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Wednesday, February 21, 2001
ABA 2000 and LA Stars making play for fans

By David Monahan
SportsTicker

The ABA is back.

There are no big afros, but there is the familiar red, white and blue basketball that distinguished the initial version of the ABA. Like its predecessor, the ABA 2000 hopes to give basketball fans an alternative to the glamour and outlandish ticket prices of the NBA.

Unlike other minor leagues of basketball, such as the recently disbanded CBA and the IBL all ABA 2000 teams play in big arenas in big cities. The league has franchises in Los Angeles, San Diego, Kansas City, Chicago, Detroit, Memphis, Indianapolis and Tampa Bay.

Three teams have canine nicknames -- the Detroit Dogs, the Tampa Bay ThunderDawgs, and the Memphis Houn'Dawgs, whose mascot is, of course, a dog dressed like Elvis.

So far, though, the league hasn't come sprinting out of the gate. Media coverage has been almost nonexistent. The games have been played in front of a lot people disguised as empty seats. That sound you hear is the echo of a basketball being dribbled in a nearly empty arena.

But league officials feel they have a good product and this week they started howling about it. What better way to get attention than by barking at the big bulldog down the block?

On Tuesday, the league issued a press release entitled "The ABA 2000 to David Stern and the NBA: Don't Steal Our Rules!" In it, ABA 2000 co-founder Joe Newman takes a jab at Stern for his comments last week that the NBA is becoming "too stagnant," and Stern's suggestion that some rule changes might be in order.

"It seems to me that (Stern's) proposed changes (allowing zone defenses, a closer 3-point line, shortening the 24-second clock and even an 8-second time line) are everything that the ABA 2000 is already using and promoting," Newman said in the statement.

ABA 2000 also employs a "3D Rule." If one team steals the ball in the opposition's backcourt, a basket on the ensuing possession is worth three points, four if it's from beyond the 3-point stripe.

According to the ABA 2000's Web Site, the league hopes that as a result of these rules, "one-on-one, ball-hogging type basketball will give way to true team basketball."

While fans have been slow to take notice, the Los Angeles Stars have been an early success story. The club includes forward Ed O'Bannon and guard Toby Bailey, teammates on UCLA's 1995 NCAA championship team who both grew up in Los Angeles.

The squad is coached by Paul Westhead, who piloted the Lakers to an NBA championship in 1980 and has peddled his fast, freewheeling style of basketball for the Denver Nuggets and Loyola Marymount University. Westhead has kept a home in the LA area since his coaching days with the Lakers.

But why would a coach with a resume as long as Westhead's take a chance on a fledgling league?

"This might be the last new frontier in basketball," he said. "I'm intrigued by the newness of the league. We're trying to play a style of basketball that's upbeat and funky and offer a lower-priced alternative to the fans.
I realize that I may be coaching a guy in practice on Monday who's thinking that he hopes he's not here come Thursday. But then the game captures you. It's not like being a stockbroker. Once the game starts, you don't care about money anymore.
LA coach Paul Westhead

"The NBA is entertaining," continued the man who invented breakneck basketball. "But it has become very predictable. You see the same defenses all the time. It's just slow, steady, methodical basketball."

Led by Bailey, O'Bannon and Jerod Ward -- a 1998 Michigan grad averaging a team-high 19.8 points per game -- the Stars have the league's second-best record at 16-8.

Los Angeles is 7-0 at home and just one game behind the Chicago Skyliners for the West Division lead. It is averaging just under 120 points a game, compared to a league average of 109. The average NBA team is averaging 94.3 points per game this season. Westhead, whose LMU team literally once made the courtside computer smoke, is disappointed that his troops are not scoring more.

"I thought we'd be scoring up in the 140s by now," he said. "We've been playing fast games, but not fast enough for me."

Westhead salivated when he heard about the 3D Rule.

"When I read that rule, I thought it was a free ticket for 200 points a game," he said. "I've always had a desire to break that 200-point barrier."

The coach pointed out that his high-octane offense is powered by a pressing defense, a style that suits Stars vice president of basketball operations Jamaal Wilkes just fine.

