A Diploma in Diamonds and Dirilium

I remember the day in 1981.  A beautiful, sun-scorched June day on the campus of the Doane Stuart School, which offered its facilities for the graduates of the Street Academy of Albany on this very day.  My high school diploma, my “first” diploma.  I accepted it proudly.  Along with the diploma came a high school ring, which I still treasure today.

I remember the day in 1985.  A crisp May afternoon inside the Margaret Bundy Scott Fieldhouse on the campus of Hamilton College.  My bachelor of arts diploma, essentially my “second diploma.”  I accepted it proudly.  Along with the diploma came a carved wooden cane – I lost the original cane, but I still have its replacement in my possession.  I returned the sheepskin to the college in 2013, but I still have the cane.

Yesterday I received my third diploma.  I received it in front of thousands of people, received it from my teachers and from my advisors and from my peers.  I received it in a hallowed building known as the WFCU Centre, in a teeming metropolis just across the international border from Detroit.  It’s a diploma covered in synthetic diamonds; the diploma is crafted of an alloy metal, and this diploma’s very existence symbolizes ten years of education for me.

Background.  It’s a long journey to this background, so get yourself a cup of coffee before reading this short little blog.

Ten years ago came the big announcement that the Albany Patroons, after leaving the area in 1993, were returning both to the Continental Basketball Association, to the Capital District, and to the Washington Avenue Armory.  I was excited, I was pumped, I wanted to see the gold and kelly green take the court once more.  Ah, the days of Phil Jackson and Derrick Rowland, George Karl and Mario Elie, memories, memories…

At the time, all I wanted were courtside season tickets and a chance to cheer on my hometown hoops team.  The original 2005-06 squad was a hodgepodge of solid shooters like point guard T.J. Thompson, small forward and dunk expert Jamario Moon, and power center and Schenectady native James Thomas.  Unfortunately, the team was also packed with dead weight like he-must-be-local-so-he-must-be-good Devonnaire Deas, slower-than-concrete Jeremy McNeill, and if-you-sneezed-on-him-he-might-fall-over center Terry Sellers.

At the time, I had my Nikon D70 camera – my first digital SLR – and its halfway-decent kit lens.  The kit lens couldn’t open wider than f/3.5; the D70 couldn’t crank up the ISO higher than 1600.  Most of my initial shots were blurry, as I just couldn’t capture motion properly.

Jamario Moon of the Albany Patroons with a monster dunk
Jamario Moon of the Albany Patroons with a monster dunk. Nikon D70 camera, Nikkor kit lens. Photo by Chuck Miller.

Eventually I posted a few photos on my MySpace page – yes, at one time I had a MySpace page – and next thing I know, my photos are appearing – uncredited – on the Patroons’ website.  The Pats’ web designer, some kid they hired from the nearby town of Kamloops, British Columbia, saw my pictures, and since nobody else was posting Patroons pictures, and nobody was sending him Patroons pictures for the website, he simply appropriated them.  Nice guy. </sarcasm>

I guess since nobody else wanted the job, I became the Patroons’ official photographer.  I took the team’s head shots, I took action shots, and eventually I updated the Pats’ photo section on the website.  Of course, I had to at least upgrade my gear; that meant adding additional glass like the 85mm f/1.8 and 80-200mm f/2.8 telephoto lenses.

I photographed.  I learned.  I watched other photographers and where they set up and what they did during the game.  And over time, my photography skills improved.  Bit by bit.  Step by step.

It’s now March of 2006.  I discover an online message board dedicated to minor league sports, a site called OurSportsCentral.  The message boards at OSC are filled with basketball fans who want to enjoy top minor league basketball, but have to suffer through watching fly-by-night squads in rinky-dink leagues that come and go with the stability of a three-card monte parlor.

I participate in these message boards.  I learn.  I understand.  I gather.  I study.  And I learned that the American Basketball Association – a ragtag collection of dozens of independent hoops squads – would hold a championship tournament in Rochester.  I immediately worked up some press credentials for a couple of online hoops websites – MinorLeagueNews.com and ProBasketballNews.com.

Both organizations promised to pay me for my work.  I spent three days photographing the tournament, interviewing the players and the coaches, and making contacts whenever necessary.

Neither ProBasketallNews.com nor MinorLeagueNews.com ever paid me for my work.  I learned an important lesson.  MAKE SURE YOU GET PAID, AND NOT IN PROMISES.  Today, I take some solace knowing that MinorLeagueNews.com eventually shut down in 2009; ProBasketballNews.com hasn’t updated their website since December 2012.  And yet I continued on.  Schadenfreude.

