The second-best basketball league in the world can no longer claim that its future is as bright as Isiah Thomas's trademark grin. Nine months after buying—and buoying—the nine-team CBA with $10 million and visions of a network of 300 teams in cities across the country, Thomas has cut bait. Last Thursday the 12-time All-Star and member of this year's Hall of Fame class accepted a reported four-year, $20 million offer to coach the Pacers and, following NBA requirements, agreed to divest himself of the smaller league.
Whither the 54-year-old CBA? No one seems to know. "The [league] is prepared...to move forward confidently with the plans inspired by the leadership of Isiah Thomas," said CBA president Don Welsh last Thursday. One small problem: "We don't know the plans of the [league's] new owners, or even who the new owners will be," says Tommy Smith, CEO and part owner of the Sioux Falls Skyforce and regional vice president of four other CBA teams. Although Thomas signed a letter of intent in June to sell the league to the National Basketball Players Association, as of Monday a deal did not appear imminent.
When Thomas took over the CBA last October, he adopted rules changes to encourage high scoring, revamped his marketing staff and announced expansion plans in hopes of forming closer links to the NBA. But now Thomas is gone, and the NBA is proceeding with plans for its own developmental league, to tip off in 2001. So much for moving confidently forward. "Uncertainty in the CBA is the norm," says Smith, who's been a top executive in the league since 1994. "It's like a cold shower—after you've taken them for so long, you forget what hot water feels like."