ABA basketball returns to Anchorage

Anchorage Daily NewsDecember 3, 2011 

Never mind what the scoreboard said. The Alaska Quake brought semi-pro basketball back to Anchorage on Saturday afternoon, and that alone was reason for the team to feel triumphant.

Three years after the last effort to bring American Basketball Association basketball to town failed when the visiting team failed to show up for opening night at Sullivan Arena, a new team with new, and more modest, ambitions played the Seattle Mountaineers in front of a crowd of about 350 at Begich Middle School.

The Quake lost 107-95 in a gym small enough that a couple hundred people make the stands feel packed. Afterward, Carl Arts -- the former All-American for UAA who was a member of the Alaska Dream team that never got off the starting blocks -- declared the opener a success.

"It actually felt like a home crowd," said Arts, who scored a game-high 32 points. "I was sitting here with six minutes to go before the game and I turned to one of my teammates and said, 'We're making history right now.' They haven't had a pro game in Anchorage since the Northern Knights in, what, the 80s?"

Arts knows his history. The late, great Anchorage Northern Knights of the old Continental Basketball Association last played here in 1982, and for nearly three decades since, the city has had quality NCAA Division II basketball thanks to UAA, but nothing beyond the college level.

Quake owners Shana Harris and Carol Taylor, who are operating the team as a non-profit, worried that their efforts might not be taken seriously because of the Dream debacle. They were thrilled to see fans in the stands and two teams on the court Saturday.

"Don't you think that's awesome?" Harris said. "You have to put the product on the floor."

The Quake got to where the Dream never did -- an actual game, with a second tipping off tonight at 7 at Begich -- by not letting their dream get too big too fast.

They'll play only 12 games this season, all of them at Begich, which costs significantly less to rent than Sullivan Arena, where the Dream intended to play.

No one is getting paid, not the players, not the coaches, not Harris or Taylor. That will change if the team survives long enough to pull in revenue, but for now, everyone's a volunteer.

"They've minimized our risks," Arts said. "We're not traveling, they're not paying players. When they first told us we were playing in a middle school we were a little skeptical, but doing it small is probably a good thing.

"A lot of first-year teams in the ABA crumble because they do it too big. (Shana and Carol) are handling it right."

Tickets are $10, less than what the Dream charged, and kids under 10 get in free. Saturday's game drew a number of families.

"Look at all these young kids watching," said longtime Anchorage resident Dennis Wilson, whose three sons played at East High including one, also named Dennis Wilson, who plays for the Quake.

"And look at the turnout. I'm shocked."

The game had its share of first-time flaws -- some of the lights went on and off, making an already dimly lit gym even dimmer, and the announcements didn't always come across clearly on the sound system.

But the game itself came off without a hitch, which is saying something for a league that doesn't have a recent history of stability.

Teams come and go and games sometimes get cancelled with little warning in the ABA, but the Quake hope to ensure all of their games are played by providing airline tickets and accommodations for visiting teams.

This isn't the ABA that was a viable competitor to the NBA in the mid-1960s to mid-1970s. That league helped reinvent the game by popularizing the 3-pointer, which the NBA didn't adopt until later, and by putting free-wheeling, wide-open offenses on the court that made stars out of players like Julius Erving, Connie Hawkins and George Gervin. And it used a red, white and blue basketball.

The modern ABA still uses a red, white and blue basketball, and it still does things you won't see in the NBA or college game.

Case in point: The truly awesome 3D rule and the red light at the scorer's that flashes when it is in play.

Created in order to reward defense, the 3D rule is enforced when the team with the ball loses possession while still in the backcourt. When that happens, the red light comes on and the team that gained possession, whether it had a hand in forcing the turnover or not, gets three points for every regular field goal scored and four points for every 3-pointer scored. And so there is the prospect of a five-point play during 3D time -- draw a foul while burying a 3-pointer (worth four points) and sink the ensuing free throw.

A team can catch up in a hurry because of the rule, as the Quake demonstrated late in the game.

Alaska trailed 99-79 with about four minutes to go when Buddy Bailey drained a 3-pointer. The Quake pressed the in-bounds and forced a turnover that led to 3D time and a Jamelle Juneau layup worth three points. Seattle answered with a single free throw and grabbed the rebound after a Quake miss, but Juneau's backcourt steal set off the flashing red light again and Arts buried a deep 3-pointer worth four points.

In less than two minutes, the Quake trimmed a 20-point deficit to 11 points, 100-89. Seattle's next possession was fruitless and Arts hit a short jumper -- sadly for the Quake, 3D time was over -- and it was 100-91 with 2 1/2 minutes to go.

That was as close as the Quake came in the final minutes. Seattle scored the next six points, prompting many of the fans to leave with a minute left on the clock.

Many of them had to walk along the baseline of Seattle's basket, where a smiling Harris stood against a wall.

"Thank you, guys," she said as people filed past her. "Thanks for coming."

Reach Beth Bragg at bbragg@adn.com or 257-4335.

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