American Professional Slo-Pitch League (1978-1979)
Born: 1977 – AABA founding franchise.
Died: June 30, 1983 – The Zeniths cease operations.
Stadium (Softball): Harris Whalen Park
Team Colors: Royal Blue & Gold
- 1978-1979: Dick Hill
- 1979-1980: Dick Hill & Art Stock
- 1980-1983: Numerous community stockholders
Dick Hill owned Western New York’s top television dealership in the 1970′s, selling and servicing the dominant brands of the day – Zenith and RCA. In 1977, Hill dove into the world of professional sports, acquiring a minor league basketball franchise in the new All-American Basketball Alliance. A few months later, Hill also purchased a expansion franchise in the American Professional Slo-Pitch League, a men’s pro league entering its second season in the summer of 1978. He named both of the basketball and softball clubs after the brand that fueled his dealership’s success – the Rochester Zeniths.
The AABA turned out to be a disaster. Hill discovered that most of the other owners had no money and by February 1978 the whole things collapsed after a little more than a month of play. Hill’s Zeniths were the class of the league at 10-1 and he was able to keep the basketball Zeniths going after the AABA’s demise and enter his club into the Continental Basketball Association for the 1978-79 season.
Meanwhile, the softball Zeniths debuted in the APSPL, playing out of Harris Whalen Park in suburban Penfield, New York. The softball team finished their 1978 debut season last in their division with a 22-42 record, second worst in the 12-team league.
It was a rough first year for Hill, between the AABA debacle and the lackluster debut of the softball team. But things turned around once the Zeniths entered the Continental Basketball Association in the winter of 1978-79.
Under Head Coach Maura Panaggio, the Zeniths had the best record in the league at 36-12. The CBA was mostly a Northeastern circuit at the time, stretching from Pennsylvania to Maine, but the league did have one remote outpost 3,000 miles away in Alaska – the Anchorage North Knights. The Zeniths swept the Knights in the 1979 championship series. Zeniths guard Andre McCarter, formerly with the Kansas City Kings of the NBA, won the CBA’s 1979 Most Valuable Player award.
The softball Zeniths also turned things around in 1979, winning their division with a 35-27 record. They lost to the Kentucky Bourons in the playoff semi-finals. 1979 was the last year for softball under the “Zeniths” name in Rochester. When the club returned in 1980, it was known as the Rochester Express.
A few odd stories about the Zeniths…
The basketball team split their games between the downtown Rochester War Memorial and the Dome Arena in suburban Henrietta. The Dome Arena was never intended for basketball and didn’t have a hardwood floor. As an alternative, the building management installed a green rug with basketball lines, similar to what was used in some European countries at the time. The ball made a muffled “thump” with every dribble on the carpet.
Prior to the 1979-80 season, New Jersey nightclub owner Art Stock joined Dick Hill as an investor in the basketball team. Stock was known for his “Art Stock’s Playpen” nightclubs up and down the East Coast from Fort Lauderdale to the Jersey Shore in the 1970′s and 1980′s. As part of Stock’s investment deal, he got to replace Mauro Panaggio as Zenith’s head coach during the 1979-80 season.
“Art lived in Atlantic City where he had another night club. The team’s trainer and players ran practices in his absence. He would fly in for games, female entourage of Disco Babies in tow, or meet them on the road,” former Zeniths public address announcer Terry Proctor wrote in a 2005 column for New York’s Lake and Valley Clarion. “The team was a toy to him. The players didn’t listen to him and were so good they coached themselves.”
In spite of their absentee coach, the Zeniths returned to the CBA Championship Series in 1980 for a rematch with the Northern Knights. This time Anchorage got the best of it, winning the 1980 title. The Northern Knights were coached by Bill Musselman, a who would take over the top job with the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers just a few months later. Only in the CBA would the league championship series pit a coach on the NBA fast track against a disco owner whose team played basketball on a rug.
Stock left after the 1979-80 season and Mauro Panaggio returned to coach the team. He led the Zeniths to their second and final CBA championship in the spring of 1981. This time they defeated the Montana Golden Nuggets, who were led by future NBA coach George Karl.
The Zeniths continued on through the 1982-83 season, with Panaggio at the helm as President, General Manager and Head Coach. The team closed up shop in June 1983 citing dwindling crowds at the War Memorial and financial losses.
==Zeniths Basketball Games on Fun While It Lasted==
|1978||1/11/1978||vs. New York Guard||W 129-110||Program||Scorecard|
|1978-79||11/5/1978||vs. Wilkes-Barre Barons||??||Program||Game Notes|
|1978-79||11/19/1978||vs. Allentown Jets||??||Program||Game Notes|
|1981-82||12/26/1981||vs. Maine Lumberjacks||??||Program||Game Notes|
|1982-83||12/20/1982||vs. Ohio Mixers||W 141-119||Program||Game Notes|
Former Zeniths center Jim Bradley was shot and killed in Portland, Oregon on February 20, 1982. He was 29 years old.