January 12, 2015

At Sixers And Sevens

During each of the last two NBA seasons, I've managed to take a break when the Wizards were on a west coast road trip and get away to watch some games in the NBDL, the league which is quickly morphing towards becoming a sort of NBA farm system the likes of which is used by the National Hockey League or Major League Baseball. Two years ago, I took a week long trip to Texas to see games in Frisco, Hidalgo and Austin; last year, I got away for a long weekend in New England to see my first hoops in Springfield, Massachusetts and Portland, Maine.

I love attending D-League games. There's something about pro hoops below the NBA level that appeals to me, at least once a year, anyway. I love seeing how different the environment is, watching guys play for a spot in the show and very often seeing a small town side of America. Sure, some of these games aren't exactly played in small towns, but they are smaller than Washington, D.C. so they are small to me.

I still want to take a D-League trip to the midwest to catch games in Erie, Canton and Fort Wayne and a California trip to see games in Los Angeles, Bakersfield and Santa Cruz. But this year, my NBA travel budget and schedule appeared to be too overbooked for a trip to the minor leagues. I've already made a trip to Toronto to see the Wizards play in Canada in November and before Christmas I was down in Miami to see us take on the Heat in an all too close game. Those trips, combined with an All-Star Weekend in New York, seemed to preclude any NBDL games this season.

But where there's a will, there's a way and a little more digging this season revealed an opening in the Wizards schedule this past weekend to allow me to squeeze a game in. With the Wizards having played Chicago this past Friday at Verizon Center (an awesome statement victory) and a matinee game in Atlanta on Sunday (a game which showed just how far we have to go), Saturday night was open and it just so happened the Delaware 87ers (or the Sevens as they are called) were at home in Newark, Delaware, for a game against the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, who just happen to be the Wizards D-League affiliate this season. It was just too close and too tempting to pass up.

Second quarter action from the Bob.
The Sevens have been playing ball in Newark for a little more than a season now. Their debut season was last year as the wholly owned affiliate of the nearby Philadelphia 76ers (insert joke here about the Sixers being about as good as a D-League team). The team struggled in their first year in Delaware posting a 12-38 record, good for last in the East Division. As of Saturday's game time this year, the team is doing a little better, sitting third in the brand new five team Atlantic Division with a 7-10 mark. When the Sixers bought the Sevens (don't think about that too hard), they were actually a dormant franchise. The 87ers began life as the Utah Flash in Orem, Utah who played in that city from 2007 to 2011 but folded after the 2010-2011 season. I have no idea how buying a dormant franchise differs from an actual expansion franchise, but that's how the team got to Newark.

The 87ers name is a reference to the year Delaware ratified the United States Constitution, the first state to do so. Since Delaware was one of the original 13 British colonies, it is pretty likely that the area in and around Newark has a pretty substantial history. And I guess that's true. Being around for a while builds history, I guess. The town was established in 1694 and officially recognized by the British government and King George II in 1758. Since 1833, the town has been home to the school that would ultimately become the University of Delaware in 1921, although it took about 11 years off for a stretch before re-opening. The enrollment at the University is about 20,000; the population of Newark stands at about 32,000. It's no surprise therefore that the town and the University are pretty much one and the same.

The 87ers play ball in the Bob Carpenter Center (or the Bob), which serves as the home for the University of Delaware's men's and women's basketball teams and the UD women's volleyball team. The arena sits approximately 5,000 people for a basketball game, although only about half those seats are available for a D-League game. With the reduced seating availability, it ends up being the smallest arena I've visited in my six NBDL games seen to date, coming in at even smaller than the tiny Portland Expo Center I visited last year, which seats a little more than 3,000 in bleachers. The Bob opened in 1992, which means by now it's starting to age a little.

