Hoping for a world stage

Basketball: The Baltimore-based International Basketball League is starting small, but is dreaming of bigger and better days ahead.

May 28, 1999|By JERRY BEMBRY | JERRY BEMBRY,SUN STAFF

It started with a brief, one-year stint in the NBA with the New Jersey Nets, followed by a tour of small-town America in the Continental Basketball Association and most recently a four-year career in Helsinki, Finland.

And yet, despite playing professional basketball for nine years, former Dunbar and Towson State star Kurk Lee has had one regret.

"I've always wanted to come home and play before my family and friends," Lee said earlier this week. "The only time they've really seen me play has been from tapes. For them to be able to see me in person would be special."

Lee is hoping his dreams might become possible come November. For that's when the Baltimore-based International Basketball League will begin play, with the Baltimore BayRunners one of the nine teams set to play in the inaugural season.

Today, Lee will be one of the approximately 300 players participating in the IBL pre-draft camp, to be held over four days at the University of Maryland. Select players from the pre-draft camp (for which candidates paid $250 each to participate) will be added to the players eligible for the IBL draft on July 19.

While there have been several professional basketball leagues proposed over the last several years (the Bethesda-based National Rookie League is one), the IBL is the closest to becoming reality. The nine teams -- Baltimore, Cincinnati, Las Vegas, Richmond, Va., San Diego, St. Louis, Tampa, Fla., Albuquerque, N.M. and Trenton, N.J. -- will play a 64-game schedule and pay salaries between $20,000 and $100,000.

The IBL, with its headquarters overlooking the Inner Harbor on the eighth floor of the World Trade Center, also has attracted some impressive names. League president Thaxter Trafton is the former president of the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers. Vice president Paul Martha is the former president of the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins and former vice president with the NFL's San Francisco 49ers.

Also on board as consultants are Dr. Richard Lapchick, founder of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society, who will serve as the league's educational adviser (each player will be eligible for a one year educational scholarship for each year in the league); Neil Pilson, former president of CBS Sports, who will be the league's television adviser; and Bill Foster, the former college coach who will be an adviser on basketball issues. Former NBA center Ralph Sampson is the general manager of the Richmond Rhythm, and former NBA coach Butch Beard will coach the St. Louis Swarm.

The driving force behind the league is Arthur Cipriani Jr., the league's chief executive officer, who took a company called Natural Gas Clearinghouse from scratch to an international business with annual revenues of more than $9 billion. Cipriani retired from the company in 1994, and has devoted much of his time since to the IBL.

IBL games will be played at mid-size arenas (the BayRunners will play at the Baltimore Arena), and hopes its average ticket price of $12 will attract fans unable to afford major sporting events. The goal the first year is to average 3,500 to 4,000 fans a game.

"If you look around the country, what's making major-league sports so difficult to attend is the price," said George Blaney, the league's vice president of basketball operations. "So much of major-league sports had become so corporate, which in my mind is why minor-league baseball, minor-league hockey and indoor soccer has become so successful."

At first glance, the league appears to be a difficult sell, playing at the same time as the NBA and its developmental league, the CBA. But Blaney said the IBL does not intend to compete with the NBA.

"We are at a different level than the NBA," said Blaney, who played for the Knicks and the 76ers in the NBA and coached at Seton Hall and Holy Cross. "One of the real tenets of the league was not to go to NBA cities, but to major markets. We don't see ourselves as a competitor, but as an alternate professional league -- that's our niche. We would like to be a developmental league for them."

NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik met with officials of the IBL, but said that a business relationship was not discussed.

The leaders of the IBL hope that translates to success on the court. Blaney said the league is looking to negotiate a national television deal to broadcast 12 to 15 games the first year.

"The idea is to make this international," Blaney said. "We have a number of cities who have asked to be second-year players in the league. Eventually we want to have a whole league in South America, a whole league in Europe, a whole league in South Africa, and a whole league in China. The thought of going international, that makes people excited."

And the thought of having such a league here in the United States has players excited as well.

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