January 19, 2017

One And Done

This blog post is not about the Washington Wizards. It does, however, deal with an underperforming sports team that I love. There's a connection.

For the past 37 plus years, I've been a die-hard New York Jets fan. Yes, not only did I choose to start a blog about one of the lowest performing NBA teams (the Washington Wizards), I'm also a fan of one of the lowest performing NFL franchises. I fell in love with the Jets when my mom and dad moved me and my sister to the United States in 1979. I think it was probably the design of the helmet that did it. Could have been a Patriots or Giants fan living in Connecticut but I ended up with the Jets. 

Since I was 11, I've rooted for the Jets every year and seen them achieve relatively little. Yep, in 38 seasons (including this year) I've seen my beloved Jets win two division titles and play in four AFC Championship games. That's it. That's all I got for almost four decades of beating my heart against a wall. I even spent two of those years as a season ticket holder while I was living in the Washington, D.C. area. That's dedication, folks. The two division titles by the way is the fewest of any team from 1979 to now. The Jacksonville Jaguars are tied with the Jets but they entered the league in the '90s. 

When I was younger before I really understood how big my new home was, I always wanted to go to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Canton, Ohio. Wherever that was. Football (and the Jets) was my number one sport for a little more than 20 years before I became an obsessed Wizards fan and I dreamed of getting to a spot in the middle of nowhere of a state I'd never been to somewhere in the midwest so I could learn more about my favorite game. 

Last month, I made it to the Hall on my trying-so-hard-to-be-annual D-League swing. This journey took me through Canton, Ohio and Erie, Pennsylvania with a stop for drinks in Cleveland before the thing really got going. I couldn't pass up the Hall of Fame that I'd so long wanted to visit and see more than anything else, the players that I'd watched play in green and white for my beloved New York Jets. 

But there was a problem. There aren't really any New York Jets that I've watched in the Hall of Fame. I found this surprising. Go ahead, mock me. I mean I get that the Jets have been terrible for the better part of four decades but I think we've had some pretty darned good players over that period of time. And don't tons of guys make it into the Hall every year? I can remember the New York Sack Exchange, the D-line that terrorized opponents' quarterbacks in the early '80s. We seemed to have some great receivers over the years in Wesley Walker, Al Toon and Keyshawn Johnson. And what about some of our offensive linemen like Marvin Powell and Joe Fields? Or Pat Leahy, our place kicker that seemed to be on the team forever when I was a kid. 

Ummm...no. None of those guys are in the Hall.

So who is? There has to be someone, right? Well there are. The obvious two are Joe Namath and Don Maynard, the quarterback and receiver combo that shocked the football world in 1969 by beating the NFL's Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. That win legitimized the AFL's existence and ultimately led to a merger between the two leagues. Their coach, Weeb Ewbank, is also in the Hall.

After that, it's some tough sledding. Yes, there have been a number of players that have been on a Jets roster that have become hall of famers recently. Art Monk (played one year after a stellar career with Washington); Ronnie Lott (two years after multiple Super Bowls with the 49ers); Brett Favre (also one year and we won't talk much about that); and John Riggins (Jets gave up on him; he delivered a title in Washington) are all enshrined. 

The Hall sells t-shirts with the inductees from each team screenprinted on the shirts. They include Riggins on the Jets shirts but not the others in the previous paragraph. I would disagree with that but I also wasn't watching the team when Riggins was on the roster. Know how many Jets there are in the Hall that I've watched? ONE! Curtis Martin. That's it. 38 years. Two division titles. One Hall of Fame inductee. That's it. How do I pick these teams? It's moments like this that I wonder if I'll ever see a team I love win it all.

Now there is some hope for more Jets in the Hall. This year there are five players in the list of nominees with a Jets history. Four (Jason Taylor, LaDanian Tomlinson, Alan Faneca and Ty Law) are in the same category as Favre and Co. But Kevin Mawae, the center who anchored the Jets O-line for eight years, is also on the list. He spent more seasons with the Jets than any other team so I'd have to consider Kevin a Jet when he enters the Hall, which I have to believe he will at some time. In the meantime, I'll keep hoping. The Jets once again disappointed me this year.

This blog post wraps my Midwest D-League swing. Back to Wizards coverage, I promise. Looking good at home lately. We just got to do better on the road.

January 16, 2017

A Brief History Of The Civil Rights Movement

As suggested by the title, this post was intended to be brief. Some of you may feel the result is otherwise. But it's important stuff. Read on. Please. I learned a thing or two by writing this; perhaps you will by reading it.

