|Friday, March 16
Meyer's Skyliners set pace in fledgling ABA 2000
By David Monahan
Two months into its fledgling season, the jury is still out on whether the ABA 2000 will survive past 2001. But a couple of teams have fulfilled the league's promise to provide an exciting, lower-priced alternative to the NBA.
One of these clubs is the Chicago Skyliners, who sit atop the Western Division with the league's best record at 21-8 through March 11. They have lost just once in 12 games at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Ill. Pretty impressive marks for a team that was looking for a coach and players just a couple of weeks before the season began.
Ruby Richman, a former coach of the Canadian national team and member of Canada's Basketball Hall of Fame, is the club's general manager. He's been involved in other startup sports ventures such as the World Hockey Association and tried unsuccessfully to buy a franchise in the old ABA, which ceased operations in 1976 after a nine-year run.
"I thought people would remember what the old ABA was about and buy into the concept of the new league," Richman says.
To coach his squad, Richman went local by tapping former DePaul University coach Joey Meyer as the Skyliners' head coach.
Meyer is, of course, the son of legendary DePaul coach Ray Meyer, who coached the Blue Demons for 42 seasons. In 1984, father passed the torch to son, and Joey coached the team to an impressive 231-158 record over 13 years, including seven NCAA Tournament bids. He was fired in 1997 after a 3-23 season.
Since that time, Joey Meyer has remained in Chicago. His only gig in the game had been as color commentator for Northwestern University basketball. Occasionally, rumors popped up about vacancies he might fill.
"I was hesitant to pick up my family and ask them to move for an opportunity that I wasn't sure about," Meyer explains.
The location and the challenge made the Skyliners job attractive.
"It's in Chicago, and at the end of the day, I still come home to my family, drive into the same garage, live in the same house. It's exactly the type of coaching opportunity I wanted. The challenge of starting out from scratch."
The league's other seven teams had filled out most of their squads by the time Meyer was getting started.
"I had to wonder. I was getting calls from GMs who told me they had let a guy go, maybe I was interested in him. I'm thinking, 'Wait a minute, he wasn't good enough to make your team but you think I might want him?'"
Meyer also decided to focus on homegrown talent. When it comes to hoops, Chicago has a wealth of it.
"It was my intent originally to get as many Chicagoland players as I could, to put together a hometown team. I thought that would generate interest."
Starts with Dallas
"It was tough when I called them," Meyer says. "I had to be honest and say I wasn't sure what this would turn out to be."
But for many, the chance to play for Meyer was reason enough to jump on board.
David Booth played for Joey Meyer at DePaul and graduated in 1992 as the school's second leading all-time scorer behind Mark Aguirre. He then played in France for two years, came back to the states and played in the CBA, and twice came close to the NBA -- as the last cut in training camp for the Lakers and Grizzlies. He then enjoyed a couple of years in Italy.
One of the ABA 2000's leading scorers at about 21 points a game, Booth is glad to be back with his old coach and playing in his hometown.
"It's a good thing because most of us played college ball here," he says. "I see my family at least once a week, if not more. When I was over in Europe, I saw them once every four months. Sometimes, you come home and all of a sudden, one of your kids is walking and you're like, 'Whoa ... I missed that.'"
As advertised, ABA 2000 games are faster-paced than what the NBA offers these days.
The Skyliners' system is fueled by athletic play from Booth, guard Fred Vinson, who played briefly with the Seattle Supersonics last season, and two other Chicago natives with NBA experience. Donald Whiteside played for the Raptors and Hawks while Reggie Jordan most recently donned the uniforms of the Timberwolves and Wizards. Jordan, recovering from knee surgery, is expected back in the lineup soon.
It is a complete team effort, says Booth.
"Coach Meyer wants everybody to have a particular role," Booth offers. "Different guys to score, rebound, and defend. It's like a puzzle. Coach says that if you don't like his system, you can go play somewhere else."
So far, the system seems to be working.
"We've played together pretty well," says Meyer. "Some other teams like Kansas City and L.A. are supposed to have more talent than us on paper, but our guys don't pay attention to that. We just work together."
