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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.

 

Links

Western Basketball Association Programs

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Written by Drew Crossley

January 12th, 2018 at 6:01 pm

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