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Championship run

An inaugural season yields many lessons -- and a title

Posted: Thursday April 5, 2007 10:12AM; Updated: Thursday April 5, 2007 12:06PM
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Former St. Joseph's power forward John Bryant and his Frost Heaves teammates greet the fans after clinching the ABA title.
Former St. Joseph's power forward John Bryant and his Frost Heaves teammates greet the fans after clinching the ABA title.
Roger Crowley/DigiTechVT.com
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In Wonderland, indeed. There's no other way to describe what it feels like to have won the ABA championship last Thursday, which the Vermont Frost Heaves did with a 143-95 defeat of the Texas Tycoons at the Barre Municipal Auditorium.

You learn a lot over 16 months in charge of a pro basketball team, starting it from scratch and winning a title in your inaugural season.

Take that last phrase: I learned that a writer/owner can get edited by his players. Guard Melvin Creddle, seeing the "inaugural season" sash that graced the cover of our yearbook, asked, "Couldn't you just say 'first?' Keep it simple?"

Good advice. As was the suggestion from the Barre-Montpelier Times-Argus to hand out cowbells. I balked at first, fearing their obnoxiousness would drive away fans before we had any. Instead, the clangor turned the Aud in Barre into a pit, and allowed us to leverage all we could out of that Christopher Walken "More Cowbell" skit from Saturday Night Live.

I learned that the answer to the question I fielded most frequently -- are these guys good enough for the NBA? -- is a two-parter: Evidently, at least right now, no. But most are missing only one thing: an inch, a first step, a mid-range jumper, a handle in traffic. Assemble a dozen such guys, and they're constantly looking to cover for one another's weaknesses, and in that sustained awareness of their teammates they're more essentially a team.

I learned that, even at age 30, a coach can summon the wisdom to take in the long view. "Not that I'd ever lose a game on purpose," Will Voigt told me after our opener at Quebec City, where we'd blown a 25-point halftime lead and lost in overtime because of our inability to cope with the Kebekwa press -- and his unwillingness to keep calling timeouts. "But after a while guys have to figure it out for themselves. This is a journey."

I learned that, as in any journey, fate and circumstance can one-up the best-laid plans. While in Africa scouting for the Spurs, Coach V had found a raw, 7-foot, 18-year-old Nigerian. He got his signature on a faxed-back contract and set about trying to make our Kevin Bacon-movie fantasy come true. The immigration machinery lumbered along, and in the meantime, in a pickup game at the University of Vermont gym, we stumbled upon Issa Konare, a 6-8, perfectly polished four-year player on the Senegalese national team. He had been Big South defensive player of the year at High Point College in North Carolina, where he'd met and married a Vermont gal. He was living with her and their daughter in Richmond, Vt., waiting on a green card. And waiting. He took a chance on us, and has a title to show for it.

I learned that operations won't always be smooth in a league that begins a season with 50 to 60 teams, ends with 15 to 22 fewer (it's still not entirely clear), and suffers from litigation between the incumbent CEO and the owner of the defending champions, who is now vowing to start a new league. The ABA Playoffs were designed to feature 24 teams, but six declined a berth or forfeited. (To become champs, we did have to win four games, all against teams seeded No. 13 or higher.) Our opponent in the title game arrived 90 minutes before tipoff, and we had to purchase the championship trophy ourselves -- though the league will reimburse us for the cost.

I learned that, in a league where the entire season's payroll is capped at $120,000, no player will get rich -- and for that very reason all have to figure out something non-monetary to take away from the experience. It might as well be a title -- and that's why minor-leaguers are more responsive to coaching than their NBA counterparts.

I learned that, in Vermont, you do a victory parade with the mascot in a convertible, the players on a flatbed -- and a potluck supper at the end of the route.

I learned that the sales reps for those ring manufacturers know how to pounce. We found a message from Balfour on our office voice mail by 10 Friday morning.

We took our leave at a champagne brunch on Saturday. "When we began this, we were asking each of you for your Social Security number," I told the guys. "And here we are, asking for your ring size."

To view a video from the Frost Heaves' championship season, narrated by Alexander Wolff and produced by Justin Smith, go to vermontfrostheaves.com.

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