THE AUTHOR, A LONGTIME SI WRITER, LOOKED AT THE REVIVED AMERICAN BASKETBALL ASSOCIATION AND THOUGHT, FATEFULLY, EVEN I COULD BE AN OWNER. THE REST IS HISTORY (WITH A MOOSE MASCOT): THE CRAZY, JOYFUL, MOURNFUL TALE OF THE VERMONT FROST HEAVES
THE NOISE still rang in my ears. It had come with each assault on the basket, each steal, each three-pointer: screams, cheers and the clattering of cowbells from people who had turned the vacuum-packed Barre Municipal Auditorium (aka the Aud) into a multiple fire-code violation. Not 16 months earlier, in December 2005, some partners and I had announced to a skeptical state that we had created a pro basketball team, the Vermont Frost Heaves. And now we had won the American Basketball Association championship, sweeping past the Texas Tycoons 143--95 for Vermont's first national title in any professional team sport. As J.J. Cioffi, the sports anchor for the Burlington CBS affiliate, put it in his postgame stand-up that night, "From no one to No. 1 in just one year!"
We had led the ABA in scoring defense and attendance as percentage of capacity. Pro Basketball News would name us the top team in the minor leagues, which included the storied Continental Basketball Association and the NBA's well-funded D-League. After a parade through downtown Barre to the everyone-invited potluck in the basement of the Aud, our mascot would cavort in the halls of the statehouse, and Vermont's own Patrick Leahy would read a congratulatory resolution on the floor of the U.S. Senate.
"Just a few months ago we were asking you guys for your Social Security numbers," I would tell the players at a champagne brunch the next morning, "and here we are, asking for your ring sizes. You should all be very, very proud."
We had made a mockery of the Green Mountain adage, "You can't get there from here." Why, then, did I have a feeling of foreboding in the pit of my stomach?
COUNTLESS PRO basketball dreams began in the suburban Atlanta office of the late NBA scouting director Marty Blake. Mine was no different. Blake prided himself on seeing, or having one of his minions see, every potential NBA prospect on earth. As I sat across his desk in November 2004, Blake turned to an abiding peeve: the newly reconstituted ABA, an outfit so fly-by-night that he and his bird dogs couldn't get a fix on it, even after the league fielded a team in Gwinnett County, not 25 miles away. That franchise was called the Reigning Knights of Georgia, and for the name Blake grudgingly awarded style points. But he liked nothing else about the ABA. Teams popped up around the country, and most soon disappeared. "I can't get rosters," he grumbled. "I can't even get a schedule." As Blake saw it, the league permitted any bozo to start a team. "Apparently," he said, "it costs only $10,000 to get a franchise."
"For that," I blurted out fatefully, "I could start a team."
And write about it, I thought. Several years earlier my wife, Vanessa, and I had moved from New York City to an old farmstead in the Champlain Valley of Vermont with our infant son, Frank. Our adoptive state had 620,000 residents, a population large enough to support a team. There were only a few major media outlets to attract, and Vermonters fetishize a sense of community and apartness. I imagined a team scaled for the state and, with SI.com's expanding appetite for content, the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED assignment of a lifetime.
During the mid-2000s there was a widely held belief among New Englanders that pro basketball was broken. They'd tell you they didn't like the soulless arenas, the unaffordable tickets or the remote players. In Vermont we could redress each of those things, or so I thought. We could bring life back to downtowns, offering fans a chance to watch professional-caliber athletes in classic buildings with a Hoosiers feel. We could get a family of four in the door for $30, thanks to the ABA's business model, which capped payrolls at $120,000 per team. And our players could be out in the community, spreading goodwill.
Like any minor league team, we would need a catchy nickname. I had one. During the winter, serial freezes, thaws and refreezes in the roadbeds of Vermont's highways cause upthrusts called frost heaves. The frost heave captured what we hoped to be: seasonal, quirky and, for our opponents, an irritating obstacle. The tagline wrote itself: We're gonna be the bump in their road. In February and March, as Day-Glo-orange FROST HEAVES AHEAD signs bloomed along roadsides, we'd circumvent Vermont's ban on billboards.
