The ABA gets nearly as much attention as the League, well…at least in Matt Caputo’s blog, Too Real For The League. This, however, will no longer remain the case. Unfortunately, as Caputo closes his notepad on the ABA, the bleak shadow of the once-glorious ABA will keep on keeping on. —Ryne Nelson
Words by Matt Caputo
Photos courtesy of Maggie Coughlan
Roughly 90 people filled the bleachers at the Drew University gym for an evening of “exciting, high-quality professional basketball at affordable prices.” That’s right, the ABA season commenced and with it comes the usual canceled games, failed franchises and nonsensical press releases that make the ABA the laughing stock of pro sports. The Jersey Express, now in their fourth year of operation, have nice uniforms, an attentive—if tiny—crowd, a fully stocked snack bar, quality home court, a decent variety of team merchandise and the usual youth interaction on. Too bad they don’t have any teams to play.
Even in a league with a website that claims nearly 40 active members—bigger than the NBA—having an opponent not show up is pretty regular. For the few still stable clubs of the ABA, like the Express, worse case conditions have become the norm. For the second time in their new season—twice in the first two games—the Express have been forced to find non-ABA opponents within driving distance in order to insure that they play games on the dates they are scheduled to. Even if that means bringing a defunct team back to life or inviting a team from a rival league in to play. Without any help from the league, the Express are making sure that the show does go on.
“I’ve been called a ‘Miracle Worker’ and it’s not something I’m happy with,” says co-owner, Marsha Blount, who has now outlasted over a hundred former owners in probably the most unstable “professional” sports league in history. “It’s unfortunate that I’m associated with this right now. My job is that if I schedule a game—that I’ll have a game—that’s what I can control.”
Despite the league’s lack of organization, Blount has made above average strides to keep her team in business over four years. In their short history, the Express have had some familiar local faces like Shaheen Halloway and Andre Sweet suite up. They’ve also had Daryl Dawkins as their head coach. This year, she’s brought on another former NBA player, Jerry “Ice” Reynolds, to coach the Express this season. After playing for two years in Newark, Blount moved the Express to the suburbs and have found a decent home in a nice facility at Drew. Sadly, as long as opponents continue to fail to show, the value of the Express’ existence will continue to be lessened by being affiliated with the ABA.
Around 7:15 the team announced that the “NYC Internationalz” were stuck in holiday traffic and that everyone was welcome to a free drink.
At about 7:30 or so, the visitors showed up but the were not the scheduled opponent. In fact they were the (N.Y.C.) X-Men, a well-known city streetball team coached by former Strong Island Sound coach, Dytanya Mixon. Mixon brought from Sound starter Chris Grant and streetball hero, 1/2 Man 1/2 Amazing, so the fans weren’t completely robbed.
When they took the court, they wore the road uniforms of the now long since ceased Strong Island Sound as well. A Long Island, NY ABA team that played its final game in December 2007.
“This is some real bullshit,” Anthony “1/2 Man, 1/5 Amazing” Heyward said just as the ref raised his arm to issue the jump ball.
His sentiments echoed throughout the building and are probably heard around the entire league as well. In Knoxville, Tenn., the expansion Thunderbolts have found themselves in a similar situation to the Express. After the Cleveland Rockers (who were returning from a three year hiatus) failed to make it to Knoxville, the team has gone so far as to create a second team, the “Tri-City Racers,” to insure that the ‘Bolts are covered in the event of another no-show.
Though many reports had the season starting during the first week in December, many ABA games were scheduled for late November, with many clubs began the regular season as early as Nov. 8. Even now, nearly a month since that date, some ABA clubs are still holding tryouts an playing exhibition games.
The Westchester Phantoms, owned by Elton Brand’s mother and half-brother, ceased operations on the night before the Express season opener. Oddly enough, the Phantoms, who had little intention of playing at all in 2008-09, were ranked no. 22 in a largely bogus “ABA Power Rankings” of 24 ABA teams that was released on Nov. 12.
The Express’ second opponents, the New York City Internationalz, have yet to release a roster, home venue or schedule. While they haven’t officially folded, the Internationalz have missed at least one road game and will probably have to take an official forfeit if they do play this season.
Though the “Sound/Xmen” lost to the Express by about 30, the first three quarters were pretty tight. The difference was single digits at many points throughout the initial periods. In the last frame, with the Sound suffering from a lack of bodies on the bench and organization on the court, the game got blown open.
With ABA logic, the shuffling of travel teams could go on forever. Imagine Joe Newman’s playoff format: ABA teams play exhibition games against non-ABA teams, club teams, teachers and local fire houses and anyone else with a pulse. At the end of say 30 games, whoever has the most wins will go to an ABA Final Four.
The departure of the last stable of solid ABA teams (Manchester Millrats, Vermont Frost Heaves, Halifax Rainmen and Quebec Kebewka) to the PBL signaled the final collapse of the league in the Northeast. The Express returned to the ABA under the impression that this would finally be the year that the league got it together. Now, with no league opponents in their area, the Express will be forced to finish the season by whatever means necessary.
“The reason I came back to the ABA this year is because I was assured that things weren’t going to be the way they are,” says Blount, who expects her next opponent, the Montreal Matrix, to make her next home game. “A lot of these teams let their actions speak louder than words. If you don’t have a place, then you aren’t playing. If you can’t get to road games, then you’re not playing. I think it’s really that simple.”