Dahntay Jones and Will Frisby discussing strategy on the bench.
One of the main reasons I rushed to attend this particular game was that the Wizards' Glen Rice, Jr. had been assigned to the visiting Mad Ants in mid-November and I hadn't seen or heard much about his game since he was sent there. I figured this would be a great chance to not only check another site off my years long D-League tour, but also catch up with one of our own players. Unfortunately, as I figured out last weekend, Rice was waived by the Wizards this past week pretty much as a cost saving measure. Let's face it, Glen wasn't playing with the team anytime soon based on his pecking order in the lineup; his poor shooting percentage when he did play in the big leagues; and his on court verbal exchange with head coach Randy Wittman during the November 7 game in Toronto. Saving $400K plus by waiving him might come in handy later on this year.

Rice's D-League story is an interesting one, as I wrote last week. But if there's one thing about the D-League, it's that it's not short on interesting stories. A couple of years ago, the Wizards own Rasual Butler was playing in the NBDL at the age of 33, trying to convince clubs that he still had a part to play in this league. I actually caught Butler playing for the Tulsa 66ers on my Texas swing two years ago. Last year, it paid off for Rasual as he played 50 games for the Indiana Pacers, even though he only saw the court for a bit more than seven minutes per game. Whether his stint in the D-League allowed the Pacers to notice him or the Wizards to sign him this year, where he is averaging double digits in scoring and shooting in the top five in three point percentage, can be debated. But there's no doubt his story is a compelling one. Without the D-League he may not have had any place to play at all.

So sure enough, there's a guy playing for Fort Wayne this year with a story very similar to Rasual's a couple of years ago. Dahntay Jones was selected 20th overall by the Boston Celtics in the 2003 NBA Draft. He's played 589 regular season and 38 postseason games in the NBA over 10 seasons with six different teams, although the Celtics weren't one of those. He's 34 years old and most definitely the elder statesman on the Mad Ants team this year. The last time I ran into Dahntay in this noticeable a way was during the Barack Obama fundraiser I attended a couple of years ago. He's trying to do this year what Rasual was trying to do two years ago: prove he's still got something to offer an NBA squad.  He's only two years removed from action in the parent league, so maybe he's got a shot of getting picked up by a team who needs someone reliable on a 10 day contract between now and the end of the regular season. I'm hoping he does.

Dahntay poured in a team high 26 points (tied with Andre Emmett) in the Mad Ants 114-103 victory over the home Sevens Saturday night. He shot an impressive 10 of 14 from the field including hitting on half of his six three point attempts. Along with Emmett, he was clearly the best player on the court for the Mad Ants, who have now won five straight games after struggling with a .500 record earlier in the year. But more notable than his output on the court for me was the leadership he provided on the bench, talking to guys on the team during time outs and offering comments from the bench during the game when he was resting.

The best example of what a guy like Dahntay brings to a team like the Mad Ants was a first half exchange he had with starting center Will Frisby who picked up two quick fouls and was pulled from the game early. I have no idea how talented Frisby is but I know he's never seen a minute of NBA action so he's a long ways behind Jones in my book. At first didn't want any part of Jones talking to him before eventually settling down and appearing to listen for a few minutes. I suppose some guys wouldn't chew out their teammates in the name of making someone else better, preferring to focus on their game so they stand out to NBA scouts. Here's hoping Dahntay makes it back to the show this year.

The Kreston Wine and Spirits Beer Garden.
For me, the game on the court was well played. I happened to be rooting for the Mad Ants (although they really have no significant tie to the Wizards and I know it) so I was pleased when they overcame their early deficit to the Sevens and pulled away for the 11 point win. It was clear on this night that while Delaware's starters were more than capable of playing with Fort Wayne, their bench was no match for the visitors, getting outscored 34-16. So while the game started out in Delaware's favor, once the starters rested, the tide quickly turned and ultimately the Mad Ants left with the W despite the Sevens' Victor Rudd pouring in 29.

The story of D-League games for me though is not completely about what happens on the hardwood. I find differences between the NBA experience and the NBDL experience to be striking, strange or amusing. Whether it's the bouncy playthings and mechanical bull in Frisco, the fan in Austin with a giant Shelvin Mack head on a stick to taunt the opposition's best player, or the Kora Shriners presenting the colors in Portland, there's always something besides the game action which is notable. Sure enough, the same thing happened in Delaware.

