Over the years, Steve Haney has watched minor league basketball sprout and then fade quicker than the Pittsburgh Pirates in August. Only the strong-shouldered support of the NBA has kept the NBADL from folding.
But Haney, a former agent for Magic Johnson and sports business mogul, believes a minor league can not only survive but thrive — if it doesn’t follow the model of leagues such as the CBA, USBL, or new ABA.
In Haney’s eyes, having a team from, say, Santa Fe, N.M., travel north to play a team in St. Paul isn’t financially feasible, so he decided to form the American Basketball League, with regional divisions. Set to begin play Jan. 19, 2013, are the Tropics Conference, with six teams in Florida, and the Lone Star Conference, with six teams in Texas.
The ABL will play a 24-game schedule that concludes with a Final Four-type tournament for the top two teams in each division. What differentiates the ABL from other leagues are two major things: It will play by FIBA international rules, and it will serve as a feeder league for European leagues, not the NBA or NBADL.
The ABL will attempt to flourish by playing in smaller arenas, reducing travel costs (by sticking to intraconference matchups), and giving fans a modified product with the international rules.
“There hasn’t been a sustainable minor league basketball model since probably the CBA, and I don’t think the D-League will sustain with the way the league is formatted and the travel and the expenses those teams incur,” Haney said.
“So we sought to create a league that would be a player’s league and a league that would afford the kids that can’t play in the NBA the opportunity to go to a true developmental league to develop them to play international basketball to be able to make more money than the kids who are playing in the D-League, ABA, or one of these small minor leagues.
“There’s been over 200 franchises that have folded in the last 10 years in minor league basketball in America, and a lot of it has to do with a flawed business model that these other leagues have created.”
Joining Haney as the league’s brain trust are music mogul Steve Rifkind, Tony Parker Sr. (father of the Spurs guard) as director of international affairs, and former Celtic Kenny Anderson as director of player personnel. The league has held tryouts in Florida and Texas and is building rosters and hiring coaches. Haney said Hall of Famers Nate Archibald and Calvin Murphy have expressed interest in coaching.
“It’s pretty fundamental,” said Haney. “You can’t have a team from Idaho and send it on an airplane with a whole staff of people thousands of miles away to play a minor league game in front of 500 people. It’s not going to work.
“That’s why the D-League is losing money and that’s why these other leagues have failed. They don’t have the kind of crowds that can sustain cross-country travel.”
Haney said the ABL will not inhibit players’ ability to jump to a European team with a buyout clause, as the NBA does with its D-League players. It may be a risky proposition, but Haney said the goal of the ABL is to foster the transition to a higher professional league.
“We understand in Year 1 we’re going to have to develop a fan base very similar to what minor league baseball does,” Haney said. “But one of the niches we have in partnering up with the European Federation and club teams is we can take players who may not be quite ready to play in Europe and we can expose our fans to players who may become eventual stars overseas.”
Haney and Johnson owned a Swedish club team in the late 1990s, and Haney familiarized himself with the international basketball model. The United States has never had a feeder league for European teams.
“Financially, the situation in Europe can be very beneficial, too, because the players are playing with tax-free contracts, etc,” Haney said. “So there are a lot of jobs internationally. There’s literally thousands of jobs available to young college athletes, where in reality there’s virtually no jobs if you’re undrafted in the NBA because of the reality of the numbers with guaranteed contracts.
“When I was over in Sweden with Magic, I thought back then there should be a league in America that should act as an international employment agency for college basketball players who otherwise are going to play in the D-League but there’s no room for them in the NBA.
“So that’s why we felt there was a real void. But the response has been overwhelming from the agents, the NBA Players Association.”
And the ABL has scheduled a meeting with NBA officials to discuss the league’s potential impact on the NBADL. So while Haney’s plan is in the beginning stages, it appears to be gaining momentum.
HOOKED ON TEACHING
Abdul-Jabbar mentors bigs
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has never been more than an assistant coach in the NBA, mostly working with younger big men, though years ago he sought the opportunity to be a head coach, expressing interest in jobs such as Columbia and Cal State-Fullerton. Abdul-Jabbar has instructed players such as Andrew Bynum, Michael Olowokandi, and most recently Joakim Noah this summer.
“He came to me,” said Abdul-Jabbar. “He wanted to learn how to play his position better, and to me that was a sign of extreme respect. His attitude is one of being able to understand that he has to learn a few things.
“I’ve heard from Dwight Howard and hopefully I’ll have a chance to have some input with him and help keep him on a positive path.”
Working with younger big men can be fulfilling but also frustrating, the Hall of Famer said, because many have their own ideas on how to be successful.
“Bynum was kind of a mixed thing, Olowokandi was hostile,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “Bynum wasn’t hostile because he knew he had to learn a few things. It got to a point where he didn’t feel [I could help him]. The relationship changed.
“Olowokandi was being well-paid [by the Clippers], but where is he now? Who knows?”
In nine NBA seasons, Olowokandi averaged double figures in scoring just twice, and in his final two seasons with the Celtics, he managed a grand total of 85 points in 40 games. He was often accused of lacking a work ethic and a true passion for the game.
“I don’t think that all of them have that attitude,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “Some of them understand.
“What I learned when I was in high school, I learned from just watching Bill Russell and the Celtics. I went to Madison Square Garden and watched them play [the Knicks]. I talked to my high school coach about it and he explained parts of the game.”
Abdul-Jabbar treasured those opportunities to take the subway down to the Garden and watch NBA legends.
