But, as always, Thomas refuses to think small. "We want to be the Microsoft of basketball," he says, and he doesn't seem to be kidding. He envisions as many as 300 teams, in what he calls "tier 2, tier 3 cities." He hopes to own arenas in all of them, simulcasting games on each team's Web site. (Isiah Investments also runs Enlighten Sports, which produces Webcasts for the basketball and football teams at Georgia and Michigan.) National corporate sponsors could reach grassroots America two ways, with ads at the arenas and on the Web. The CBA and the NCAA are close to an agreement on a series of exhibition games before the start of next season. Thomas has also organized a tour this summer during which CBA players will face club teams in China, Japan, Lebanon, the Philippines and South Korea. "We'll do a WCBA, too," he says.
One early reason to believe in Thomas is that so far, he has gotten the basketball end of it right. Immediately after buying the CBA, he announced rules changes. This would be a suit-and-tie league; no surprise there, given Thomas's snappy dress. The playoffs would be single-elimination, like the NCAA tournament, with the championship game to be played on (how's this for a made-for-TV decision?) the Sunday of Final Four weekend. Best of all, from the players' point of view, is the new prohibition against double-teaming until the last five minutes of games. Now guys who actually can go for 60 have the chance to, and NBA scouts won't find that they've driven all the way to Schenectady only to watch the best scorer on the floor passing out of the double all night.
Thomas seems to be taking the CBA's role as a developmental league seriously. He and his head of basketball operations, Brendan Suhr, the former Pistons assistant (and, until October, owner of the Grand Rapids Hoops), have instituted a training program that includes daily weightlifting, cardiovascular workouts, and drills to improve ball handling, post moves and movement without the ball. Players have to shoot 3,000 shots a week, or 500 a day (100 from each of five spots on the floor). "Our primary goal is to develop players," Suhr says. He and Thomas refer to their league as the " Harvard of basketball education."
John Starks of the NBA Warriors, a onetime Cedar Rapids Silver Bullet, attests to the college atmosphere of the CBA: the rabidness of the fans, the camaraderie on the teams and the general lack of cash. "You have to stick together," says Starks. "On the road you try to find buffets, to stretch the dollar." Scoring in CBA games may have risen under Thomas, but so far salaries haven't—the storied hunger of the CBA player is, apparently, not just metaphorical. "Go ask George Karl or Flip Saunders," Suhr says, referring to two former CBA coaches now dealing with NBA egos (in Milwaukee and Minnesota, respectively). "Some nights I bet they wish they were here, because they know the players play hard."
The rule against double-teaming certainly hasn't hurt. Halfway through the five-month season, more than two thirds of CBA teams are averaging more than 100 points a game. In a fast-paced, up-and-down game at the Hartford Armory on Dec. 4, the Pride exploded for 122 points against the Bobcats, and won by only seven. Boston Celtics head scout Leo Papile, who watched from the sidelines that day, may have groused about the rule against double-teaming—If a player can't spin the double," he says, "he's going to end up right back on the bus"—but the guys on the court love it.
Thomas watched the CBA All-Star Game from the Jack Nicholson seats in the Sioux Falls arena on Jan. 18. He and Suhr drove to the game in a new Caddy that disappeared from its parking spot while they were inside. (Schulte, the auto dealer, sold it to a couple who wanted to buy a car that had carried the NBA legend.) Ten days later Thomas spoke about the difference between All-Star games at the NBA and the minor league level, but he might as well have been talking about his own experience as the new head of the CBA. "In the NBA the All-Star Game is always a showcase of talent, with great plays and slam dunks from the best of the best, but there's no sense of urgency," he said. "Here, where you have to compete to impress the scouts, every play is a life-and-death situation. It makes it a great game to watch."
The $10 million question is, Will David Stern keep tuning in?