Commack, a town in the middle of New York's Long Island, may be the only community of 20,000 anywhere to play host to two professional sports teams: the New York Nets of the American Basketball Association and the Long Island Ducks of the Eastern Hockey League. Both teams play their at-home games in an oversized Quonset hut called the Long Island Arena, which is one of the island's largest indoor sports facilities and the main reason for the Nets and Ducks being there.
Commack is 45 miles east of New York City, and getting there over the Long Island Expressway, known to local commuters as "the world's longest parking lot," is never much fun. But it does offer to anyone interested a unique and bizarre sports experience, and the time to enjoy it is now. At the conclusion of next season Commack may lose its only claim to athletic fame, as both of its teams are hoping to move southwest to a bigger arena in Hempstead, which is 20 miles closer to Manhattan.
In a way it's a pity—for watching hockey in Commack is unlike watching hockey anywhere else. An ardent Ducks' fan once dragged his reluctant sister-in-law to see her first, and last, game at the Arena. Early in the first period a player leaped into the seats, unguarded by the glass barrier found at any normal rink, and punched an abusive fan whose blood splattered all over the woman's dress. According to Al Baron, the team's owner, "This is the only rink in organized hockey where the players stand on the ice and watch the fights in the stands."
Outside the Arena, Commack is a featureless sprawl of shopping plazas and split-level houses, and in the cold months there is little to do there. A typical matinee at the nearest movie house, in adjoining Smith-town, offers a rerun of Pinocchio.
The Ducks are in their 10th year at Commack and though their play offers no threat to the following of New York's Rangers, the team has fanatically loyal local fans. On a recent Friday night the Duck plane was delayed and the opening face-off wasn't held until 11:30, but a crowd of 2,500 was still on hand when the game ended at 2:30 a.m. "Hockey caught hold here because of a tremendous thirst for sports," explains one fan. "No one is even allowed to die while the clock is running," says another, who hasn't missed a home game in nine years and whose daughter married a Duck.
The amateurism of the operation is part of its charm. Another night the game was held up 20 minutes because the pucks were in the ice-cream freezer and no one knew it. Owner Al Baron jaws animatedly on the phone throughout every home game, but he isn't calling his wife; he's doing the play-by-play over radio station WBAB.
Unlike Commack's hockey team, the American Basketball Association's Nets are newcomers. As with many of the entries in the two-year-old ABA, their attendance has been poor. The Nets (known then as the Americans) spent their first year playing to indifferent crowds in New Jersey before arranging the move to Long Island. They tied with Kentucky for a playoff berth and hoped to settle the issue in the new Commack home, but ABA Commissioner George Mikan said no. The Commack basketball floor had actual holes in it, and the basket stanchions were held in place by oil drums filled with water.
All that is changed now, but the old reputation is hard to live down. Attendance is climbing slowly, however, and the management hopes the Nets' new fans and many more like them will flock to the new arena at Hempstead.
According to ABA standards, even Hempstead will be small potatoes as towns go. There are 11 cities in the ABA, including such whoopee towns as New Orleans and Los Angeles. Oakland, the league's second smallest city, has more than 350,000 people, or roughly 17 times as many as Commack, and the difference in style is even greater. Few of the Nets will share the Ducks' regret at moving on.
Unlike the Ducks, the Nets may even be glad to leave Commack. The housing shortage there is a real problem. Because the team is so new and the turnover so high, few of the Nets have been able to rent in the Commack area, and some of them have wound up driving more than 40 miles to Long Beach after each home game. Besides, the players yearn for a warmer, safer, more modern plant. Earlier this year Levern Tart, now with Denver, ran off a single row of boards behind the backboard onto the ice, where he slipped and broke his cheekbone.
The Ducks are a fixture in Commack, and the warm fan response after an early struggle has made life there almost pleasant. Most of the players now sublet homes in nearby towns. After games they head up the road to a bar called Kelly's Irish House where, win or lose, they are greeted like heroes by a steady group of female followers and owners George and Dan. The players are a reflective lot. A few, like Player-Coach Les Calder, now 28, turned down offers of college scholarships. "I had no time," Calder says wryly, "I was gonna be a superstar."
George, the bartender, nods his head understandingly. He senses the players' moods and he too is keenly aware that Commack is a far cry from Montreal, or New York, or even Hempstead, but it is—or has been—home.