Minor League Hoop Dreams -Winter 2008
by: John Stanton
photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger
Jason Briggs never had any hoop dreams. He was never a player, never a fan. So what is he doing on the sidelines of the tiny Nantucket Boys & Girls Club gym, watching a small group of pick-up basketball players being run through a tryout where the odds are very long that anyone in the gym will move up to the next level of the game? Briggs is there because this is what one does in minor-league basketball. You look in every corner of the basketball universe for players, every playground and every summer league. He is there because now he owns a minor-league basketball team, called the Manchester Millrats.
“I love these tryouts, because you just never know,” said Briggs, as he watched his new coach run the players through a shooting drill. And so there are summer leagues in tiny Boston gyms, places off the map for even knowledgeable hoops fans, but places where one or two random NBA players might be on the roster. There are exposure combines, where former college players pony up $150 for their own long shot at getting back into the game.
There is even videotape of a center, just over seven feet tall, rumored to be very athletic, making lay-ups and jump shots, on a patch of dirt with a makeshift hoop, in a small village somewhere in Senegal, Africa. Briggs has seen the video. It is difficult to tell how good the player is, because there is no context, but it is clear he is very tall and fairly athletic. Briggs decides to send him a ticket so he can work out with the team and give the coaches a better look at his skill level.
How did a 36-year-old former Wall Street whiz kid and New York real estate broker end up here? How did a guy who knew almost nothing about the game of basketball last year, become so involved in a professional team this year? For Briggs, it was pure kismet. “I had a financial goal, and once I reached it I was going to quit and play golf and tennis every day,” he said of his years on Wall Street. The idea was that he would be content hanging with friends, golfing in Scotland, playing tennis. That lasted about a year.
“What I learned was that going golfing in Ireland with your pals somehow is not as special if you can do it every month. It did not take very long before I was left with the feeling that there was nothing to do when I got up in the morning,” he said. “It began to feel like I was unemployed. That can be a bit emasculating.” The story actually begins years before Briggs ever thought about Wall Street. It begins one summer day, almost 30 years ago, in Sconset, when Briggs crashed his bike into another kid. That kid was named Ian McCarthy. The two became friends. McCarthy had very serious hoop dreams. He grew up to become an accountant, but when the chance came to become the general manager of an American Basketball Association (ABA) team called the Cape Cod Frenzy, he jumped at it.
Briggs became a very minor investor in the Frenzy, mostly as a favor to his childhood pal. “He wrote a check, but never came to any games,” said McCarthy.
Then the Frenzy folded and McCarthy began putting together the financing, selling shares, to buy an ABA franchise in Manchester, New Hampshire. In one of those happy coincidences, the move lined up perfectly with Briggs’ ennui. He called McCarthy to see if there were any shares left to purchase. McCarthy invited him up to New Hampshire to watch the tryouts for his new team.
“I told him we were having an open tryout and he came and we had 88 players lined up out the door of the gym,” said McCarthy. Briggs watched the tryouts, and read the business plan. Something about it all made sense. “I read through the business plan, and for some reason I had one of those moments where I could just picture myself doing this,” he said.
Were there any shares left? They were, in fact, still over 90 percent unsold. Briggs bought them all, and became the principal owner of a minor league basketball team. Suddenly, he had a hoop dream.
The team that only a few months before was only a loose list of possible players and a pile of paperwork went 28-12 in its first season. The Millrats made it to the league’s final four series, and was knocked out after a wild overtime loss to the San Diego Wildcats. Along the way they established a rivalry with the eventual ABA champion Vermont Frost Heaves. The season even included two games in Singapore, against a Chinese team, filled with the kind of problems you might expect in the minors. In January the Millrats played the Aoshen Olympians with only half a team. Problems with their flights out of Los Angeles meant that half the team, the coaching staff and the uniforms did not make it to the game.
Six players, wearing newly-bought practice jerseys with numbers taped on them, coached by McCarthy and Briggs, lost by just seven points, 105-98. The entire team showed up for the rematch, which the Millrats won 140-111. Briggs was hooked. There was something more than the games themselves that drew him in. It was the reality of being part of something. Maybe it was the game itself. Maybe it was the hands-on nature of life in the minor leagues.
“I’m the water boy. I drive the van sometimes. I help load in the equipment. Everybody has to pull their oar on a minor league team. You don’t delegate much, you just do it,” he said. Bill Veeck, the legendary baseball-team owner, used to say that you fill a ballpark one fan at a time. The Millrats play in the gym at Southern New Hampshire University, before crowds sometimes as small as a few hundred people. Briggs goes about his business with Veeck’s advice in mind.
