Continental Basketball Association (1978-1983)
Born: 1978 – CBA expansion franchise.
Died: March 1983 – The Lumberjacks relocate to Brockton, MA.
Team Colors: Kelly Green & White
- 1978 – ????: Morrill Worcester
The Maine Lumberjacks were a minor league basketball club based out of Bangor, Maine from 1978 to 1983. The club originated as an expansion franchise in the Continental Basketball Association in the fall of 1978. The CBA grew out of the old Eastern Basketball Association (1946-1978), which had been a Pennsylvania-based bus league for decades. The Lumberjacks joined the league as part of a nationwide expansion and re-branding. During their 5-year run in the CBA the Lumberjacks roamed from coast to coast, traveling as far as Montana, Hawaii, Alaska and Alberta, Canada for games.
The ‘Jacks played most of their games at the Bangor Auditorium but typically played a handful of dates each year at Portland’s Cumberland County Civic Center during the team’s first few seasons. The club’s uniforms were modeled on the design of the Seattle Supersonics jerseys during the same era.
On the court, the Lumberjacks were a perennial loser. Their best record came in the team’s final season of 1982-83 when the managed to scratch out a .500 record at 22-22.
To the extent the Lumberjacks are remembered today outside the state of Maine, it is for their association with cult basketball legend Billy Ray Bates, pictured above on the cover of the team’s final yearbook from the 1982-83 season. Bates was the son of sharecroppers from Kosciuko, Mississippi. A 6’4, 220-pound slam dunk artist, Bates attended Kentucky State University and was selected by the Houston Rockets in the 3rd round of the 1978 draft. After getting cut in pre-season by the Rockets, Bates landed in Bangor to salvage what remained of his pro career.
Bates won the CBA’s Rookie-of-the-Year award with the ‘Jacks in 1979 and also conquered the league’s slam dunk contest at the 1979 All-Star Game, played in the middle of a blizzard in Rochester, New York. Rochester was also the site of a classic Bates moment a month earlier, during a match against the Rochester Zeniths. Incensed over a traveling call, Bates whipped the basketball at the head of the referee, knocking the man briefly unconscious. In today’s world, sending an official to dreamland would likely earn a season-long suspension. CBA Commissioner Jim Drucker suspended Bates for one game.
Midway through a second spectacular season in Maine, Bates got a call-up to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 1980. Bates was one of the first CBA players to earn a 10-day contract to the NBA and certainly the first to make an impact. During the 1980’s and 1990’s the 10-day short term contract would become the Holy Grail to the ballplayers grinding it out in the CBA, dealing with the terrible pay, endless bus trips, crummy facilities and empty stands. Bates made the most of his.
Expected to be no more than a lawn ornament on the Trail Blazers bench under Head Coach Jack Ramsay, Bates instead pushed his way into the lineup and then carried the Blazers on his back into the 1980 NBA playoffs. In Portland’s first round series loss to the Seattle Supersonics, the minor league import averaged an astonishing 25.0 points per game. (The next year he was even better, averaging 28.3 in the postseason). A cult hero was born. Nike posters soon followed. In 2012, Seattle Times writer Steve Kelley compared the mania surrounding Bates to the Lin-sanity phenomenon surrounding Jeremy Lin’s similar rise from obscurity with the New York Knicks.
Bates couldn’t make it last. Most accounts of Bates’ NBA years portray him as a hard-partying but wide-eyed rural bumpkin who quickly succumbed to the moral hazards of sudden fame. Bates was an alcoholic and a cocaine user, vices which drove him out of the NBA by 1983.
Bates moved on to the Philipines in 1983, where he became the legend known as “Black Superman”, dominating the Philippine Basketball Association and living like the Sultan of Brunei for most of the 1980’s. You can read the whole crazy tragic saga of Bates in the Philippines on Deadspin here. He later played in Switzerland, Mexico and Uruguay before returning the America in the 1990’s.
By the late 1990’s, Bates was destitute and living in New Jersey. He robbed a service station at knife point in 1998 served five years in prison. In 2011, Bates returned to the Philippines, where he is still an icon, for induction into the PBA Hall of Fame. He briefly leveraged the attention to get a front office position with a club and a sneaker endorsement deal, but resumed drinking and lost his job and money again. In December 2012, Bates appeared on a popular talk show in the Philippines to plead for financial assistance. I thought about linking the video here, but really it is too sad and voyeuristic. You can find it with a Google search if your looking for a grim experience.
One last note about that Lumberjacks Yearbook pictured at the top of the post. The young man who wrote the cover story on Billy Ray Bates was Jay Ramsdell. Ramsdell was a ninth grader who attached himself to the Lumberjacks when they came to town in 1978, running game stats and other chores. At the time he wrote this article, he had just graduated high school. Ramsdell loved the CBA and became attached to the league office around this time (1982/83). Incredibly, he became Commissioner of the league in 1988 at the age of 24 – the youngest Commissioner in American pro sports history for any half-reputable league.
Tragically, Ramsdell lost his life one year later in the crash of United Airlines Flight 232 in Sioux City, Iowa. Ramsdell and Deputy Commissioner Jerry Schemmel were en route to the CBA’s annual draft. Schemmel survived the crash. Ramsdell was among the 112 who perished. The CBA”s championship trophy was re-named in Ramsdell’s honor in 1989.
After five seasons of play, the Lumberjacks left Bangor for Brockton, Massachusetts in March 1983. The club was re-named the Bay State Bombardiers (1983-1986).
The Lumberjacks cheerleading squad was known as the “Lumberjills”.
==Maine Lumberjacks Games on Fun While It Lasted==
|1981-82||12/26/1981||@ Rochester Zeniths||??||Program||Game Notes|
|1982-83||1/7/1983||vs. Lancaster Lightning||??||Program|
- Billy Ray Bates