Today is the annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday to celebrate the birthday of the civil rights leader who helped secure passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Each year for the past three years I have written a blog post about Dr. King to coincide with a matinee game over at Verizon Center featuring my beloved Washington Wizards and some other team. So far, each of these blog posts have featured a trip report of sorts either to a memorial to Dr. King or a place where something significant in the Civil Rights Movement happened.

Traditionally, the NBA has passed over Washington on years of presidential inaugurations so honestly I didn't think I'd be writing something about Dr. King this year. But in a surprise move (probably because the holiday is just about as far away from inauguration day as possible this time around), there's a game. And because I didn't expect this to happen, I didn't make an effort to take a trip to somewhere related to Dr. King's life. Therefore I've decided to do something different this year.

I have to admit that I am not very well educated on the Civil Rights Movement. I was never taught about it in either high school or college (I suppose there might have been opportunities to learn in college that I either passed over or ignored) and it took place in cities and towns in the southeast of the United States which I would say I am generally pretty unfamiliar with. So as a way of starting to get my head around the history of the movement (and considering I'm unprepared to write about somewhere I've been in the last year that is relevant), I thought I'd write about the timeline of the Movement and highlight some of the significant events that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. If it educates some other folks, well that's just a bonus.

I am focused here on the Civil Rights Movement that occurred mostly in the south of the United States and was focused primarily on the rights of black people in that area of our country. In the interest of space and keeping a narrow focus to this blog post, I am deliberately excluding the racial discrimination against Chinese, native Americans, Japanese, Mexicans and all sorts of other ethnic groups during this period of time. It is not intended to minimize the plight of those people at the hands of white America. I'm just not focused on that today.

Most accounts of the Civil Rights Movement consider a period from 1954 to 1964. I'm going to start with the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and end with the Civil Rights of 1964 because I think the history way back to the end of the Civil War is useful context. 

1866: Civil Rights Act of 1866
The Civil Rights Act of 1866 was the first legislation passed by Congress that conferred equal rights to all people born in the United States "without regard to race, color or previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude." For the first time in history, all people of any color born in the U.S. were American citizens.

For those of you like me, I suspect some of you are thinking "weren't all the slaves freed by the Emancipation Proclamation issued by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 and the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1864?" The answer is yes and no. The Executive Order that was the Emancipation Proclamation merely freed slaves in the states under rebellion, which the Union had relatively little power to enforce. And the Thirteenth Amendment technically abolished slavery and involuntary servitude except as punishment for a crime. But it didn't truly free former slaves because it didn't make them citizens.

Interestingly, Lincoln's vice president and successor Andrew Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 TWICE!!! Congress passed it by a 2/3 majority, overriding Johnson's vetoes.

1868: Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution
The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution codified many of the provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 into our Constitution but also added specific language that prevented states from denying equal protection under the law to any citizen. There was no substantive change from the Civil Rights Act of 1866 here other than incorporating some rights guaranteed under that Act into the Constitution.

1870: Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution
The Civil War ended on April 9, 1865 when the Army of Northern Virginia led by Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union forces commanded by Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. Five years later, acts and Amendments to the U.S. Constitution conferred citizenship on black Americans and former slaves but nothing had been enacted to guarantee voting rights for all Americans. The Fifteenth Amendment took care of that. 

Well, sort of. First of all, it only guaranteed voting rights for men; women wouldn't receive the right to vote until 1920 (!!!). And after the Amendment was passed, the Federal Government sort of stopped paying attention to this issue. And that last point is significant.

1877: Union Troops Withdraw from Confederate States
From the end of the Civil War to 1877, the United States had maintained federal troops in former Confederate state capitals to enforce the policies of Reconstruction enacted by the Federal Government following the defeat of the rebellious states in the War. in 1877 with the election of Rutherford Hayes, all that ended. From that point on, little oversight was provided to the former Confederate states, which meant that life could return to the way it used to be to the extent that the states had control over it. And it turned out they had a lot of control.

The March Against Fear, Mississippi, 1966.
1890: Constitution of the State of Mississippi
Following the defeat of the Confederacy, the constitutions of the individual states participating in the rebellion were re-written in 1868 to ban slavery and enact equal rights for all citizens regardless of race or former slave status. With the withdrawal of Federal troops in 1877 and Washington no longer really paying attention to what the states were doing down south, Mississippi decided to take action in 1890 and re-write their constitution.

The 1890 Constitution enacted by the State of Mississippi didn't restore slavery; they couldn't really since it was prohibited by the United States Constitution. But it did impose two measures that would almost prohibit voting by former slaves: a literacy test and a poll tax.

