ABAndonment: A Milwaukee basketball story
This is the initial entry in our new longform series, First and Long, which will debut the first of every month and explore stories off the beaten path.
It's 30 minutes to tip-off and there's no sign of the other team.
Come to think of it, there's not much sign of the home team, either. A couple guys in jeans and hats standing under one basket, rebounding for a dude in a sweatshirt and backpack who's shooting high-arcing 3-pointers with the seriousness -- and success rate -- of a carnival chump heaving those last, meaningless attempts at the county fair midway after he knows he's already missed out on winning the oversized stuffed SpongeBob.
Really, there's not much sign of anyone. There are two women chatting in the stands and some kids outside the gym manning the concession stand. No one bothers to check or collect my ticket -- one of those orange "Admit One" generic stubs -- so I simply walk in, which portends a greater issue, to be realized later by people whose concern it should be to ensure admission prices are paid. I amble over to the bleachers, notebook in hand, and take a seat in the top row, the third row, to watch and hopefully cover my first American Basketball Association game.
I was told this Nov. 21 contest, between the host Milwaukee RimRattlers and the visiting Chicago Fury, would begin at 6 p.m. Since the schedule I'd been given didn't list a start time, I had texted both the RimRattlers' coach and their general manager to confirm the game was, in fact, still on -- a fair question since the previous week's game, which was originally set to be Milwaukee's home opener, had been canceled, as had a couple other games. Neither responded to my messages.
By 5:45 p.m., though, a few more players have appeared, including RimRattlers captain Glenn Bruce-Konuah. "We got the men's locker room," someone tells him, and the lanky Pulaski star who played in college at MATC saunters off to get changed.
The gymnasium inside Milwaukee's Martin Luther King Center isn't anything special, but to be fair it isn't intended to be. A community center whose court caters mostly to local youths, it's not meant for real players -- especially athletic ones that like to dunk. The floor is dusty and the rims are loose, a fact that becomes obvious and problematic whenever they are pulled down after a jam. Also, the dimensions of the court aren't regulation size, a penalty against the home team for which I'm told the punishment is the opponent being automatically awarded two points.
It's not an ideal venue for a pro team, and that's what the RimRattlers are desperately trying to be, but it beats the church basement and the middle school gym the team has played in before. For now -- for today, at least -- the MLK Center is home.
Slowly, more people enter the gym -- some of them paying customers, others curious bystanders who may or have not paid an entry fee, a few Center employees and security guards. One of these people is Chris Burton, a visual media specialist with dreadlocks who voluntarily tapes the RimRattlers' games and helps out with marketing.
Since no one else is using it -- Milwaukee players were just milling in and out of the locker room -- and because it's well past the supposed 6 p.m. start time, we take the court. While hoisting shots and discussing mutual friends, Burton tells me it's been a challenging launch for the RimRattlers but he's excited about the team and optimistic about its future. Eventually, our air balls and bricks oblige us to bequeath the floor to the other bored spectators who want to shoot.
It's now 30 minutes past tip-off and there's still no sign of the other team. The rest of the Milwaukee players have arrived, including 6-foot-7 Silas Mills, a Rufus King graduate who came back to Milwaukee after playing community college hoops. A surprising number of fans fill the stands. No one seems to know where the Chicago Fury are, or have any way to reach them or even to be sure whether a game is going to take place at all.
In the meantime, the RimRattlers are warming up in purple t-shirts worn over their black jerseys. They're running through layup lines, the kind every team does whether in middle school or the NBA. Earlier in the week at a practice at the MLK Center, general manager Sonny Robertson told me the team wasn't organized enough to do even this standard drill a couple months ago, while head coach Lawrence Harris bellowed at the players even then to "go easy on the rims, fellas!"
Today, Robertson is nowhere to be found and Harris is watching intently from the bench, wearing a sharp black suit with a blue shirt and patterned tie. Later, Harris will tell me that Robertson being absent was not unusual, which caused personal strife between the two and business problems from a team standpoint.