Chicago enjoys a balanced scoring attack. After leader Booth, you'll find Vinson, Whiteside, and Jordan all averaging in double-figures.
But you'll see another player moving up among Skyliner scorers. A man who has waited a long time for the chance to play for Joey Meyer.
But, a car accident later in his senior year and a drop in his grades cut short Fields' dream of playing for DePaul. While Garnett shot into the stratosphere of the NBA, Fields slipped into the basketball black hole of Turkey.
Fields just turned 24. He's finally getting his chance to play in the Allstate Arena -- formerly the Rosemont Horizon -- where he would have played as a Blue Demon. He is not bitter about how things have turned out.
"I'm the kind of player who likes to work hard for my opportunities," he says. "Things happen for a reason. Things pretty much led me back to play for Coach Meyer."
Meyer still thinks the world of Fields.
"If you ask our guys who has the best potential on our club, they would say Ronnie Fields," says Meyer. "I told him I'd like to get him back on the radar screen. He has the strength and athleticism. I'm trying to teach him the game. He's already improved his defense and his rebounding."
Fields is still shooting for the NBA.
"It pushes me to play and work hard," he says. "I watch Kevin and try to do the same things he does. I'm working on defending bigger guards and being consistent with my shot. I'm learning every day."
If Fields makes it to the NBA, no one will be happier than his coach.
"Hopefully by the time this year is up, he'll get a chance ," Meyer says. "I'll be the proudest person in the world. He's a good young man.
"I'd like to get all of my guys to the highest level of play they can achieve, and I'd also like to win an ABA championship."
"I thought this would be the perfect time to start in Chicago," GM Richman suggests. "All the other teams in town are losing. We're the only winning team. But our attendance numbers are disappointing. I thought we'd be doing better by now."
Richman says the slow start is typical of a new league.
"It's never easy," he says. "It takes three things -- money, time, and hard work. Sometimes you suffer in the first year, but you learn and you do better."
Richman cites a marketing plan for the second half of the season, including newspaper ads and (not yet arranged) live-game radio coverage, as cause for optimism.
For now, Coach Meyer realizes the disappointing public support but remains focused solely on basketball.
"I would like to see the public responding more," Meyer says, "but if I worry about marketing the team and all those other things I'd go insane."
Such tasks which would be assigned to staff for an NBA or major college team have fallen on the shoulders of Richman and Meyer's son David, a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
It hasn't been easy. Take the club's first visit to Detroit in January to play the Dogs.
"We arrived in town, and were supposed to go to a shootaround," Meyer remembers. "But there were no vans. So we got a hold of a van driver who had just dropped off another ABA team at the airport, and gave him $20 to take us to the gym. When we got there, there were no basketballs."
It gets worse.
"So we went to the hotel, but they hadn't booked rooms for us. So our GM had to make some calls and got us rooms in Canada.
"We played that night, and the next morning we had a 4:00 am wake-up call to catch a flight for an afternoon game in Memphis. I was ready to 'go postal,' as our guys would say. We won the night game, even though we did lose the next afternoon," Meyer says. "I was proud of our guys for overcoming those distractions."
The eldest Meyer is proud of his son's team as well.
"My father comes to every game," Joey Meyer reports. "He has as much energy at 87 as he ever had. He yells at the officials all game long.
"One game, some calls went against us, and I hear this guy yelling 'Hey Ref! Why don't you shoot it for him? You've done everything else you can to help him out!' I look up and it's Coach Ray."
His Dad has offered advice.
"He hasn't talked to me much about X's and O's. More about career stuff. We talk about whether this league is going to be around next year. Getting back into coaching reminds me of how much I enjoy this," the Skyliners' coach says.
But, Meyer says he would consider a move back to college or to the NBA.
"I have to try to find the right fit. Hopefully this league will become stable. I would be excited to be an assistant coach in the NBA. But those jobs are tough to get."
For now, the goal for Coach Meyer and his squad is an ABA 2000 championship. The goal for both the team's front office and the rest of the league is to get the word out about their product.
Will the Skyliners be around to play a second season?
"Absolutely," says their GM, Richman. "No question."
Add another element you need to start a new league. Confidence.