Fit To Live
It's a sticky Friday afternoon, and the air hangs heavily inside the gym at Rice Memorial High School. Spanking-white Air Jordans squeak across the wooden floors as nearly 30 players, all wearing royal-blue, numbered jerseys, spread out under the five hoops to dribble, toss and pass spinning basketballs. Taped on the folded bleachers is a yellow cross, made from two measuring tapes, and some of the guys take turns stretching their fingertips for an arm-span calculation. Height-wise, most of them stand well over the 6-foot mark. No. 19, West Bolton's Jesse Dunn, high-fives No. 33, David Hannah of Randolph, to say hi.
It looks like a typical basketball practice, except that many of these players have arrived 90 minutes early on a sunny, summer day to make a good impression. And the basketballs bouncing across the gym floor aren't the standard Spalding orange -- they're Rawlings red, white and blue, the official ball of the newly revived American Basketball Association. Vermonters will soon become familiar with the distinctive spheres, as the ABA's newest franchise arrives in the Green Mountain State this fall.
The team's name is the Vermont Frost Heaves. Its motto: "We're gonna be the bump in their road." The Frost Heaves have already lined up two venues -- Barre Auditorium and Burlington Memorial Auditorium -- a website, a slew of merchandise, a moose mascot named Bump, and more than 1600 fans in its "Bump in the Road" club. Now all the team needs is a dozen players to suit up on opening night. Today's session at Rice kicks off a three-day tryout camp to help make the cuts.
Nine are callbacks from the last camp, three weeks earlier; others are new invitees from not only Vermont but as far as Alabama, Texas and even South Africa. Some of the players have pro experience; others have none. But everybody is trying to impress two guys on the sidelines: Cabot's Will Voigt, the head coach, and Alexander Wolff, the longtime Sports Illustrated basketball writer and Frost Heaves president and general manager. Wolff has lived in Cornwall for the past four years and is responsible for this hoop dream.
"It's starting to become real," he says. "And for each of these tests that we pass, people are more and more excited."
The original ABA lasted from 1967 to 1976, in an era of tall white tube socks and short shorts, worn by such players as Julius Erving and Moses Malone. When the league folded, four teams, including the Denver Nuggets and San Antonio Spurs, joined the National Basketball Association. Little remained of the ABA until the 2000-2001 season, when eight franchises began tossing the red, white and blue once again. Today, there are more than 60 ABA teams, from the Alexandria United to the Wilmington Sea Dawgs.
In fall 2004, Wolff was interviewing NBA scouting director Marty Blake, who complained that the ABA was making it difficult for him to track athletes. Wolff recalls that Blake said, "out of the blue, 'Apparently it only costs $5000 to get a franchise.' And I blurted out, 'Wow, I could get one.'"
A year later, he'd done just that. Wolff, who grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, says he saw the Frost Heaves as a way to grow pro basketball in Vermont, and also to put down roots here for his family. "If I had wanted to get into Vermont by growing organic tomatoes, I would be hopeless," says Wolff. "This is something I really do know a little bit about."
The success of the Vermont Lake Monsters, the Vermont Voltage and UVM's recent basketball teams convinced Wolff that the ABA could work for the state. And in Barre and Burlington, he found his field, er, auditoriums of dreams -- retro gyms that seem to seep history from their worn, honey-colored floors. "People love the electricity of pro basketball," he says, "but they also want a little bit of that throwback feel."
Initially, however, Wolff's idea was met with skepticism. "There was disbelief originally -- people were like, 'What?'" he recalls. "But now, I'm discovering every day just how much this state loves basketball."
Much of that love has appeared online, where Wolff posts regular blogs on SI.com and updates fans on player-scouting progress. (The big news in early July was a cameo by UVM legend Taylor Coppenrath at the first tryout camp.) Wolff explains that he's trying to fuse old arenas with new technology. That's just one of the ways he aims to keep the Frost Heaves unique.
Another Green-Mountain gimmick in the works is a poetry night, when Vermont's budding Bards will read basketball limericks and other verse during time-outs. The idea was inspired in part by Wolff's noontime ball games with professor-poets Jay Parini and Gary Margolis at Middlebury College. And it couldn't be a coincidence that the mother of coach Will Voigt is former Vermont state poet Ellen Bryant Voigt.
Well before the first tip-off in November, Wolff also expects a little word-of-mouth from the Frost Heaves' association with the Vermont Fresh Network. "We want to have a kind of winter farmers' market," he explains. "At a basketball game, people expect a hot dog, but maybe we can get Vermont Smoke and Cure to provide the hot dogs, and a local baker to make a better bun."
Eighteen home games are scheduled, split evenly between Burlington and Barre, and between Thursday nights and Sunday afternoons. The Frost Heaves will be competing with such league teams as the Cape Cod Frenzy, the Buffalo Silverbacks and the Montreal Matrix.
Wolff, who has a full-time staff of five as well as interns and volunteers, says they're working around UVM and high school sports schedules to draw as many families as possible. Helping to drum up support is a Frost Heaves kids' camp in Williston, August 14-18. But with tickets priced as low as $5, and the likely presence of Vermont-grown stars on the Frost Heaves, the appeal of the ABA already seems like a slamdunk. And it's a world away from the tinted-window-Escalade realm of the NBA.
"When I grew up, there was a kind of magic about basketball, not unlike the magic that Taylor Coppenrath left in his wake," says Wolff. "The way we make this work is by connecting with the community."
A black Escalade does sit outside Rice Memorial High School during the tryout camp, but otherwise the atmosphere is bling-free. As they await some announcements from Wolff and Voigt, several sweaty players take a break and slump against the back wall.
"I'm excited to be back," says Dunn, 24, who played for Mount Mansfield Union High School, then left for Northeast- ern and a job in a logistics firm in San Francisco. "I grew up watching UVM basketball, so this is pretty cool."
Meanwhile, Dewitt Doss, a 24-year-old, 5'10" guard, has brought his 4-year-old daughter Dominique from Niagara Falls to watch him shoot hoops. Like the other players, Doss won't find out for a few weeks if he's been selected, but he figures his chances are good, and that he'd happily take a spot.
"This is my first time ever in Vermont and, actually, it's pretty nice," says Doss. "I thought it was going to be all farmland and stuff."