"They've captured the renegade and unpredictable spirit of the old ABA," I wrote to my editors about the new ABA. "There's a gimmicky rule, in line with the original ABA's three-point shot, giving teams three or four points for a field goal scored after an opponent's turnover in the backcourt."
Early in 2005 the New York City office signed off. SI creative director Chris Hercik began sketching what would become our "dynamic roadbed" logo. And I phoned Indianapolis, where a former ad man named Joe Newman ran the new ABA out of his basement.
Yes, Newman told me, the rights to a "market reservation" in Vermont were available. He would charge me only $5,000. "There are no dues and assessments," he added. "Actually the league shares its revenues with the teams, not vice versa." (Never mind that now, nine years on, I'm still waiting on the first penny from the league office.) My plan was to create an entirely different kind of pro sports team. We'd sell local food at our concession stands. We'd be the first "climate cool" team, traveling to games on a biodiesel bus and offsetting our carbon emissions with renewable-energy credits. As the state's manufacturing eroded, we'd model the digital future, letting fans with laptops or smartphones vote on team matters. As sprawl and big-box stores threatened to leech the life from Vermont's downtowns, we'd shore them up by playing in them.
Through all the giddiness, I probably should have lingered longer on why a league with a reputation for unreliability would name a division after Marvin Barnes, the old ABA star notorious for showing up late. And faintly I could hear the murmur of my inner Groucho, wondering if it was a good idea to join a league that would have me as a member.
IN THEORY the ABA's cut-rate market reservation fees were ingenious: By making the barrier to entry low, the league attracted tight regional clusters of teams, all within driving distance of one another, which kept travel costs down. But the owner who had gotten his franchise for five figures or less would have to pay the players and the refs and rent the gym and the bus. By Christmas 2004, game cancellations and team bankruptcies had turned several of the ABA's divisions into husks.
Fortunately there seemed to be a fairly reliable group of owners in our corner of the league, which included Newark; Cape Cod, Mass.; Buffalo and Rochester, N.Y.; and Long Island—or, as the team was called, Strong Island. Moreover, there was a team in Montreal, with another in Quebec City set to join the following season and a third in the works for Halifax, Nova Scotia. Our team would sit in the geographic middle, with no opponent more than a day's bus ride away.
At the league meeting in the fall of 2005, Newman said, "We guarantee that every team that begins play in November will complete its 36-game season." These, I would discover, were not words to take to the bank. At the All-Star break in February I did a quick count. The ABA had begun the season with 48 teams. Thirty-two were still playing.
As the Frost Heaves' president and GM, I locked down enough co-owners to forge ahead, cold-calling some prospects and haunting entrepreneurs' forums for others. Several came in at small amounts but brought symbolic value. Tom Brennan, freshly retired as the University of Vermont's basketball coach, was the most popular figure in the state. Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry's also agreed and sealed the deal with a thermal tote of pint cartons.
Local investors helped spread word in Vermont's business community. We sold naming rights for the extra point after a backcourt turnover, aka the 3-D Rule, to a Burlington nightclub. We also exploited another ABA innovation, the 13th-Man Rule, which allowed each team to suit up one person from the community at each home game. (Strong Island sent out Ed [Cookie] Jarvis, a 6'6", 419-pound competitive eating champion.) Our 13th-Man sponsorship was bought by Northfield Savings Bank.
Next I weighed where we would play. Chittenden County in the north was home to Burlington, to the state's most influential media and to 25% of its population, but during the winter, University of Vermont hockey and men's and women's basketball cast a long shadow there. Central Vermont, on the other hand, was another world. Less than an hour down Interstate 89 from Burlington lay Montpelier (pop. 7,700), the only state capital without a McDonald's, and Barre (pop. 9,200), an old granite-quarrying town down at the heels because of cheap foreign competition. But if central Vermont tended to be poorer and more sparsely populated than the north, its towns leaned more toward hoops than hockey. They sorely needed a cause to call their own. And Barre had something that, paired with a building in Burlington, made for a thematic whole.
