SI Vault
Curry Kirkpatrick
February 12, 1979
The Western Basketball Association has franchises stretching from Tucson to Las Vegas to Montana. It's a last chance for some and the only chance for other NBA hopefuls—coaches as well as players
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February 12, 1979

Taking A Gamble On The Future

The Western Basketball Association has franchises stretching from Tucson to Las Vegas to Montana. It's a last chance for some and the only chance for other NBA hopefuls—coaches as well as players

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Long after the game, the professional basketball players were commingling, as is their way. The visitors, some late of the Boston Celtics, the New Orleans Jazz and the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, were still dressed in the uniform of the Reno Bighorns, waiting for the van back to the motel. The home team, represented by Guard Brad Davis and his fiancée, Michelle Baylos, paused at the door of the arena. Davis, late of the Los Angeles Lakers and the Fabulous Forum but now of the Montana Sky and the C. M. Russell Fieldhouse, and Baylos were all the rage in their closely matching boots, mittens, scarves, sweaters, parkas and woolen caps. Just the same, they were pausing at the door because mere clothes might not be enough outside in Great Falls, Mont., where it was approximately 800° below zero and the grizzlies were dropping like flies.

"Hollywood to the Arctic, Hollywood to the Arctic. Right, Brad?" a Reno Bighorn called as Davis peered into the snowdrifts.

"You got it," Michelle said. "Ferrari to four-wheel drive. L.A. to nowhere. Great Falls? This isn't a town. This is a jail term."

Actually it was not a jail term, either, but simply the end of another wonderful evening in the WBA, which is not to be confused with the NBA or even the ASPCA, although sometimes you can't tell the woofers without a program. WBA stands for Western Basketball Association, the newest and most ambitious of the minor leagues to spring up around the National Basketball Association.

Wait a minute, a person of reasonable sanity might exclaim. The NBA. Isn't that the league that is losing spectators, losing TV ratings, losing interest, losing, losing, losing and just held an all-star game without Bernard King for goodness sakes? Right. And now, there's a minor league just like it? Right again. Only the WBA has it all over the NBA in bizarreness. Bush-league NBA beginnings? Chicken feed. The WBA wasn't one game old when Billy Martin, who was in Reno to pump up attendance for the Bighorns' opener, instead pumped up his famous right fist and attacked a sportswriter. Instant notoriety.

NBA coach quits at midseason? Nothin'. WBA players quit at halftime. What about that NBA corporate fiasco starring Roy Boe? Why, compared to the WBA guys, he's merely a low-class bungler. Last week in the WBA, James Speed, a 6'7" blind man who originally owned the Las Vegas Dealers, terminated his involvement, folding the Dealers, in a manner of speaking, whereupon the league quickly came up with some "potential" new corporate blood, including Steve Huffaker, the Clark County assistant public defender, and "Panama Bill" Armstrong, who wears a Panama hat. Don't ask why.

Last Wednesday, after Speed had canceled the Dealers' game with the Washington Lumberjacks, the team went ahead and played anyway under the league's guardianship, charged no admission, won 126-125 and drew 250 people despite a sudden snowstorm that closed everything in Las Vegas except Wayne Newton's mouth.

Then on Friday, Panama Bill huddled with WBA President Neil Christiansen under a keno scoreboard in a hotel coffee shop to discuss a possible investment. That night, for a game against Reno, Huffaker, the public defender, took over the PA duties, announced the 24-second countdowns in lieu of a shot clock (which Speed kept) and then used the mike to introduce buxom cheerleaders, infant ball boys, puzzled journalists and practically everybody else in the "crowd" who was breathing. Afterward, President Christiansen went on the radio and called the WBA "the second-greatest league in the entire world."

Buffoonery, naiveté and attendance figures aside, in just a few short months the WBA has done what its executive director, Larry Creger, says it set out to do, namely, "position itself in the market." Not as a rival of the NBA. thank heaven. Not even as a new ABA—although the league has revived the old three-point basket and no-foul-out rule. "We're a bare step down from the NBA." says Creger, a former assistant coach in both the NBA and ABA.

What this means is that the WBA, which has a 60-game schedule and seven franchises—Tucson, Salt Lake City, Fresno and the Washington state tri-cities of Richland. Kennewick and Pasco, in addition to Las Vegas, Reno and Great Falls—already has established itself as the NBA's most valid farm system. It is a place where draft failures and fringe veterans together with spot-and role-players can hone their skills in an atmosphere of good coaching, suitable airplane travel, respectable lodgings and regular paychecks. Then on those numerous occasions when an NBA team loses a player to injury, dog bites or airsickness, a general manager can pluck a replacement from a WBA team.

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