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.