Vermont had two basketball temples. Each accommodated 1,200 to 1,800 people and had an intimacy that would make for a home court advantage if we could only fill it with fans. Barre had the Aud, a WPA project from the 1930s built with local granite. It was the site of the annual state high school basketball tournament and was once listed by USA Today among the nation's 10 "great places to watch high school hoops." Burlington had Memorial Auditorium. Darker and a decade older than the Aud, it had a Phantom of the Opera vibe, thanks to a stage at one end and a balcony ringing the other three sides that could block shots launched from too deep in the corners. These two old buildings and two downtowns needed new life, as Vanessa, who had agreed to serve as assistant GM, instantly recognized. If we couldn't decide on one, we'd play in both. It was a foretaste of what would soon become my management style: indecisiveness.
Yet by playing in two pockets of the state, we would double our exposure and our potential fan and sponsor bases. People unwilling to commit to a full 18-game "I-89" season ticket could justify a nine-game "Exit 7" or "Exit 14" package at about half the price. We would have enough presence in both markets for each daily paper to cover us, and two radio stations wound up broadcasting all our games, something no other ABA team could claim.
By December 2005 it was time to go public with our plans. The Frost Heaves, I wrote in a grandiose manifesto for SI, would 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."
During the first two days we logged more than 100 merchandise orders from all over the world. Vanessa and I pulled hats and T-shirts from boxes stashed in our dairy barn, then stuffed them into Tyvek mailers in a spare bedroom. By the end of December no family holiday cards had gone out, but we had sold thousands of dollars in gear.
The vision of social responsibility had resonated with people. "I'd like to buy two season tickets," one transplanted Vermonter wrote. "But since I live in Ohio, I'd like to donate them to a local Boys & Girls Club, YMCA, YWCA, etc." That inspired a program called the Jack Frost Seats, through which anyone could underwrite tickets that let kids sit, Nicholson-like, in the front row.
EXPANSION TEAMS in pro sports had long given fans the chance to vote on a nickname or a mascot. I decided to put before our supporters a much more consequential decision, which I couldn't bring myself to make. In April we presented two finalists for our coaching job to a vote of our online community, the Bump in the Road Club.
I made sure I'd be comfortable with either. One coach, Rus Bradburd, had paid his dues as a big-time college assistant, first at UTEP and then at New Mexico State. Bradburd had discovered Tim Hardaway, and more recently he had led the Tralee Tigers to the Irish Super League title. I loved his memoir, Paddy on the Hardwood, a tale of self-discovery embedded in an account of that championship season. Bradburd was also a recreational fiddler—just the kind of character who figured to be a fit for Vermont.
The other candidate, Will Voigt, had grown up in Cabot, Vt., in an old farmhouse with a hoop in the barn. At 18 he'd lit out for California's Pomona College, where he stumbled into an internship with the Clippers. That led to stopovers in the video room of the Spurs; at Texas as an aide to Rick Barnes; and in Bergen, Norway, where he now served as coach of the Ulriken Eagles. But what leaped out from his résumé was a season at Metro State, a Division II power in Denver. For a story on the decline of fundamentals, I had once attended a Metro State 6 a.m. practice, which is all footwork and positioning, no balls allowed. Will might have been barely 30, but his pedigree suggested an old basketball soul.
Most of our voters were Vermonters, and Will won the balloting by almost two-to-one. We would supply him with a place to live, a car and a living wage. And I signed off on a bonus of $20,000 if we beat out that mass of other ABA teams for the title. The prospect seemed too remote to be a deal breaker.
It was Vanessa who came up with our mascot. A regular if usually unwelcome feature along Vermont's roads are wild moose—and, in homage to the frost heave, we decided to call ours Bump. To create Bump, we hired the dean of mascot makers, a Québécois named Jean-Claude Tremblay, who had designed hundreds of such creatures, including Youppi! of the Montreal Expos and Champ of baseball's Class A Vermont Lake Monsters.
Tremblay's Bump was gloriously goofball, with a Day-Glo-orange bump road sign on the back of his Frost Heaves jersey and half an ABA basketball sitting yarmulkelike atop his head. At $3,300, he was a steal. He became the face of the team months before we had a team. He would do duty in Memorial Day parades and at county fairs, sometimes with the Frost Heaves' GM or his assistant in the suit.