The literacy test imposed by the 1890 Mississippi Constitution required all citizens demonstrate they could read. But not really. There were various methods of proving literacy including requiring a potential voter to read or interpret part of the 1890 Constitution. Now at that time, there were many people in the state both black and white who would be unable to demonstrate literacy on this basis but the State added a "grandfather" provision which waived the test in cases where someone's grandfather had previously voted in an election. And only whites had voted previously. Convenient, right?

If you were a former slave who managed to pass the literacy test, all you had to do to vote was pay a poll tax, which is a fee to register to vote. In 1890s Mississippi, the poll tax was $2; that's about $55 today. If you can get over the fact that you shouldn't have to pay to get at a right guaranteed by the United States Constitution, how do you as a former slave come up with $55? Remember when former slaves were freed, they weren't provided with any property or money. In most cases they had absolutely nothing to their name and no skills other than farming on a plantation which in most cases forced them into lives of sharecropping under terms and conditions imposed by their former masters. In other words, $55 would be extremely hard to come by.

In 1892, there were 76,742 eligible black voters in the State of Mississippi and 58% of the state's population was black. After literacy tests and poll taxes, there were 8,615 black voters. The new constitution had ensured that the white minority in Mississippi would do as they please despite the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the recent amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Following Mississippi's lead, the other former Confederate states enacted similar constitutions over the next 18 years.

1909-1950: Nothing
As near as I can tell after Georgia re-wrote their constitution in 1908, nothing at all substantive to change the rights of black people in the United States happened for the next 43 years. That's not to say that there were not efforts to do so. But the white people in power in the south and Washington either saw to it that change was stamped out or just ignored the issue completely. I'm positive this is an oversimplification of the truth but I'm also confident it's not far off.

It is difficult for me to imagine what life must have been like in the United States for someone who was not white in the late nineteenth and first two thirds of the twentieth centuries. Indeed I cannot even relate very well to what that is like today. But consider this: the Equal Justice Initiative estimates that between 1877 and 1950 more than 4,000 black men, women and children were "hanged, burned alive, shot, drowned, and beaten to death by white mobs." Just because of the color of their skin. That's horrific.

1951: Walkout at Moton High School
In 1896, the United States Supreme Court ruled that educational facilities segregated by race were constitutional provided the facilities were equal in accommodate. Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia was built as an all black high school in 1939. By 1951, the school served twice as many students as it was designed for and lacked both a cafeteria and gymnasium. 

On April 23, 1951, 16 year old Barbara Rose Johns led a walkout to protest the conditions the students of the school were subjected to. The walkout ultimately led to a lawsuit filed by the NAACP and which was rejected by the State Court of Virginia on the basis that the State was making efforts to integrate schools. The verdict was appealed to the United States Supreme Court and was ultimately rolled up into a landmark decision later on that same decade.

1954: Brown v. Board of Education
In 1951, a class action lawsuit was filed by 13 parents of black students in Topeka, Kansas, maintaining that the "separate but equal" educational facilities afforded to their children were anything but based on, among other things, the distance their children had to travel to get to their school. The District Court in Kansas ruled in favor of the Board of Education, citing an 1896 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that segregated public schools in the State of Louisiana were constitutional. The plaintiffs, led by parent Oliver Brown, pursued the case all the way to the nation's Supreme Court.

When being heard by the chief justices of the land, the NAACP, whose lawyers led by Thurgood Marshall were trying the case, combined Brown v. Board of Education with several other similar cases. The Court ruled 9-0 in favor of the plaintiffs and established a ruling that separate but equal educational facilities were in fact unconstitutional and all state constitutions, such as those established between 1890 and 1908, requiring or permitting such separation were in violation of federal law.

Oddly enough, there were a number of references to the optics of this case to the rest of the world in the Court's ruling. Ironic that our country, which places similar pressures of human rights on other nations today, just 62 years ago felt the same sort of shame from elsewhere in the world.

1956: Montgomery Bus Boycott
Brown v. Board of Education closed the book on the legal status of separate but equal public educational facilities, but it neither enforced anything nor did it address other aspects of society such as public accommodations like public transportation or private businesses or public entities segregating their facilities on the basis of race. 1956 was the year a small step was made toward de-segregating publicly operated bus systems.

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, secretary of the Montgomery (Alabama) Chapter of the NAACP, was ordered by a bus driver to give up her seat for a white passenger while sitting in the Whites Only section of a bus. Parks refused. Four days later she was arrested and drew national attention to the issue, which did nothing to solve the actual issue. That took more action.

Eventually the ordinance requiring segregation of buses in Montgomery was ultimately repealed, but only after a 381 day boycott of the Montgomery bus system by an estimated 90% of the black population in the city. Money talked here I suppose but ultimately it led to the right result and segregation never went back into effect.

