Minor league basketball, designed in the mold of the NBA, with a dash of AAA baseball thrown in for good measure.
To hardcore basketball fans, it is called the “D-League”. To the residents of Northeastern Oklahoma it is called the Tulsa 66ers, and if you ask David Kahn or Bob Boyd, it’s going to be big.
“I really think that the D-League itself is a national story although most folks have not grasped that,” Kahn said.
The D-League is the brainchild of NBA Commissioner David Stern and was launched with eight teams in the fall of 2001.
“The league is growing, it is already to 14 teams for next season, the NBA is more invested and more involved than ever,” said Kahn, president of Southwest Basketball LLC, an ownership group that controls the majority of four developmental league teams, including the 66ers. “Here you are seeing the incubation of minor league basketball under the National Basketball Association umbrella for the first time in history.”
In 2005, Stern announced a plan to expand the league to 15 teams and develop it into a true minor league farm system, with two NBA teams sharing each D-League team.
“The growth is astronomical in every way. There will be two more teams added this month. There is a lot going on right now,” Kahn said. “We will grow this to 30 teams.”
“The public takes it for granted the way that major and minor league baseball co-exist,” he said, “but we are literally in the third month of the second year of minor league basketball.”
“That is not an insignificant thing.”
Blame it on Stern
David Kahn’s involvement with the league dates back three years, to a time when he was attempting to step away from professional basketball.
“I had just finished the year as the assistant to the president and I had pulled back into a consigliore role with the Pacers,” he said, “and on two separate occasions, while meeting with Stern in his New York office, he steered the conversation toward the minor league basketball idea.”
“At the time, he wasn’t talking about four teams, Kahn said, “but with help developing the league.”
Although the idea seemed appealing, Kahn said, it was his belief in Stern that ultimately convinced him that the aggressive minor league expansion plan was feasible.
“The first time I listened I thought it was an interesting idea,” he said. “The second time, my interest piqued.”
“That also gave me the confidence because when David Stern is involved in something, he is all the way involved, with all his energy and emotion.”
“He really wanted to make this work and I knew he would provide us with what we needed,” Kahn said. “It all made so much sense.”
Southwest Basketball and a local group that includes Tom Kivisto, Paula Marshall, Mitchell and Amber Garrett, Melvin Gilliam, Todd White, Adam Adwon, Robert Watson, Jon Kantor, Mark Bonney, Scott Dickman, Bob Boyd, Jono Helmerich and Mitch Adwon, now in their third year of basketball, jointly own the 66ers.
Prior to the 2005-2006 season, the 66er franchise called Asheville, N.C., home. Upon the move to Tulsa, the Asheville “Altitude” sold to Southwest Basketball, who retains 80 percent ownership in the club, however, day-to-day control of the team is deferred to local management and ownership.
Southwest Basketball also owns the majority of the Austin Toros, Albuquerque Thunderbirds and Fort Worth Flyers.
Minority owner Bob Boyd said Kahn’s leadership and vision, and involved local ownership is a good mix for the 66er franchise, although Boyd claims, “David has a tendency to downplay his role in this whole thing.”
“As local owners, we are going to make sure that we stay in touch with people from the community,” Boyd said.
Both Boyd and Kahn said selling minor league basketball to Tulsa has been a challenge and that the D-League has had to fight off unsavory reputations garnered by previous, unsuccessful attempts to form viable small market based basketball leagues.
“There was, at one time, a CBA (Continental Basketball Association) team here in Tulsa that played in the same building we play in now (Tulsa Expo Square Pavillion), Boyd said. “For some reason, the franchise decided to move to the downtown Convention Center and to charge people to park.”
“Next thing you know, attendance falls off to nothing.”
After winning the 1989 CBA championship, the Tulsa “Fast Breakers” left Green Country for Fargo, N.D. in 1992. The team later moved to Mexico City and folded in 1996.
“It’s been a challenge to introduce the product because of the newness of it,” said Kahn. “Some people in Tulsa have attended CBA games and may have a pre-conceived notion as to what we are all about. Or maybe they haven’t been to the Pavilion, and remember it for what it was, and not what it is now.”
They also agree that much of the responsibility to market the 66ers falls on the team’s local representation.
“The marketing of the franchise requires that the owners take an active role, and ours have,” Kahn said. “Most of the selling of the team takes place on a one-on-one basis, or in a small group setting.”
“Until you see the product, its hard to communicate how good the product is.”
“We agree that the 66ers should show up everywhere we go,” said Boyd. “Everywhere we go we are going to make sure there are pocket schedules or posters.”
Boyd also believes that the team’s freshly minted president, businessman Jono Helmerich will help the franchise achieve local notoriety and remain successful in the challenging Tulsa sports market.
“One of the things we wanted to do, and Jono agrees, is make sure the local media is more up-to-date on the 66ers,” Boyd said. “It is one thing to come in and say ‘this is a great story.’ Its another to make sure we stay in the news.”
Helmerich formally assumed the position on March 1, replacing Joe Berry, who left the franchise after 22 months of service.
Berry believes the team will continue to prosper in his absence.
“I truly believe that this is one of the best groups in the D-League,” he said. “It’s going to make this transition a lot easier. Right now, we are on automatic pilot.”
The feeling is mutual, according to Boyd, “We could have never navigated through this early water if it had not been for Joe,” he said.
Kahn sees a promising future for the 66ers and believes that the team’s home games will continue to be played in the Expo Square Pavilion, despite the temptation to move down town.
“Personally, I have been pleased with the progress of the franchise,” he said, “but I wont be completely happy until there are 2,500 people at every game, but I have never felt more confident that we will get there.”
“There is no question that a new arena can radically transform a franchise, Kahn said. “But in our case, we are not sure yet as far as the BOk Center goes. For one thing, the building we are in is perfect, in everyway. The perfect size, its beautiful, its perfect.”
Boyd agrees, but admits that the industry demands on the 66er franchise will not allow the team to completely rule out an eventual downtown move.
“An 18,000-seat arena is a big arena. And atmosphere makes a difference.”
“On the business side of things, we must make sure that our deal with the Pavilion is a good business deal for us,” he said. “When you think about the business of minor league sports, it is more than just selling tickets. It is concessions, merchandising, there are a lot of aspects to the industry.” ?