After the employee-owners of the New England Blizzard defeated
the employee-owners of the Atlanta Glory 86-66, the Blizzard
players pelted the raucous American Basketball League-record
crowd of 12,623 with plastic "victory balls." You in the cheap
seats: Duck! The Blizzard might not have scored in the 90s, but
its players can throw in them.
As the ABL opened its second season in the cradle of women's
basketball, the league brought with it a whiff of peril--and not
only to the Blizzard's rotator cuffs. Professional women's
basketball in the United States went from no leagues to two
leagues overnight, and surely both can't survive. So the ABL,
the self-proclaimed "players' league," has tried to infuse its
troops with a sense of empowerment by giving them a stake in its
success--10%, to be precise, in the form of stock options. Gary
Cavalli, the league's CEO, visited several of the nine teams
last month to explain the financial strategy and was greeted
mostly with vacant stares by his new partners. Getting warmup
jacketed, they could grasp. But getting vested?
Finally Cavalli dropped the technical spiel and started telling
teams about a friend of his, a men's college basketball coach
who was given stock options when he signed on with Nike in the
1970s and now is sitting pretty. "Hold on to the stock," he
advised. "Someday it could be worth a lot of money."
The ABL--notwithstanding its modest arenas and marketing
budget--is better than the overhyped, air-conditioned
contrivance that is the WNBA. Sunday's game had the feel of real
basketball. Inside the Hartford Civic Center players dribbled a
standard-looking orange ball; New England guard Jennifer
Rizzotti hurled herself all over the floor with a remarkable
sense of purpose; and former Celtics star K.C. Jones presided on
the Blizzard bench. Outside was a see-your-breath autumn night.
Introducing a stock-option plan, committing to a heftier
marketing budget of $3 million (still only one fifth of what the
WNBA spent last summer), signing 31 of its top 35 players to
multiyear contracts and hiring a name coach like Jones for the
Blizzard were all moves designed to regain momentum for the ABL.
Shanda Berry, for one, did her part to jump-start her investment
vehicle. A 6'3" Blizzard forward, who has an off-season job as a
police officer in Montgomery County, Md., Berry racked up 20
points and 10 rebounds against the Glory, which is good in any
alphabet. "All summer I heard about the WNBA," Berry said after
the game. "People would look at my height and say I should play
"'I do,' I'd tell them. 'In the ABL.'"
"'No,'" she said, parroting words she heard so often, "'you
should play professionally--in the WNBA.'"
"But," Berry always says, "I play in the better league."
COLOR PHOTO: BILL POLO New England's Tara Davis (34) will still battle her ownership partners for loose balls.