Four years later, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Boynton v. Virginia that segregation based on race on buses or in associated facilities was unconstitutional. After that, the states couldn't ever maintain that separate but equal was legal.

1958 Dockum Drug Store Sit-In
By 1958, racial segregation in public school facilities had been declared illegal throughout the land (doesn't mean they were desegregated; just that they had been ruled unconstitutional) and the bus system in at least one southern city had been desegregated. But many stores that served both white and black customers still insisted on maintaining accommodations by race that were separate but anything but equal.

In July 1958, the NAACP staged a series of sit-ins at the lunch counter of a Dockum Drug Store in Wichita, Kansas. These sit-ins consisted of black customers sitting at the whites only section the store and requesting lunch service, something that had always been refused. The sit-ins worked and after three weeks the store changed its policy of segregation.

The Wichita sit-in by all accounts was relatively successful and it was followed by others. The most significant of these was at a Woolworth's store in Greensboro, North Carolina. Not only did it take Woolworth's six months to change their policy of desegregated lunch counters, but the event drew national attention, based on photographs like the one above which shows white citizens dumping food and liquids on the heads of the protesters who were doing nothing more than just siting there. I can't imagine what these people were thinking that the hatred of someone with a different skin color eating at the same lunch counter as them would cause them to behave like that.

1963: Birmingham Campaign and the March on Washington
In the fall of 2015, I visited Birmingham, Alabama to spend about an hour walking around Kelly Ingram Park (formerly West Park), site of a series of demonstrations by black school children which drew a brutal police response that was covered through national media and television. The actions by the school children were in response to the segregation policies of stores and businesses in downtown Birmingham. Since I've already written about these events in last year's MLK Day post, I'll refer you there for the full details. But significantly, the media coverage of the police response spurred discussion of passage of a Civil Rights Act in congress. 

Just three and a half months later, Civil Rights leaders including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, an event intended to highlight the voting inequality that existed in parts of the country through laws that were designed to restrict the rights of black citizens to vote. It was during this March that Dr. King delivered his famous "I Have A Dream" speech from the steps in front of the Lincoln Memorial. The full text of that speech, along with other thoughts of mine, can be found in my blog post on this holiday two years ago.

1964: Civil Rights Act of 1964
On July 2, 1964, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted into law. It had been called for by President John F. Kennedy in his civil rights speech of June 11, 1963. By the time the Act became law, Kennedy had been assassinated and Lyndon B. Johnson, his Vice President, was in the Oval Office.

The Act outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. The effect of the Act was that it would (eventually) end the unequal application of voter registration laws and racial segregation in schools, the workplace and other public accommodations, including in stores like Woolworth's.

The 1866 Civil Rights Act conferred citizenship upon all persons born in the United States but didn't make discrimination against any segment of that population illegal. The 1964 Act took this one step further. And it "only" took us 98 years, which at that point was more than half our nation's history. Incredibly, about 30% of both the House and Senate voted against the Act; in the 11 former Confederate states, 95% of the Congressmen and Senators voted against it.

Now after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it's not like everything was A-OK after that. There was still immediate work to do like registering thousands upon thousands of American citizens that had been intimidated into not voting or just denied voting rights entirely. And all of that would not be easy. But beyond that there was a lot of future work to do and there likely still is today, especially if the folks running the executive and legislative branches of our government starting Friday are as bad as their rhetoric sometimes is.

I know I skipped some things which are really important, particularly the hatred and violence that black high school and college students faced in Arkansas and Mississippi in breaking racial barriers and the Freedom Rides throughout the south. The stories of the vile mistreatment particularly of school age girls just trying to attend school are heartbreaking. I hope any boy or girl (now man or woman) who participated in the intimidation of a little girl attending school in those early days of school integration understands how wrong they were. Doesn't change anything I guess. I can't imagine how scared and how brave those first kids to break the race barrier at public schools were. 

I don't understand the work that remains. How could I? The logic of a white man writing a brief history of the Civil Rights Movement to help himself understand some (and I do mean like a tiny fraction) of the events in black history that led to the passage of the 1964 Act is a little silly. I did it to educate myself more, which I consider a small step towards more understanding. I know we still have a lot of work to do. I believe it is important to continue to talk about our nation's embarrassing past so we don't repeat it through forgetfulness. That's why I write about this subject on this day. 

Go Wizards! Let's make it 12 in a row at home today. 

January 15, 2017

Free Fries!

