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1978-1983 – Maine Lumberjacks

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Continental Basketball Association (1978-1983)

Born: 1978 – CBA expansion franchise.
Moved: March 1983 (Bay State Bombardiers)

Arenas:

Team Colors: Kelly Green & White

Owners:


The Maine Lumberjacks were a minor league basketball club based out of Bangor, Maine from 1978 to 1983.  The club originated as an expansion franchise in the Continental Basketball Association in the fall of 1978.  The CBA grew out of the old Eastern Basketball Association (1946-1978), which had been a Pennsylvania-based bus league for decades.  The Lumberjacks joined the league as part of a nationwide expansion and re-branding.  During their 5-year run in the CBA the Lumberjacks roamed from coast to coast, traveling as far as Montana, Hawaii, Alaska and Alberta, Canada for games.

The ‘Jacks played most of their games at the Bangor Auditorium but typically played a handful of dates each year at Portland’s Cumberland County Civic Center during the team’s first few seasons.  The club’s uniforms were modeled on the design of the Seattle Supersonics jerseys during the same era.

On the court, the Lumberjacks were a perennial loser.  Their best record came in the team’s final season of 1982-83 when the managed to scratch out a .500 record at 22-22.

To the extent the Lumberjacks are remembered today outside the state of Maine, it is for their association with cult basketball legend Billy Ray Bates, pictured above on the cover of the team’s final yearbook from the 1982-83 season.  Bates was the son of sharecroppers from Kosciuko, Mississippi.  A 6’4, 220-pound slam dunk artist, Bates attended Kentucky State University and was selected by the Houston Rockets in the 3rd round of the 1978 draft.  After getting cut in pre-season by the Rockets, Bates landed in Bangor to salvage what remained of his pro career.

Bates won the CBA’s Rookie-of-the-Year award with the ‘Jacks in 1979 and also conquered the league’s slam dunk contest at the 1979 All-Star Game, played in the middle of a blizzard in Rochester, New York.  Rochester was also the site of a classic Bates moment a month earlier, during a match against the Rochester Zeniths.  Incensed over a traveling call, Bates whipped the basketball at the head of the referee, knocking the man briefly unconscious.  In today’s world, sending an official to dreamland would likely earn a season-long suspension.  CBA Commissioner Jim Drucker suspended Bates for one game.

Midway through a second spectacular season in Maine, Bates got a call-up to the  Portland Trail Blazers in February 1980.  Bates was one of the first CBA players to earn a 10-day contract to the NBA and certainly the first to make an impact.  During the 1980’s and 1990’s the 10-day short term contract would become the Holy Grail to the ballplayers grinding it out in the CBA, dealing with the terrible pay, endless bus trips, crummy facilities and empty stands.  Bates made the most of his.

Expected to be no more than a lawn ornament on the Trail Blazers bench under Head Coach Jack Ramsay, Bates instead pushed his way into the lineup and then carried the Blazers on his back into the 1980 NBA playoffs.  In Portland’s first round series loss to the Seattle Supersonics, the minor league import averaged an astonishing 25.0 points per game.  (The next year he was even better, averaging 28.3 in the postseason).   A cult hero was born.  Nike posters soon followed.  In 2012, Seattle Times writer Steve Kelley compared the mania surrounding Bates to the Lin-sanity phenomenon surrounding Jeremy Lin’s similar rise from obscurity with the New York Knicks.

Bates couldn’t make it last.  Most accounts of Bates’ NBA years portray him as a hard-partying but wide-eyed rural bumpkin who quickly succumbed to the moral hazards of sudden fame.  Bates was an alcoholic and a cocaine user, vices which drove him out of the NBA by 1983.

Bates moved on to the Philipines in 1983, where he became the legend known as “Black Superman”, dominating the Philippine Basketball Association and living like the Sultan of Brunei for most of the 1980’s.  You can read the whole crazy tragic saga of Bates in the Philippines on Deadspin here.  He later played in Switzerland, Mexico and Uruguay before returning the America in the 1990’s.

By the late 1990’s, Bates was destitute and living in New Jersey.  He robbed a service station at knife point in 1998 served five years in prison.  In 2011, Bates returned to the Philippines, where he is still an icon, for induction into the PBA Hall of Fame.  He briefly leveraged the attention to get a front office position with a club and a sneaker endorsement deal, but resumed drinking and lost his job and money again.  In December 2012, Bates appeared on a popular talk show in the Philippines to plead for financial assistance.  I thought about linking the video here, but really it is too sad and voyeuristic.  You can find it with a Google search if your looking for a grim experience.

