It seemed like an innocuous comment in 1996 – Isiah Thomas, then the Director of Operations for the Toronto Raptors, commented that the CBA should expand so that each NBA team would have one CBA club under its tutelage, in an arrangement similar to both professional baseball and pro hockey. It would make sense, for example, for future Chicago Bulls to learn the pro game as members of the Rockford Lightning; or the LaCrosse Bobcats sending their top stars to Milwaukee.
But in 1996, the CBA was no longer a 17-team coast-to-coast pro basketball league. Overexpansion and poor marketing forced the CBA to downsize, at one point operating with as few as nine teams. The CBA still received a yearly grant from the NBA to be the NBA’s “official developmental league,” and referees were trained in CBA games for future NBA usage. The CBA planned on adding two new franchises for the 1998-99 season – one in Trenton, one in Lake Charles, Louisiana – but the two franchises eventually joined another league, the International Basketball League (IBL), who played basketball under international rules.
Still, by 1999, the CBA was 54 years old, and showed no signs of slowing down. By that time, Isiah Thomas was out of the Raptors organization, and was employed as an NBA analyst for NBC. Thomas initially looked into the possibility of joining an ownership group for a CBA franchise in Gary, Indiana – but eventually came up with another idea.
That idea was to purchase the entire Continental Basketball Association, including all the teams, and the marketing company CBA Properties, and operate the league as a single-owner entity. On August 3, 1999, Thomas bought the league for $10 million, and announced that the league will now operate as a single-owner entity, and that the CBA will continue to be the official developmental league of the NBA.
Thomas announced there would be some rule changes and modifications to the CBA under his ownership – players would wear “business casual” clothing – collared shirts and slacks – when traveling with the team. Double-teaming a player would be illegal except in the final five minutes of regulation. Thomas even abandoned the CBA’s quarter-point playoff scoring system, in favor of the more traditional “teams with the most wins make the playoffs” format. The All-Star Classic was revived after a three-year hiatus, with an additional Rookie Game played as a bonus.
On October 7, 1999, the sale of the CBA to Isiah Thomas was finalized. Thomas paid $5 million up front for the league, and agreed to make four payment installments to the CBA’s former team owners for the balance of the debt.
Thomas envisioned the league as a feeder system to the NBA, but he wanted his teams stocked with more rookies and younger players. So on October 24, 1999, Thomas announced salary cuts in the CBA. The average salary of $1,500 per week will be reduced to $1,100 per week; with rookies getting $800 a week. By reducing the number of veterans in the league, Thomas believed there would be more young talent available for NBA teams.
By March 2000, Isiah Thomas contacted the NBA to see if the league was interested in purchasing the CBA. The NBA offered Thomas $11 million and a percentage of the profits for the CBA – a $2 million profit from Thomas’ initial purchase. “The NBA made an offer that wasn’t what Isiah expected,” said Brendan Suhr, a former coach and co-owner of the CBA’s Grand Rapids Hoops, “so he decided not to sell the league at that time.”
Meanwhile, during the CBA offseason, several members of a CBA All-Star squad travel to China for a three-game series. Several other players participate in a series of games against Division I college talent.
On June 28, 2000, Isiah Thomas received his own offer – to coach the NBA’s Indiana Pacers. A coach in one league owning a team in another league was a conflict of interest – and a coach owning an entire league was even more of a conflict (for example, Thomas could mine the CBA for the best talent for the Pacers, or try to block any call-ups that would benefit other NBA teams that might face the Pacers in the postseason). The NBA gave Thomas a choice – sell the CBA and accept the Pacers’ coaching position, or forget the Pacers altogether and run the CBA. Thomas at first tried to sell the CBA to the NBA Players’ Union, who passed on the offer.
Then came an added blow to the CBA. In the summer of 2000, after more than twenty years of using the CBA as its developmental league, the NBA announced it would form its own minor league feeder system, creating the National Basketball Development League (today known as the NBA Developmental League, but more commonly referred to as the “D-League”). Because of this, the NBA’s 20-year “official developmental league” relationship with the CBA Would end after the 2001 season.
On October 2, 2000, Isiah Thomas, unable to sell his ownership in the CBA, placed the league into a blind trust, and accepted the Pacers head coaching position. With the league in a blind trust, suddenly there was no money to pay for travel, food, salaries, incidentals – anything. Franchises were borrowing from the few teams that had money – a running joke at this point was that teams were borrowing from the “First National Bank of Sioux Falls,” otherwise known as the SkyForce, just to make payroll or handle day-to-day operations. Meanwhile, on October 13, 2000, Thomas was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. as a player.
February 8, 2001 is a date that will live in infamy. For on this day, the Continental Basketball Association suspended operations. The blind trust that was to find a new owner for the league gave up. The league incurred over $2 million in debts. Teams are offered back to their original owners. Several of the owners refuse to take them back, not wishing to pay for debts that were incurred during the Isiah Thomas ownership period. This meant that franchises like the Quad City Thunder and Fort Wayne Fury simply disappeared from the basketball landscape.
“”My love of the game drove my decision to purchase the CBA,” Thomas told the Associated Press. “I wanted to give others the chance to pursue their dreams of playing in the NBA. It is the decision of the blind trust for the CBA to revert to local ownership. Though disappointing to me personally, the decision allows basketball to continue in the cities that have supported the CBA for many years. This will be good for the players and the communities.”
On February 24, 2001, 18 months after Thomas purchased the CBA, the league declared bankruptcy. Five of the former CBA team owners – the Sioux Falls SkyForce, the Gary Steelheads, the Rockford Lightning, the Grand Rapids Hoops and the Connecticut Pride – did repurchase their franchises, and joined the rival International Basketball League (IBL) to finish out the season.
The IBL folded in the summer of 2001, but four of the CBA teams refused to go quietly into that dark night. In November 2001, four CBA teams – Gary, Rockford, Grand Rapids and Sioux Falls – merged with another basketball organization, the International Basketball Association (IBA), with franchises in Bismarck (Dakota Wizards), Fargo (Fargo-Moorhead Beez) and Saskatoon (Saskatchewan Hawks), with the Flint (Mich.) Fuze joining as an expansion team. Thus began the 56th season of the Continental Basketball Association.
And as for Isiah Thomas, in 2003 he became the president of the New York Knicks. Two years later, he reached back into the CBA, offering Great Lakes Storm players Jackie Butler and Jermaine Jackson 10-day contracts to play for the Knicks. And the saga continues…