For the past few years now, the Washington Wizards and Chick-fil-A have been engaged in a promotional partnership. The deal is if a player on the visiting team misses two consecutive free throws during a single trip to the charity stripe in the last quarter of the game, all fans in attendance get a free chicken sandwich from a local branch of the restaurant chain sometime in the following week.

I love this promotion. It gets fans cheering and making noise while our opponents are shooting free throws towards the end of the game when every point counts. Yes, it's a little shameful that this opportunity for some free grub gets the notoriously silent and indifferent crowds at Verizon Center worked up into a rabid frenzy. But look, noise is noise and I'd love it if the Wizards had a different sponsor behind a different giveaway related to free throw misses in every quarter. It might be complicated and less effective from an advertising standpoint, but we'd get the arena loud every quarter of the game. And let's face it, most nights the Wizards sorely need this.

Other folks don't love the Chick-fil-A sandwich giveaway as much as I do. The apparent contradiction between the home fans at VC making way more noise for a free piece of fried chicken on a bun than for the team itself has been covered in multiple news outlets including The Washington Post, USA Today and SB Nation. Again, I get that lack of crowd noise is a problem at Wizards home games; just don't blame Chick-fil-A for pointing it out. It's not like if they didn't have this promotion that the place would be loud all night long.

Last month, I took a trip out to Erie, Pennsylvania to watch the Erie Bayhawks, the city's NBA Development League team, play a game on a Saturday night. And I have to tell you the Bayhawks and McDonald's have just the promotion that I wish the Wizards would have.

Here's the deal in Erie: if the opposing team misses five free throws at any point in the game, then each fan in attendance gets a small fries from an area McDonald's for free. Why is this better? Well quite simply because it works potentially throughout the entire game. From the very first trip to the line for any player on the visiting team, there's a possibility to get closer to the goal of free stuff. Even if they miss the first free throw (which means no chicken for sure at VC), you can still cheer like crazy for a miss on the second during the fries promotion because each miss gets you closer to free fries.

Now I get it: a Chick-fil-A sandwich is way better than a small fries at McDonald's. Who even orders small fries anymore anyway? But why can't the Wizards get Mickey Ds to change their current McGriddles promotion (free McGriddles if the Wiz are ahead after one quarter) to a fries promotion based on free throw misses and have it count for the first three quarters only. I mean, who eats McGriddles? Does anyone like these things? It would be even sweeter if McDonald's made it a medium fries.

If the Wizards could make this change, we'd have some part of Verizon Center booing the opposition to get closer to free food every time they stepped to the line. McDonald's would take care of the first three quarters and Chick-fil-A would still get the fourth. I'd make this change in a heartbeat if I was running things. Some folks are still going to hate it. I love anything that gets people to make noise in support of the Wizards at home. For my part, I'll continue to boo for missed free throws in the final quarter, even though I've never cashed in on free chicken and realistically probably never will. Go Wizards!

January 10, 2017

The Bayhawks' Last Stand

Last month I took a quick trip to eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania to watch some NBA Development League hoops. This is not the first trip I've taken a trip to watch minor league basketball and I don't expect it will be the last.

Each time I've seen a game in some new town, I've written a blog post about my experience where I've chronicled the history of the home team; talked about the arena; and maybe elaborated on one or two experiences while I was in town that made me feel like I was in a unique place in the United States. There's sort of a formula to those posts. I did that last week when I wrote about our first D-League stop on that trip in Canton, Ohio.

But my plan for writing about my trip to Erie, Pennsylvania to watch the hometown Bayhawks take on the Westchester Knicks was a bit different. I was going to go off script a little and use my trip there to talk about something else. And that was whether a franchise like the Erie Bayhawks was likely to survive what is happening in the current NBDL as the league expands and its members are more often that not wholly owned subsidiaries of NBA teams. But then the Orlando Magic beat me to it and announced last month that starting with the 2017-2018 season, the Erie Bayhawks would be moving to Lakeland, Florida, presumably with a new name since Lakeland does not sit on a bay.

I think the Bayhawks moving to Florida is tragic. Yes, I know it's only minor league basketball and that Cleveland is about an hour away if someone from Erie wanted to go to an NBA game. But sports are important to communities and stripping a town of a professional sports team, no matter how minor league it is, is not something to be celebrated.

Let's take a look back at how we got here. The NBA Development League started as the National Basketball Development League in 2001 with eight teams located in the southeast of the United States and none of these teams was owned by an NBA franchise. Sure the league had the endorsement of the NBA and operated on a sort of a farm system basis by allowing NBA teams to assign players to the D-League but there was little actual visible meddling.

