At long last, after bending my schedule, and then finally getting the time, I made the trip down Interstate 89 to Barre, Vermont to finally attend the latest game in town; the Vermont Frost Heaves of the American Basketball Association. The Frost Heaves are the brainchild and dream of Sports Illustrated writer Alex Wolff, who wanted to bring basketball to his adopted home state. Alex is a prolific writer, having written countless books on basketball, and basically being obsessed with the game from about 30 seconds after being born.
The ABA is a struggling minor league with countless problems and issues ranging from corrupt owners, to corrupt upper leadership, and teams who have folded in mid-season, failed to pay their players, and whose commissioner has all of the PR skills of a two year old who is throwing a tantrum. Last year, the league played half of its games, but yet commissioner Joe Newmann has plans to expand his league to over 100 teams. Don't let these statements turn you against the Frost Heaves, Alex Wolff is a man who if others follow his lead can turn this league into a success.
So, after calling the Saint Michael's/LeMoyne game on WCAT, I made the trip down I-89 to the Barre Auditorium. "The Aud" has been recognized by the USA Today as one of the top ten venues in the country for high school basketball with great views of the court, and an intimate and LOUD environment. The Aud is packed for the state basketball tournaments, and everyone I bumped into seems to have a memory of one game or another from years past. Barre is a blue collar area whose fans know their basketball who have the days counted down until the next game at the old brick arena.
Alex is a man who as my mother would say "gets it". Being a Vermonter, Alex has honed in on what will bring fans to the games. All of the products sold and produced are environmentally friendly, and are tied into the local economy. The team bus is low emission, and the concessions are all done by local companies from Central Vermont and are very affordable. Forget the standard cold hot dog with a soggy bun; Alex had a place with fresh grilled sausages and hand made crepes. Tickets are a bargain at 12 bucks for a balcony seat, and the parking is free.
Some of the players themselves have local ties. Dana Martin starred at Stowe High, Burlington product and Saint Michael's standout B.J. Robertson gets some time, and local favorite Kerry Lyons who hasn't seen a second of playing time this year has a cult following because of his easy going manner and the fact he hasn't stopped smiling since the tryout sessions. All of the players willingly sign autographs before and after the game and have been known to hold impromptu teaching sessions while they are warming up. Coach Will Voigt is a graduate of Cabot High School who is a basketball savant. At the age of 30, he has already coached college ball, and overseas at the pro level. He has worked with the San Antonio Spurs, and many say Will has a solid chance at being an NBA coach.
The fans are entertained during timeouts and in between quarters with a variety of promotions including a race where kids go from one sideline to the other and change the banners in front of the scorers table. Fans are recognized, by the PA guy who keeps yelling for more ringing of the cowbells (Don't ask, they gave me a migrane and I had to block them out) and throwing out facts about Frost Heave players. The Aud holds about 1,500 and I think I counted 50 empty seats.
The quality of play isn't bad, but it could be better. These are guys who are hanging on to their dream of playing professional basketball and are doing everything they can to hold on. The pace is frantic as only seven seconds are allowed to cross mid-court, and if the ball is turned over in the backcourt, and the opposing team scores, an extra point is awarded. Quebec City was able to turn two field goals into three points, and another two three pointers into four. Defense is emphasized, and if you can't run for 48 minutes, then get in shape.
The fan experience is tremendous, the staff goes above and beyond, and owner Alex Wolff is a class guy who deserves all of the success in the world. He is bringing affordable basketball to an area in need of something to hold onto, and if the commissioner of the league would stop handing out franchises to anyone whose check clears, the league may make some money for everyone and not just those in the family of Mr. Newmann. Alex has marketed the team, is a PR genius, has gotten out in the community, and made a name for his team. Many teams in this league have not done that and have failed miserably; including six teams who have folded this year. Off the record I was told two more and possibly three more will fold in the near future. If every team follows Alex's model, and Mr. Newmann REQUIRES all prospective teams do the same, the league will grow. If Mr. Newmann fails to do that, his league will go into the sunset.