Posted: Wednesday December 14, 2005 11:47AM; Updated: Thursday July 6, 2006 1:21AM
Court of Dreams
If high school fans at Barre's Aud are any indication, the Frost Heaves' new home won't lack for atmosphere.
Michael J. LeBrecht II/1Deuce3 Photography/SI
I met Vanessa in Norwich, Vt., in the checkout line at Dan & Whit's General Store, whose motto, "If we don't have it, you don't need it," got extensive airplay at our wedding. At the time she lived down a dirt road from Fred Ladd, who for decades had worked his family's hill farm in Windsor County. There's an equilibrium in a working barn, Fred once explained to her, an ineffable balance between the temper of the timber and the animals' body heat, that keeps the structure sound. A barn begins to die soon after the animals are taken from it. It's hard not to think of that analogy upon walking into "the Aud" in Barre, the Depression-era building beloved by generations of Vermonters, which was recently named by USA Today as one of the 10 finest places in the country to watch a high school basketball game.
To be sure, for two weeks during maple-sugaring season the state tournament keeps a ball bouncing on the Aud's well-shellacked floor -- with the exception of the first Tuesday in March, when basketball yields to the voting-age citizens of Barre so they can conduct a town meeting. But a building so shrine-like that the words THERE ARE NO LOSERS AT THE AUD are chiseled in the lobby in granite -- the city's great export -- surely deserves to be filled with the game throughout the winter. We may also play in Burlington, the state's largest city, where similarly character-encrusted Memorial Auditorium begs to host high-level hoops once again. Unlike Barre's Municipal Aud, the Memorial Aud needs work, but the Frost Heaves would be eager to collaborate with the city to do it. We're tweaking the credo from Field of Dreams here: If you use it, they will come.
And on what grounds do we nurture such optimism? Vermonters have a well-cultivated spirit of community, as well as an affection for basketball, especially in cities like Barre and Burlington. In the meantime, league CEO Joe Newman, a veteran ad agency and radio man, persuasively pitches the ABA's business model: Set the barrier to entry so low that there's a team on every corner, then cluster play regionally to keep travel costs down. (The ABA doesn't call the cost of getting in the game a "franchise fee," but a "market reservation fee." It has risen to a still-modest $20,000 since my visit with Marty Blake.) Set a $120,000 salary cap on player payrolls so no deep-pocketed owner can drive everyone else out of business. (Many ABA teams stay well under that cap, with some offering incentive-based bonuses to make up the difference.) Play your 18 home games in affordable venues; flog tickets, merchandise and sponsorships; and all of a sudden pro basketball looks sustainable, even with fewer than 2,000 fans a game.