Pro-Basketball in Jacksonville a ‘Giant’ Challenge
Ron Sholes hopes to succeed where others have failed when the Jacksonville Giants, the ABA’s newest and most promising franchise, take to the floor against the visiting San Francisco Rumble at 8 p.m. on Dec. 4.
Sholes, a local attorney and owner of City Hall Pub, a restaurant and bar located next to Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena where the Giants will play their fifteen home games and a possible playoff game later this year, is confident that his basketball franchise will be different than those in the past.
“We're going to be different than those others in that we're playing at a quality site in the arena, and our games will be on TV,” Sholes said during a press conference on October 20. “We're going to make this an exciting game-day experience for the fans, very similar to what the Jacksonville Sharks did with their fans this year. It will be affordable entertainment with a family atmosphere, with tickets priced as low as $4 per game.”
Having already landed the ABA All-Star game on February 26 while ambitiously striving to bring an NBA franchise to Jacksonville within a decade, Sholes is certainly putting his money where his mouth is. The personal injury lawyer isn’t skimping on his latest venture and his lavish marketing campaign for Jacksonville’s newest minor-league team, consisting of extensive print and radio advertisements, is starting to pay off, quickly becoming the envy of the league.
“We’re very impressed by what Ron Sholes and his organization have been able to do in a relatively short period of time,” Joe Newman, the ABA’s chief executive officer, told the Jacksonville Observer in a recent interview.
“He’s assembled a capable organization,” continued Newman, pointing to the fact that Jacksonville beat out several other cities, including Chicago, Las Vegas and San Antonio, in being awarded the league’s All-Star game in February.
“He’s obviously doing something right,” said Newman.
Billed as “the largest pro sports league in the world” while tailoring itself after the original ABA, a league that invented the three-point shot and featured a red, white and blue ball for nine consecutive seasons from 1967-1976, the re-born American Basketball Association plans to field as many as 58 teams this year, including seven traveling teams that will play abbreviated schedules.
Team Haiti, a traveling squad based in Miami, hopes to raise awareness and aid for that earthquake-devastated nation in ABA arenas throughout the country this season. Team Haiti will play the Giants at Veterans Memorial Arena on December 5, a day after the season opener against the San Francisco Rumble.
Despite the league’s shaky reputation — the ABA played only 38 percent of its scheduled games during the disastrous 2007-2008 season and more than 175 teams have folded, were kicked out, or joined another league since its inception ten years ago, some without playing a single game — Newman is convinced that Sholes can make a realistic go of it.
In fact, the lawyer-turned-entrepreneur’s massive marketing effort already appears to be paying dividends. “Ticket sales have been brisk, especially the $4 tickets and the $64 season packages,” said Angel-Marie Ashley, the team’s amiable ticketing and marketing coordinator. “The response so far has been amazing.”
No effort is being spared. Buttressing the team’s print and radio marketing strategy, the Giants organization — players, staff and volunteers alike — handed out 10,000 flyers at a recent Jaguars game and have been taking part in promotional events throughout the city, including a successful Black Friday event at the St. Johns Town Center.
In addition to signing a $250,000 contract with SMG — the Philadelphia firm that oversees finances and operations at the city’s sports and entertainment venues — to play at Veterans Memorial Arena this winter, Sholes also secured a television contract with local station CW-17 to televise all of the team’s home games.
According to Joe Miller, the team’s marketing director, the Giants also plan to provide play-by-play radio coverage, but are still ironing out the details.
Putting Together a Team
Coached by Kevin Waters, a former assistant woman’s basketball coach at Murray State University who most recently served as head coach and general manager of the defunct Jacksonville Bluewaves of the World Basketball Association (WBA), the Giants’ roster certainly lives up to the team’s nickname, including 7’4” Jason Bennett, a graduate of Arlington Country Day School.
Bennett, who played a year of Division I basketball under then-head coach Bob Huggins at Kansas State University before transferring to Tallahassee Community College, later played briefly for the University of Detroit-Mercy.
Bennett’s shot-blocking prowess — he averaged 3.7 blocks per game in junior college — will be complemented by Jermaine Bell, another 7-footer, who reportedly blocked seven shots in his collegiate debut.