Before heading to the arena Saturday night, I knocked back a couple of beers with dinner at the nearby T.G.I.Friday's. I'm sure I could have found somewhere better, but it was close to my hotel and it was really really cold in Newark Saturday night so I didn't bother searching. Now I like to have a beer at a game, even though I'd had a couple before we entered the building and so after getting my bearings, I checked out one of the concession stands and found no beer. Uh oh. Maybe because it's a college campus, they don't serve beer?

I kept going, hoping I was wrong, and sure enough when I got to the end zone, I noticed the Kreston Wine and Spirits Beer Garden signs on the concourse level opposite where our seats were located. The Beer Garden at the Bob is the strangest one I have ever been to. It's an area about 25 feet by 50 feet defined by TensaBarriers with a gap where you enter. At the entrance is a dude checking IDs, collecting the cover charge ($1) and handing out the wristbands which grant you exclusive access to the entire Beer Garden. Once you are in, you can come and go at will and choose from the three beers on offer there: 16 oz Coors Light ($5); 12 oz Keystone Light in the exclusive limited edition (I'm assuming here) Hunting Season Camo Can ($2!); and 16 oz Blue Moon (price unknown - I'm not drinking that stuff).

This is far and away the cheapest beer I've had at a ballgame in a long time, even ignoring the price of the Keystone Light which tasted, well, like nothing and had about zero alcohol in it. But despite it's obvious hokey appearance and the what had to been teenage bartenders in tuxedo bow ties, the Beer Garden was actually a great place to watch the game. The view was perfect and unobstructed and the guardrail side seats overlooking the court offered an ideal spot to take in all the action. We actually spent the second half watching from there. If I attended more Sevens games, I'd just sit here every game. Two thumbs way up!

Third quarter action viewed from the Beer Garden. We abandoned our fourth row seats for this.
Of course, no D-League trip is complete without seeing what the town or area has to offer. Last year it was the Basketball Hall of Fame (Springfield) and a series of breweries (Portland) that kept me occupied during the day. The year before that, it was a cattle drive sculpture series, a giant killer bee sculpture and some of the best blues in the country that satisfied my tourist yen. This year? Ummm…

So I really tried hard to find something interesting to do in Newark. Honestly. But there's just not much here. The best I could come up with was the Battle of Cooch's Bridge Battlefield. The Battlefield, which is just a collection of interpretive signage with an adjacent visitor's center which is open on the first and third Saturdays of the month (I was there on the second Saturday), kills about maybe fifteen minutes of time.

The Colonial position, Battle of Cooch's Bridge.
Cooch's Bridge today. This one was erected in 1922. I imagine the view is not much different than 1777.
The battle, between the British forces and the revolutionary Colonial militia, took place in 1777 and was more a skirmish than a battle, although the estimated 25 dead on each side probably would disagree with me. The conflict was an engagement started by the revolutionaries to bother the British forces who were trying to maintain control over the main road from Virginia to Philadelphia which ran just south of Cooch's Bridge. The conflict was short and ultimately the Colonials were forced to withdraw against superior British numbers. I guess the most notable distinction that the battle holds today is that it is the first time the Stars and Stripes were ever flown in combat, although the signage at the site casts some doubt on that fact, referring to the source of this information as "local tradition".

I'll have to be satisfied with my trip the past weekend as my only NBDL action this year. I want to see more, I just don't have the time or the time off. So I'll have to wait until next year. Maybe my midwest swing will work out perfectly when the schedule is released this fall. One final note: while I didn't see Glen Rice, Jr. play, the Mad Ants or Sevens or someone hasn't forgotten him. He's listed right between Marcus Simmons and Ramon Harris in the free program handed out at the door. These things are essential at this level, because rosters can change day to day, just like it did for Glen.

In memory of Glen Rice, Jr.

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