I believe one of the original ideas behind locating the NBDL in the southeast U.S. was that the NBA saw an area of the country mostly crazy about college hoops completely underserved by professional basketball of any sort. With the Continental Basketball Association already in place in the midwest, the NBA chose southern Virginia, both Carolinas, Alabama and Georgia as the place to start its league. It wouldn't stay there long. There's only so much chance of making two pro hoops teams in Alabama viable year after year. To that point, once of the two Alabama teams (the Mobile Revelers) failed after just two years, along with the Greenville (SC) Groove.

In 2005, four years after its first season, the D-League expanded back to eight teams and moved west, adding one team each in Fort Worth, Texas and Little Rock, Arkansas and seeing three of the original eight teams move to New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. A year later, they would expand into the midwest, the Continental Basketball Association's territory, when the CBA's Sioux Falls (SD) Skyforce, Dakota Wizards and Idaho Stampede jumped ship from the then in trouble and ultimately failing league.

At the start of the 2008-2009 NBDL season, things seemed to have settled down. The D-League had expanded to an all time high 16 teams despite the loss of the remaining three original teams and the demise of the Fort Worth and Arkansas franchises after just two seasons. It seemed like the league had a comfortable footprint nationwide and the instability that had characterized the league's first few years seemed to be in the past. Sure the Anaheim Arsenal moved to Springfield, Massachusetts after that season and the Colorado 14ers went bust but the addition of the Maine Red Claws got the league back to 16. No worries, right?

Over that period of the D-League history, three of the teams in the league had been sold to NBA franchises. The Los Angeles Lakers bought the Los Angeles D-Fenders; the San Antonio Spurs purchased the Austin Toros and the Oklahoma City Thunder acquired the Tulsa 66ers. For the first time in D-League history, teams were single affiliated with an NBA franchise which allowed the franchise to install the big league offensive and defensive schemes at the minor league level and really develop their D-League assignees in a targeted fashion. It just so happened that the teams these three franchises bought were located close to the parent team's city.

Say goodbye to the bouncy castle, children of Erie. The Orlando Magic don't care.
Then in 2010, something different happened. Donnie Nelson, an executive with the Dallas Mavericks and son of legendary NBA coach Don Nelson, moved the Colorado 14ers (he had bought the defunct franchise a year prior) to Frisco, Texas, just a little more than 25 miles from Dallas and the Mavericks became exclusively aligned with the minor league franchise. This was different than a team buying a local team and keeping it in the city where it was before the purchase. Now, an NBA team had moved a D-League franchise to be super close to the NBA team's home.

It caught on. Two years later the Golden State Warriors purchased the Dakota Wizards, a team that had been playing in Bismarck, North Dakota since 1995 (!!) and moved them to Santa Cruz, because they needed a team closer to them so they could develop their young players. 17 years in one place and then poof! Gone!

The race was on. Springfield Armor? Sold to the Detroit Pistons and moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan in 2014. Bakersfield (CA) Jam? Property of the Phoenix Suns and relocated to Arizona as the Northern Arizona Suns (yawn name!). What about the Idaho Stampede, another CBA-era team? Moved to Salt Lake City by the Utah Jazz. Then this season the Reno Bighorns became the property of the Sacramento Kings with a promise to move them closer to Sacto. Finally (although not really) it was the Erie Bayhawks' turn on December 14 of last year: moving to Lakeland, Florida effective 2017. 

Next year there will be no pro hoops in Erie, Pennsylvania. I'm sure not many people really care about that. I'm pretty sure the Orlando Magic don't care much at all. But I've been to Erie on a game night (as I had been to Springfield three seasons prior) and I've seen people from parking garages and restaurants and bars make their way to the Erie Insurance Arena to cheer on their Bayhawks. This stuff matters, folks. And right now the NBA teams are focusing all their energy on moving local franchises as close to their home arenas as possible. And I don't hold with it.

As of the beginning of the 2017-2018 NBA Development League season, there will be just three D-League teams located more than 150 miles from their parent clubs: the Rio Grande Valley Vipers (about 350 miles from Houston); the Iowa Energy (600 or so miles from Memphis); and the Sioux Falls Skyforce (more than 1,000 miles from Miami). Watch out Sioux Falls; you are probably going to lose your team at some point very soon.

I loved visiting Erie for an afternoon and evening. The Bayhawks, despite giving up an early and seemingly insurmountable lead to the visiting Westchester Knicks fought back hard (with maybe a little help from the refs) and had a chance to win it at the end. Despite the bottom of the league status of the team, the Bayhawks' faithful (including me, sometimes between bites of the arena's poutine) made a ton of noise for the team that night. Next year, it troubles me that those same fans won't have a team to root for. I think it's great that the NBA Development League is evolving into a true minor league; I'm just not happy about the effects on small cities like Erie.