One last note about that Lumberjacks Yearbook pictured at the top of the post.  The young man who wrote the cover story on Billy Ray Bates was Jay Ramsdell.  Ramsdell was a ninth grader who attached himself to the Lumberjacks when they came to town in 1978, running game stats and other chores.  At the time he wrote this article, he had just graduated high school.  Ramsdell loved the CBA and became attached to the league office around this time (1982/83).  Incredibly, he became Commissioner of the league in 1988 at the age of 24 – the youngest Commissioner in American pro sports history for any half-reputable league.

Tragically, Ramsdell lost his life one year later in the crash of United Airlines Flight 232 in Sioux City, Iowa.  Ramsdell and Deputy Commissioner Jerry Schemmel were en route to the CBA’s annual draft.  Schemmel survived the crash.  Ramsdell was among the 112 who perished.  The CBA”s championship trophy was re-named in Ramsdell’s honor in 1989.

After five seasons of play, the Lumberjacks left Bangor for Brockton, Massachusetts in March 1983.  The club was re-named the Bay State Bombardiers (1983-1986).

The Lumberjacks cheerleading squad was known as the “Lumberjills”.

 

==Slideshow==

 

==Maine Lumberjacks Programs on Fun While It Lasted==

Year Date Opponent Score Program Other

1981-82

1981-82 12/26/1981 @ Rochester Zeniths ?? Program Game Notes

1982-83

1982-83 12/1/1982 vs. Albany Patroons L 132-116 Program
1982-83 12/10/1982 vs. Rochester Zeniths ?? Program
1982-83 12/12/1982 vs. Rochester Zeniths L 128-118 Program
1982-83 1/7/1983 vs. Lancaster Lightning ?? Program

 

==Key Players==

  • Billy Ray Bates

 

==Downloads==

1982-83 Continental Basketball Association Magazine (Program Insert)

 

==Links==

Continental Basketball Association Media Guides

Continental Basketball Association Programs

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1983-1986 Puerto Rico Coquis / Maine Windjammers

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Professional basketball came to the island of Puerto Rico in the winter of 1983, when local insurance man Walter Fournier acquired an expansion franchise in the Continental Basketball Association.  Fournier dubbed his team the Coquis, named after the tiny tree frogs native to Puerto Rico and the surrounding islands of the Carribean.

The CBA in the early 1980’s was a league on the rise.  For most of the post-war era, the league was known as the Eastern Professional Basketball League (or variations thereof) and was a bus league centered on the small mill cities of Pennsylvania.  The league began to expand aggressively the late 1970’s, adopting the ambitious “Continental” moniker and adding far-flung teams in Anchorage and Honolulu.  The CBA also managed to sign a partnership as the official developmental league of the NBA and the CBA’s top players aspired to land 10-day contacts with NBA clubs to fill in as short-term when their regulars went down with injuries.

Despite the trappings and pretensions, the CBA remained, at its core, a league of near-insolvent clubs dependent on bus travel.  The notion of putting a club in Puerto Rico may have had some PR appeal for the league, but the reality was that poor clubs who couldn’t rub two nickels together now had to fund extravagant (by CBA standards) road trips to San Juan to play the Coquis.

Fournier hired Herb Brown as his Head Coach.  Brown, the older brother of former ABA star and longtime NBA coach Larry Brown, served a brief tenure as Head Coach of the NBA’s Detroit Pistons from 1975 to 1977.  Brown led the expansion Coquis  into the playoff with a CBA-best record fo 28-16.  After dispatching the Lancaster (PA) Lightning in the first round of the playoffs, the Coquis fell to the Phil Jackson-coached Albany (NY) Patroons in the CBA Semi-Finals.  Brown was named CBA Coach of the Year, but the Coquis success on the court was not reflected in the stands.  The team drew an average of just 728 fans per game in San Juan during the 1983-84 season.

When the Coquis returned for the 1984-85 campaign, Fournier seemed to have adopted a certain fatalism about the attendance potential in Puerto Rico.  For one thing, Fournier believed that Puerto Rican fans would not attend matches during the holidays and he orchestrated a grueling 22-day, 14-game road trip in December 1984 to avoid them.

“I guess it’s a management decision by people who don’t know much about basketball,” Brown complained to Nathan Huang of The St. Petersburg Evening-Independent in the  midst of the Coquis’ December 1984 odyssey.  “They have absolutely no idea how tough it is.”

