The idea stirred to life a little more than a year ago, as I listened to NBA scouting director Marty Blake vent in his suburban Atlanta office about the wild growth of the reborn American Basketball Association. "They have a team playing in a high school gym in Gwinnett County," Blake said. "Call themselves the Reigning Knights of Georgia. I want to send my scouts to check out their players, but I can't get rosters or schedules out of the league. Apparently it only costs $10,000 to get a franchise."
He paused just long enough for me to form and blurt out the fateful thought: "For that, I could start a team."
So here we are. On the morning of Dec. 14, from my home in Vermont's Champlain Valley, I'll drive east over the mountains to the Municipal Auditorium in Barre, Vt., to meet the press as president and general manager of the ABA's latest expansion team, the Vermont Frost Heaves. (If you don't know what a frost heave is, not to worry. In a few paragraphs, you will.)
My bosses aren't sinking a cent into the enterprise; Vermonters wouldn't embrace the Heaves if some flatland conglomerate were paying the bills. But SI has detached me to file dispatches to the magazine and SI.com about the birth and, with tip-off next November, life of the team, one of about 60 the ABA projects for 2006-07. SI art director Chris Hercik has come up with our "dynamic roadbed" logo. And my wife, Vanessa, the assistant G.M., is stacking the first boxes of shirts, caps and bumper stickers between the old cow stanchions in our dairy barn. (They can be purchased at www.vermontfrostheaves.com/shop/.)
Vanessa used to live in Norwich, Vt., down a dirt road from Fred Ladd, a farmer who once explained to her how 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 1,650-seat Depression-era building beloved by generations of Vermonters. To be sure, for two weeks during maple-sugaring season the state tournament keeps a ball bouncing there, but a place so shrinelike surely deserves the game throughout the winter. We may also play in Burlington, Vermont's largest city, where similarly character-encrusted Memorial Auditorium begs to host high-level hoops once again. As the Frost Heaves adapt the credo from Field of Dreams--If you use it, they will come--our confidence follows from the ABA's business model: Set the barrier to entry so low that a team pops up on every corner, then cluster play regionally to control travel costs. Cap player payrolls at $120,000 per team. Flog tickets, merchandise and sponsorships, and all of a sudden pro basketball looks sustainable, even with fewer than 2,000 fans a game.
While the idea struck in a moment of whimsy, over a year's gestation the Frost Heaves have become a mission. We'll aspire to be the first "climate cool" team in pro sports, offsetting with renewable energy credits the emissions from heating the Auds and powering our bus. We'll sell local food at our concession stands. As sprawl threatens to leech vitality from Vermont's village centers, we'll bring life to old buildings. As the state's manufacturing sector continues to erode, we'll model ways to use the Web, not just streaming our games but also allowing fans with a laptop, who until now could only play fantasy sports, to vote electronically on select team matters. As almost everything Americans consume, from food to media, gets more homogenized and shipped in from farther away, Vermonters will respond to a team with homegrown players at its core, in the same way they shop at farmers' markets and listen to locally programmed radio. The Frost Heaves will be built for both the 21st century and the state they call home: part reality series, part high-tech demonstration project, part New England town meeting, part local hero.
Over the coming weeks I'll chase down neighbors who want to help bring all this about--Vermonters with a thing for hoops, a laugh and doing well by doing good. After two or three years, once the Heaves are established, my hope will be to turn over at least some of the team to the fans, so it could be held as a community trust, much like the Green Bay Packers, the lodestar of small-market success stories in pro sports.
Upon seeing a road sign that reads FROST HEAVES AHEAD, a tourist might wonder if he's about to pass an animatronic figure of Vermont's most famous poet in gastrointestinal distress. In fact, Webster's calls a frost heave "an upthrust of ground or pavement caused by the freezing of moist soil." Frost heaves in Vermont roads force visitors to downshift to the local pace. Thus our team mottoes: We're gonna be the bump in their road.
And, You Aud to see us play. So, Stop by our hardwood on a snowy evening.
? For more from Alexander Wolff on the Frost Heaves, go to SI.com/frostheaves.