By Douglas Farmer —
It is easy to con a 12-year-old. Put on a suit, give the kid a free trading card, speak with big words.
It is even easier to con a 12-year-old basketball fan. Put a suit on a Hall of Fame point guard, let the kid shake his hand, make mention of “hundreds” of basketball teams.
Just like that, wool covered my eyes in November 1999. Isiah Thomas strode into the La Crosse Center and dazzled. He had made a career out of showing off in basketball arenas, after all. In this instance, Thomas’ success came not in passes and buckets, but rather in eloquent descriptions of sports really being about communities and those communities being about families.
A mere 15 months later, the CBA was no longer, and, with it, the La Crosse Bobcats were a figment of the past. The onus for the CBA’s collapse rests with Thomas and Thomas alone. He took a community-driven, largely-successful league and looked to turn eight-figure profits while becoming “the Microsoft of basketball.”
As Thomas shredded five decades of hardwood history, the ABA regained its legs, albeit in drastically different form from its 1970s incarnation led by Dr. J. Returning to action in 2000 with eight teams, the ABA sputtered at first but has now reeled off 14 consecutive completed seasons and boasts 120 full- or partial-members. Though continuing to get larger, the ABA seems to know its scale.
That sounds promising. Nonetheless, it is harder to deceive a vain cynic. Trot out a legendary basketball catchphrase, and the skeptic knows the new product will not match the high-flying teams of the 1980s. Claim an altruistic goal of getting scouts to see young players, and our grump wonders how many games will be lost because players focus on impressing those scouts rather than on playing defense. Insist tickets are affordable, and the frugal fan factors in the costs of one trip to the concession stand.
Yet, it remains easy to persuade the grown basketball purist. This one has seen the highlights of lower-level professional basketball, the grassroots allure to the community as a whole, and the business’ view on the micro leading to local success.
Inevitably a fast-paced, high-scoring game—see the earlier point regarding scouts in the stands—anyone insistent on hardcourt entertainment will get just that. The eyes most drawn to each possession will actually be the least discerning, and in this instance, “least discerning” is meant as a compliment. Basketball in any form is basketball to us. Seeing it live is preferable to relying on NBA League Pass, no matter how strong of a product that subscription may be.
The La Crosse Showtime will not actually mimic the Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980s. No basketball team again ever will. ABA play might often be crude, but imperfect play is why college basketball is more dramatic than the NBA in the first place. The pizza and pop will inevitably cost more than is ideal, but can anyone really complain when eating pizza?
A 7-year-old nephew takes the place of the 12-year-old once fooled by Isiah Thomas. Both he and the 28-year-old now accustomed to Karl Anthony-Towns and Giannis Antetokounmpo will find enjoyment in the La Crosse Center this winter.
Basketball is back in the Coulee Region. There is even a game December 23 (and four other home games before that).
Do you think my family will notice if my nephew and I miss dinner?
Douglas Farmer grew up in La Crosse, Wisconsin, before covering sports across the country with stops at The Los Angeles Times, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Dallas Morning News. He graduated from Aquinas High School in 2008 and from the University of Notre Dame in 2012, and now spends his professional time keeping an eye on the latter’s football team.