Waters, who played his college ball at Fisk University in Nashville where he led his team in 3-point scoring and assists, also signed Antonio Lawrence, a 6’5” small forward who played at San Jose State and Anthony Lumpkin, a 6’1” guard from Central Oklahoma State University who started last year for the Southeast Texas Mavericks, the defending ABA champion, a Winnie-based franchise owned by wealthy Texas oilman and entertainment promoter Jerry Nelson.
A Wolfson High School standout, the high-flying Lawrence once electrified a European crowd with a spectacular slam-dunk against 7’6” Yao Ming — the third-tallest player in NBA history — while playing in Italy in 2004.
Waters also recently signed Nick Wallery, a 6’7” veteran of the World Basketball Association whose prolific defensive rebounding abilities placed him among that league’s leaders. The well-traveled Wallery, who played collegiate ball at Albany State (Ga.), also did a stint with the Jacksonville Jam, a 2006-2007 ABA expansion team that folded shortly after announcing that it was joining the rival Premier Basketball League (PBL) for the 2008 season.
The Giants also signed Dwayne Foreman, a 5’10” guard from Apopka, Florida, who set an all-time school record of 588 assists at Georgia Southern University. They also acquired the services of 5’10” Sherod Harris, who hit on a blistering 44.2% of his 3-point shots while finishing fifth in the country at the charity stripe during his senior year at Div. III SUNY-Brockport State in 2007-2008 and later played semi-pro ball for the Elmira Bulldogs in the Eastern Basketball Alliance.
Joining the hot-shooting Harris in the backcourt will be Jacksonville’s own Dwane “The Rifle” Joshua, a 6’2” guard who also proved deadly from beyond the arc at North Carolina A&T.
Murray State’s Ed Horton, a 6’3” guard from Shreveport, Louisiana, who also played for Coach Waters and the Bluewaves, and Brandon B. Russ, a 6’8” forward who played at the University of the Cumberlands, have also apparently signed contracts to play for the Giants.
Rounding out the roster, Waters’ squad also includes 6’6” forward Brad Clark, who played college ball at Edward Waters College; John Youngston, Jr., a Raines product who played for Florida State College; Harold Griffin, a 6’7” forward who played for nationally-ranked Lee University, an NAIA powerhouse; Renaldo Norman, another Edward Waters alumnus who also played for the short-lived WBA Bluewaves; Alvin Jefferson, a 6’10” former Auburn player who once signed with the world-famous Harlem Globetrotters; and 24-year-old Matthew A. Fields, a Jacksonville native who played at Georgia Southern.
Skeptics Point to History of Failed Teams
Some people believe that professional hoops are destined for failure in Jacksonville, that the football-frenzied First Coast isn’t a bona fide basketball-friendly environment.
Times-Union sports columnist Gene Frenette is one of those skeptics, suggesting that investing heavily in a professional basketball team in Jacksonville “is roughly equivalent to buying a racehorse with an injured leg.” He might have a point.
Minor-league pro basketball teams in Jacksonville — ranging from the Hooters, Shooters and Barracudas from the now-defunct United States Basketball League (USBL) to the Jacksonville Jets of the Continental Basketball Association (CBA) and the Jacksonville Jam of the ABA — have generally lasted no more than a few years.
Some of them didn’t even survive an entire season, as was the case with the CBA’s Jacksonville Jets, a long-forgotten entity that abruptly moved to Biloxi, Mississippi, in early January 1987, about a month into the regular season after drawing an average of 216 fans per game.
Despite playing in a league even older than the NBA, one of their home games attracted only 48 paying customers.
Even the few teams that managed to live another day, surviving more than a single season, experienced more than their fair share of woes and difficulties in Jacksonville.
Despite twice finishing on top of the USBL’s regular season standings, the Hooters — renamed the Shooters in 1995 — had difficulty drawing crowds of more than 300 people during their five years in the league and were unceremoniously turned down when they asked for permission to play on FCCJ’s home court. School officials apparently weren't pleased with the “slang connotation” associated with the team’s nickname. Ironically, the team ended up playing its home games at a local church.