It’s 2008.  A new professional basketball league tips up for the first time, a ten-team circuit called the Premier Basketball League.  The league would grow and shrink over the years, but for four seasons I would take pictures for the league and work on its media guides.

One of the issues with the PBL was that it was defining itself as a viable professional basketball alternative to the morass of minor league hoops circuits.  The CBA was dying, the summer-only United States Basketball League was withering, the ABA was festering like a lanced boil in a heatwave, and various fans and front-office people in those leagues were airing their dirty laundries on the Our Sports Central message boards.

One person, who claimed to be a successful team owner, used several OSC accounts and sock-puppets to harass and denigrate others.  I had to put up with his baiting vitriol on a regular basis.  The owner of the message board, fed up with the harassment and crapola this clown perpetuated, eventually turned on a feature that let users see each poster’s IP addresses, and suddenly the abusive person (and two of his sycophant sockpuppets) were revealed as having the same IP address.  Bus-ted!

Another person operated under the nickname “A1Sports,” and claimed to have inside knowledge of secret league meetings, and he would post such information on the OSC boards.  Some message boarders made it a personal goal to “out” this leak.  Their efforts were as futile as Captain Ahab trying to hunt Moby-Dick with a lawn dart.  Eventually A1Sports messed up; he revealed information that only he and a couple of other PBL front office people knew.  His identity was revealed.  He hasn’t posted on OSC since that day.

This wasn’t the way a professional sports league should operate.  But I wasn’t going to play message-board games, and I had no time to operate as a message-board Sherlock Holmes.  If there were any issues at all within a league’s front office, they were to be kept off the boards and dealt with internally.  I’d rather have a discussion about which team has the best power forward than which team’s coach is whining about unfair officiating on a chat room board.

Another lesson learned.

It’s now the start of the 2008-2009 season.  I’ve worked with the Patroons for three seasons.  There’s a new head of operations with the team.   They want me to provide my pictures to the team for free, including the copyrights to the photos.  No.  I don’t give up my copyrights to ANYBODY.  Pay me and you can license the photos.  That’s the way it works.

We discuss other matters.  They hire someone else as team photographer.  No skin off my nose.  I’m still a Patroons fan, and that doesn’t change.

The CBA at that time barely had five teams – and one of the teams, the Pittsburgh Xplosion, folded just before the start of the 2008-09 season.  That wouldn’t have been a season; it was more like a tournament.  Just to get a full-fledged season together, the CBA is forced to play an interleague series with the American Basketball Association, just so that there are enough home games for CBA teams.

I’m still working with the PBL at that time, but that didn’t stop me from attending Patroons games.  It’s opening night, and the Pats are playing some ABA scrub team that barely had five players and clean uniforms.  Oh wait, the term “scrub team” describes nearly every ABA squad.  I show up at the game, I say hello to the Patroons whom I’ve known and photographed and talked with over the years.  My camera is in my carry bag, I figured I’d get a few shots for myself during the game.

Before the game started, I went to one of the snack areas to order a hot dog.  In the background, I hear one of the security officers in conversation with the new head of operations.  They can’t see me – I’m on the other side of the bleachers – but I hear the conversation, loud and clear.

“I saw Chuck Miller here.”

“Does he have a ticket?  I don’t want him in the building if he doesn’t have a ticket.   Go up to him and make him show you his ticket.”

“Okay.”

“Actually, don’t even make him show you his ticket.  Just tell him he’s not welcome in the building.  Now that he works for that other league.  And I don’t want him taking any pictures of our team.  If he gives you any trouble, take the camera away from him and smash it on the ground, right in front of him.”

“Okay.”

That was chilling.  As far as I was concerned, I was a marked man.  I didn’t need this hassle.  I took one more bite of the hot dog, tossed the remaining dog and bun in the trash, and left the Armory.  I felt hurt and rejected, I felt used and manipulated.

The CBA finished the 2008-09 season on an abbreviated note; they played a best-of-three series in mid-February to wrap up the year.  I was on the road for Game 3; for some reason, photographing a PBL game in Manchester, New Hampshire was more satisfying than watching the Pats play a hastily-crafted finals series.  The Pats lost the game – and the series – and the CBA folded shortly thereafter.