But the issue that most consumed us was how to populate our roster. The $120,000 payroll cap for a five-month season lagged behind the D-League's, the CBA's and most European clubs'. Further, because the D-League was the NBA's own, any prospect with ambitions to play in the Show would choose the Down Low, where scouts could follow his progress. So our task was to highlight what made us distinct. Our small market had already embraced the team. We would supplement salaries with housing and meals. Our coach had a bulging Rolodex of contacts as well as player-development cred; put in a good season with us, and you could move on to a better-paying gig overseas. The quality of our roster would come down to Will's ability to network, evaluate and jawbone, and to creatively slice up the payroll pie.
No sooner did we announce a date for our first open tryout camp than the emails poured in from guys eager to show us what they had: silkyslimm21, hoopsoul23, igetbuckets, bigfella52, swoosh1223, realmainevent, hoopdream31 and one Marcus Birdsong, who, invoking a former NBA All-Star, assured us that "I take after my uncle Otis." The open tryout was really a way to suss out the handful of locals we were determined to include on the team. Will found most of our other players by working his network. Antonio Burks, a 6'5" forward from Stephen F. Austin, had played for him in Norway. Antonio was slow the way Larry Bird was slow, aware of the accuracy of his parabolic threes and thus the power of suggestion in his shot fake.
John Bryant, a 6'7" forward, had played at St. Joseph's as the Hawks won 96 games, including 27 during their undefeated 2003--04 regular season. The two-year captain was a rebounder, screen-setter and a master of enough subtle basketball arts that Temple coach John Chaney once put a player into a game to send a message. The player broke J.B.'s arm, and he handled it with the even temper he would bring to our locker room.
On a tip, Will found, playing in a pickup game at Vermont's Patrick Gym, 6'8" forward Issa Konare, a former Big South Defensive Player of the Year. He had played for the junior national team of his native Senegal, then made his way to High Point (N.C.) University, where he met his Vermonter wife, Samantha.
Finally, Rus Bradburd graciously hooked Will up with the two best players he knew from Ireland. One, a 6'5", 220-pound forward named Tyrone Levett, had helped Alabama State land its first NCAA bid, in 2001, by posting up and sinking threes. The other player, Travarus Bennett, was a 6'7" former Big Ten Co--Defensive Player of the Year who had averaged seven deflections a game at Minnesota. Or as one of his college coaches had put it, "He's not vertical. He's horizontal."
Vermonters compensate for long winters with summertime fairs and festivals. We dispatched our new signees to many of these events, usually with Bump as chaperone. Our team would be almost entirely black, and Vermont is one of the whitest states in the union, but our signees interacted easily with everyone. Markus Austin and Kevin Mickens were city kids from White Plains, N.Y., and Baltimore, respectively, but most of our other players had small-town country backgrounds, and even those who didn't set a tone that locals warmed to.
Meanwhile, Will found a couple of guards. Tyrone Barley had been Bryant's teammate at St. Joe's, the sixth man and defensive specialist on that 2003--04 team. Barley sent a tape that astonished Will. "He's completely shutting down Chris Paul [in the Hawks' 2004 NCAA tournament defeat of Wake Forest]," Will would tell me. "The best ballhandling point guard in the NBA right now, and he could not bring the ball up the floor."
Will also staged a tryout camp in New Jersey where 6'1" Melvin Creddle caught his eye. Melvin had played only a few seasons of organized ball, at Cisco (Texas) Junior College and then Division II Mount Olive (N.C.) College. But his legend as a streetballer known as Problem Child was about to jump the Hudson River. He practiced so hard that one day he collapsed during a workout; we took him to the hospital for tests on his heart. It turned out Melvin had simply played himself to exhaustion.
AT THE league's fall 2006 meeting in Indianapolis, we were treated to one of Newman's Amway-style seminars, this time on the two economic fundamentals of minor league hoops: 1) You'll need about $400,000 to operate your team for a season, and 2) the more you reduce that figure with trade and barter, the better off you'll be. So we exchanged equity in the team for office space, and we gave arena signage to an appliance store in exchange for the flat screen for Will's video edits. Meanwhile our pledge to feed the players forced us into more dealmaking. While breakfast was included at the MainStay Suites, the players' budget hotel, that left 14 lunches and dinners each week, at least until the season started and the guys could collect per diems on the road. So restaurants and fast-food places got ads, signage and tickets in exchange for feeding 15 ravenous young men.
