s Western Division with an 18-30 record. Merrill, for his part, lost $2.2 million operating the Pride, a figure that United Press International sportingly referred to as “a league record”. In June 1984, Merrill announced the club would fold if he could not find a Greater Fool buyer within one month. Failing to do so, he terminated his membership in July 1984.
At least some members of the group of Cuban exiles behind the Inferno were, in fact, “very heavy people”, as Berger had warned.
Rogelio Novo, the Inferno investor and restauranteur who witnessed Morales’ killing, met a gruesome end of his own in January 1985. He died of a shotgun blast to the head and his body was dumped in an undeveloped area in Pembroke Pines, Florida.
Another Cuban exile Inferno investor, Reverend Manuel Espinosa, was politely asked to move out of his Hialeah, Florida housing unit when components for an unexploded bomb were discovered beneath his car in 1983. He died of natural causes in the late 1980′s.
After the Pride folded in 1984, pro indoor soccer returned to Phoenix with the Arizona Sandsharks of the Continental Indoor Soccer League in 1993. That club lasted five years from 1993 to 1997.
Several former Inferno staff members have gone on to business careers of great acclaim. Former broadcaster Marc Middleton is the CEO of Growing Bolder Media Group and host of the Growing Bolder television show syndicated on PBS channels nationwide.
Former Vice President of Sales and Marketing Tim Pearson later became Chief Marketing Officer for consulting giant KPMG and is a New York Times best-selling author of several business marketing and branding books.
Born: September 1977 – EBA expansion franchise.
Died:Postseason 1982 – The Northern Knights cease operations.
Anchorage Civic Arena
Anchorage West High School
Team Colors: Purple, Gold & White
1977-1979: Rick Smith, et al.
1979-1980: Roger Jacobsen
1980-????: Mike Shupe et al.
Rick Smith’s resume isn’t much to look at. An Air Force brat whose family moved around the country, arriving in Alaska in 1961, two years after statehood and seven years before oil. He attended Anchorage West High School, then a little bit of college but never finished. Worked at putting in railroad ties and driving a truck for Union Oil. Managed a bicycle shop in Anchorage for a while in the 1970′s. It’s not the traditional curriculum vitae you might expect for the man who introduced professional sports to Alaska…or, for that matter, a corporate Vice President of Government Affairs at the center of a corruption scandal that brought down several state representatives and the longest serving Republican Senator in the history of the U.S. Congress. But Rick Smith is both of those things and maybe that’s because his story took place not in Manhattan or Silicon Valley or Washington, D.C., but in boomtown Alaska when crude oil flowed out of the Earth and later spilled into the sea and there was big money to be made in either circumstance.
The basketball scheme started in the bike shop. Or rather The Bicyle Shop, the popular Schwinn dealership where Smith worked as a manager for his high school friend Mike Shupe. The year was 1977. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline opened up to start pumping that precious oil discovered in Prudhoe Bay nine years earlier down to the port of Valdez. The population of Anchorage had doubled in the intervening decade, primed by oil and aviation. Anchorage, Smith felt, was ready for its own pro sports franchise, specifically a basketball team.
Trouble was there was no minor league basketball on the West Coast of the United States. And even if there had been, would it have mattered? The closest major Western city – Seattle – was nearly 2,400 miles away. Seattle is closer to Detroit, Michigan than it is to Anchorage. In fact, there was only one league still playing minor league hoops in the late 1970′s. The Eastern Basketball Association had been plugging away in the armories and Catholic youth halls of industrial towns in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York since 1946. Naturally, Smith and his cohorts decided to apply for an Eastern Basketball Association expansion franchise. After all, as Smith liked to point out, Alaska is not only the Westernmost point in the the United States, but it is also the Easternmost point in the country, straddling the 180th meridian as it does.
