Is Isiah Thomas Crazy Like A Fox?

He sees opportunity in a cash-strapped basketball league

`There's an old saying about how to make a small fortune," quips Charley Rosen. "Start with a large fortune and buy a CBA team."

Rosen ought to know. He coached in the low-budget Continental Basketball Assn. from 1986-92 and has been watching it struggle ever since. One of the biggest surprises about the nine-team league, whose franchises play in basketball outbacks like Boise, Idaho, and Yakima, Wash., is that it's still around to be scoffed at. "TV deals don't exist. Merchandising is really minor. And they can't draw fans," says Rosen.

That's what made the news of Isiah Thomas's plans to buy the CBA so curious. Thomas, a former National Basketball Assn. star with the Detroit Pistons and until two years ago a 9% owner of the Toronto Raptors, has agreed to acquire the entire league for $10 million. In an era of escalating sports franchise values, that's chump change. But it remains unclear whether Thomas got a bargain or a tax loss.

TWO HURDLES. Thomas has a two-part plan for righting the struggling CBA: First, have the league control everything. Second, use his personal prestige as one of basketball's all-time greats to forge a closer relationship with the National Basketball Assn. "The ultimate dream," as Thomas calls it, is to position the CBA as an official minor league for the NBA, using as a model farm systems for Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League. If Thomas is able to put his plans into action, the league could be worth as much as double the purchase price, says John Mansell, a senior analyst at Kagan Media Appraisals Inc. "You've got to believe there's a lot of potential here, especially if they're able to move into larger markets," says Mansell.

For that to happen, Thomas needs the cooperation of two headstrong partners: the NBA and the National Basketball Players Assn. NBA Commissioner David Stern hasn't embraced the minor-league plan publicly, but he clearly approves of the CBA's new leadership. "We've told Isiah that we've supported the CBA in the past and as soon as his situation is clarified, we'll sit down and look for ways to continue to support it," says Stern. "Anything else at this point is premature." The players' union, which has opposed tighter alliances between the leagues in the past, figures to be an obstacle. Says Thomas, a former president of the union: "Every successful deal gets done because of timing, timing, timing. The timing is right for this kind of conversation."

Bonds between the CBA and the NBA already exist. Since the late 1970s, the CBA has operated as the official developmental league of the NBA. The NBA uses it to train refs, and NBA teams get to sign replacement players off its rosters. (Since 1978, the NBA has signed players from CBA rosters 514 times.) Last year, the cash-strapped CBA received nearly $2.5 million from the NBA.

Thomas envisions a minor league growing to include an affiliate for each NBA team. The Los Angeles Lakers, for example, would have a farm team learning its playbooks. "When a player is called up, he'd fit right into your system," says Thomas.

The players' union sees a darker side to such a deal. Union leaders fear that NBA teams would use the threat of banishment to minor-league affiliates as a way to more tightly control players. Thomas says that's how things work in baseball and hockey. The union also has a problem with any plan that might further restrict players from moving freely between teams.

Still, a newly constituted CBA might address a union concern: what to do about teenagers leaving school for the NBA. Union and NBA officials are discussing an age minimum of 20 for NBA players. That could set up the CBA as a training ground for 18- and 19-year-olds.

Certainly, the CBA is less daunting than the NBA. Teams play in cozy arenas and have nicknames like the Bobcats, Sun Kings, and Skyforce. Crowds are small--averaging 3,809 last year--but rabid. And there are few better places for long-range jump shooting and rim-bending dunks. "I see this as an unpolished jewel," Thomas says with a salesman's bravado. "A lot of small cities want quality entertainment but can't afford the high-priced tickets of professional sports." Indeed, the CBA is for the budget-conscious: Courtside seats for the Idaho Stampede sell for $13.50.

WANDERERS. Though it's been around for 53 years, the CBA has had meager media exposure--its last major TV deal was in 1994. And teams tend to wander. More than 60 clubs have folded in the past 20 years, and relocations are almost as common. One team once played the regular season in Florida, and after qualifying for the playoffs, moved to South Dakota. Players earn an average of $30,000, but owners have been known to slip stars an extra $500 under the table, in violation of the league's salary cap. "It's the Wild West of pro basketball," says former coach Rosen.

As the league's sole owner, Thomas plans to pare expenses and woo corporate marketers. That might seem like a tall order for a man who concentrated on pro basketball for 13 seasons. But since retiring in 1994, Thomas has been an NBC basketball commentator, and more important, a successful businessman. Two years ago, he sold his stake in the Raptors for $12 million. Now, Thomas, who grew up in poverty in inner-city Chicago, has a number of small-business interests, including a company that supplies disk jockeys for corporate parties and an E-commerce startup, "He tends to think very strategically," says Rick Inatome, chairman of Inacom Corp., a computer-services company based in Omaha and a mentor to Thomas in his business career.

Thomas got interested in the CBA earlier this year when league Commissioner Gary Hunter asked him whether he'd consider buying an expansion franchise in Detroit. Instead, Thomas set his sights on buying out the league's 40-odd investors. Ever since, he has been explaining to friends and reporters why he would want a league with a checkered past and an uncertain future. "That's the opportunity," Thomas replies. "That's the opportunity."

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