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1978-1979 Reno Bighorns

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Reno Bighorns Western Basketball AssociationWestern Basketball Association (1978-1979)

Born: 1978- WBA founding franchise
Folded: August 15, 1979

Arena: Centennial Coliseum

Team Colors:

Owner: Bill Meyers, et al.

WBA Championships: None


The Reno Bighorns were a minor league basketball team that played in the Western Basketball Association during the winter of 1978-79. Though it existed for just one year, the WBA was arguably the best minor pro league in North America that winter. The circuit featured numerous former ABA and NBA players and coaches. Many players used the league as a springboard to midseason call-ups from NBA clubs. To extent the Bighorns were known at the time or remembered today, it is largely for an incident that happened at the team’s very first game.

Bighorns head coach Bill Musselman was a personal friend of once-and-future New York Yankees manager Billy Martin. Martin agreed to make a promotional appearance at the Western Basketball Association’s inaugural game on November 10th, 1978 at Reno’s Centennial Coliseum.

Martin was in a truly weird place in the fall of 1978. After leading the Yankees to back-to-back pennants capped by a World Series title in ’77, Martin lost his job in July 1978 season after a series of blow-ups with star Reggie Jackson. Just five days after his forced resignation, Martin attended the Yankees annual Old Timers Day game. Public address announcer Bob Sheppard, on secret instructions from owner George Steinbrenner, stunned the Yankee Stadium crowd by announcing Martin return as the Yankees’ skipper … for the 1980 season in 21 months. (Steinbrenner would ultimately hire and fire Martin five times as Yankees manager, while never actually taking him off the team’s payroll).

Martin arrived in Reno on November 10, 1978 in the midst of his 21-month time-out. He posed for some photos and addressed Reno’s opening crowd on the public address system. Then Martin retreated to a bar inside the Centennial Coliseum at halftime. What happened next was the subject of conflicting stories for years. We’ll go with the account provided by Martin’s biographer, Bill Pennington, in his 2015 book Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius, based on a 2014 interview with former Reno Evening Gazette reporter Ray Hagar. (Martin died in 1989).

Seeking an interview with the celebrity manager, the 25-year old Hagar approached Martin in the Coliseum bar. Martin always claimed that his promotional deal with the Bighorns included a stipulation of no press interviews. Hagar told Pennington in 2014 that Martin was completely soused. After initially blowing off the young journalist, Martin softened and agreed to answer a few questions. Hagar brought up a trade he’d seen come across the Associated Press sports ticket before leaving the office that day. The Yankees traded Martin favorites Sparky Lyle and Mike Heath to the Texas Rangers. Hagar wrongly assumed that Martin knew about the deal. Martin’s mood darkened. Then Hagar asked about Martin’s nemesis, Reggie Jackson. The manager flew into a rage and cut off the interview. He demanded Hagar’s interview notes. The young writer refused and held his clipboard behind his back. Martin socked him in the face. Twice.

Pictures of Hagar’s battered face, one eye swollen nearly shut ran in newspaper nationwide the following day. Hagar filed civil and criminal charges against Martin. Martin threatened to sue the Bighorns. George Steinbrenner threatened that any outcome short of an acquittal on criminal charges and dismissal of the civil suit would result in Martin’s firing (for real this time). The case hung over the Hagar, Martin and the Bighorns through the entire 1978-79 Western Basketball Association season.

Meanwhile, the team was pretty good. The Bighorns finished in 3rd place with a 28-20 record. Randy Ayers earned 2nd-team All-Star honors and Gus Bailey was named to the WBA’s 3rd Team All-Star squad. The Bighorns faced the Tucson Gunners in the league championship series starting in late March 1979. Reno pushed the series to the limit but lost in the seventh and deciding game on April 2, 1979.

In May 1979 brought a final resolution of the Martin-Hagar assault case. Martin flew to Reno for a bizarre press conference that saw Bighorns officials present Ray Hagar with a $7,500 check for his medical expenses (in lieu of a settlement from Martin). Hagar expected a personal apology from the Yankees star at the press conference, but no one told Martin, who balked. Hagar had to settle for a rambling apology from Martin’s attorney.

The same month the Western Basketball Association announced a merger with the East Coast-based Continental Basketball Association to form a new loop to be known as the United Basketball Association. But the UBA fell apart in August when all seven franchises from the WBA went out of business. The CBA kept going under its own name and undertook its own West Coast expansion.

A new Reno ownership group purchased an expansion franchise in the CBA new group revived the Bighorns name and played, once again, for just a single season. The new Bighorns were kicked out of the CBA for failing to meet their financial obligations to the league in July 1983.

Third time’s the charm. The NBA D-League granted an expansion team to Reno in 2008. The franchise once again revived the Bighorns name. Eric Musselman, son of the late Bill Musselman who coached the 1978-79 Bighorns of the WBA, coached the D-League Bighorns in 2010-11. Cameron Ayers, son of original Bighorns player Randy Ayers, played for the D-League Bighorns in 2015-16.

