It was an hour before tip-off at the Vermont Frost Heaves' inaugural home game and a long line of fans snaked out the front doors of the Barre Municipal Auditorium. I've never been a serious sports fan, but I was surprisingly jazzed about seeing my first ABA basketball game in 30 years. I was 9 at my last one - in Long Island's Nassau Coliseum, where New York Nets star Julius "Dr. J" Erving was sporting his '70s Afro and knee-high tube socks and displaying his signature gravity-defying acrobatics.
Seeing the Frost Heaves in "the Aud," as the arena on Seminary Hill is known, promised to be a more up-close-and-personal experience. For one, the 1930s-era brick hall holds just 1856 people, most of whom sit in general-admission bleachers. As I made my way inside, it was obvious why this court was named one of the country's top-10 high school basketball venues. There isn't a lousy seat in the house.
Moreover, team owner and Sports Illustrated writer Alexander Wolff has fulfilled his promise to make Vermont's first-ever pro-basketball franchise a truly local enterprise. Two years ago, the Cornwall-based journalist and author of the book Big Game, Small World: A Basketball Adventure envisioned a team that wears its Green Mountain values on its sleeve: local ownership, local players, vendors with strong Vermont ties, a "green" environmental credo and a cooperative decision-making mechanism.
Case in point: Earlier this year, the team's online fan base, the Bump in the Road Club, chose its head coach - Will Voigt from Cabot High School. Wolff promises many more town-meeting-style "e-plebi- scites" to come.
Admittedly, when the team name was first announced, it generated a few snarky remarks around my office. "Frost Heaves?" someone snorted. "Sounds like something my kid gets after eating one too many Sno-Cones."
"And what's with the slogan, 'We're gonna be the bump in their road?'" another co-worker griped. "Do we really want to be the sports equivalent of a pothole?"
But among the more than 1200 fans in attendance, I didn't hear one grumble. Actually, it was hard to hear much of anything over the din of public announcements, the clanging cowbells and the rhythmic thumping of basketballs on hardwood.
While the Frost Heaves and their opponents, the Québec City Kebekwa, warmed up, about a dozen area kids were invited to shoot hoops with the home team. Meanwhile, "Bump," the Frost Heaves' moose mascot, made his rounds through the stands, performing the requisite cartoon-like antics.
The Frost Heaves came into Barre with a 1-1 record. The newly revamped American Basketball Association schedules only 36 games per season, 18 of which are played at home. Since the Frost Heaves are splitting their home games between Barre and Burlington's Memorial Auditorium, that leaves just nine opportunities for the Frost Heaves to sell central Vermonters on the team.
It won't take that long. As the announcer introduced the Kebekwa players, the crowd applauded politely. But they erupted as the first of the squad's three native Vermonters was introduced - number 11, Dana Martin, a 6-foot, 4-inch shooting guard from Stowe.
The same happened when they called Kerry Lyons, a 6-foot-6 forward from Milton. According to the team's website, Lyons works at Michael Kehoe men's clothing store on Church Street in Burlington. As I pondered a possible banner for him - "Lyons is gonna be the crease in their trousers!" - the announcer introduced Wolff, who trotted out to center court.
"Sometimes people call me the owner of this team. I am not the owner," Wolff told the crowd. "You all are the owners. You chose our coach, you bought these tickets, you are here standing on your feet to welcome the players, you were courteous to our visitors from north of the border. You made us proud to be Vermonters."
The crowd cheered as Wolff invited Governor Jim Douglas to toss up the ceremonial jump ball. Douglas jogged onto the court in running shoes, a dress shirt and pants hiked up high around his waist. He looked a bit out of his element - like a high school math teacher asked to substitute last-minute for the football coach. Diplomatically, the Kebekwa player let the Heaves win the jump.
The game started as the Kebekwa won the real tip-off, but the Frosties recovered quickly and struck with a pair of three-pointers less than a minute into the quarter. The Frost Heaves advanced an early lead, but Québec City responded with a resounding dunk. The crowd emitted a collective "oomph!" then clapped politely. It's not every day you see a slam dunk in this neck of the woods.
Seated beside me at courtside was a college ref who'll be officiating some of the upcoming games. Over the chirp of brand-new sneakers on the floor, he explained some of the different rules adopted by the ABA to make the game more fast-paced. Chief among them is the "3-D rule," which says that if an opposing player intercepts the ball before it crosses half court, his team can score an extra point on the next shot. Thus, a two-point shot becomes a three-pointer; a three-pointer behind the arc becomes a four-pointer.
During one attempted rebound, a Kebekwa player batted the red-white-and-blue ball off the rim. I expected a goaltending whistle, but it never came. My friend explained that there's no goaltending in the ABA. "That's a huge difference," he said. "It's a free game, baby!"
