THE FEDERAL PROSECUTION OF NCAA BASKETBALL

On Tuesday, September 26, 2017 the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York announced the arrest of ten individuals, including four Division I coaches, in a college basketball scandal. Corporate executives from global sports company Adidas, as well as coaches from Auburn, the University of South Carolina, the University of Arizona and the University of Southern California were named as defendants.  The Criminal Complaints describe two separate corruption schemes involving wire fraud and money laundering.[1]

The first scheme involved college basketball coaches taking cash bribes from athlete advisors, including business managers and financial advisors, in exchange for using their influence to steer college players to certain Division I schools and to retain the services of bribe-paying agents (“advisors”) after they entered the NBA.

In the second scheme, a senior executive at “Company-1” (Adidas), working in connection with the corrupt advisors, funneled bribe payments to high school-aged players through their AAU program to obtain those players’ commitments to attend universities sponsored by Adidas, rather than schools sponsored by Nike or other sports apparel brands.

A criminal complaint is a written instrument accusing someone (the “defendant”) of a crime.  The complaint alleges that federal statutes have been violated; it is supported by the affidavit of an investigating law enforcement agent.  A complaint is enough to hail a defendant into court but prosecutors have to present evidence to a grand jury and obtain an indictment in order to proceed to trial.

Once indicted, under speedy trial rules, the Government has 70 days to bring a defendant to trial minus any excludable periods of time. Generally speaking, there is more flexibility prior to, rather than after, an indictment is filed.  Sometime after a defendant is arraigned on a criminal complaint, the judge sets a date by which the Government must indict or the complaint will be dismissed (See Fed.R.Crim. Pro. 48(b)). Many courts will extend the Government’s time to indict if the defendant is not in custody and the parties consent. This is especially common where there is a request for, or an attempt by, a Defendant to provide “cooperation”.  “Cooperation” refers to a process by which a Defendant is required to provide assistance to the Government (colloquially, “snitching”) in order to obtain a favorable plea bargain.

The three complaints in this case charge four coaches (Chuck Person, Lamont Evans, Emanuel Richardson, and Anthony Bland); three athlete advisors (Christian Dawkins, Munish Sood & Rashan Michel) a senior executive at Adidas(James Gatto), an employee of Adidas(Merl Code) and an AAU program director (Jonathan Brad Augustine).

Gatto is the head of global sports marketing for Adidas.  Merl Code was an employee of Adidas and prior head of Nike Elite youth basketball. Jonathan Brad Augustine, is an AAU program director and head of a Florida 501©(3) non-profit whose purpose is to benefit high school age athletes and provide mentors.

Dawkins worked at a sports management company in New Jersey but was not a registered agent.  His main duties included recruiting athletes to the firm and maintaining client relationships.  In May 2017 he was fired for misusing an athlete’s credit card to pay for ride company services.  He then tried to open his own sports management business. Sood founded an investment company in 2002 and is a registered investment advisor.  Sood was an investor in Dawkins’ new sports management business.

The non-university coach defendants (Gatto, Sood, Dawkins, Code and Augustine) are charged in Criminal Complaint #17-MAG-7120[2], pending before United States Magistrate Judge James Cott.  Those defendants are charged with one count of conspiring to commit wire fraud, two counts of actually committing wire fraud (substantive counts) and one count of money laundering.  The criminal acts are alleged to have been committed between May 2017 – September 2017.

Count One – charges a conspiracy to commit wire fraud and agreeing to a scheme to defraud by obtaining money by false pretenses. The defendants and others employed at “University 6” & “University 7” made bribe payments to high school athletes and/or their families in exchange for the player’s commitment to play basketball at those schools.  This resulted in the universities unknowingly giving scholarship money to athletes who were ineligible because they had accepted bribes (this is also the substantive wire fraud charge in count 2). The Government’s theory is that the universities were thereby deprived of control over their money and could have been subjected to financial penalties under NCAA rules. (substantive wire fraud charge under count 3).  Count Four charges money laundering; i.e. conducting financial transactions knowing the money is proceeds of illegal activity.

How the Schemes were Allegedly Carried Out

The remainder of complaint, paragraph numbers 8-47, outline the factual background of investigation.  Since 2015 the FBI and US Attorney for the Southern District of New York have been investigating the criminal influence of money on coaches and players in college basketball.

