Orest Hrynwak: An elegy for Captain Cash

Please let me tell you a story today.  A story about a man named Orest.

I first met Orest ten years ago.  At the time, I was freelancing for a minor league sports website which paid its writers on promises and not much else.  At the time, Orest was the general manager of the Rochester RazorSharks, a first-year basketball team in a ragtag circuit called the American Basketball Association.  I was at a Sharks game to write an article about the team, who were setting attendance and scoring records in a leauge where the quality of play ranged from top-notch to barely afloat.  In fact, the team Rochester was playing that afternoon, the Montreal Matrix, arrived at Blue Cross Arena in a minivan with only five players, a coach and a photographer.  Yet Orest welcomed the team in, and several thousand fans watched the Sharks win another game.

Manchester Millrats v Rochester Razorsharks 2009 Playoffs Game 2//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.jsWe now move forward to 2008.  The Sharks have moved to the Premier Basketball League, a higher-caliber independent league.  I’m working with the PBL as a photographer and statistician, and I had an idea for a swank photo.  Orest helped me arrange to photograph the action from the ceiling of Blue Cross Arena, my camera pointing down from the rafters (and me hanging from the rafters, figuratively from the tips of my toenails) to get a shot of Rochester’s Sammy Monroe and James “Mook” Reaves battling under the basket with the Manchester Millrats’ Marlowe Currie and Sam Carey.  The photo, which I later called “Action Under the Basket,” won me my first-ever photography competition ribbon.

Orest Hrynwak loved the Rochester RazorSharks.  It ws a childhood dream for he and his brother Severko to own a professional sports team in their hometown of Rochester, New York.  And once they owned the team, they helped build it into a minor league hoops powerhouse, with six professional championships spanning two leagues in the past decade.

Orest Hrynwak loved rock and roll.  Prior to his involvement with the Sharks, he was a program director and general manager for a Rochester rock radio station.  He used the broadcast name of “Captain Cash,” and if you had a radio station bumper sticker on your car, he would drive by, pull you over, and hand you money on the spot.  His Facebook page featured dozens of “Throwback Thursday” photos of him with several local and national bands and singers of the 1970’s and 1980’s.  In fact, in 2010 he used his connections to have Foreigner lead singer (and Rochester native) Lou Gramm sing the national anthem at a RazorSharks game.  Lots of fun.

Orest Hrynwak loved his family, and he doted on his beloved mother.  Every time I came to a Sharks game, there was his mother and his brother Roman, both sitting in prestige “Jack Nicholson” seats, to watch the RazorSharks play (and win) another match.

Orest Hrynwak loved his Ukrainian heritage.  He participated in several fundraisers for the local Rochester Ukrainian church, St. Jehosophat’s, and his pride of being a Ukranian-American showed through every single time.

Orest Hrynwak recently suffered from heart issues, and underwent bypass surgery a few months ago.  The surgery was successful, but even in that success Orest knew that every moment after that hospital stay was as precious and as fleeting as ever.  For no matter how long one holds back death, there will come a moment when the black chariot arrives, and the chauffeur says, wryly, “You’re ride’s here.”

This morning, I received terrible news.

The chauffeur arrived for Orest Hrynwak, and the chariot had a 98 PXY bumper sticker.  Orest was only 59.

Orest lived every moment with joy and excitement.  He cheered when his Sharks won game after game and championship after championship.  He was an icon and a stalwart of Rochester rock and roll music, both local and international.  And he will be missed.

God bless you, Orest, and thanks for everything you’ve done and every life you’ve brightened.

Now go and show that rock and roll hallelujah chorus up in the next world how to promote the concert for the ages.

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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.

Sponnie’s on the phone…

I have a long history with minor league basketball; it started with the Albany Patroons and the Continental Basketball Association; it evolved to a five-year stint with the Premier Basketball League, and continues today as the National Basketball League of Canada commences its fourth campaign.

During that time, I’ve had the pleasure of working with Rob Spon.  He was an assistant coach in the CBA; he was a head coach for several teams in the PBL, and he spent three seasons in the NBL-C.  He was recently hired as the head coach for the PBL’s top team, the Rochester RazorSharks, and I’m sure he’ll be able to guide them to their fifth league title without any trouble.