Finally, at 7:15 p.m., the Fury wander in to the gym. There is muttered grumbling about the bus -- it was late or got lost or something -- and Chicago's coach barks out, "Where we getting dressed at?" As his team heads off to the women's locker room, several fans give them a Bronx cheer, sarcastically applauding their unpunctual arrival.
Quickly, though, they lace up and reemerge on the court, kicking off a woman in her mid-30s and a young boy who've been taking shots on the Chicago half of the floor. A Milwaukee player yells out, "You an hour and 15 minutes late, you shouldn't get any warmup time."
At 7:25 p.m., three uniformed referees walk in, which reminds me that, yes, you need referees for a basketball game. It's unclear whether they knew the Chicago team would be delayed, made an educated guess about that possibility, or were just late themselves. Per ABA rules, "Officials are required to arrive at games at least 10 minutes before the scheduled start time of the game." But between the size of the court, the tardiness of the teams and the general realities of the league, we're not exactly following ABA rules real stringently anyway.
The referees -- two gray-haired white men and a gregarious redheaded woman -- tie their black New Balance sneakers and go through a sort of rapid stretching routine that appears to strain them more than aid them. The redheaded woman talks affably with the coaches, shakes everyone's hand and playfully tells one of Chicago's players that he was "the one causing trouble last time." She seems very much in her element. The other two refs, older and quieter, are more stern. One, in particular, seems downright angry. Later, Harris will tell me "they were mad because we didn't pay them" before the game, but not until much later on -- something he blames on Robertson's absence.
With the Fury having arrived and the refs ready, the rest of the pregame pomp is done refreshingly quickly. A teenage boy sings the national anthem a capella, showing off some serious pipes and then gesticulating peace-out immediately after finishing, pausing only to high-five a couple fans on his way out the door. Then a towering and genial man wearing an "NBA retired players" hat sits down at the scorer's table to do the announcing: it's 7-foot-tall Patrick Eddie, a Milwaukee native who played one year for the New York Knicks in 1991 and now coaches and does community youth work.
After introductions, team huddles and cheers, the players take the floor and I turn to Burton. "If this were a 7:30 start time," I say, "we'd be right on schedule."
At last, the opening tip goes up -- only an hour and a half late, and on an unauthorized court, and with unpaid referees the RimRattlers are later convinced were trying to sabotage them, and in front of just about 30 fans, many of whom didn't pay the $10 admission. The frenzy begins.
The RimRattlers, already trailing because of the automatic court penalty, control the ball and instantaneously hit a 3-pointer. Right away, they put on a full-court press -- a common tactic in the fast-paced ABA because of the unique 3-D rule, in which any basket scored after taking the ball from the opponent in its half is worth one extra point -- and steal Chicago's inbounds pass, Bruce-Konuah slamming it in for a three-point dunk. They press again and again they get a steal, as shooting guard Watkins Williams nails a 3-pointer that is actually worth four points, thanks to the 3-D rule.
Just like that, Milwaukee takes an immediate 10-2 lead. The Fury call a timeout, their head coach slams his clipboard on the floor and the redheaded referee feverishly explains to a Chicago player why traveling wasn't called on the previous play. Simultaneously, I try to wrap my head around the most thrilling first minute of a basketball game I've ever seen.
The ABA -- it's weird, it's wild and you may have to wait a while, but it sure is fun.
For the RimRattlers, though, only two months later the fun is gone. There have been just as many games forfeited than played. An ambitious practice schedule is non-existent come January. The season is over and the wait -- to play another game, to earn even one paycheck, to be an operating team again in the ABA -- looks like it, too, will be a very long while.
"At this time the Milwaukee RimRattlers are not competing in the ABA," league vice president of basketball operations Dan McClintock wrote to me in an email on Jan. 21. That was just about all he said, suggesting I contact Harris for further information and answers to my questions.
I had contacted the league wondering why the RimRattlers were no longer listed in the ABA standings or schedule. I wondered why the team's Facebook page and Harris' Twitter account, which had been posting regular updates, had gone dormant, and why the RimRattlers' website I'd visited so many times before no longer existed.