The 1984-85 campaign got tougher for Brown.  Despite another winning season (27-21), the Coquis entered the final game of the season with a playoff spot on the line against Jackson’s Albany Patroons.  Jackson’s assistant Charley Rosen recalled the events that followed years later in his 2011 memoir Crazy Basketball, A Life In and Out of Bounds.   Late in the game, Brown stormed onto the court to challenge a call by referee Ken Mauer.  According to Rosen, Brown grabbed the lanyard that held the whistle around Mauer’s beck and twisted it until the head official’s face turned blue.  Eventually, stadium security intervened, pulling Brown off the referee and letting Mauer live to officiate another day.  The Coquis lost and finished out of the playoffs with a 5th place finish.   The CBA slapped Brown with a 6-game suspension to start the 1985-86 season, but by then Brown would be with a new club and the Coquis were no more.

Attendance failed to improve during the Coquis second season in San Juan, with the club reportedly drawing less than 500 fans per game.  In March 1985, Fournier began negotiating to move his club to Birmingham, Alabama’s State Fair Arena.  Negotiations fell through with Birmingham officials in the spring of 1985, but Fournier soon found another suitor in the CBA’s 20-year old Deputy Commissioner Jay Ramsdell.

Ramsdell was a fascinating figure in the history of the CBA and Maine basketball.  In 1978, the Maine native approached a minority owner of the CBA’s Maine Lumberjacks club to do an interview for his school newspaper.  The owner was impressed with Ramsdell and asked him to fill in on the Lumberjacks game day stats crew.  Within a matter of weeks, the 9th grader was appointed the Lumberjacks’ Director of Public Relations. He remained with the club until his high school graduation in 1982.  By the age of 20 in 1985, Ramsdell was the league’s Deputy Commissioner and jack of all trades.  The Lumberjacks were no more – a new owner named John Ligums moved the club to Massachusetts in 1983 – and Ramsdell convinced Fournier to move his club from Puerto Rico to Maine’s Bangor Auditorium for the 1985-86 season.  Ramsdell stepped down from his league office position to serve as the General Manager for the club, which would be known as the Maine Windjammers.

A crowd of 1,722 turned out for the Windjammers home debut against the Bay State Bombardiers (the former Lumberjacks) on December 5th, 1985.  But despite some initial big words from Fournier about the potential of the Bangor market, the Puerto Rican-based businessman showed zero interest in the club and quickly withdrew his financial support, leaving Ramsdell  to fund operations largely with the gate receipts of the 600 or so fans that showed up at Bangor Auditorium each night that winter.

“The man would not spend any money,” Windjammers Head Coach Gerald Oliver told The Bangor Daily News in 1992.  “He set up what we would operate on and it wasn’t even close to what we needed.”

By February 1985, Fournier was officially out and the team was on the block.  In March, Ramsdell announce that an “anonymous” group of Bangor businessmen had all but closed on the purchase of the club.  That deal fell through, as did a $190,000 sale to a pair of New York investors brokered by Bangor businessman James Clarkson.  On the court, the Windjammers didn’t fare any better, finishing in 6th place with an 18-30 record.  The CBA terminated the Windjammers franchise on June 18th, 1986.  The club lost a reported $80,000 during the 1985-86 campaign and left Bangor owing close to $50,000 in unpaid bills to local vendors.

In July of 1986, John Ligums, the Massachusetts stock broker who owned the Maine Lumberjacks during their final season in Bangor in 1982-83 sold his Bay State Bombardiers franchise to Pensacola, Florida interests.  Later the same day, he purchased the moribund Windjammers franchise from the CBA for a price rumored to be in the $200,000 range.  Ligums sold the franchise certificate to a Quad Cities Basketball Club, Inc. in Moline, Illinois three months later for a reported $450,000 to $500,000, meaning at least one man made money off of the Maine Windjammers.   The Quad Cities group sat out the 1986-87 season and entered the CBA as an expansion team (more or less) named the Quad Cities Thunder for the 1987-88 season.

##

Jay Ramsdell returned to the CBA league office and his former Deputy Commissioner role after the collapse of the Windjammers in 1986.  In 1988, he was appointed Commissioner of the CBA.  At 24 years of age, he was widely reported to be the youngest Commissioner of a professional league in American sports history.  One year later on July 19th, 1989, Ramsdell died in the crash of United Airlines Flight 232 in Sioux City, Iowa.  Ramsdell’s Deputy Commissioner Jerry Schemmel survived the crash and rescued an 11-month baby from the wreckage.  He later wrote a book Chosen To Live about the experience.  The CBA Championship trophy was subsequently renamed the Jay Ramsdell Trophy.

In the 2000’s, former Windjammers player Sam Worthen became Head Coach of the Washington Generals, the long-time foils of the Harlem Globetrotters.

Downloads:

Puerto Rico Coquis & Maine Windjammers sources

Written by AC

September 25th, 2011 at 12:35 am

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