Rob Spon is a basketball coach, through and through.  In the late 1990’s, he earned a title in the International Basketball Association, a league that spanned between the Canadian Prairies and the Midwest U.S. border states.  Yep, nothing like a Dakota Wizards / Saskatchewan Hawks home-and-away series…

My best memories of Sponnie came during the 2010-11 Premier Basketball League campaign.  At that time, Sponnie was hired as the head coach of the Quebec Kebs, a perennial cellar-dwelling team.  With some key acquisitions and signings, Sponnie turned the Kebs into a contender virtually overnight.

And while he tried to win every game – as all coaches truly should – his main opponent seemed to not be the team his squad faced.  His main opponents were the officials.

I was working with the PBL at that time as a statistician and assistant to the Director of League Operations, so I had close contact with players, coaches and team owners.  And apparently Sponnie had my phone number on speed dial every time the Kebs lost.

After a double-overtime loss against Halifax in February 2011, I received a call from Sponnie.  “Chuck, the officiating here is terrible, it’s just terrible, the refs didn’t re-set out fouls in overtime and we got assessed technicals that we didn’t deserve…”

Okay.  I’ll take care of it.

A few days later… another phone call after another game.  “Chuck, the officiating here is terrible, it’s just terrible, we gotta do something about it, my guy Ralphy Holmes received a charge foul when it should have been a blocking foul and two shots…”

Mind you, the Kebs actually WON that game.

It’s March 2011.  The Premier Basketball League playoffs are underway, and the Quebec Kebs are in Rochester to play the RazorSharks in a best-of-three series.  As Quebec is the higher seed, they play the Sharks in Game 1 at Blue Cross Arena.

The game turns into a nasty, lopsided affair.  The biggest argument involved a 3-point basket by Quebec’s Royce Parran in Game 1, a shot that was eventually scored a 2-pointer, despite Parran being two feet behind the arc when he made the shot.  The game went into overtime, and the Sharks won 114-110.

As I drove back to Albany, I knew that Quebec head coach Rob Spon would call me and complain about the officiating.  Trust me, every time the Kebs lost, he would call me.  And every phone call would be, “Chuck, the officiating in the PBL is terrible, it’s just terrible…”

Phone’s ringing.  Caller ID says it’s Rob Spon.  I’m not taking the call.  Last thing I need is Sponnie kvetching about the officiating and I have to hear it all the way from Rochester to Albany.

Five minutes later.  Phone ringing.  Caller ID says it’s Rob Spon.  Sorry, I don’t have time for this.  I’ll let the call go to voicemail.

Ten minutes later.  Phone ringing.  Caller ID says it’s Melissa Dion, the PR director for the Kebs.  She was riding with the Kebs on their travel bus.  I pick up the phone; it’s probably involving game-day plans for Game 2 of the playoffs.  “Hi Melissa, how’s it going?”

“Hi Chuck, Coach Spon wants to talk to you, here Coach, here’s the phone.”

And before I could tell Melissa to NOT hand Sponnie the phone… I heard…

“Chuck, the officiating in the PBL is terrible, it’s just terrible…”

Damn it.  Caller ID failed me.  Ha ha ha ha…  Lesson learned.  Let people vent.  It’s better than having them say or do something that could be detrimental to the league as a whole.

The Kebs eventually won game 2 of that three-game series, but lost game 3 in an all-out battle.  Sponnie later moved to the NBL-C, coaching several teams.

Earlier this week, I received the news that Sponnie was signed as the head coach of the Rochester RazorSharks.  That’s a prime gig.  And I expect Sponnie to win a championship and earn a ring.

And hopefully the next call I receive from him will start with, “Hey Chuck, hope all is going well…”

And it won’t be, “Chuck, the officiating here is terrible, it’s just terrible…”

Albany Legends basketball: A 3-game road season!

Did you know the Albany Legends were still playing?

Okay, let’s help out a little.

The Legends were the team that replaced the Albany Patroons when the Continental Basketball Association finally died in 2009.  The Legends played their games at the Armory, in the shadow of banners from the old Patroons’ heydays.  And in 2010, the Legends took the IBL championship with a win over the Bellingham (Wash.) Slam.

The Legends then moved to CBA’s basketball court, and two years later, the Legends had a chance to pick up another championship banner, until they ran into the Kankakee County Soldiers in the IBA title game.  And yes, somewhere down the road the IBL changed to the IBA.  That wasn’t a typo.