“It was extraordinary,” he said. “I could see what Bill did at the defensive end of the court. He dominated the game from the defensive end. Today, that’s like, nobody even thinks that’s possible.
“Wilt [Chamberlain] was an offensive force. But Bill understood the game. And knowing the game and understanding the game and being able to apply yourself to the game in a certain way that helps your teammates is really what the game is about. And if I can get those lessons across to people, then they end up doing better.
“Joakim’s going to be better this year. He needed some offensive help and I worked on it with him for about two weeks. He got it down. I gave him drills.
“He obviously did the drills because the next time I saw him, about a month later, he had the footwork down. He had the timing down, and I think he’s going to surprise a lot of people.”
The most unstoppable offensive weapon in league history was Abdul-Jabbar’s Skyhook, but the thought of a player such as Howard or Bynum beating opponents with the finesse hook instead of a thundering dunk is almost laughable considering how expansive post games have become virtually extinct.
“People who are teaching the game teach perimeter skills to young kids,” said Abdul-Jabbar. “So that’s all they learn. Guys who know how to play the game, back to the basket, in the paint, they don’t get to work with young kids.
“A lot of these kids reach their full height in high school and they’ve been playing the perimeter the whole time and it’s hard for them to learn something new after they have reached their comfort zone being perimeter player.”
In tutoring Bynum, Abdul-Jabbar said, his lower level of experience when entering the NBA hindered his chances of refining his post game, despite his size and skills.
“Andrew only played two years of high school ball and he didn’t finish either year,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “So he had a lot to learn.
“Andrew’s a nice kid — I am not knocking him — but if I was 21 or 22 and signed a contract for $50 million, I might be affected by it, too. He’s not passionate about the game; that’s a great word. But he does like getting paid. So that’s where I think you can figure out what’s going on with him.”
Smith shifts into fast lane
He blended into the group of Celtics rookies who attended Tuesday’s Shamrock Golf Tournament in Bolton, but most onlookers and participants didn’t quite know who he was.
Jamar Smith is able to walk the streets of Boston with little fanfare nowadays, but that may not be the case in a few months. Smith was a surprise addition to the Celtics roster after an impressive performance in the Las Vegas and Orlando summer leagues.
Just trying to improve his stock for a training camp invitation — or more likely an overseas contract — Smith flourished in Tyronn Lue’s fast-paced system, showing the ability to score and play defense. He averaged 9.7 points and canned 18 3-pointers in 10 games.
Because of the retirement of Keyon Dooling, Smith now has a chance to make the Celtics as a backup combo guard. He played his final two college seasons at Division 2 Southern Indiana, where he averaged 21.6 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 3.7 assists as a senior.
“It’s been great just having this opportunity,” he said. “And being able to play with and against one of the best point guards in the world in Rajon Rondo, that’s the one thing that I appreciate the most out of this whole experience, just being able to learn from him and take things from him.”
Smith said he talked with a couple of other teams that were interested in signing him after the summer session was over. But the Celtics wasted no time in securing a commitment, agreeing to a training camp contract during the Las Vegas session. He and Dionte Christmas were both surprises who earned the chance to make the club.
Smith was exposed to the intensity of the NBA during training sessions in Waltham and Los Angeles, where the Celtics veterans gave their younger teammates a lesson.
“It was a total different game flow,” he said. “We’ve all been playing [in Waltham] for a month, but when we got to LA, Kevin [Garnett] was out there and all the guys were out there, the whole flow of the game changed, like everything changed.
“The rooks, we were on the bus on the way back, we all were saying, ‘We’re younger, we’re faster than them, we should be outrunning them,’ but they play the game so smart and they taught us a lot.
“I feel like I deserve to be here, I feel like I put the work in in the gym,” he said. “I proved myself playing [in summer league] and now I have to prove myself in training camp. So that’s my only focus, just proving myself so I can stay on this team as long as possible.”
The Hawks added former San Antonio No. 1 pick James Anderson to their training camp roster, along with former Oakland University big man Keith Benson and versatile former Minnesota center Anthony Tolliver, who couldn’t procure a guaranteed deal . . . The Heat continued to add depth by signing former first-round pick Rodney Carney, who had the athleticism to play in the NBA but never found a true position. The Heat have added to their roster with minimum-salary players, including Josh Harrellson, Jarvis Varnado, and now Carney . . . Memphis forward Darrell Arthur, coming off a torn ACL, suffered a fractured left fibula in early workouts and will miss four to six weeks. Arthur missed all of last season . . . Former Celtic Kendrick Perkins may miss training camp because of wrist surgery, and the Thunder revealed that Perkins played through the postseason with a partially torn groin muscle. The Thunder brought in former lottery pick Hasheem Thabeet and ex-Magic big man Daniel Orton (an Oklahoma City native) to provide depth . . . Jared Sullinger was one of four NBA rookies to sign lucrative shoe contracts with Jordan Brand. The former Ohio State standout is joined by Charlotte’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Phoenix’s Kendall Marshall, and Charlotte’s Jeff Taylor. Sullinger stands as the lone Celtic with Jordan Brand, after Ray Allen signed with the Heat . . . Former Brookline High and UConn standout Jeff Adrien has changed agents, signing with Aaron Mintz, and also drew an offer from the Bobcats to participate in training camp. Adrien spent part of last season with the Rockets. Former Georgetown forward DaJuan Summers is also on Charlotte’s training camp roster.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.