“I’d like to get between 1,500 and 2,000 fans for each home game,” he said. “And we are working on a deal to have games available on digital television.” The Millrats’ front office considers reaching out to the community a large part of its game plan. The team visits schools to teach clinics on the game. They sometimes work with The Webster House, a place where kids who cannot live at home for periods of time find help.
“You do something like that and at the end of the season you feel as if you accomplished something.” said Briggs. “There is no comparison to doing this and simply writing a check to a charity.” At one junior-high clinic, he actually got to sign an autograph.
“We were there to give a clinic, which ended up with the players entertaining the crowd with a little slam-dunk show and then signing some autographs. A kid asks me for my autograph. It’s very obvious when I’m with the team that I am not a player. I told him he should go and ask one of the players. He said he wanted to be an owner someday and not a player. It was the only autograph I ever signed.” McCarthy calls Briggs “the minor league Mark Cuban,” a reference to the exuberant Dallas Mavericks owner. “He’s there behind the bench sweating every little play.”
Life in the minors The ABA is technically the same league from the 1970s, with the red, white and blue ball and Dr. J slam dunks. It was allowed to get back in action, after a two-decade long non-compete clause. It’s resurrection is as a minor league.
The league slogged through some financial problems last season. The cost of buying into the league was low. For $20,000 you too could own a franchise. That financing did not include the cost of actually running the team, which became a problem. Without television contracts and with limited crowds paying low ticket prices, some teams could not cover their day-to-day costs. When teams began to drop out in the middle of last season, sending ripples through the rest of the league, commissioner Joe Newman – officially called the CEO – began a tug-of-war for control with the ABA’s board of directors. It looked like a good time to leave.
Briggs and McCarthy flirted with the NBA’s development league, called the D-League, but in the end joined a new league called the Premier Basketball League. The Millrats and their arch rival Vermont Frost Heaves will now play in the better-financed PBL. Kenny Smith, “NBA on TNT” analyst and former Houston Rockets point guard, is the PBL’s first commissioner.
It is a 12-team league with teams in Augusta, Georgia; Chicago; Detroit; Halifax, Nova Scotia; Rochester, New York; Vermont; Wilmington, Maryland; and Manchester. The Millrats and Frost Heaves will both join the PBL this season.
“We wanted to stay in the same league with them, because it has been a great rivalry,” said Briggs. The Frost Heaves are owned by Alexander Wolff, a Sports Illustrated writer who in 2002 wrote the book “Big Game, Small World: A Basketball Odyssey.” The book is an account of a year spent chasing basketball around the world. Minor-league teams are, by their very definition, collections of players heading someplace else. But ABA and PBL teams are not minor-league teams in the way that the Pawtucket Red Sox is the minor league team of the Boston Red Sox, with players’ contracts held by one organization.
Once upon a time the Continental Basketball Association (CBA) was a league where players might be playing for the Albany Patroons one night and the New York Knicks the next. Newly-hired Millrats coach Rob Spon is a minor-league lifer. He began coaching 20 years ago, when he filled in at a local Catholic high school that found itself without a coach. His minor-league odyssey took him to towns and teams like the Dakota Wizards, Indiana Alleycats, and the Pittsburgh Xplosion of the CBA.
As head coach of a team called the Wichita Bombers, in the All-American Professional Basketball League, he was told the team was folding via an e-mail as it was traveling to an away game. He coached the Magic City Snowbears, in Minot, North Dakota, to back-to-back championships in the International Basketball Association. His last stop was the Gary, Indiana Steelheads in the same league. Spon remembers the CBA as a league where a sense of team concept was hard to establish.
He understands that on this level the game it is all about developing players. While with the Steelheads, he coached Jamario Moon, a 6’8” center out of tiny Meridian (Mississippi) Community College. Spon, who says he could see Moon was destined for bigger things, worked on his career path as well as his game. Moon now plays for the Toronto Raptors.
Playground hero Briggs is having lunch at Claudette’s in Sconset one late summer afternoon and talking about Anthony Anderson. The 5’11” guard out of the University of Massachusetts is one of those minor-league stories that make players stand in line and put up $200 for a tryout.