"It's the ABA" was our refrain when anything obstructed our path. But until that first season began, the phrase had pertained only to things organizational. In our opener, in Quebec City against the Kebekwa, we ran into the legislated chaos of the 3-D Rule. We played a first half of almost perfect basketball, locking down their guards and fronting their bigs into irrelevance. Antonio dropped 17 points in the second quarter, including five majestic threes, to give us a 56--33 halftime lead. But we knew what was coming: Other ABA coaches had shared tales of the 3-D Rule's tidal-force effect. In the locker room Will talked about it: how the Kebekwa would press, get the sellout crowd of 900 into things and make the refs less and less inclined to intervene. Even so, we couldn't stop Quebec City from forcing turnover after turnover. Steal, layup, foul. Three, sometimes four points per trip, all thanks to the 3-D Rule. We were lucky to force overtime before les Kebs flattened les gels se souleves (that's Frost Heaves en fran√ßais) 108--100.
Afterward Will called it his worst loss as a head coach. He sat on several timeouts as the lead bled away. "Guys have to figure it out for themselves," he told me. "This is a journey."
Our hotel in Quebec City had an adjoining nightclub called The Ozone. Will told everyone to steer clear of it; we had a game in Montreal against the Matrix the next day. Just to be sure, he worked on his video edit in the lobby, with a clear view of The Ozone's entrance. Unbeknownst to the players, he witnessed two of them "partaking." At a team gathering the next morning, Will asked the two players to identify themselves. Forward Lester Strong raised his hand. The other player, shooting guard Aaron Cook, didn't. Will sat Aaron that day. "I scared the bejesus out of him, but it was the start of the whole process," Will said.
We beat the Matrix 94--83. But the trip's real value lay in what had transpired in Quebec City: that lesson in the 3-D Rule, and the evolution of Aaron, a former captain at Hartford who, as Will would later put it, "ended up being an absolute gem of a kid and a player." Sure that he was only one misstep from getting cut, Aaron desperately tried to help the team. He asked Will what he could do to improve his ballhandling. Will gave him a handful of exercises, and soon Aaron was up all night in his room, pounding the carpet in two-ball drills with Melvin, who never slept anyway.
For our home opener, in Barre, 1,200 people showed up, including governor Jim Douglas, who threw the jump ball. The Northfield Savings Bank 110% Community All-Star (our 13th Man), Barre mayor Thom Lauzon, went 0 for 2 from the line, but everyone else scored as we beat Quebec City easily. Before the game the circulation director of The Barre Montpelier Times Argus asked if the newspaper could hand out cowbells at the entrance. The hundreds of ringing bells had a low, rattling sound that drew people into the action. Fans brought their bells to subsequent games, and soon we were cranking out Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper" laced with audio of that Saturday Night Live "More Cowbell" routine.
Then, on Dec. 14, 2006, exactly one year after I announced the birth of the team, the twin banes of our opener in Quebec City—the 3-D Rule and Aaron Cook—gloriously combined in Burlington. We were 8--2, hosting the team we then led by a half game in our division, the defending champion Rochester RazorSharks. They had a stacked roster thanks to their owner, a medical entrepreneur and real-estate baron who maxed out the salary cap and steered all sorts of perks his players' way.
We led most of the game, sinking threes when we needed them and playing great defense, led by Travarus Bennett's horizontal exertions. But we were careless with the ball during the fourth quarter, and Rochester—a veteran, well-coached team—stood up seven with 23 seconds to play. Good chunks of the late-arriving crowd were early to depart. Then, without warning, Aaron knocked down a three-pointer. As the RazorSharks tried to inbound, one of them got whistled for tripping, and because the foul was considered a turnover in the backcourt, the 3-D lights around the backboard lit up. Ty Barley found Aaron just beyond the top of the key, where he rose and released a shot that splashed through the net, counting for four and forcing overtime. That's where Ty sank a huge three-pointer of his own, and our defense delivered three straight turnovers to seal a 95--93 win.