Poutine in Erie. Way better than Verizon Center's version of a couple of years ago. Closer to Canada, eh.

January 3, 2017


Since I started this blog in 2012, I've made a concerted effort to make it to at least one NBDL game each year. By and large (but not always), I've been successful in taking some time off to watch pro hoops below the NBA level. Last month, I took my fourth road trip in five seasons to the underbelly of the NBA. I stopped in Cleveland for one night (which I've already chronicled here and here) and then moved on to somewhere which I thought would be a little less cosmopolitan: Canton, Ohio. Turns out I might have been wrong.

I should probably start out by saying years and years ago (OK...decades ago) I really really wanted to make a trip to Canton because the Pro Football Hall of Fame is there. This was a time when football (and the New York Jets) was my number one sport, like when I was in high school and college. But as time passed, my urge to travel to Canton to visit a museum faded until the D-League resurrected my interest a few years ago. Finally I got to go and check the place out. The Canton-Erie NBDL swing has been on my radar for years.

So the point of making the run to Canton was obviously to see a Canton Charge home game. Canton is one of three original teams remaining in the NBDL (now the NBA Development League but I will continue to use NBDL), along with the Austin Spurs and the Oklahoma City Blue. Neither the Spurs nor the Blue (dumbest team name ever?) nor the Charge started their lives in their respective cities. The Charge started out in Huntsville, Alabama as the Huntsville Flight (awesome name, after the city's early space program history) before moving to Albuquerque and later Rio Rancho and becoming the Thunderbirds (also an awesome name) before finally landing in Canton as the Charge (NOT an awesome name), where they have been since 2011.

Considering the brief history of the D-League, the Charge's predecessor teams were relatively successful, making the Finals in 2004 while in Alabama and winning the whole shooting match in 2006 in their first season in New Mexico. Today, they are the D-League affiliate of the hated (by me) Cleveland Cavaliers as a wholly owned minor league franchise, meaning of course that Dan Gilbert is the owner. And let me say as a basketball fan if there's an owner I dislike more than Dan Gilbert, I'm not sure who it is. This dude proved he's petty and mean in his reaction the LeBron James bailing on the Cavs in 2010 and now loves everything to do with James now he's delivered him a title. And I don't say this because buying tickets for a Charge game in advance required me to use a special app on my phone and charged what I consider to be a worse than Ticketmaster fee on top of the gate price. Enough ranting. For now.

The Canton Brewing Company in downtown Canton. I'll explain later how awesome this place is.
Canton is one of those cities in the midwest's rust belt, a former center of manufacturing (originally agricultural implements and later iron) along a railroad route which has seen employers move their operations to places where it costs them a whole lot less to employ workers to make their products. Living in upstate New York for nine years I saw towns up and down the Erie Canal and Hudson River struggling with these same issues. The harm it can do to a community is significant.

The city was founded in 1805 and was named after the province in China with the same name. I know; totally random, right? Apparently the place was named by the town's surveyor after a trader whom he admired who had conducted business in China. Go figure. Other than its former place in American manufacturing history and its current place as the home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the town is also the adopted home of President William McKinley, who practiced law in the town before making a successful run at the Ohio governorship and then taking his talents to Washington as the Commander-in-Chief. It's pretty obvious when you are there. There are a lot of things named McKinley.

Considering the history of Canton and what I assumed would be an empty downtown center, I was a little apprehensive about my choice of hotels in the city. I love staying downtown in cities because it allows me to walk the city before and after the game (including to the arena) and really get a sense of what it's like to be there. While there seemed to be a number of chain hotels out near the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the choices for staying downtown seemed to be one: the McKinley Grand Hotel, which sounded pretty fancy but came with a decidedly un-fancy less-than-$100 per night price tag. Driving into the city pocked with vacant lots and a mixture of Richardson Romanesque (which is amazing) and late 1960s / early 1970s American concrete-heavy brutalist architecture (which is not amazing) didn't make me feel any better.

There's a reason I travel and the biggest reason is so I can go to places and make my own mind up what it's like to be there. And I have to say Canton is the greatest little town and the hotel was a good reflection of the town's overall spirit. Sure it looked a bit run down and the pool deck inside the hotel on the second level  with sliding glass doors leading directly to guest rooms seemed like it was an idea conceived in the early 1980s (it probably was) but other than that it was fine. Definitely worth less than $100 a night, which included free buffet breakfast. Just get to breakfast early. It's buffet but it runs out. I made it there before they ran out and filled up; my friend Bryan was less successful.

