GRAND RAPIDS — When Isiah Thomas purchased the Grand Rapids Hoops and the rest of the franchises in the Continental Basketball Association, his stated objective was to expand the league and get it tied to the National Basketball Association as the NBA’s official developmental league.
That was in August 1999, and seemed like a pretty good idea at the time because the CBA had already been supplying players and referees to the NBA for years. Thomas thought he could create a partnership with NBA Commissioner David Stern, and so did many others. But one event may have doomed that effort even before it started.
The previous summer, on July 1, 1998 to be exact, NBA owners locked the players out over a contract dispute with the union. That lockout somewhat tarnished the Hoops’ Decade of Dreams weekend. The local franchise, celebrating its 10th anniversary then, had a charity game planned featuring NBA players as part of its festive August weekend, but the lockout kept the players away.
NBA owners were furious with the demands of union head Billy Hunter and appeared to be willing to cancel the entire upcoming season. Instead, the lockout lasted almost seven months and the NBA played a short season that began in February 1999. Following that 52-game season, NBA owners may have decided that they needed a backup plan to keep the turnstiles turning — their own developmental league.
That would have been about the time Thomas bought the CBA and announced his intentions. He ran the league for a season, then put it into a trust when he returned to the NBA to coach the Indiana Pacers. When the news broke of Thomas’ change of career, and heart, the first reported buyer for the CBA was the NBA Players Association.
Speculation was that if the players had a league of their own, NBA owners might think twice before locking them out again. And even if they were locked out, the players could simply go to the CBA courts to earn a living while NBA owners would be left without a product to offer.
But the deal between Thomas and the union never happened. The NBA formed its own developmental league and found a partner. Not Thomas, but ESPN. Early last month, the NBA and ESPN revealed they entered into a three-year agreement to televise National Basketball Development League games starting in November.
With that announcement, the value of the CBA dropped considerably. Weeks later, league coffers ran dry and Thomas suspended operations.
Did NBA owners view the union’s possible purchase of the CBA as a threat, one strong enough to push them to create their own league? Hoops GM Dave Grube didn’t think so.
“No. We heard rumors long before that, that the NBA was interested in starting its own developmental league,” he said. “I don’t think that had anything to do with it whatsoever.”
Grube said he wasn’t sure how sincere the association was about buying the CBA, even though Thomas is a past president of the organization. The union did look into the purchase last September and October, and was also linked to a possible sale as late as last month.
“It was kind of a natural,” said Grube of a sale to the union. “I don’t know how serious they really were in a purchase. But I don’t think that had anything at all to do with the NBA league.”
So, if the NBA was considering its own league following the lockout, when Thomas stepped into the picture, did he ever really have a decent chance of affiliating the CBA with it? We’ll probably never know for sure.
End of story? Only for the 55-year-old CBA, which, by the way, was a few years older than the NBA when it died.
But it’s not quite the end for Thomas. He still owes money to some former franchise owners including Bob Przybysz, and he will likely have to settle some sort of tab with Van Andel Arena officials. Litigation, and maybe a bankruptcy proceeding, could be coming.
And it certainly isn’t the end for the Hoops, either. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Delta Properties President Joel Langlois gave the Hoops a new beginning by buying the franchise’s assets and moving the club to his DeltaPlex Entertainment & Expo Center in Walker and to the International Basketball League.
“I will be owning the building and the team,” said Langlois. “That will give us marketing opportunities that a tenant doesn’t have.”