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1999-2001 Las Vegas Silver Bandits

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International Basketball League (1999-2001)

Born: 1999 – IBL founding franchise.
Died: March 13, 2001 – Bandits cease operations in mid-season.

Arena: The Thomas & Mack Center

Team Colors:

Owners:

  • 1999-March 2000: International Basketball League
  • March 2000 – March 2001: Jackie Robinson et al.

Another tombstone in the graveyard of sports start-ups that is Las Vegas, Nevada.  The Las Vegas Silver Bandits (shortened to simply the Bandits in year two) were a minor league basketball outfit in the new International Basketball League that debuted in November 1999.  The Bandits lasted just a year-and-a-half before collapsing in the middle of their second season.  The IBL itself followed a few months later.

The IBL sprung to life amidst a cluttered and rapidly shifting minor league basketball landscape.  The Continental Basketball Association, with roots dating back to 1946, held a coveted designation as the official developmental league of the NBA.  Former NBA superstar Isaiah Thomas purchased the entire CBA in August 1999 for approximately $10 million, with plans for rapid expansion and even closer ties to the NBA.  The Thomas acquisition, however, would soon become the death knell for the venerable CBA.

Meanwhile, in Indiana, a former ad agency exec named Joe Newman prepared the launch of the American Basketball Association, borrowing the name and the iconic red, white & blue ball of the 1960’s and 1970’s renegade league that launched the careers of Dr. J., George “The Ice Man” Gervin, and Moses Malone and forced a merger with the NBA in 1976.

Each of these leagues – the CBA, ABA and IBL – would face major struggles attracting fans and sponsors, while their reliance on nationwide air travel (among other costs) virtually assured that franchises would operate in the red.  Further rocking the boat, the NBA launched its own proprietary minor league – the National Basketball Developmental League – in eight Southeastern cities in 2001, which killed off the hopes of both the CBA and the IBL to secure NBA partnerships and subsidies.  By 2002, all three organizations had ceased operations, either temporarily or permanently.

The Silver Bandits debuted at the Thomas & Mack Center on November 26th, 1999, treating the reported crowd of 5,844 to a 116-92 demolition of the visiting San Diego Stingrays.  The club’s best player was J.R. Henderson, the former freshman star of UCLA’s 1995 NCAA championship team who also played one season for the NBA’s Vancouver Grizzlies.  Henderson would lead the IBL in scoring in 1999-00 with a 22.6 points per game average.  Midway through the season, the Silver Bandits added former UNLV star George Ackles, who started alongside Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon for Jerry Tarkanian’s dominant Runnin’ Rebels teams of the late 1980’s. Silver Bandits Head Coach Rolland Todd had a footnote in NBA history as the first Head Coach of the Portland Trail Blazers during their debut season in 1970-71.

The Silver Bandits finished the 1999-00 season with a 37-27 record.  Off the court, the Silver Bandits reported average attendance of 2,291 fans per game in the 9,600-seat Thomas & Mack Center, which ranked 6th in the eight-team IBL.

The club began the IBL’s inaugural season as a league-owned team. In March of 2000, a group of former UNLV basketball stars from the 1970’s, led by former NBA player Jackie Robinson, purchased the Silver Bandits franchise for an undisclosed sum.  For the IBL’s second season, Robinson’s group shortened the name of the team to simply “Bandits” replaced coach Rolland Todd with former NBA star Lionel Hollins.  Hollins had served as interim Head Coach of the NBA’s Vancouver Grizzlies for 60 games the previous winter.

The IBL headed into Year Two with only six franchises, after losing clubs in Baltimore and San Diego and failing to attract any expansion interest.  By this time, both the IBL and the CBA were in severe distress and exploring a merger.  IBL owners were forced to prop up the league’s New Mexico Slam franchise after its owner abandoned the club in mid-season.  The CBA was in even worse shape, thanks to Isaiah Thomas’ disastrous regime.  Out of cash, the entire CBA shutdown in early February 2001 after more than 50 winters of continuous operation.  The IBL immediately absorbed five clubs from the CBA, bolstering the league ranks from six to eleven franchises…temporarily.

On March 13th, 2001, the Bandits folded up shop in midseason.  Although the club had the second best record in the IBL at 20-11 at the time, attendance at the Thomas & Mack was a meager 1,944 per game during the 2000-01 season.  Owner Jackie Robinson cited a need for $900,000 to complete the final 45 days of the season and was forced to drop out when one of his partners declined to meet a six-figure capital call.  For its part, the IBL was not willing to bail out the Bandits, as it had the New Mexico Slam two weeks earlier, a decision which frustrated Robinson.

“We were trying to work with the league,” Robinson told The Las Vegas Review-Journal.  “They decided to help New Mexico, but they wouldn’t help us out for a couple of weeks.  I was completely shocked.  I don’t understand it.”

The rest of the IBL played on without the Bandits and limped through to the conclusion of the 2000-01 season.  The St. Louis Swarm won the second and final International Basketball League championship that spring and then the IBL folded quietly in July of 2001.

Upon the Bandits demise, The Review-Journal calculated that it was the eighteenth professional sports team to fold in Las Vegas in the previous twenty-five years and the fourth pro basketball club.

J.R. Henderson, the IBL’s leading scorer with the Silver Bandits in 1999-00, continues with a long and successful career playing in Japan.   So successful that in 2007, he became a naturalized citizen of Japan and formally changed his name to J.R. Sakuragi.

The Bandits final Head Coach, Lionel Hollins, is the Head Coach of the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies at the time of this writing.

Former Bandits Director of Broadcasting Tim Neverett now handles radio and television play-by-play for the Pittsburgh Pirates of Major League Baseball.

 

Links

International Basketball League Media Guides

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