Suspending their disbelief – and sensing a rare opportunity for publicity - the existing EBA owners voted to admit Smith’s Anchorage Northern Knights in mid-September 1977 for the modest sum of $8,000. The Northern Knights closest geographic rival would be the Allentown (PA) Jets, a mere 4,400 miles away. The bizarre arrangement required some financial and logistical gymnastics. The Northern Knights would play 21 of their 31 games at home, including the first 16 in a row. They would pay the airfare and lodging for all of their opponents in Anchorage and would play baseball-style homestands, facing each club two or three times during the course of each rival’s annual visit to Alaska. The Northern Knights themselves would take just one annual road trip, swinging through the other nine EBA cities on one marathon stretch in the middle of the season. The Knights anticipated an annual expense budget of $300,000 due to the travel requirements, a figure which dwarfed the planned $110,000 budget of the EBA’s Long Island Ducks expansion team and the $35,000 it would take to operate the league’s oldest franchise, the Allentown Jets.
The Northern Knights set up shop at West High School, alma mater of Smith and his boss/co-investor Mike Shupe. The 4,000 gymnasium was the largest arena in Anchorage at the time. The gym sold out for the Knights’ November 1977 debut against the Wilkes-Barre (PA) Barons. The goofy circumstances attracted Sports Illustrated writer John Papanek, who was on hand to witness the Knights and Barons shatter both backboards while showboating during pre-game warm ups. After a two-hour plus delay to scour Anchorage for spare backboards, pro basketball finally made its debut in Alaska, albeit with an impromptu “no dunking” rule in force for the first game.
Under Head Coach Bill Klucas, the Northern Knights put together the best regular season record (24-7) in the EBA in 1977-78, before falling in the playoff semi-final to the Lancaster (PA) Red Roses. The Knights were also a hit at the box office, averaging over 2,000 fans per game, in a league where the average draw was approximately 750. Nevertheless, the travel expenses were a substantial and unique burden and the Knights lost a reported $100,000 during their first season – more than the entire expense budget of many of the less popular Eastern clubs.
The Knights returned under Smith’s direction in November of 1978. Emboldened by the addition of Anchorage and the resulting national attention, the sleepy Eastern Basketball Association had re-branded itself for the 1978-79 season as the rather more grand Continental Basketball Association. Klucas’ Knights were strong again, posting a 24-12 record and advancing to the CBA Championship series, where the Rochester Zeniths swept them in four games.
The Knights finally put it all together in their third season in the winter of 1979-80. Guard Brad Davis, a disappointment to the Los Angeles Lakers as their first round pick in 1977, revitalized his career in Anchorage while helping to lead the Knights back into the CBA Championship Series. Forward Ron Davis (no relation) earned CBA Most Valuable Player honors. The Northern Knights avenged their 1979 finals loss to Rochester, taking the Zeniths to the series limit before finishing them off with a 109-99 victory in the seventh and deciding game.
By the time the Knights’ fourth season kicked off in the winter of 1980, the novelty factor was long gone. The wacky Knights who endured 5,000 mile road trips to play in a “nickel and dime Pennsylvania mill-town circuit”, in the words of Sports Illustrated‘s Papanek, were now just another member of the Continental Basketball Association’s Western Division. They had new and (relatively) proximate rivals in burgs like Lethbridge, Alberta and Billings and Great Falls, Montana. Now that the CBA was truly national, the Knights no longer needed to play unbalanced schedules or take month-long road trips. Local enthusiasm for the Knights had faded along with the notoriety. The club’s second home game of 1980 drew an all-time record low of just 270 fans to West High School. The Knights tried to inject some enthusiasm by signing Don “Slick” Watts, a cult hero to Seattle Supersonics fans of the 1970′s, now 29 years old and trying to show NBA scouts that he still had a few miles left on the odometer. But Watts didn’t care for Anchorage and left the team after less than two weeks.
The Knights changed hands several times, shuffling among various members of Rick Smith’s group of 75 or so investors who put up the original $40,000 to launch the club in 1977. The Knights reportedly lost $250,000 during their first two seasons under Smith as team President, before Smith and his primary partners handed the keys to Roger Jacobsen, a minor original investor and Knights season ticket holder, who became the new sole owner in October 1979. Jacobsen lost $200,000 in one year at the helm. Less than a year later, the Knights were in the hands of a new group headed by Mike Shupe, another original investor and Smith’s old boss at The Bicycle Shop.
The club was non-competitive in its final season in the winter of 1981-82, finishng in last place with a 14-32 record. The Northern Knights played their final game in March 1982 and folded shortly thereafter.