So here we are in 2013.  Are you ready for some Legends basketball?

Well, they’re opening on the road this season, as part of the new merger between the IBA and the league I used to work for, the Premier Basketball League.  Now the PBL-IBA merged league promises to have over 20 teams playing a full schedule. And the Legends are part of that 20-team league.

The Legends’ schedule is as thus.  On Friday, May 3, the Legends face the New Jersey G-Force at the Union Dome in Union City, New Jersey.  Good seats are still available.  Then, on Thursday, May 9, the Legends will play against the Rochester Razorsharks at Blue Cross Arena in Rochester.  They will also play the Sharks at Blue Cross Arena on Friday, May 17.

And that’s it. Three games. All on the road.

That’s right, a team that advanced to the championship game twice in the past three years, and picked up a championship ring in 2010… has been reduced to barely a fill-in travel team for a three-game season.

Un-be-freakin’-lieavable.

Look, I would have never equated the Legends with Albany’s rich and deep basketball history. But come on now… You could assemble a team with guys from the YMCA rec league, give them some Legends tops, and send them out for a three-game season?

Wow, what if they happen to win those three games?  Would they make the postseason based on winning percentage?  Is the Times Union going to send their basketball beat reporter Tim Wilkin out to cover the Legends’ 2013 season?

Heck, I don’t even think the Legends give three figs – dried or fresh – about the season.  Have you checked out the team’s Wikipedia page lately?  The page reads like someone wrote a press release after pulling an all-nighter and proofread the thing with Red Bull and vodka.

All I see here is essentially a travel team wearing Albany Legends game gear.

Pathetic.

Blackbird, meet Canada. Canada, meet Blackbird.

I’ve had my 2006 Chevrolet Cobalt SS, nicknamed “The Blackbird,” for at least six months now.  And now comes its first true test.

Road trip to Canada.  Specifically, Saint John, New Brunswick, home of this week’s National Basketball League of Canada All-Star Classic.

Why am I here?  Trust me.  It’s an All-Star Game.  Actually, counting Continental Basketball Association games and the one Premier Basketball League All-Star Classic, this weekend will be my sixth All-Star Classic weekend.  As for the “Albany Patroons” factor – you know, keeping tabs on the former wearers of the gold and kelly green – the Central Division All-Stars will be coached by Micheal Ray Richardson, former player and coach of the Patroons.  And one of the all-stars on the Central Division team?  Marvin Phillips, who played for both the CBA and USBL Patroons during the 2006-07 seasons.

Plus, it’s an opportunity to take some pictures.  I’ve brought several of my cameras – the Nikon D700, the Nikon F100, the Kowa Super 66, the Sprocket Rocket and the Kodak Vest Pocket Autographic “Modern-Day Warrior” camera – for the trip.  I’m sure I can find a beach or some funky architecture in this town somewhere.  Chuck needs some Chuck time to take some photos, don’tcha know.

But you’re saying, “Chuck, you’ve been to Canada before.  You’ve watched minor league basketball before.  You’ve photographed before.  What’s the big deal this time?”

Well… this time I’m doing it while using the Blackbird as my travel device.

Hey look, it's a Canadian landmark, eh?

And in comparison between the Blackbird, my 1991 Pontiac 6000 (“The 6”) and my 2005 Saturn Ion (“Cardachrome”), I can say that there have been some noticeable differences.  Major noticeable differences.

For example…

Gas mileage: On its best day, I squeezed 20 mpg out of the 6.  Maybe 25 on average from Cardachrome.  Highway travel with the Blackbird – thirty-five miles per gallon. And it only took one and a half tanks of fuel to go from Albany to Saint John – in fact, I could have stretched the fuel to get to Bangor, but I decided to top off at a Citgo station in Waterville.  Holla!

Comfort: The 6 had no adjustable driver’s side seats.  Cardachrome had an adjustable seat, but there were times when I think it adjusted for itself.  But neither could top the super-comfy leather interiors provided by the Blackbird.  Mmm…

Radio: The Pontiac did have an aftermarket Alpine deck, which allowed me to integrate my iPod into the sound system.  The Saturn’s sound system was stock.  The Blackbird?  Clear XM satellite radio for the entire trip.  I listened to a full two-hour Superman serial on XM Radio Classics, caught the entire four-hour banter of Mike & Mike in the Morning on ESPN Radio, and even tuned in for Jay Mohr on Fox Sports Radio.  Very few drop-offs, mostly in the Berkshires, but nothing that wasn’t too distracting.