And in April 2009, I snagged what I considered a “Holy Grail” of basketball photography, considering the event happens so rarely.  During the Premier Basketball League finals between the Rochester RazorSharks and the Battle Creek (Mich.) Knights, Rochester’s Sammy Monroe went up for a reverse two-hand jam.

Basketball Backboard BLAM!!
Sammy Monroe destroys backboard. Nikon D70 camera, Nikkor 80-200 f/2.8 telephoto lens. Photo by Chuck Miller.

And in doing so, he hung onto the rim just a little too long.

And yep – the basketball backboard exploded.

And if it was the last shot my Nikon D70 ever captured, then it was worth it.

Another lesson learned.  Sometimes there’s a harsh reality when ownership groups operate their own fiefdoms.  There are no friendships.  It’s just business, and if they tell you they want you to be part of the team, you have to operate under the understanding that friendships cost money and volunteering is for people who are blinded by promises.  In that case, you just have to roll with the punches and move on.

And if you move on at just the right time, if you get that photo at just the right instance…

While the team was cleaning up all the debris – they had to do it quickly, not only was this the championship finals, but the Rochester Americans hockey team had a game that night and it takes a while to remove the floor panels to reveal the ice below – I picked up a couple of chunks of the broken tempered glass.  That glass – along with the “before” and “after” pictures of Sammy Monroe’s thunderous dunk – are in a small shadow box at my apartment.  Nice little trophy, I must say.

It’s January 2010.  I’m in my third season with the Premier Basketball League.  I’m still taking pictures and preparing the weekly press releases.  But in the first week of the season, there’s a problem.

The statistics aren’t getting properly compiled.  Teams are getting upset with the statistics software – a kludgy program called CREZ, that couldn’t count past ten without taking off its computerized shoes and socks – and, while I’m on the road from Quebec City to Manchester, New Hampshire – and, may I say, driving through a nasty blizzard – I received a phone call from the PBL’s Director of League Ops, Carrie Ann May.  “Chuck,” she asked me, “We have a problem.”

“No kidding,” I replied.  “Who’s doing the stats?”

“Well, the stat person who is supposed to be doing this is down in Puerto Rico with his girlfriend.”

Great.  We had a team in Puerto Rico that year, and he’s enjoying fun and sun, and I’m trying to avoid sliding off an icy road.

“So he needs to go find a computer and fix this.”

“Well, is it possible that you could do the stats for us?”

I remembered my dealings with the Patroons.  There was only one way I would do this.

“I need more money.  This is an additional job.  Is the league willing to pay me what it’s worth to do this?  If so, I’ll devote my time and energy to this project.”

I received confirmation that a check would be on its way to me.  Sure enough, in a couple of days a check arrived from Chicago.

Within a few days, I’m introduced to the head of stat development for the CREZ software program, and I familiarize myself with the software.  It’s definitely a handful to operate.  Some teams barely understand it.  Others just band-aid their way through it.  I have to think fast when the program sours.  The team stat person might call me and say, “Chuck, the stat program isn’t working.  Help!”  And in the distance, I can hear someone singing, “And the rockets’ red glare…”  Which means I have to figure out a solution in 25 seconds or less.

Trust me.  Most times I have the solution figured out with ten seconds to spare.

One year later, the PBL moves to a more reliable statistics program – DakStats, the same trouble-free program used by the CBA for many years – and everyone is happy.

Another lesson learned.  Take the opportunity and learn something.  Step out of your comfort zone, so long as you can still at least see the shore before you dive into the water.

John Strickland backs up Chris Alexander
John Strickland backs up Chris Alexander. Nikon D70 camera. Photo by Chuck Miller.

Strick.  If I learned anything in minor league hoops, it was that John Strickland appreciated basketball as both a sport and as a game.  He was the Franchise, the big clown whose uniforms were either three sizes too tight or were baggy enough to be stitched by Omar the Tentmaker.  He was a good man and a good player.  And he imparted one piece of wisdom upon me.

“Finish your breakfast.”

No, he wasn’t talking about the four basic food groups and eggs and toast and cereal.  He meant that if you do the small things that you’re expected to do, you can handle the big challenges.  That’s what “Finish your breakfast” meant.  It meant enough to Jay-Z that he used it in a lyric.

I remember Strick energizing the Patroons in the 2006-07 season, and I remember him faking out Pats head coach Vince Askew when Strick suited up for the Minot SkyRockets.  I remember when Strick went up for a layup, with his landings shaking the building.  And I remember his free throw shooting was scarier than a Saw marathon.

Strick showed me that the sport of basketball doesn’t always have to be a job.  It can be fun.  You can have fun in this sport.