On Dec. 30 and 31 we scored narrow victories over Cape Cod in matinees at the Aud. Fans dragged in relatives and friends home for the holidays to see a bunch of black guys coached by a kid from Cabot playing it old school, while a moose gamboled in the stands amid people ringing cowbells. In the second game, sustained by our first sellout crowd, we clawed back 10 points in the final five minutes to win. As they would do at every home game, our guys showed their love in return, inviting youth-league players into the pregame layup line and staying on the floor postgame until the last autograph-seeking kid had left.
It began to seem as if every home game was a Disney episode. At Bump's Birthday Party, the Lake Monsters' Champ and UVM's Rally Cat showed up for a full-court mascot game during an extended halftime. During our first Burlington sellout, against the Strong Island Sound in January, 110% Community All-Star Matt Johnson, a former star at UVM, came off the bench in the final minutes to toss in our 18th three-pointer of the game.
Off the court we had gotten an unlikely purchase on the Zeitgeist. A contributor to msnbc.com advised men eager to impress women not to wear a Frost Heaves sweatsuit to bed. A Montpelier hip-hop label released "Bump the Rap," which was pretty catchy despite the long groan of an actual moose call. For the annual sex survey in the Vermont alt weekly Seven Days, Bump got a vote in the question, "If you could have sex with a prominent Vermonter, he or she would be?"
In February the Maryland Nighthawks visited Burlington with their new signee, 7'9" Sun Ming Ming, the tallest pro player ever. Nearly 1,200 people came to watch the big guy. Sun didn't have a bad touch: He sank three free throws in four tries. But we ruled the opened-up floor during his long stretches on the bench and won 113--104, our 12th victory in 13 games. The sap buckets hadn't yet been hung on the maples, and we were 24--4.
HAVING TURNED all things basketball over to Will, I tried to make a mark elsewhere. I chose the Robert Frost reference in our ads ("Stop By Our Hardwoods on a Snowy Evening"). If Will was up pleading his case after a ref's whistle, our sound man punched up James Brown's "Please, Please, Please." When Bump took the floor, we'd cue up a snippet of Woody Allen's routine about a moose loose at a costume party: "The moose starts to mingle.... The moose is doing great.... He scored."
But we had one victory for which I could take some credit. In early December, at Strong Island, the Sound went up 19. We made a run to close within four, but they went up by 19 again, at which point Michele Wuestman, their co-owner, asked me, "How does it feel to get your ass kicked?" We used one more run to force overtime and lost only because a short bank shot from Antonio at the buzzer skidded off the rim.
When we returned a month later, I made sure the players knew about Wuestman's comment. Melvin's eyes widened. In a frenzy he led the team out on the floor. In the final two minutes we trailed by a basket, but again Aaron came through. With the 3-D lights on, he curled around a screen, took a sideline inbounds pass and sank a three-pointer worth four that gave us a 96--94 win. By mid-February we were in the top spot in the ABA Power Rankings for the first time, and we would hold the position going into the last week of the regular season.
Our final two games were back-to-back in Montreal and Quebec City. After beating the Royal on Saturday evening, we knew the stakes in Sunday's 1:35 p.m. matinee against the Kebekwa: Lose, and we'd forfeit the No. 1 seed. Win, and all our playoff games would take place in Vermont. The Kebs jumped all over our weary rear ends. Over 50-plus minutes we led just once. Down 14 points with 3:35 to play, we seemed finished. Then Ty Barley bottomed out a couple of three-pointers. Aaron added one of his own. Ty connected yet again. With 12 seconds to play the Kebs still led 97--94, with one of their players lining up a free throw. He missed. Antonio grabbed the rebound. He pitched an outlet to Ty Levett, who found Aaron up the left sideline. With one crisp pump fake Aaron sent his defender sailing past him and forced overtime, with a shot that ripped through the net.