Driving ease: No question.  Blackbird all the way.  The Saturn’s electrical problem made me lose confidence in the car, and the Pontiac’s power steering meant that it took a lot of power for the driver to turn the wheel from left to right.

Cupholders: Four beverage cup holders in the Blackbird.  I think there were two in Cardachrome, and “beverage holder” in the 6000 meant someone held your drinks while you drove.

I know that in the past, I’ve extolled the virtues of the Pontiac… and then after that, I thought the Saturn was the cream of the crop.  But with unvarnished and unpurchased testimony, let me state for the record…

I’m seriously digging the Blackbird.  And that’s more than I could have ever asked for in a car.

Almost makes me want to say, as I start the key in the ignition…

Chuck is happy.

You know when it’s time to leave.

I’ve known Al Stewart for a number of years.  He’s a point guard who played his collegiate basketball at Drake, and for the past four years he’s been one of the top players in every league in which he has suited up.

I first met Al when he was playing for the Manchester Millrats of the Premier Basketball League about four years ago.  And throughout the game, he showed everybody on the court that if you put the ball in his hands, he could either get the shot – or pass it to the open man that no one else saw.

He’s been playing for the past two seasons in the National Basketball League of Canada, helping the Summerside (P.E.I.) Storm make the playoffs.

But after this Sunday, he won’t be there to help the team in the postseason.

He has a bigger calling in his life.  And in that, he knows when it’s time to leave.

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Al Stewart. Nikon D70 camera, Nikkor 80-200 f/2.8 telephoto lens. Photo by Chuck Miller.

After Sunday afternoon’s contest, Al Stewart will put away his basketball uniform and replace it with a suit and tie, as he returns to his hometown of Chicago and becomes a full-time teacher in the Chicago public school system.

This is not a hasty decision for Al.  He teaches in the offseason and takes leaves of absence from his job to play basketball.  But with new rules in the Chicago school system in place, Al either had to start his teaching position next week, or risk losing the position completely.

The decision was a tough one, but in the end, Al made the right choice.  You can inspire greatness on the basketball court, and you can inspire minds in the classroom.  We don’t give enough credit to teachers and professors and educators in this world, and if Al Stewart can motivate young minds to achieve their dreams and their goals in a setting other than the basketball court, then I’m clapping for him with both hands.

And it’s not like Al has separated his teaching duties from his backcourt duties.  In two seasons in Prince Edward Island, he made countless visits to schools and hospitals – not just for promotional duties, but to show that you can pass knowledge and education on from those who gave it to you, that you can hand down this knowledge to those who follow on the path.

“Of course Al has been critical to our performance on the court,” said Summerside Storm team owner Duncan Shaw in a press release. “More importantly, he’s been a leader in the locker room, a positive force in the community, and the face of our franchise. He’s going home now because it’s the best thing for his daughter, and that will just be one more thing she’ll be proud of her dad for.”

“You really can’t put into words what Al has done for this organization both on and off the court”, says Joe Salerno, Al Stewart’s head coach with the Storm.  “I know this has been very tough for Al, as it should be, for he truly cares about this franchise, but I think it is a reflection of his character, making the right decision for him and his daughter. We will miss Al in many ways.”

So with one final game on Sunday, in front of what should be a packed house at Credit Union Place, Al Stewart will say his goodbyes to the fans and to his teammates.

And within days, he’ll be saying hello to his new students and fellow teachers.  He’ll be providing a new series of assists in aiding these young minds to achieve greatness.

That’s Al Stewart for you.  Still providing assists wherever he can.

Good luck, my brother.  All the best.

Six years too late for me.

It’s 2006, and I’m freelancing for a couple of online minor league sports publications – Minorleaguenews.com and Probasketballnews.com.  Neither of them were skilled in the art of paying their freelancers – it took two years for Probasketballnews.com to send me payment for a photo of mine, and I’m still waiting for money from Minorleaguenews.com six years later.  Yeah, I can pretty much write that off as a wash.