During the 1992 season, only four players showed up for a road game in New Jersey, forcing 43-year-old head coach Rex Morgan — the longtime coach at Arlington Country Day School — to don a jersey and play for his undermanned squad.
Despite competing with players nearly half his age, an exhausted and aging Morgan, who played two seasons with the Boston Celtics after he and Artis Gilmore led lowly-regarded Jacksonville University to its improbable NCAA national championship game against UCLA in 1970, scored a dozen points and grabbed 6 rebounds.
Not surprisingly, the Hooters, who went 7-19 that year while playing an accelerated brand of racehorse basketball that would probably shame Paul Westhead’s breathtakingly unconventional run-and-gun style at Loyola Marymount during its glory years, lost 154-137.
Coincidentally, Westhead, a Shakespeare enthusiast and literature professor who once led the LA Lakers to the NBA championship and whose teams have always played an entertaining, up-tempo style of basketball while setting an NBA record of 119.9 points per game with the Denver Nuggets in 1990-1991, coached the ABA’s Los Angeles Stars during their inaugural season in 2000-2001. He later performed a similar gig with the Long Beach Jam, a short-lived ABA squad that featured former NBA star Dennis Rodman.
Similarly, the Jacksonville Barracudas, who competed in the USBL’s Southern Division for three seasons between 1996-1998, also had difficulty filling the seats, despite playing at the University of North Florida Arena on Friday nights. A 17-8 record and qualifying for the league’s semi-finals in 1998 did little to attract anything remotely resembling a decent-sized following.
Even the presence of Roy Jones, Jr., a lightning-quick and gifted athlete who consistently drained high-arching, rainbow threes while playing four seasons of semi-professional basketball — three with the Barracudas — failed to sell tickets for the struggling Jacksonville franchise. Named “Fighter of the Decade” by the Boxing Writers Association of America in the 1990’s, the 27-year-old Jones, who firmly believed that he was NBA material, once played an afternoon game for the Barracudas and then defended his super middleweight title against Canadian Eric Lucas at the old Coliseum later that evening.
The short-lived Jacksonville Jam lasted only one season in the current ABA and, of course, the ill-fated Slam, the team’s successor in the PBL, never played a game.
Some are predicting a similar fate for the Jacksonville Giants. “One and done,” say some of the doubters. Launching a professional basketball team in Jacksonville is next-to-impossible, they say, especially given the city’s recession-ravaged economy.
The Ingredients for Success
But the league’s co-founder and CEO begs to differ with the cynics and naysayers and vigorously defends the new Jacksonville franchise. “Jacksonville is a major league city. The people there love basketball as much as fans in any other major metropolitan market,” said Newman, who co-founded the American Basketball Association in 1999 with Richard P. Tinkham, a former executive with the Indiana Pacers, one of the original ABA’s premier organizations.
Tinkham, who played for Indiana’s DePauw University in the early 1950s and was instrumental in the NBA-ABA merger in 1976, currently serves as the ABA’s general counsel.
Newman,73, a former advertising executive who once owned the ABA’s Indiana Legends, a team that played at Butler University’s storied Hinkle Fieldhouse — the sixth oldest college basketball arena in the country — during its inaugural season in 2000-2001, said that he’s confident the Jacksonville franchise will be a success because of the top-flight organization that Sholes and Waters have been able to put together.
“They have all the ingredients for success,” asserted Newman.
Charles Jay, a former boxing promoter heavily involved in sports promotion and marketing, agrees. “There’s sort of a wild west quality to the ABA, making it fun and exciting to watch,” he said. “The quasi-freelance nature of the league allows individual owners like Sholes to be as creative as they want.”
“A little imagination and creativity could spell the difference between success and failure,” explained Jay, a longtime sports handicapper based in South Florida. “There are plenty of creative things that can be done with an ABA franchise,” he said, adding that he could see “the possibility of owners making money” in the league, particularly in under-served markets such as Jacksonville, where they’re not competing with an existing NBA team.
“The fans will support them if they’re given an attractive and exciting product,” he said.
That’s precisely what Ron Sholes and the Giants hope to provide.