Steel City Yellow Jackets of ABA not paid, play for love of game
The team owners brought only bad news to the locker room.
The money is just not there, said Antjuan Washington, co-owner of Pittsburgh's lone professional basketball team, the Steel City Yellow Jackets. We lost $3,700 on last weekend's games alone, he told his players. We need 300 to 500 fans to make this work, he explained, but Sunday night we only had 190.
“And we gave away 150 tickets,” Washington said. “We had 40 paying customers. That's it.”
Such is life in the American Basketball Association, where players sign up not to get rich but for the love of the game.
They endure long bus rides, third-rate travel accommodations and the constant threat of their team folding, all for the chance to hang on, to perhaps get noticed by a better league, to keep playing when all other doors have shut.
The door in Pittsburgh nearly shut last week.
Washington and co-owner/coach Averill “Ace” Pippens left it up to the players. They offered to scrape money together, hand out paychecks, then fold the team. Or, they said, the players could agree to play for free, at least until the money comes in.
Lamar Castile, an ABA veteran, Pittsburgh playground legend and the team's best player despite being age 34, considered the grim options, then stood and faced his teammates.
“You can't replace this right here,” he said, pointing at his coaches and teammates. “I've played eight years in this league, and I got two rings — two. And none of those other teams were as good as this one. ... (Screw) it. We ain't going to get the money till the money comes in, and that's just got to be the mindset.
“I'm going to keep playing. Period. Point blank. Because this team we got right here, man, we can go all the way.”
Moments later, the players jogged onto their home court at Community College of Allegheny County.
And not a single player walked away.
“These guys have a dream,” said Ron Tilley, the league's CEO, “and the ABA, more than any other league, affords them the opportunity to chase that dream. Guys use this league for exposure, to get game stats and film and to play at a high level, (but) everybody understands the level they're playing at. The payday isn't the ABA. It's the chance to develop their game to the point where they are marketable.”
The ABA always has operated on the fringes of mainstream basketball. The original league started in the 1960s and grew into a legitimate competitor to the NBA by attracting legendary players such as Julius Erving and George Gervin. The NBA recognized the threat and agreed in 1976 to merge the leagues.
The new ABA started up in 2000, this time not as an NBA rival but as a minor league to other professional leagues.
“It's local teams playing primarily with local players that are hometown heroes,” Tilley said.
There are about 100 teams in the ABA. The Steel City Yellow Jackets are the league's newest team, an expansion franchise seven games into its inaugural season.
Behind players like Castile, former WPIAL Player of the Year Nick Novak and “Mr. Aliquippa” Antonio Reddic, the team is 7-0 and has shot up the rankings to fifth in the country. (The top 32 teams make the playoffs.)
One problem: Nobody outside the locker room seems to know or care.
“I mean, this is a sports town. Come support us!” said Geno Bianco, a 6-foot-4 guard who played at Thiel in Greenville. “I think it's just that nobody even realizes yet there's a team here.”
ABA startups face many obstacles, and the Yellow Jackets' struggles are the norm, league and team officials said.
When Tilley launched the Arizona Scorpions in 2011, he signed players and promised them paychecks. But like Washington, who signed his players to contracts paying $600 to $2,500 a month, he quickly realized he could generate only enough revenue to pay three of his players.
“But none of my players quit,” he said.
Three years of winning basketball later, fans started to pay attention, Tilley said. Last year he paid every player on the roster.
“As a startup franchise, it's difficult,” Tilley said. “Some teams pay everyone. Some teams don't pay anyone. It varies.”
As do fan bases.
The Jacksonville Giants set an ABA attendance record last season when 8,600 fans showed up a game. The Shreveport/Bossier Mavericks — the league's top-ranked team — average several thousand fans a game.
Pittsburgh is not known as a basketball town, and other ABA ventures here have failed. But Washington, a hip-hop artist known by his stage name Tjuan Benafactor, remains optimistic.
“As long as we keep doing the right thing, putting a great team on the court, eventually people are going to come around and start watching,” he said. “The guys understand what it is and understand that myself and Ace will continue doing what we can to put them on the court.
“We're winning,” Washington said. “Now it's just getting everybody else to understand how real we are and that we're not going away under any circumstance. They would like to be paid, but more importantly, they're not going to dismantle an undefeated team of friends and family because that's what we've become.”
The league is fighting for exposure, and Tilley said progress can be seen in a new contract with ESPN3 to carry multiple games online. A recent Yellow Jackets game against the Brooklyn Skyrockets was broadcast, as will a Dec. 20 game against the South Florida Gold, the second-ranked team in the ABA.
Still, most players don't earn enough money to support themselves on basketball alone.
On the Yellow Jackets, for instance, Lawrence “LB” Baker is an insurance agent by day, power forward by night. Gilmore Cummings, a 6-foot-2 shooting guard, works full time as a mover. Bianco moonlights as a limo driver, bartender and substitute math teacher at Mt. Lebanon High School. And team co-captain Albert Varacallo is a lawyer.
“Honestly, I always dreamed of playing professional basketball,” Varacallo said. “But I obviously did not picture it coming after law school.”
Neither did he imagine doing it for free. Or the hardships and mishaps associated with life in the ABA.
One opponent recently showed up for a game without jerseys. They borrowed old CCAC practice uniforms.
On the Yellow Jackets' recent road trip to Brooklyn, a van rental fell through, delaying the team's departure and nearly resulting in a no-show forfeit. Problems continued that night when they discovered their hotel was nearly three hours from the gym. When they finally got there — exhausted from 10-plus hours on the road and a game — they found a filthy hotel with food scraps in the bed sheets and bath towels covered in hair.
The next day, half the team got stuck in traffic behind a car crash. Only five players — none of them regular starters — and one coach made it to the gym in time for tip-off.
Still, they won both games.
And while players complained, nobody quit.
“If that's the standard for road trips, I don't know if I'll make it through the end of the season,” Varacallo joked. “I think these experiences are bringing us together, with all this negative stuff going on. We definitely have a team right now.”
Castile said he's been on teams that folded “but never a team where the guys just buckled down and played for free.
“But like I told them all in the locker room, all of y'all would be playing for free in some other league right now. This is a better league to play for free in than any other league. And this group of guys we've got here — I haven't been with a lot of teams where I genuinely like everybody.”
Winning has that effect.
The only thing missing are fans.
Chris Togneri is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5632 or email@example.com.