I miss Strick.  I wish he was here right now.  He’d be the first person I’d thank.  God bless you, Franchise.

2010 IBL Basketball Championship game
Derrick Rowland wins 2010 IBL basketball championship, his first trophy as a head coach. Photo by Chuck Miller.

It’s July of 2010.  A new basketball team has set up operations at the Armory, the Albany Legends of the International Basketball League.  I was invited by the owner of the Legends’ opponent, the Bellingham (Wash.) Slam, to photograph the championship game.  I chronicled the experience in my blog.

One story I didn’t mention was that I ran into the former head of operations for the Patroons at the event.  He came up to me and said, “Welcome back.”

“Thanks,” I replied.

“Yeah, you really should thank me, I let you in the building to photograph this game.  I didn’t have to, you know.”

I walked away.  Even to the end, he was still operating under the assumption that he was the one who controlled things.  Lesson learned.  Do your job.  Don’t let others act like they’re big shots.  They owe you nothing.

It’s the spring of 2011.  The PBL is going through a very tumultuous playoff run.  The Rochester RazorSharks have advanced to the finals, dispatching the Quebec Kebs in one of the most lopsidedly officiated games ever.  They would face the Lawton-Fort Sill Cavalry, coached by Micheal Ray Richardson, in the PBL finals.

I was supposed to be at those finals, but there was trouble with the plane and with the flight and with weather, so I never got to Oklahoma.  So I returned home.

The finals.  The game was completely lopsided in terms of officiating and fouls.  It got so bad in the arena, that the Lawton-Fort Sill Cavalry announcer, Chris Needham, stopped calling the play-by-play and started a running commentary about how this game was a travesty, the worst he had ever seen.  If a Lawton-Fort Sill player even looked cross-eyed at a Rochester player, the whistle blew and the foul was called.  Meanwhile, the RazorSharks were charging almost to the level of mugging, and they received all the whistles in their favor.

I took care of the stats from home, and went to bed.  Season over.

At about 2:00 in the morning… phone rang.  I looked at the caller ID.  Micheal Ray Richardson, head coach of the Lawton-Fort Sill Cavalry.

“Hello?”

At that moment, Micheal Ray Richardson belted out curses and vulgarities and expletives and conspiracy theories and suggested that so-and-so in the PBL front office was doing such-and-such with so-and-so under the covers and on their knees and whatnot.

I let him vent.  Mostly because I was half-asleep, I just didn’t feel like antagonizing him.

The phone call ended.  And at the last moment, before I completely drifted off to sleep… I thought to myself… “Man, I hope Micheal Ray Richardson never turns his anger on me.”

It’s 2011.  Three teams from the PBL – the Saint John (N.B.) Mill Rats, the Halifax (N.S.) Rainmen, and the Kebs de Quebec, form their own pro basketball circuit.  The league, known as the National Basketball League of Canada, would eventually add four more franchises for its maiden season.

And I receive a call from Andre Levingston, the owner of the Halifax Rainmen.  “Chuck,” he said, “We want to hire you to take care of our stats and reports.”

“That’s great,” I replied.  “Thank you, I’d be happy to.  But you know that I’m still working for the PBL, right?”

“Yeah, we know.  But we still want you to join our team.”

“I’ll join the NBL, on one condition.  Let me at least finish the year with the PBL, so that I don’t leave that league in a lurch prior to their season beginning.  I can promise to work with both leagues at the same time, without swapping secrets or dishing dirt to either.  And once the PBL season ends, I’ll be an NBL employee exclusively.  If we can agree to that, then that’s good for me.”

“That’s good for us, too,” Andre replied.

And for the 2011-12 season, I handled the stats for nineteen different teams in two different leagues.  It was an adventure, to say the least.  The NBL Canada worked with the basketball rules as set up by the international governing body known as FIBA.  The PBL worked with a modified version of the NBA’s rules.  And every Sunday, without fail, two different “Weekly Reports” were produced, one for the NBL Canada and one for the PBL.

The PBL’s season ended in mid-April 2012.  I spent five years with the PBL, and now it was time to focus on a new journey.  Leave on good terms.  Don’t burn your bridges behind you.

Prior to the 2012-13 season, I learned a new front office basketball skill.

When a professional basketball team signs a player to a contract, a player must be cleared through FIBA – the international organization that governs professional and amateur basketball.  Being a part of FIBA means that your players are protected from getting poached in the middle of the night by an overseas squad; and it also protects players from getting stuck in situations where they’re not being paid what the contract says.  The NBA is part of FIBA; so too are the NCAA and the Harlem Globetrotters.