Also, if you are a D-League traveler like me (and look, I know probably nobody else out there goes on these crazy minor league hoops trips), the visiting team seems to prefer to stay at the McKinley Grand. Both the Raptors 905 team (which was the Charge's opponent the night we were there) and the Long Island Nets (opponent on the second night of the homestand) were bunked up at our hotel. I even got to say hi to former Wizard and current Raptors 905 head coach Jerry Stackhouse in the lobby. 

Just an aside here. I shook hands with Jerry Stackhouse when he played for the Wiz about a dozen years ago and I have to say he had the softest hands I've ever shaken. I don't mean smooth, although they were. I mean like pillow soft, like his hands were filled with air. I shook hands again in Canton and they are definitely less soft. Maybe it's the age or maybe the Wizards have something special in that locker room.

The Canton Charge play their home games just down the street from the McKinley Grand at the Canton Memorial Civic Center. The building was built way back in 1951 and it is definitely of its time. The materials used are brick and stone on the exterior with glazed masonry inside along the concourses. Speaking of the concourses, they are extremely tight which is hardly surprising; I can't imagine concessions was the number one priority for arena design back in 1951. 

This is a great old building although I guess my one time visit and sense of nostalgia affected my judgment here. The main space was clearly built not for basketball but for performances on the stage at the west end of the arena. It works for hoops because the seating is all parallel (or perpendicular depending on your perspective, I guess) to the court, rather than being oriented towards the west end.

Despite the last paragraph, I can't get on board with the space frame inserted just below the roof structure and shown in the picture below. Those things have no place in architecture, whether being used as structure or just as decoration as they are at the Civic Center. Not good. I'm thinking it's a 1970s or 1980s addition.

The on court action that night was nothing much to write about so I won't write much about it. The Charge got killed by Raptors 905 (does this get abbreviated to "Raptors" or "905"?) by a score of 104 to 72. We kicked back and took it all in anyway along with a couple of Long Island Nets players sitting right in front of us in the smallish Civic Center seats. This is probably the first time I've attended a D-League game where I didn't root for the home team. I just couldn't; see the Dan Gilbert comments above. I didn't overtly root for the 905 either though.

That report wraps another NBDL game. That's six of the current 22 teams I've seen at home so far. Hopefully this thing settles down soon and teams stop moving around. It's getting close I believe which might have negative consequences for some communities but we'll get to that soon. 

Some final notes about Canton.

First of all, this place has a lot of soul. The city is not dwelling on the urban flight that took place in the last quarter of the 20th century. Instead, it has re-imagined itself as an arts town and has both public art displays and numerous galleries scattered around town. So despite the relatively empty feeling to some blocks, what is there is really cool and interesting. I hope it continues to develop and draws residents back in. There's clearly more than hoops happening at the Civic Center and the Palace Theater a few blocks down Market Avenue seems to be really promising.

Second, there are some awesome bars in town, which let's face it for me influences how I feel about a place a great deal. We had some drinks and snacks at the Canton Brewing Company down on Third Street before returning for dinner later the same day. The food was overall very good but the Scotch eggs (shown above) were maybe the best I've had (like ever!); it was the chorizo, I'm sure. Canton was a big brewing town at one time and one of the great things that Canton Brewing is doing is honoring the history of the town's beer making by replicating logos of historic beers of Canton on their glasses; I came home with two. Plus a metal brewery sign. Couldn't resist. The logo is incredible.

If you need a great place to hang out later in the evening, I'd recommend Conestoga Grill, which is a dark somewhat dank bar with some local beers on tap plus Heileman Old Style in 16 oz cans. And in case you are wondering, dark and somewhat dank are the best qualities one can find in a bar so those are compliments. Thanks to Natalie over at Canton Brewing for not only serving us over on Third Street but also pointing us to the Conestoga.

Finally, there's a nut and chocolate place in town named Ben Heggy's. I found this place while i was wondering around town the morning after the game and the smell of roasting nuts was irresistible. Unfortunately for me, I was out too early and the place was closed. But I ordered some for the holidays based on the smell alone. The one pound of mixed nuts I got mailed to me lasted barely a day and a half at my parents' place. I'll need two or three pounds next year, at least. I recommend you pick some up if you are ever in town.

What started out as a visit with a little apprehension on my part worked out about as well as it could. If it wasn't obvious, I'd go back to Canton in a second. Until then, I'll just keep mail ordering from Ben Heggy's. Great D-League stop. The best ever!

Hey, Mike! Show everyone how Wizards fans feel about the Cavs and their overrated point guard!