Rick Smith, the public face of the Knights franchise for the first two seasons, faded into the background after the sale to Roger Jacobsen in late 1979. In 1989, Smith latched on with Bill Allen’s VECO Corporation, a services and logistics company for the oil exploration industry. VECO had filed for bankruptcy in the early 1980′s, but rebounded when it landed huge contracts to clean up Prince William Sound in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez disaster. After working on the spill clean up, Smith became close with Allen and worked his way up through VECO to the role of Vice President of Community & Government Affairs.
In 2006, FBI and IRS agents raided the offices of seven members of the Alaska state legislature, seizing evidence related to illegal payments made to influence the lawmakers by VECO’s executives, employees and its political action committee. In 2007, Bill Allen and Rick Smith plead guilty to charges of extortion, bribery and conspiracy in federal court. The same year, the VECO corruption scandal enveloped Republic U.S. Senator Ted Stevens, when The Anchorage Daily News reported that Bill Allen and VECO had overseen and allegedly paid for a major renovation of Stevens’ home. Appointed in 1968, Stevens was the longest serving Republican Senator in United States history. In 2008, he was indicted and convicted in federal court on charges related to the VECO gifts, although the verdict was overturned in 2009 due to prosecutorial misconduct. Stevens died in a plane crash in 2010.
Rick Smith, who cooperated with federal investigators along with his boss Bill Allen, received a sentence of 21 months in prison and a $10,000 fine in October 2009.
After winning a CBA title in Anchorage in the spring of 1980, guard Brad Davis joined the NBA’s expansion Dallas Mavericks for the 1980-81 season. Davis spent 12 seasons with the Mavs and, during his final season of 1991-92, became the first player in franchise history to have his number retired by the club.
Ron Davis, the 1979-80 CBA MVP, got back to the NBA with the San Diego Clippers, appearing in 64 games during the 1980-81 season.
Northern Knight Tico Brown went on to play 10 seasons in the CBA, retiring in 1988 as the league’s all-time leading scorer with 8,538 points. He never played in the NBA.
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.
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.
The New York Express, Shep Messing told Newsday in October 1986, will be “better run as a business than any team in the history of professional soccer.” Bold words from the former New York Cosmos star, who brought a Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL) expansion franchise to Long Island in the fall of 1986 with the help of two novice sports investors and an unlikely financing scheme.
The MISL granted a franchise to Messing and his partners Stan Henry and Ralph McNamara on May 15th, 1986. Messing would play the role of local hero and front man. At the age of 37, he also appointed himself the presumed starting goalkeeper for the Express. Henry and McNamara were the money men – sort of. They expected the bulk of the team’s operating capital to come from a sale of public stock. Henry ran an empire of Pennysaver advertising circulars on Long Island, and served as Board Chairman of the Express. McNamara was a managing principal at the Long Island brokerage firm of MacPeg, Ross, O’Connell and Goldaber. He took the title of CFO of the Express and his firm marketed the financial scheme behind the enterprise – a $5.3 million public stock offering intended to finance operations of the club for its first three seasons.
As the broker of record, McNamara had a legal obligation to be more cautious in his forecast for the Express than Messing’s best-organization-in-the-history-of-soccer antics. “Public offerings are calculated risks,” McNamara told Newsday, “We are going to make an effort to field a team and see what the community will bear. We think it will work.”
In an effort to differentiate themselves from the MISL’s previous Long Island entry, the bankrupt & heavily Slavic New York Arrows, the Express came out of the gate with the slogan Soccer…American Style and a commitment to build around American players. Tops on their list was the U.S. National Team captain and former Cosmos star, Ricky Davis, then a free agent after playing out his contract with the MISL’s St. Louis Steamers.
“The whole plan for franchise success was built around Ricky Davis,” recalled Express PR Director Micah Buchdahl, “Not the greatest player at that point, but the one with the great American-born name, demeanor and name recognition. A few days before the media event to introduce him, I was told he had changed his mind. We had announced that we would introduce the top American-born player in soccer. I remember <Express GM> Kent Russell and Shep asking me if it would be a problem if we just said we had meant Kevin Maher. I told them we’d be totally screwed.