When Anderson graduated in 2005, family problems kept him out of basketball. He settled instead for being a playground legend in his hometown of Lynn, Massachusetts. McCarthy found him tearing up a summer tournament in New Bedford. He talked Anderson into a contract with the Millrats, where he was league MVP and all-star game MVP last season, averaging 23 points a game on 67-percent shooting. His season in Manchester lit up those scouting websites that you can find on the Internet these days. One scouting report claimed that he is now considered an NBA prospect. He recently left the Millrats and signed a contract to play for AEK-Larnacas in Cyprus.
Millrats players, even ones with a number of bonus clauses in their contracts triggered by putting up good numbers, do not make very much money. The average pay begins at $800 a month, although there are enough incentives that the number can double. A star might start at $2,000 a month. The Millrats will pick up a player’s room and board to sweeten the deal. By comparison, the top leagues overseas pay very well. It is not unusual to make $250,000 a season in, say , Italy.
“That is what the minor league is for,” said McCarthy. “If your career got off track it’s a chance to get it back on track. There are a couple of guys on our team who have day jobs and just wanted to play professionally. So you get a kind of mixture. The most rewarding thing is finding a player like (Anderson) and putting him in a uniform, so he can move his career along.” Briggs says that helping players like Anderson is something both he and McCarthy consider part of their jobs, and part of the fun of life in the minor leagues.
“We’d love to have him on the team next year,” he said. “But the tradeoff is becoming a part of someone’s life. Ian helped him get seen this summer by scouts. Now he is in a league where he can make some better money and take care of his family. It’s good basketball karma.” Anderson has expressed his thanks in any number of stories on the Internet: “Manchester has been great. Ian and Jason are great people who would do anything for you. Everything about the team … it’s great. I love it up there.”
The basketball gods must have taken notice of all that good karma. The Millrats recently signed Desmond Ferguson, a 6’7” shooting guard. In 2003-2004 he played in the NBA with the Portland Trailblazers, but was with the Yakama Sun Kings, of the CBA, for the last two seasons. The prototypical minor league career, however, most resembles Charles Mason’s bio. He is a well-traveled and dependable 6’8” forward, who can shoot from the outside and averaged 16 points and eight rebounds for the Millrats last season.
Mason played in seven different countries over eight years, including China, Romania, Argentina, France and Ireland. He is good enough to have been invited to try out for the Denver Nuggets twice, where he was the last player cut. His college is listed as Bunker Hill Community College. The tiny school in Charlestown, Massachusetts, is a long way from a big time Division 1 program. It is a long way, in fact, from any level of the NCAA. But these days it seems like there are scouts everywhere. One of them found Mason playing in a Boston summer league.
Players in some of the European or Asian leagues, where teams are allowed to have two American players on the roster, make in the high six figures or the low seven figures.
“We lost a player last season to the Israeli league, where he is making considerably more money than he did with us,” said Briggs. “That’s just the way it goes in the minor leagues. We wish him well.” But there can be a downside for some players.
The Millrats are in negotiations with a player who has some NBA experience and expects to return. He had an offer to play in Romania, but his agent understood that no NBA scout is heading to Romania to look at him. New Hampshire seems a better geographic choice.
Mark Cuban of the Minors Spon told The (Sharon, Pennsylvania) Herald that the Millrats “have a great general manager and the owner is a billionaire. It’s hard to find owners like him, he wants to win.”
Briggs wants more than wins. He wants a basketball life. Although he admits that when the season began he really knew very little about basketball, it is easy to see his new-found love of the game. It is also easy to see the satisfaction he had found with the Millrats. “This team really saved me,” he said. “I was like a drifting boat. You get a feeling at this level that what you do really counts. I feel like I’ve had a greater impact on things the last eight months than I have in the last eight years.”
Last season the team lived in a hotel that Briggs calls “a step above a Motel 6.” So in the off-season he bought a 13,000-square-foot gothic-style house in downtown Manchester that was built in 1896. The place has 15 bedrooms. He is having a weight room installed in the basement with a sauna. In a world were everyone has the potential to be on their way to someplace else, the question becomes, were do you want to go next? The players understand that the real money is not in New Hampshire. McCarthy is quick to point out that Kevin Pritchard, who was named the NBA’s General Manager of the Year in 1981 with the Portland Trailblazers, began as a minor-league general manager.
Briggs seems happy to stay right where he is. “I have no aspiration to make money on this,” he said. “This is a world I didn’t know existed, and it’s exciting on so many levels. The only thing I can compare it to is that feeling when you put on your first Little League uniform. I get to have that feeling at 36.””
John Stanton is a writer and documentary film-maker living on Nantucket where he has coached basketball for the past 20 years.