Anyway, at the time I was working on a story about a first-year minor league basketball franchise in the American Basketball Association.  They were the Rochester Razorsharks, they played their games at the spacious Blue Cross Arena in downtown Rochester, and they were drawing 6,000 fans a night and winning most of their games.  At the time, I interviewed some of their players – Keith Friel, James “Mook” Reaves, Sammy Monroe – and also their head coach, Rod Baker, and their general manager, Orest Hrynwak.  At the time, I made an off-the-cuff comment about how great it would be if the Sharks and the Albany Patroons were in the same league.  What a rivalry that would be.

“Won’t happen,” said Orest Hrynwak.  “We can’t afford to play in the Continental Basketball Association just yet.”

I still kept an eye on things.  I still wanted to see how the Sharks would do if they actually faced some legitimate competition, not just facing a litany of ragtag ABA teams with talent that was on the level of a YMCA pickup game.

Eventually the Razorsharks and several other ex-ABA teams formed the Premier Basketball League, and played for five seasons in that circuit.  I freelanced for the PBL for those five seasons, working as a photographer and league statistician.  I still held out hope that the PBL could merge with the CBA, and that the top teams in both leagues would have a “champion versus champion” interleague battle.

It never happened.  The CBA folded midway through the 2008-09 season, and never recovered.  The PBL survived.

Then, several PBL teams left to form the National Basketball League of Canada.  I left with them, but I still kept my eye on what was happening with the PBL.

This year, I finally got my wish.  Sort of.  Maybe.

A few days ago, the Premier Basketball League announced they would play an interlocking series with the Independent Basketball Association, a spring-summer league that contains the Albany Legends basketball team.  Not the Patroons, but the Legends.

You know, maybe I got what I wished for.  Rochester versus Albany.  If I take my glasses off and squint really tightly, it almost looks like a battle between the RazorSharks and the Patroons.  Jamario Moon against Mook Reaves.  TJ Thompson against Keith Friel.  Rod Baker versus Micheal Ray Richardson.

No.  I can’t get that.  And squinting that much makes my eyes hurt.

Here’s the problem.  This should have taken place six years ago.  The Sharks were the crown jewel in a rockpile that was the ABA.  They had talent and they had fans.  Unfortunately, the ABA existed as a league of promises that were never kept – owners buying $10,000 “market reservations” and getting nothing but a glowing press release about that team joining the league.

When the Sharks and several of the stronger ABA teams moved to form the PBL, I had hoped that this interlocking idea might have worked with the CBA.  Strong teams in strong markets, and rivalries against teams I could actually drive to without requiring a hotel reservation along the way.   Heck, at the time the PBL had teams in Rochester, Buffalo, Montreal, Quebec City, Manchester NH, Vermont, Maryland…

It could have worked.  It should have worked.  But too many egos kept the project from reaching fruition.

In the final year of the CBA’s existence, they did play an interlocking series with the ABA.  The games were sparsely attended – heck, one CBA team beat an ABA team 172-70.  Beat them by over 100 points.  It was an example of the CBA beating the equivalent of the local Saturday night men’s “call your own foul” league at the rec center.  But it was too little, too late, and the CBA died in February of 2009 – just at the same time that the PBL was thriving.

Look, I’m the first one in the area to stand up for Albany professional sports.  That being said, the talent in the IBA – where the Legends currently reside – is barely above a pickup game.   The Legends don’t even play at the Washington Avenue Armory any more – they’re playing their home games at a high school gymnasium.  Listen, I wanted Albany in the CBA, but I meant Continental Basketball Association, NOT Christian Brothers Academy.

I know.  Gone are the days when 4,000 people packed into the Washington Avenue Armory to watch the Patroons win championships.  Heck, gone are the days when 1,500 people packed into the Washington Avenue Armory to watch Jamario Moon dunk on everybody in the CBA.

And any chance we might have had to bring back top-level minor league basketball went out the door when the CBA folded.  The D-League’s not coming to Albany.  The National Basketball League of Canada isn’t expanding south of the border.  And while we still have college and high school ball here, the prospect of true high-quality professional independent basketball is gone.

Six years too late.

Will it ever happen?  Will we ever get top-flight professional hoops in this area?

Probably around the same time that Minorleaguenews.com sends me the money they owe me.