Winter was sitting out there to the north and west, stacked up across the northern plains and reaching into Canada, but it couldn't find its way to central Ohio. When the temperature hit 67° on the first Saturday in January, the people of Columbus were out like thieves, stealing some time in the freak weather as eagerly as the Ohio State Buckeyes had stolen the Rose Bowl a few days earlier. Maybe the thrilling football win was still too fresh. Maybe it wasn't fair to walk into Goodale Park, where people decked in Buckeyes scarlet and gray were running laps and riding bikes, and ask questions about basketball.
But the park is about a mile from the home of the Columbus Quest, which won 18 of its first 19 games in this inaugural season of the American Basketball League. It's a team with no bickering millionaires and not a single certifiable head case. The players go to dinner together on road trips and act as if it's a privilege to be playing.
Yet almost no one goes to watch the games. If anybody could explain why, it had to be these people in the park, many of whom lived within walking distance of the Greater Columbus Convention Center which houses the Quest's home court O.K., folks. Any of you ever hear of the women's pro basketball team in town? And if so, what's it called?
Ten people were given a fair shot at answering those questions. They did not test well. Five of the 10 weren't aware that there was an ABL team in Columbus. Seven of the people couldn't name the team. None of the 10 had been to a game, and not one of them—including a young man who had been given tickets to a future game as a gift—had a clue where the Quest plays its home games.
The reasons for this lack of awareness could fill a college blue book, but a single response best explained it: Asked if he knew the name of the women's pro basketball team in town, one man smiled as if he had just won the Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakes and replied, "That's the Lady Buckeyes." An Ohio State fan but apparently not a graduate.
This is what the most exciting basketball team in Columbus must contend with: It plays just two miles from the 52,500-student Ohio State campus, in a building that has a store devoted solely to Buckeyes paraphernalia. "If you grow up in Ohio," says Quest general manager and coach Brian Agler, a native of Prospect, 35 miles north of Columbus, "the Buckeyes are everything."
So it made perfect sense last October for the Quest to sign Katie Smith, an All-America forward from last year's Ohio State team. But even with Smith and two U.S. Olympic gold medalists, forwards Andrea Lloyd and Nikki McCray, the team that's first in the ABL standings is last in attendance. At week's end Columbus was 23-3 but was averaging 2,452 for 13 home games, almost 900 below the league average. (By comparison, the 9-6 Lady Buckeyes were averaging 3,898 for nine home dates.)
Says Smith, who was the Quest's third-leading scorer with a 15.4 average through Sunday, "I don't know who will ever arrive in this town as a professional team and take anything away from the Buckeyes."
But as Agler and the ABL pooh-bahs know, the trick isn't to take anything away from Ohio State. It's to offer something that's new and different. "Now that football is over and people get a chance to see what the game is like and the way Columbus is playing, I think it'll catch on," says Gary Cavalli, the ABL's CEO and one of its founders—and a man who expects the league, which owns all eight teams, to lose about $4 million this year. Indeed, last Saturday night the Quest drew an encouraging 4,310, its second largest crowd of the season, for a 96-66 drubbing of the Richmond Rage. "We are not about to panic," Cavalli says.
The game he's talking about is nothing like the basketball we've come to know in the last few years, especially in the dunk-crazy NBA. The ABL is playing the game as we knew it before it moved above the rim. Quest players pass the ball. They set double and triple picks. They're in constant motion on offense. They help each other on defense. And they dive for loose balls as if the future of the league depended on their efforts. "The one thing I hear most from fans and sportswriters," says Cavalli, "is that they can't think of any other league where the players play so hard from the tip to the end of the game."