In order to achieve any semblance of credibility in the pro basketball world, the NBL needed to be part of FIBA.  Which mean that I worked closely with Canada Basketball – FIBA’s Canadian representative – to make sure that all the players in the NBL were properly cleared and ready to play.  This involved filling out different forms for each player.  It involved confirming which teams last had that player on their roster.  I also had to confirm if the player was trying to operate under an assumed name or a flip-flopped birthdate, to avoid a suspension from a previous league.  Don’t flunk the piss test, son.

This was important.  Being part of FIBA meant that the NBL had professional credibility.  It would establish the NBL as Canada’s premier professional basketball league (outside of the Toronto Raptors, who were part of the NBA).  It was tough, don’t get me wrong.  But I had a great mentor in Mat Yorke, Canada Basketball’s representative.  We worked together.  We got players cleared.  We dealt with federations around the world to make sure that each person who suited up in the NBL was playing there legally.

Every step of the way, I went from casual basketball fan to understanding the ins and outs of minor league sports.  This wasn’t conscription; this was my chance to grasp and comprehend the inner workings of professional sports.  It was almost like a self-taught internship, a graduate course in sports economics and sports mechanics.

And the things I learned.  Clearing players through the international basketball organization known as FIBA so that they were eligible to play in the NBL.  Dealing with player trades and contracts and salary cap issues.  Producing statistics reports and other data packages.  Monitoring social media, but not becoming a difficult part of social media. In other words, this was no longer “Chuck watching the game.”  Now it’s “Chuck is part of the game.”

And last night, I received something very special, a testament to all my efforts.

The NBL’s Windsor (Ont.) Express completed a dream season in 2013-14.  They finished with the best record in the league; then they tore through the playoffs and won the 2013-14 NBL championship.

For all my efforts working for not only the Windsor Express, but for every team in the NBL without favoritism or denigration, well…

Last night, prior to Windsor’s game against the Mississauga Power, the Windsor Express’ team owner, Dartis Willis Jr., brought me to center court and handed me…

This.

My very own championship ring.
My very own championship ring.

That, my blog readers, is a 2013-14 NBL Canada championship ring.  Let me repeat.

THIS.

MY championship ring.  With my name on it and everything.
MY championship ring. With my name on it and everything.

And in case anybody out there thinks this is a creative PhotoShop deal…

THIS.

In brightest day, in blackest night...
In brightest day, in blackest night…

I put up with thousands of miles of travel.  A dozen border crossings.  Screaming phone calls from irate coaches at 2:00 a.m. because they lost the game on a heartbreaking call.

I learned how to deal with everybody.  Owners.  Players.  Coaches.  Officials.  Fans.  Message boards.

And this is proof.  This doesn’t just symbolize my work with one team.  It symbolizes my work that spanned three leagues and over four dozen franchises.  This is my third diploma.  This ring is now part of my life, and I will treasure it as much as I treasure my high school ring and my college cane.

A true diploma, made of diamonds and dirilium.  And ten years of hard work.

Advertisements

6 thoughts on “A Diploma in Diamonds and Dirilium”

  1. Wow! Chuck, this reads like a huge soap opera! I had no idea everything was so complicated. Alas, the poor Patroons… I know little about basketball. I’m barely 5’7 & needed glasses the size of Coke bottles. I went to some Patroons games w/friends who knew basketball. I don’t understand all the problems. It sounds like poor management since my friends tell me the Patroons played decent enough basketball. (Unlike the Valley Cats which a certain young lady, very dear to me, informs us her little sister’s Little League team plays better baseball! She also says the Devils are not in the same class as the River Rats) It seems you were in the right place at the right time, willing to learn, roll w/ punches. Congrats on your award. It’s the ones we earn through the proverbial College of Hard Knocks that means the most. (PS My friends always said Richardson had a serious anger management problem.)

    Like

    1. This just occurred to me. “Writer, photographer, trivia champion and survivor.” And now you can add “NBL Stat Man.”

      Like

  2. See how things come back around? You are a good person Chuck and good things should come back to you. Congratulations – that’s one beautiful ring, you deserve it.

    Like

  3. I learned an important lesson. MAKE SURE YOU GET PAID, AND NOT IN PROMISES.

    Don’t you write for the Times-Union every day without getting paid?

    Like

Comments are closed.