Pro Basketball Launches In Pontiac
A small central Illinois community might seem an unlikely place for a new professional sports team. But earlier this year, Pontiac, in Livingston County, welcomed a minor league basketball team to town. It’s a community that’s had a strong connection to basketball for decades.
For their inaugural season, as many as 800 people have turned out for the Pontiac 66ers’ home games. The crowd was a little lighter for the Sunday March 6 contest vs. the Champaign Swarm – with about 300 fans.
The Swarm and 66ers are two of the seven teams playing this season in the Midwest Professional Basketball Association, a league of ‘starter’ teams independent of NBA-Development teams in its second season. Pontiac and Lima, Ohio added teams this season.
At first glance, this town of 12,000 residents along Historic Route 66 seems like an unlikely place for a pro sports team.
“It does not fit the business model from demographics, population size, support of sponsorship, investors, all the things that you need to make an organization like this run,” said 66ers Assistant GM Buzz Zeller. “Pontiac had some of the qualities, but not all.”
They knew from the beginning there would be challenges.
The gym they use in the High School doesn’t even meet the league standard for its dimensions. The team had to get permission to play on the shorter court. It also had to schedule games on weekends, to avoid conflicts with high school games.
But, so far, their unconventional approach seems to be working.
And 66ers’ coach Durrell Robinson says that’s because of two things: The people involved, and the location in Pontiac.
“I really believe that we have the best spot in minor league basketball,” he said. “Outside the NBA-D league, I really believe that we have the best spot.”
Pontiac is home to one of the country’s oldest high school basketball tournaments, having been played at either the high school or local armory through much of the last century, dating back to the 1920’s.
“Pontiac was not even on our radar,” said MPBA Commissioner Ed Schumer, who first pitched the idea of the 66ers to Zeller and team GM Mark Myre after attending the annual Coaches’ All-Star Game, a summer tradition at Pontiac Township High School. “But this whole setup could cause me to change my thought about being in a high school situation.”
He says the plan to start the team came together within a couple months last summer.
Kimberly Davis, among the fans at the game March 6, is a lifelong resident of Pontiac, and was a cheerleader at the high school in the early 2000’s.
“You were at the holiday tournament from sun up until it was over with – every single day,” she said. “There’s people from out of state that I’ve talked to, and they say ‘oh, I’ve heard of the holiday tournament.' It’s a big deal for such a small town.”
The Basketball Museum of Illinois, expected to detail that history as well as pro ball - is slated to open later this year in Pontiac.
There’s also a Route 66 Museum in the city, another dedicated to Pontiac cars, and there’s the Livingston County War Museum.
Another key to the team’s early success, Zeller says, is the kind of players they bring in. It’s something Robinson says he’s quickly learned to appreciate.
“I mean, it’s easy to get some guys who are really talented, and probably not high-character guys, but we don’t want that,” he said. “We want guys who are going to be high character, willing to work, and do what we want them to do on and off the court.”
It's also a homecoming of sorts for Robinson, who is a native of Danville and played for Danville High School in Pontiac's tournament during the 1990's. He also coached at Danville Area Community College.
Many people in town have noticed those off-the-court efforts, including Pontiac High School athletic director Gary Brunner. He helped bring the 66ers to his school’s gym.
“It’s been a great experience, because it’s a great product,” he said. “And the best thing about it is – you know, the team has gotten so involved with the community. I help with one of the junior highs here in town. And they would come by just to see practice, and they’d come to a game, and they’d invite kids. So they’re just a very community oriented group.”
And that’s by design. Assistant G.M. Buzz Zeller says the league put together ‘community days’ in which players visit neighboring schools in Livingston County.
They practice and meet with classes – and as a result, expanded the team’s fan base. The Pontiac players live together in a house paid for by the league, and are visible in the community through practices and charitable events. Like the coach, the 66ers players themselves bring a range of experiences. Most have NBA dreams, but are realistic about their next steps.
“I’ve been to 15 countries,” said guard Blake Burgess. “Never thought I’d go to any of those in my life.” Burgess’s playing experience includes a College USA tournament, and he spent the past year with the Harlem Globetrotters.
“It’s definitely fun,” he said. “It’s a different ball game. But obviously crowds are a lot bigger. But at the end of day, it’s just basketball. Doing what you love.”
The brain trust behind the 66ers know that with any minor league franchise, the goal is for players to develop and move on.
Four players left for overseas teams during the season, and the league says viewers from more than 30 countries watched recent games on the league’s web-based channel - some of them likely scouting new recruits.
In its first year of play, the 66ers have also attracted die-hard fans. Many of them, like Judy Shubert of Pontiac, haven’t missed a home game this season.
“It’s been a great thing for Pontiac,” she said. Shubert was asked about her confidence about the team’s long-term status in Pontiac.
“I’m praying that it’s going to happen,” she said.
The fan buzz may have played into the team’s record. The 66ers won their March 6 game over the Champaign Swarm, 119-97. But more importantly, finished a league best 12-4 on the season.
Pontiac will be the top seed when the high school hosts the Midwest Professional Basketball Association’s championship, starting Friday evening at 5 p.m.
There are some concerns with this new basketball league. A disagreement over a venue cancelled games this season for the Bloomington Flex, who had been playing their games at U.S Cellular Coliseum in 2015.
UPDATE: MBPA spokesperson Craig Fata says there was not a disagreement within the league. He said the Flex had no home arena, and no plans to attain one, at the end of October 2015, and the league had put a schedule together. The Flex announced they didn't want to play in 2016, and forced the MPBA to announce they were out of the league.
Meanwhile, a dispute about paychecks brought on a walkout by the St. Louis Riversharks, meaning the Lima Express will replace them in the playoffs.
UPDATE: Fata says there was no walkout, but said the Express held a meeting, saying they were considering not playing the remainder of its games unless the pay, which was a week behind, got caught up. He says the league was, "not going to be held hostage in the event the players agreed--as the players did on three other teams--to defer their pay until the following week and play, and then threaten not to play right before tipoff." Fata says the MPBA would not be threatened by players saying they were considering not playing when fans were in seats, visiting teams in town, and television productions planned and paid for. He said the league cancelled the rest of the Riversharks' games and disqualified them from the playoffs.
The games in Pontiac start with the Chicago Blues vs. the Windy City Groove at 5 p.m., and Pontiac takes on Lima at 8 p.m. The winners of those two games will pay for the MPBA championship Saturday at 1 p.m.
UPDATE: Pontiac topped Lima Friday night, 104-97, while the Blues won the earlier game, 113-95. Saturday's final in Pontiac went down the wire, but the Blues held on to top the 66ers, 114-113. Pontiac was led by Alfonzo Houston, the MPBA's MVP this season, with 41 points.