During the three-minute extra period Ty Levett wrestled free for a layup, Ty Barley did the same, and we finished the job. The 40 cowbell-equipped Frost Heaves fans who had made the schlep up for the weekend joined our players in the scrum on the floor. We had wound up our inaugural season with a 30--6 record, best in the league.
This being the ABA, the playoffs would not be fully populated. The Arkansas Aeros withdrew because of, management said in a statement, "inconsistent direction from the league office." (Newman claimed he had kicked the Aeros out for failing to pay players and staff.) The RazorSharks, who finished just behind us in the division, withdrew too; their owners were plotting to form a new league. Fifty teams had started the season. About half still had a pulse. And there was Newman promising no fewer than 70 teams for next fall.
We sailed through our first playoff game, against Strong Island. Our next we won with more difficulty, over the Bellingham (Wash.) Slam. That set us up against the Wilmington (N.C.) Sea Dawgs in a semifinal. During the second half, Melvin drove into the lane and flew into a dunk that made more than 1,300 fans practically lift the old Aud off its stone moorings. The 113--85 victory ensured that, two days later, we would welcome the Texas Tycoons for the ABA title game.
The Tycoons were a deep, fast, swaggering bunch who averaged 132 points a game. They sank two three-pointers to seize a 6--2 lead. But from that point on, with our fans ringing their cowbells and holding signs such as DON'T MESS WITH VERMONT, we had our way. Ty Levett led us with 33 points and nine rebounds. More meaningfully, everyone scored, just as in our home opener.
Will was named ABA Coach of the Year. The Vermont town meeting had done right by us: The fans had chosen Will, and he, like a selectman, had chosen the men he would lead. As I told the crowd at the championship potluck, "Is democracy the greatest form of government or what?"
WHEN OUR investors assembled for the annual meeting of Bump in the Road Enterprises LLC, I pledged that we'd do all we could to leverage the artistic success of year one into sponsorship sales for year two. And, after a hard swallow, knowing we still owed Will his $20,000 bonus, I showed them the source of my developing ulcer: We had nothing in the bank. Nothing.
By screening a season-highlights video, however, we excited enough businesses to collect $280,000 in sponsorships by the time our second season tipped off. Leading the way was the Vermont State Employees Credit Union, which ponied up $50,000 of support over two years. Even so, we were far from breaking even.
For season two the scheduling gods delivered a weekend matinee in Burlington early in 2008, and we vowed to make it count. We brought in our archrival, the Manchester (N.H.) Millrats, and announced that any kid 14 or under wearing a basketball jersey would get in for half price. We correctly figured that each would have to bring along a mom or dad who'd pay full freight, and we drew our biggest Burlington crowd of the season: 1,100. But by halftime two scuffles had broken out on the court, and as we held a decisive lead in the final minute, a Millrat sucker-punched our center, Erik Nelson. Before the benches emptied, the officials declared the game over and us the winner, even though 37 seconds remained.
Meanwhile, we again racked up the best record in the league. Only the dreaded Millrats could beat us. In the playoffs we took out the San Francisco Rumble in the quarterfinals and the Texas Tycoons in the semis, but in the locker room before the title game against the San Diego Wildcats we counted our casualties. Issa Konare lay supine on the floor, his back a mess. Brett Gravitt, our valiant swingman from South Alabama, was on crutches. John Bryant and point guard Dwayne Lee sat in street clothes. And we had long since lost guard Terrance Green to a knee injury.
How, then, did we beat San Diego for our second title? The 87--84 victory was down to many little things: Issa's inspirational first-quarter cameo; the inside presence of Dokun Akingbade, a 6'9" center from George Washington; and closeout plays by Antonio, Markus Austin and Dwuan Rice, a 5'11" point guard who had starred at Division II Cal State--Bakersfield. We finished with a better record, 37--4, than the year before, but it had been much more of a struggle. And nothing flattened the bubbles in the champagne like having to find thousands more in bonus money for players and coaches.
Although we never canceled a home game in those two seasons, we experienced too many close calls. Meanwhile, Rochester had led the founding of the smaller, Northeast-focused Premier Basketball League. So with Quebec City, Manchester and Halifax we joined the PBL, which agreed to waive entry fees, cover our travel costs for the first season and thoroughly vet any new ownership group. Then, in September 2008, the U.S. economy melted down. We had tapped out local sources of investment, to say nothing of what Vanessa and I could shovel into the breach. I was still team president, but before season two I had yielded GM duties. At the end of season three I stepped away from the team entirely to return to the pages of SI.