I wondered what had happened to this team that I'd watched practice and play multiple times, about which I'd spoken often to coaches and players and whose inaugural season in this zany league I'd hoped to chronicle.
What happened to the RimRattlers, who, concealed by the Bucks, claimed to be Milwaukee's other professional basketball team? And why weren't they any longer?
"We opted out of the league," Harris tells me over coffee in February. "We were losing money."
Harris explains that, due to his team's cancellations, forfeits and facility troubles, they were in danger of being suspended by the ABA. So rather than continuing to try and actively participate while operating in the red, and instead of angering league officials and risking a two-year ban, Milwaukee opted out for the rest of the season. The team finished its 30-game schedule with a 3-3 record -- though it only actually played half of those six games, as the others were forfeits -- including a 98-87 loss to the Fury back in November.
"We eliminated ourselves," Harris says.
That's not an uncommon occurrence in a topsy-turvy league that this season, in its 14th year, started with around 100 teams and currently has about 60 still competing. Every season, there are a different number of squads playing a different number of games. Some are successful and play full seasons, like the Shreveport-Bossier Mavericks, the perennial championship contenders who have premier players (a glance at the roster shows Josh Pace, who was a contributor to Syracuse's 2003 national champion team, Wichita State's P.J. Cousinard and Louisville's Alex Sanders), coaches and facilities. Others, like the RimRattlers and the unrelated Minnesota Rattlers, who popped up last summer and quickly faded away, languish.
All an owner is required to do to form an ABA team is fill out the "Reserve a Market" form on the league website and pay the $10,000 franchise fee. A business plan and a meeting with league officials to prove competence are supposedly necessary, though given that more than one-third of teams ceased operations this season, those conditions may not be compulsory.
It's a laissez-faire model that allows an ordinary person to own a professional sports team, and that is one of the idealistic appeals of the ABA. But the reality of a team's operating costs, especially transportation to away games and renting venues for home games (for Milwaukee, those were each around $400) -- not to mention paying players, which most teams, including the RimRattlers, aren't able to do -- is why only a handful of teams are profitable.
One of those teams is the Chicago Steam, who played Milwaukee in the preseason and have won eight consecutive division titles. The Steam's owner, Ron Hicks, rents his court from a small college south of Chicago. He recently bought new uniforms and a team bus and pays players $100 a game, according to Derrick Brill, a media staffer with the team who writes and keeps statistics.
"It's not a lot, but it's enough to pay a phone bill or a cable bill," Brill says of the stipend, adding that players are required to help sell tickets, which helps the Steam average about 200 fans a game.
Brill says the Steam's on-court and accounting success is due to strong leadership. Hicks, a former professional player overseas, and head coach Mitchell Anderson, who played and coached briefly in the NBA, are experienced, smart and see the ABA's value as being a vehicle to get their players professional contracts overseas.
But the Steam are in the minority. Most teams have a different experience and the ABA doesn't make it easy to prosper, says Brill.
"It is a challenge," he says. "The league is not run well. There's just no communication. It's difficult because they don't give you a lot of direction or help. It's tough to explain for a league that used to be so huge and important -- it seems like now they're just doing it to do it, rather than really caring about the operations and the teams."
That brings us to the history of the ABA. A history that is colorfully curious and consciously unconventional. Of Julius Erving, the red-white-and-blue ball and the creation of the 3-point line. Of an association that was formed in 1967 and survived only a decade -- an exciting and memorable decade -- before merging its four most successful teams into the NBA.
Purposefully rebellious of its buttoned-down but prosperous NBA cousin, the original ABA may have been penniless and publicly ignored, but it strived to be great entertainment. Romantically, men like Harris, Robertson and others involved in the new league look back on that ABA with fondness. But playing in front of small crowds in modest venues with little attention and even less money, most of those old teams folded.
