VERMONT -- Professional basketball is hitting the court in the Green Mountain State for the first time ever, and if Vermonters rally behind the team, it will be unlike any in sports history.
The Vermont "Frost Heaves," as the team is called, is the newest franchise of the American Basketball Association, a 42-team professional league with teams from Buffalo to Beijing. The organization, which is still scouting for players and investors, is scheduled to tip off its inaugural season in November 2006. Although many details need to be finalized, the Frost Heaves are looking to play their home games in at least two different venues around the state, including the Barre Municipal Auditorium and Burlington's Memorial Auditorium.
Vermont's first pro-basketball team is the brainchild of sportswriter Alex Wolff, a 25-year veteran of Sports Illustrated. The Cornwall-based journalist also authored Big Game, Small World: A Basketball Adventure, about the game's global appeal. He envisions a Vermont franchise that reflects many of the state's core values: local ownership, cooperative decision-making, players and vendors with strong Vermont ties, and environmental sustainability.
For instance, Wolff wants fans to be integrally involved in management decisions via an Internet fan site called the "Bump in the Road Club," where they would vote by "e-plebiscite" on substantive team matters.
"To this point, sports on the Internet has essentially been fantasy sports," Wolff says. "This would be a little of the New England town meeting coming to cyberspace and meeting pro sports." There's good reason to believe Vermonters will warm to the Frost Heaves, especially considering the excitement generated by the UVM Catamounts' victory over the Syracuse Orangemen last season. Wolff says he also plans to write a series of columns for Sports Illustrated about the birth and growth of the team.
Wolff is also working with Middlebury College Professor John Isham to make the Frost Heaves the first "carbon neutral" professional team in sports history. Using a model borrowed from industry, players purchase renewable energy credits to offset the "emissions" the team produces when traveling to away games.
Such eco-friendliness would be easier to accomplish in the ABA, which clusters its play by region and keeps travel costs down. The Frost Heaves would face teams such as the Montreal Matrix, the Rochester Razor Sharks, and other new franchises slated for Providence, Ottawa and Quebec City. The ABA has a shorter season than the National Basketball Association -- it runs from November through March -- and the rules differ slightly, reflecting "the maverick spirit" of the old ABA.
Wolff is particularly excited about the prospect of "bringing the team to the people" by playing the Frost Heaves' 18 home games in historic downtown venues around Vermont, within walking distance of many fans' homes. Some details need to be worked out with Memorial Auditorium, but Wolff says the Barre Auditorium "is just begging for basketball more than the two weeks a year they get it for state tournaments. They're eager to work with us and we're eager to work with them."
Wolff is still looking for more financial backers to get the ball rolling. Once the Frost Heaves are established, however, he hopes to eventually sell shares of the team back to fans along the lines of the cooperative-ownership model used by the Green Bay Packers. Such local ownership and community involvement is vital to the team's success, he says.
As for talent, Wolff admits he was not unhappy to read recently that former UVM point guard T.J. Sorrentine's contract in Italy had been rescinded. "Part of me jumped for joy," he confesses. UVM star forward Taylor Coppenrath is playing pro b-ball for AEK Athens. Wolff waxes, "If we can get T.J. Sorrentine back in a Frost Heaves uniform and if Coppenrath were suddenly to tire of Greek food . . . we can put together one good team."