"Defense often triggers the transition game and can consistently win games," offered Wilkes, who also won titles with UCLA and the Lakers. "We hope to be a solid defensive team."

About the only other thing the team do to both generate goodwill and help instill the importance of good fundamentals was call John Wooden. The Stars did, and the legendary coach accepted.

From 1971-73, Wilkes won three titles under Wooden, the "Wizard of Westwood," and has turned to the elder statesman for guidance ever since. "It was difficult to broach the subject because we don't have the budget to pay him what he's worth," Wilkes explained. "I pursued it based on our relationship, his love for basketball, and his love for sharing his incredible wisdom and experiences with humankind."

Now 90, Wooden accepted the title of executive consultant to basketball operations. He watches a few games and practices and give his opinion when asked. Most importantly, he has lent his name to the franchise.

The Stars play their games in a fabulous little place called the Forum. You know, The House That West Built, and Kareem and Magic kept up the mortgage payments on?

"It's a special feeling walking into the Forum," O'Bannon said. "It's an arena with prestige and history second to none in the game."

While the Lakers play to packed houses downtown at the shiny new Staples Center, the fledgling Stars are relegated to Inglewood, playing to crowds averaging close to 4,000. However, that figure leads the league in home attendance.

Stars general manager Steve Chase came over from the Lakers' front office and brought some of the old ABA with him. He started out in basketball in 1973, working in ticket sales for the Kentucky Colonels.

Once an ABA powerhouse, the Colonels were left on the outside looking in when the Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, New York Nets, and San Antonio Spurs joined the NBA in 1976.

According to Chase, "the purpose of the ABA 2000 is to create an alternative for fans who have been disenfranchised and couldn't afford to see the inside of an arena." Stars ticket prices start at $6, which can get you a seat in the front row, behind the basket.

"Every night, I have people come up to me, with tears in their eyes, thanking me," Chase said. "I've had people tell me that their kids have played basketball their whole lives and never been inside this building."

The crowd for Stars games is glitz-free. Instead of tanned investment bankers and assorted Hollywood celebrities dotting the stands and leaving early to beat traffic, inner-city children and families can be seen having a terrific time throughout.

"Our crowds are about 60 percent kids," Chase said. "They're constantly squealing. They get excited at everything -- the game, the mascot, the cheerleaders."

The "Starlettes" even go into the stands on occasion to dance with the patrons. You won't see the Laker Girls do that.

The Stars are breaking new ground in professional sports by televising all home games live on the Internet. But without broadcasts on television, it has been hard to spread the word about the product.

"I don't have a $30 million ad budget like the XFL," Chase said. "I don't have Vince McMahon or NBC behind me."

An agreement has been reached to televise four Stars games this season on Fox Sports in the Los Angeles area. Until the team gets that exposure, Chase takes every opportunity to address local business and civic groups, inviting them to the Forum.

If the Stars keep playing the way they have, the crowds will come. On President's Day, they beat Chicago 112-110, on a court-length buzzer-beater by guard Tyson Wheeler.

However, that will be difficult if the players realize their individual dreams. While they enjoy playing in their hometown, both O'Bannon and Bailey burn with the desire to return to the NBA.

O'Bannon has played on three continents since being waived out of the NBA in 1997. Bailey was released in training camp by the Chicago Bulls.

"I realize that I may be coaching a guy in practice on Monday who's thinking that he hopes he's not here come Thursday," Westhead said. "But then the game captures you. It's not like being a stockbroker. Once the game starts, you don't care about money anymore."

For now, both O'Bannon and Bailey have adjusted to substituting commercial flights for the comfort of the chartered jets that mark an NBA lifestyle. It's nice to come home to the hallowed hardwood in Inglewood and play in front of family and friends.

O'Bannon's mother works nights but she usually arrives at the Forum by halftime. His three kids sit with his wife for each game. The youngest, 2-year-old Ed III, calls out Daddy's name all game long. Ed II says he can hear it from the court.

Jack Nicholson, Dyan Cannon and Showtime may not be returning to the Forum. But that's fine with the Stars. They're only shooting for a few thousand more kids in the stands, cheering just loud enough to drown out Ed III.