GRAND RAPIDS — A decade of dreams turned into a lengthy nightmare for the Grand Rapids Hoops when ex-Detroit Pistons star Isiah Thomas bought the Continental Basketball Association and then put the league in business limbo so he could accept the head coaching job with the Indiana Pacers.
But last week, Delta Properties President Joel Langlois woke the slumbering franchise from its financial bad dream by buying it and moving it to the International Basketball League and the DeltaPlex. Purchase price and terms were not revealed. Langlois bought the franchise from the now-defunct, Thomas-owned CBA. Past Hoops owners Bob Przybysz and Peter Cook were not involved in the deal.
“We’re excited about the prospect of going forward. It’s a new opportunity and I think the fans will like the atmosphere,” said Hoops GM Dave Grube, who, along with his front office staff, went the last month without being paid by Thomas.
Thomas served as league czar for one season before applying for the Pacers job. Once he got it, the CBA became a conflict of interest for him and the NBA told him he had to sell it. But until he could find a buyer, Thomas placed the CBA, which he promised to turn into the official NBA development league, in a trust. It pretty much sat there, until the bills piled up.
So what, ultimately, did Thomas do for the league?
“Well, he brought a lot of attention to it. I don’t know if it was all positive. But he certainly brought a lot of attention to the recent workings of the league,” said Grube. “I think Isiah had dreams for the league. He just didn’t know how to implement them, or he couldn’t get the people at the league level to carry those dreams out.”
Grube then pinned down the day that Thomas turned the Hoops’ dream into a nightmare.
“I think when he took the job with the NBA and Indiana Pacers that was kind of the final nail for us, when your leader starts focusing his attention on other things,” he said. “It’s like when a CEO says he wants to run an auto company, but isn’t going to be there. Since October, we’ve really struggled as a league and a local team.”
The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette had probably the harshest evaluation of Thomas’ management skills. The paper wrote that Thomas should be a charter member in the Hall of Shame, if the city ever establishes one. The daily called him “the man who almost single-handedly delivered a lethal blow” to the Fort Wayne franchise. Then the paper depicted Thomas as less than dedicated to his ownership responsibility.
“It seems clear now that Thomas was desperate for a date when he took the plain but true CBA to the dance, and as soon as something with more pizzazz caught his eye, he dumped the CBA and left it to find its own ride home without leaving money for cab fare,” wrote the paper in a recent editorial.
Fort Wayne Fury GM Rich Coffey was upset with Thomas, too. Coffey said his franchise sold about $650,000 worth of season tickets this year. But the Fury had played only 8 of its 28 home games when Thomas suspended operations, doing so without returning $464,000 of the season-ticket money for the games the team won’t play. Coffey reportedly gave his season-ticket holders tips on how to sue Thomas for their money. Thomas also owes Przybysz money from his purchase of the Hoops.
As for Grube, he has been with the Hoops under two different ownership and management systems. One has each franchise being locally owned and operated. The other has one owner running the entire league. Without question, Grube said, he favors local ownership.
“You need somebody in the community who has passion for what you’re doing and is networked into the community to be able to share that passion,” he said.
“Once we went away from local ownership, I feel it was very difficult to make a strong commitment to the community. We went from an entity that had limited partners, key leaders in the community involved with the team, and people that were really supporting Grand Rapids in general, who wanted to see this go,” he said.
“When you remove that entity from any organization and then expect it to continue to have the same support, I think that is unrealistic. So, I think it is imperative to have local ownership and to have people who live in the city, who are a part of the city, and that give back to the city, involved in what you’re doing in minor league sports. I’m glad we’re back to that.”
Grube told the Business Journal that he feels the franchise’s charity foundation and other community-based programs, a big part of the Hoops, will be back in service in the future. He said Langlois has shown an interest in bringing those efforts back. Grube also lavished praise on his staff for their dedication and work during the last few nightmare months in the Thomas-owned CBA.
“The commitment that we talked about earlier in the season has stayed with what we’re doing,” he said. “We wished that the commitment that we were showing at the local level would have been shown at the national level.”