As Vanessa and I looked back, the adventure had a did-that-really-happen? quality. In branding and pure basketball terms, the Frost Heaves had been a massive success. We had hosted the equivalent of 18 parties a year for 1,000 or more people a pop; we had fed, lodged and paid the entertainment; and we had done it all with two full-time paid staff members and, otherwise, part-timers, contractors, interns and volunteers. But as a business, ours had been a futile effort to get multiple tumblers to fall into place at once. In year three we frantically tried reducing expenses but couldn't cut our way to sustainability in the midst of the Great Recession.
Barre mayor Lauzon and then Frost Heaves GM Mike Healey saw the team through season three. Finally a core group of devoted Bump in the Road Club members banded together to start a fourth season, with the entire operation based in Barre. But they couldn't scare up enough support to sustain the team past January. The Frost Heaves joined the roll call of minor league basketball teams to start but not finish a season.
WITH THAT second title Will had again been named ABA Coach of the Year, and after he led us to the PBL playoffs in season three, he was hired by the D-League's Bakersfield (Calif.) Jam, which he coached for five years before moving on to lead China's Shanxi Dragons. Meanwhile, Bump lives on at Barre's Thunder Road as Speed Bump the Racing Moose, the basketball on his head replaced by a pair of old-time motoring goggles. If you go to the Vintage Teams section at Prepsportswear.com, you can find Vermont Frost Heaves gear. As for the ABA, it's the same old, same old: It lists about 60 teams on its website, but from our era only the San Francisco Rumble and New Jersey (né Newark) Express remain.
One day four years after the team folded, I was back in central Vermont chaperoning a field trip from my kids' elementary school. After surveying the quarries around Barre, we made a pilgrimage to Hope Cemetery, where the gravestones came from the same quarries that had built the Aud. Many of the names chiseled on them were also on our season-ticket list: Comolli and Allen, Bellavance and Benoit, Cody and Fraser.
And it was then, there, that it became clear. What we had done with the Frost Heaves was all about people, and the forces that made them want to fill up stone-and-brick buildings in winter. Fired not by money but by the American romance of a ball and a basket, young men, virtually all of them black, had come to Vermont to see what they could achieve. Vermonters, virtually all of them white, had turned out to watch them because, I think, they recognized what they and their forebears had dedicated their lives to: hard work in the service of a common goal, with a reward of something more than just cash in their pockets.
Our players had been delighted to discover so many local residents who wanted to acclaim them for what they earnestly wanted to do. Our fans had been equally pleased to see their love requited. At first blush those fans and players had little in common. By the end we all realized that, in fact, they had so very much.
IF WE COULDN'T DECIDE ON ONE ARENA, WE'D PLAY IN BOTH. IT WAS A FORETASTE OF MY MANAGEMENT STYLE: INDECISIVENESS.
EMAILS POURED IN FROM GUYS EAGER TO SHOW US WHAT THEY HAD: SILKYSLIMM21, HOOPSOUL23, IGETBUCKETS, BIGFELLA52.
A WEB WRITER ADVISED MEN NOT TO WEAR OUR SWEATSUITS TO BED WITH WOMEN. A HIP-HOP LABEL PUT OUT "BUMP THE RAP."
For more on the improbable saga of the Frost Heaves, including photos and video, go to SI.com/longform
Illustration by John Cuneo
WHAT, ME WORRY? As president and GM, the neophyte entrepreneur wore many thermal hats, but he worked hardest on finding sponsors and filling seats.
MOOSE MEN Players such as (from near right) Bryant, Levett and Konare were as beloved by fans as Bump.
ROGER CROWLEY/CROWLEY PHOTOS.COM
[See caption above]
LAST WORD Voigt (opposite page) found Akingbade (50) and other players and drew up the high-scoring O.
NATURALS In their first two seasons together, the Heaves won ABA titles and the hearts of Vermonters.