It's a melody that sounds awfully familiar now, with the current disorganized version of the league, resurrected and remodeled, clinging to its scrappy history right down to the multicolored ball, while its teams opt out, halt operations and perish.
It begs the question: Is the ABA charmingly chaotic or full-on anarchy?
The league trumpets its diversity (claiming more than 75 percent of its teams are owned by African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians or women), size (with those 100 teams and 1,000 players, it calls itself the largest professional sports association in the U.S.) and distinctiveness (the ball, unique rules and affordability). The ABA brands itself "Bigger, Better, Bolder" and boasts the motto "More than a game."
But, to watch the RimRattlers play and talk to people involved with the team, it's not more than a game by much. And that's assuming there even is a game, as cancellations are commonplace.
Burton, Milwaukee's volunteer videographer, says awareness is the biggest problem.
"A lot of people aren't familiar with the ABA," he says. "You'd be surprised how many people don't know about it. I think marketing is one of the biggest kinks that needs to be worked out. ABA teams have a lot of issues with branding early on."
Harris agrees, saying those publicity efforts should be coming from the league and going to the teams, not the other way around.
"Number one, they should be promoting us. They're letting us do it ourselves and, really, we're building them up."
And Bruce-Konuah, the RimRattlers' captain who averaged nearly a triple-double during his team's brief stint, says the league doesn't help new franchises get going, preferring to support the more-established teams and knowing new startup squads will likely replace the ones that don't last.
"They make it really difficult," he says. "If you're a good, successful team, they'll support you more. But if you're new and losing, it's hard to get support. It's hard to keep a team in this league. It's hard to get both feet in the door."
But the league, led by CEO Ron Tilley, doesn't make any promises, and naivete doesn't excuse poor ownership. Harris says he "didn't know what it was going to take" to fund the team, trusted the wrong people and failed to attract investors -- all problems he thinks he understands how to fix moving forward, whenever he's financially able to re-start his franchise.
Burton, for one, considers the ABA's insecurity and crudeness as a pleasant alternative to the NBA's meticulous corporate culture.
"The NBA is so commercialized and glamourized," Burton says. "The ABA is more the real roots of basketball."
It's an everyman's league, certainly. One where Harris and others can own a team and good-but-not-great players can continue chasing their basketball dreams. Bruce-Konuah, and many others, hopes that dream eventually leads him to a contract with an overseas professional team that will actually pay him.
For now, though, he and the rest of the RimRattlers are stuck in limbo, waiting for the team to form again, hoping they make the squad and trusting it will be better managed the next time. Milwaukee will hold an open tryout in April and play in a different league's summer circuit in May, according to Harris.
And then, he says, he'll try the ABA again with a "more realistic budget."
"I'm not quitting this team," he says earnestly, before listing off his ambitious goals, which include getting the money to sign five NCAA-caliber players, attracting a local television broadcast deal, securing a 4,000-seat arena that his team fills for every game and co-existing with the Bucks as Milwaukee's other professional basketball team.
He says all of this with genuine aspiration. He regrets not being prepared enough this season and is determined to learn from his mistakes and overcome the RimRattlers' and ABA's challenges.
He says it was one of his most difficult decisions, after what he says is more than 30 years in basketball as a player and coach, to opt out of the league in his very first season. He admits he "lost a tear" thinking about how he let down his players. And he says his wife is "ready to kick me out the door because she can't get that purse or whatever because the money's gone."
But he's not deterred. Harris sincerely believes in the ABA and he believes in himself. He trusts his team is going to make it eventually, that the RimRattlers will thrive and his hard work and investment will pay off.
"I'm going to compete next year. This just proved to me what I have to do," he says. "It was very tough to let go. I know I hurt some people, but I'd rather sacrifice this season than sacrifice this team. I'm hated by a lot of the players right now. But if I come back next season with investors and real uniforms, and I tell (the players) they don't have to worry about where they're practicing, where they're playing, tell them they'll get paid regularly, that will all change.
"I'm not out here trying to be this church revival tent; this is real. I want to get everyone else to see what I see. Because it's killing me."
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