With 5:23 left in the first, the Heaves took a 20-6 lead, whereupon Québec City called a time out. As I headed across the court, a cop tapped me on the shoulder. Assuming I'd wandered someplace I wasn't supposed to be, I flashed my press badge, but he shook his head.
"Is B.J. number 24?" he asked, referring to the Frost Heaves' guard, B.J. Robertson, Burlington High School's all-time leading scorer who also played at St. Michael's College. Here's a guy who could have taken a CCTA bus to his entire career.
"Um, yeah," I blurted, reluctant to confess my ignorance of the roster.
With a few minutes left in the first, I made my way up to the rafter seats, where it was about 15 degrees warmer than courtside. Five pre-teens in Frost Heaves T-shirts were cheering the home team. They didn't seem to notice the heat.
At the start of the second, I retreated to the more temperate climate at court level. There, I asked Wolff how things were going. He sounded cautiously optimistic. "There have been a few behind-the-scenes hiccups," he said, "but we're doing it all with two full-time paid staff, and my wife and me . . . I'm just trying to make sure the trains run on time tonight."
Actually, I clarified, I was wondering what he thought of the game. "We're not even midway through the second quarter," he said, switching to sports chatter. "We've got a lot of basketball to play, and they've got a pretty deep bench."
Midway through the second, the Kebekwa showed a brief burst of momentum and closed the Heaves' lead to six. But with 4:46 left in the half, the Frosties were up 40-28. By now, even the Barre EMS workers were crowding the fire exits, trying to catch a glimpse of the action.
During a timeout, I met Dave Sears, the courtside announcer. He's got one of those baritone voices ideal for such expressions as, "Let's get ready to r-r-r-r-rumble!" Sears, a neighbor of Wolff's in Cornwall, revealed he's "on loan" from the Middlebury College hockey team, where he's been calling games for 17 years. The following Saturday night, he said, the Middlebury coach was letting him out early so he could announce the Heaves' inaugural game in Burlington.
Sears really seemed to be enjoying himself. "I've announced NCAA championship games, and this has that same level of excitement," he said. "Just seeing the look on Alex's face is great."
And, in keeping with the family nature of the team, Sears noted that his 17-year-old daughter, Megan, is the handler for the Frost Heaves' mascot.
"Handler?" I asked.
"To make sure 'Bump' doesn't bump into anything."
At the next time out, Sears informed the crowd that there are about 4700 moose in Vermont, with 100 to 200 killed on the highways each year. It was a subtle reminder to fans to drive carefully on their way home.
At halftime, the exits filled with people, as the players filed out the same doors as their fans. Sweaty players waited patiently behind knee-high boys. Among them was Antonio Burks, the 230-pound forward from Texarkana. At 6-foot-5, he towered over a tot in a Red Sox cap, who stared wide-eyed at the double-horseshoe-shaped brand on Burks' bicep.
Downstairs, there was a long line for food, where the vendors were all in street clothes. "The granola seems to be moving well, but the cider's a better seller," said one. I could only imagine how the helmet-haired commentators at Fox Sports or ESPN would riff about that. Also for sale were Vermont-raised sausage, chips and Ben & Jerry's ice cream - all at family-friendly prices.
By midway into the third, the Frost Heaves were on fire, hitting three-pointers and jumpers at will. I struck up a conversation with Meggan McCusker, 22, of Montpelier. She's the team's certified athletic trainer, who just graduated from Norwich University in May. "I got hired in August and started with these guys two days after I got married at the end of September," she said. "This is my life as it exists right now."
The crowd began thinning somewhat, as some of the younger fans grew restless and cranky. One sitting two rows behind me was 9 months old. Her mother, Samantha, is married to Issa Konare, the Frost Heaves' 6-8 forward from Senegal. He was dressed in street clothes and sitting on the bench. Samantha told me that Konare was a top shot-blocker nationally, the Big South defensive player of the year and a star on the Senegalese national team.
So why's he on the bench? I asked. She explained that he hadn't signed his contract as of game time.
"I don't doubt he'll be a starter," she boasted. "If you Google him, you'll see why."
With 1:58 left in the game, the Frost Heaves called a substitution. A new player took the court: Barre Mayor Tom Lauzon. Apparently, the ABA has lenient rules about who can suit up, part of its ongoing mission to keep the community involved. As the Heaves moved down the court, the mayor was thrown a pass, attempted a shot and got fouled. The crowd cheered as he went to the line. The pressure was on, but Lauzon missed both tries. Too bad - except for being vertically challenged, Lauzon actually looked pretty natural out there.
The game ended at 9:30 p.m. with a 117-87 Frost Heaves victory. The stands were littered with programs as families, fans and reporters mobbed the players. Several held their kids on their shoulders and smiled for the TV cameras.
With such a festive feel in the air, I reluctantly headed out into the Aud, half expecting to see the players cutting down the nets. Granted, this was no championship win. But for Wolff and many local basketball fans, it was definitely one for the history books.