The modern-day Bighorns serve as a farm club to the NBA’s Sacramento Kings and are currently in their tenth season of operation.


Reno Bighorns Shop

Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius by Bill Pennington


In Memoriam

Gus Bailey, a 3rd team All-Star in the WBA in 1979, was stabbed to death by an acquaintance on November 28, 1988. He was 37 years old.

Head coach Bill Musselman passed away on May 5, 2000 at age 59. New York Times obituary.



Western Basketball Association Programs


Written by Drew Crossley

January 12th, 2018 at 6:01 pm

1978-79 Tucson Gunners

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Tucson GunnersWestern Basketball Association (1978-79)

Born: 1978 – WBA expansion franchise
Folded: 1979

Arena: Tucson Community Center

Team Colors:

Owners: Davis Burk, et al.

WBA Champions: 1979


The Tucson Gunners were a One-Year Wonder in the minor-league Western Basketball Association. The Gunners, like the rest of the league, operated for just one season during the winter of 1978-79. The WBA stretched from Tucson in the south up through California, Utah and Nevada to Montana and Washington in the north. The league attracted a number of out-of-work pros who lost jobs with the closure of the American Basketball Association in 1976, along with training camp cuts from the NBA.

The Gunners shared winter dates at the Tucson Community Center with the Tucson Rustlers hockey team. Like the Gunners, the Rustlers would also fold after just one season.

The Gunners were managed by former Detroit Pistons head coach Herb Brown. Brown assembled the best squad in the league. The Gunners topped the standings with a 32-16 regular season record. Top players included former ABA regular Al Smith and rookie guard Gerald Henderson. Henderson was a 3rd round draft pick of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs in 1978 who failed to stick in training camp.

The Gunners met the Reno Bighorns in the WBA championship series in late March 1979. The series came down to a deciding game 7 in Tucson on April 2, 1979. Smith and Henderson combined for 45 points as Tucson vanquished Reno 104-90.

It proved to be the team’s final contest. The Gunners folded a few months later, along with the other six WBA clubs. Gerald Henderson used his showcase in Tucson to make the Boston Celtics in 1979. He would go on to win 3 NBA titles over the course of a 13-year NBA career before retiring in 1992.



Taking a Gamble on the Future“, Curry Kirkpatrick, Sports Illustrated, February 12, 1979

Western Basketball Association Programs


Written by Drew Crossley

March 22nd, 2017 at 2:01 am

1978-79 Washington Lumberjacks

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Washington Lumberjacks BasketballWestern Basketball Association (1978-1979)

Born: August 1978 – WBA founding franchise
Folded: Summer 1979


Team Colors: Columbia Blue & Pine Green

Owner: Columbia Pacific Resources, Inc. / Michael McDermott

WBA Championships: None


The Western Basketball Association was a one-year effort to create a Western counterpart & competitor to the country’s top minor basketball league, the Pennsylvania-based Continental Basketball Association (CBA).  The WBA began play in the fall of 1978 with seven teams in Arizona, California, Montana, Nevada, Utah and Washington.  A wealth of talent was available to support the creation of a new “Triple-A” caliber league thanks to the end of the ABA-NBA war two years earlier, which ended with the demise of the American Basketball Association and the loss of dozens of jobs at the Major League level of the sport.

The Washington Lumberjacks were based in the Tri-Cities region (Kennewick, Pasco & Richland) of Washington state.  The team could boast of a handful of former NBA regulars, including former University of Washington guard Louie Nelson and ABA/NBA journeyman Bird Averitt.

Kevin Veleke – Lumberjacks Business Manager

Marketing the club was not easy.  We had to create interest in professional basketball in light of the fact high school basketball back in the ’70’s was king.  Local high school games were sell outs and we could only get so-called off days for our games – holidays, Sundays, midweek and my favorite: Super Bowl Sunday 1979.

The WBA was more professional than the Continental Basketball Association … due to having good coaches and good facilities except for a team or two that played in high school gyms like the Lumberjacks.  Because the league was so spread out, teams had to travel by air.  This was very expensive and probably was the undoing of some of the franchises.


Washington Lumberjacks BasketballThe Lumberjacks averaged a little over a 1,000 fans playing in high school gyms in Richland and Pasco.  In January 1979, the team re-scheduled six home games for the more professional Spokane Coliseum, located 150 miles to the north.  Spokane was under consideration for a future WBA franchise (presumably a relocated Lumberjacks teams).   But attendance at the Spokane games was poor, hovering around 500 per game.

The Lumberjacks finished the 1978-79 season in second place with a 29-19 record, but lost in the opening round of the playoffs.  Washington center Jeff Cook was named the league’s Most Valuable Player.  Cook and forward Walter Jordan were named First Team All League.

After the season, the Western Basketall Association and the CBA announced plans for a merger to form a nationwide United Basketball Association.  But then all of the WBA franchises folded during the summer of 1979, rendering the plan moot.



2011 Fun While It Lasted interview with former Lumberjacks business manager Kevin Veleke.



Western Basketball Association Programs



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