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Continental Basketball Association confronts an uncertain future - Feb 10, 2009

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A strange and unsettling basketball season came to a premature end Sunday night, and with it perhaps an entire league. The Continental Basketball Association, with roots that predate the N.B.A., is once again on the brink of extinction.

After starting its season with only four teams, then last week facing the prospect that one of those had reached the end of its financial tether, the league abruptly called off the remainder of the regular season almost six weeks early, perhaps signaling the end of independent minor league basketball.

Any time you try to run a league with four teams, things like this can happen, said the former N.B.A star Micheal Ray Richardson, the second-year coach of the defending C.B.A. champion Lawton-Fort Sill Cavalry. But my gut feeling, and I could be wrong, is the league will be around next year.

The Cavalry, based in Oklahoma, were in first place and happened to be visiting the second-place Albany Patroons when the season was ended, so a best-of-three championship series was hastily arranged here. The Cavalry went on to win the title, taking Game 3, 109-107 in overtime, before 600 fans on Sunday night,

The whole thing is very unfortunate because the league has so much history, Cavalry guard DeAnthony Bowden said of the leagues plight. But Im not surprised, because it had a very rocky start.

A year ago, there were 10 teams in the league, but five folded after last season and the Pittsburgh Xplosion went dark in the fall. So with only four teams remaining, the league devised a plan to play the first two months of the 2008-9 season against teams from the American Basketball Association, a new league that several C.B.A owners called a joke.

We refused to play them, said Mike Brown, one of four owners of the Cavalry. Jay Fiedler, a former N.F.L. quarterback who is the owner of the East Kentucky Miners, said his team reluctantly beat one inept A.B.A. team by 102 points in the fall.

In January, the regular season began in far-flung places like Lawton, Okla.; Pikeville, Ky.; Minot, N.D.; and Albany, where Phil Jackson once won a C.B.A. championship as a coach in front of packed houses.

But by February, Fiedlers Miners were hemorrhaging cash and in danger of closing operations, so the schedule was suspended and the finals began.

I dont think it was necessarily because of us, Fiedler said, adding, We felt it was a good thing to end some of the bleeding and focus on a long-term approach to save the league.

The C.B.A. dates to the old Eastern Pennsylvania Basketball League in 1946, months before the N.B.A. was founded, but its history has been far more erratic.

Over the decades, it has been less a viable sports league than a shifting platform on which a fluid collection of struggling small-town teams materialized and evaporated, some of them lasting only months. There were the heady days of the 1980s and 90s, when players like Stacey King, Mario Elie and Albert King played in front of crowds of 5,000 people. Today, there is merely hope, and not a lot of it.

Many former C.B.A. owners blame Isiah Thomas, the former owner of the league, for destroying the C.B.A. when it went bankrupt in 2001. But the league re-emerged months later after new owners bought the name.

Thomass friend and ally Brendan Suhr, a former C.B.A. owner, pointed out that Thomas was forced to place the league in a blind trust when he became the coach of the Indiana Pacers in 2000.

That was the end, Suhr said. He was the spiritual leader, but he wasnt allowed to participate at all.

It was once the second-best league in the world. Now, its not even on the radar.

On Saturday, officials from the four remaining teams, including Fiedler, held a five-hour meeting at the Washington Avenue Armory, the home of the Patroons. All expressed cautious confidence that the league could continue next year, but only if it doubled in size.

Each team was given a mandate to find owners for one additional team in its geographic area, which would significantly help with the cost of travel.

We cant go forward with four teams, said John Zelbst, a lawyer and rancher who is a co-owner of the Cavalry. A four-team league wont work.

Zelbst, who wears a cowboy hat and tells stories of playing football at the University of Oklahoma for Barry Switzer in the 1970s, acknowledged that ego was a primary reason for buying the team last year. He said his team lost more than $300,000 in 2008, with losses expected in the six figures again this season. He vowed to push on for one reason.

Because, he said, Im winning championships.

Courtesy of


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