“What happened was the Steamers told Ricky that we had no money and would go bankrupt before the season was out (crazy, right?). They had convinced him to stay in St. Louis. At the same time, the Steamers had problems of their own. They did not have a lease for their arena and there was a “secret memo” regarding an alternate arena and dates. Someone contacted a writer at The St. Louis Post-Dispatch and leaked the memo – which put the stability of that franchise into question. Ricky came to New York. The President of the Steamers called me at my aunt’s house and was none too pleased.”
After two road losses to open the season, the team debuted at home on November 21st, 1986. An announced crowd of 10,570 watched them lose to the Kansas City Comets and drop to 0-3. The match up for the debut on Long Island may have been a bad omen - Comets majority owner David Schoenstadt owned the New York Arrows in 1984 when the club plunged into bankruptcy.
Express All-Star Chris Whyte
The Express kept losing into December. When the club reached 0-10, the axe fell on Head Coach Ray Klivecka. Messing turned to his former Arrows coach, Don Popovic. Popovic arrived in late December and began supervising training sessions, but seemed in no hurry to sign a contract.
“After being with two clubs in two years, I want to be sure this team will be here longer than one year,” Popovic told The Pittsburgh Press.
Unwilling to sign but also unwilling to leave, Popovic continued to run Express training sessions. But by league rule, Popovic could not be in the team bench area unless he was under contract. On one night, Popovic sat in the stands, attempting to orchestrate the match from the front row.
“<Popovic> sat behind the glass and relayed changes to one of the players and sometimes directly to me,” recalled interim Head Coach Mark Steffens. “He didn’t change a lot of things, just a player switch or two.”
Eventually, Popovic descended to the bench for a single match, despite never signing a contract. He resigned the same night.
Meanwhile, the stock sale was a bust.
“Let’s just say the money never really existed and the ‘game plan’ for selling stock was less than stellar,” says Buchdahl. “Before the season even started, I think many people knew there was a little smoke and mirrors happening with the financing. But I also think Shep thought he could convince someone to give us the money we needed.”
In January, Express GM Kent Russell and Assistant GM Joel Finglass bolted for front office roles with the MISL’s Dallas Sidekicks. 24-year old Micah Buchdahl became acting General Manager, presiding over remnants of a staff that no longer received paychecks. The Express missed their $75,000 player payroll on February 1st, 1987, forcing the league to draw down the club’s $250,000 letter of credit to cover it.
“<Sometime> in the middle of December or January the fella <Stan Henry> called me and asked me to come out on the Island to dinner,” recalled MISL Commissioner Bill Kentling. “Mitch Burke, the deputy commissioner, and I drove out on a snowy night and had a lovely dinner. We sort of kept waiting for the reason for the dinner and we got the check and we were paying and he said to us ‘Oh by the way, I’m not sure I can make payroll this week.’
I said “I’m sorry…perhaps we should sit at the bar for a moment and talk about this.” And he was just out of money or chose to be out of money, you’re never sure.”
1986-87 Express Game Program
Messing announced the immediate dissolution of the team and the initiation of Chapter XI bankruptcy proceedings on February 17, 1987 during the MISL All-Star Break. Although the Express finished with a record of 3-23, they did manage to win their final game, a 6-5 overtime victory against the Los Angeles Lazers at the Forum on Valentine’s Day 1987. The Express drew an announced average of 5,212 fans to their 13 home dates at the Coliseum, numbers that Micah Buchdahl admits were routinely fudged. For their three victories, the Express lost a reported $3 million during nine months of operation.
Express defender Andranik Eskandarian, the former Iranian World Cup and Cosmos star, delivered the final judgement to The Chicago Tribune: “This team should never have been let in. I don’t think the league is going to last long if it’s going to be like this.”
Shep Messing plead guilty and received probation in 1991 in the wake of a securities probe into an investment scam that targeted NBA players represented by agent Harvey Lakind, including Darryl Dawkins. He remains a soccer icon in New York and has enjoyed a long career as a soccer commentator and broadcaster for ESPN, NBC and MLSNet.com among other outlets.
Rick Davis was elected to the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2001.
Former Express Assistant GM Joel Finglass married Dallas Cowboys cheerleader Kelli Finglass (nee McGonagill), who is now the Director of the cheerleaders and a star of the long-running CMT program Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making The Team.
The original Major Indoor Soccer League folded in July 1992.
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).