Bribes paid by athlete advisors and high level apparel companies to student athletes were facilitated by coaches at Division I universities.  The money was paid to athletes (or their families) playing at Division I schools or intending to attend a Division I college after high school in exchange for a committment to attend a particular school and then to hire the “bribe-payors” as agents or in other similar capacities once they enter the NBA.

Sometimes payments were concealed by paying the money to third party or non-profit organizations controlled by the defendants and encouraging players and their families to make false representations to these schools to conceal their violation of NCAA rules.[3] Two defendants, Gatto and Code, employees at Adidas (“company 1”) conspired to pay athletes to entice them to attend Adidas sponsored schools and then sign with Adidas once they entered the NBA.  Dawkins, Sood and Augustine facilitated the payments from Gatto and Code to the players and then got the players to commit to hiring Dawkins, as their agent/business manager,  and Sood as their financial manager, after they turned professional.

In order to gather proof against the Defendants, the Government used a cooperating witness who operated a business management firm that catered to professional athletes and provided investment related advice. In September 2017 this cooperator pled guilty to securities fraud, wire fraud, aggravated identity theft and making false statements pursuant to a cooperation agreement. The latter reference is not explained in the Complaint but most likely means the cooperator lied to his federal “handlers” during the course of the investigation.

 An FBI undercover agent posed as a potential backer for the sports management company Dawkins was trying to set up with Sood. Dawkins instructed Sood and the undercover to make a $25,000 payment to a player with a promise they would be reimbursed by virtue of their positions with the sports management company.  The FBI captured Dawkins on a wiretap and were intercepting his phone calls.

Adidas generated sham purchase orders since they couldn’t use funds to directly pay a player without risking the illegal payment being discovered.  Gatto was putting the purchase orders “on the books” and listing them as payments to an outside consulting company with which Code was affiliated.  Gatto also made payments “off the books” to Code’s working group within Adidas. Code complained in one conversation that when he tried to submit an invoice to Adidas from Code’s consulting company for the “university 6 situation” the consulting company didn’t have a vendor number in Adidas’ system. It would take Code several weeks to create a vendor number and purchase order and he couldn’t afford to wait. He was upset that  Gatto wasn’t using his position to push it through so Code asked Dawkins to have Sood and the undercover to make a $25k payment to player 10’s father.

Player 10’s father had been putting pressure on them to get paid. In return, Player 10 would then agree to sign with Dawkin’s company to represent him when he turned professional. The Government also intercepted conversations between the defendants about how other apparel companies mask similar payments to high school athletes.  Code stated that by funneling payments through a third party company like Dawkins’ he could do whatever he wanted with it because Adidas was not engaging in a monetary relationship with an amateur athlete.  Rather, he characterized it as engaging in a monetary relationship with a business manager. Dawkins expected that if the kid was “one and done” that he’d be a top 20 draft pick but if he played two years of college he’d be a top ten pick. [4]

A week and a half after the NBA Summer League[5] ended in Las Vegas, Augustine met in hotel room there with an assistant coach from Louisville, an undercover agent and a cooperating witness. They discussed certain difficulties they were having with their recruitment scheme. In addition to Player 10, they were recruiting another player to attend Louisville but the player’s mother was demanding payment immediately. Adidas had agreed to pay player 10 a certain amount but a rival apparel company (and university 4) was “coming in with a higher number”.  Dawkins discussed how once they finished paying Player 10 they had to then pay his father $2,000 / month.  He also talked about giving Augustine $5,000 per month to give to the other player’s mother so she could pay her bills. Dawkins admitted to the FBI undercover agent that some of the payments are “illegal”.

While most media commentators have welcomed the federal prosecution as helping to clean up college basketball, there have been some who have criticized it as federal “overreaching”. Others have called the public shaming of only a small number of schools a “drop in the ocean” and even a misplaced effort:

“Last month, Adidas agreed to pay $160 million over 10 years for the University of             Louisville to wear its apparel. That’s called a “deal.” But if the company then pays a high    school athlete to attend the school, that’s called a “bribe”? But that’s an issue for the             NCAA, not law enforcement. The NCAA has real power to enforce its rules, because it can destroy the careers of both players and coaches who cross it. And despite the obvious      fact that college basketball and football are multibillion-dollar businesses, with coaches        and others being paid millions of dollars, the NCAA remains adamant that no money ever touch a player’s hand. That’s really the crux of the issue here.”

See “Why is the FBI trying to enforce NCAA rules”, Joe Nocera, New York Post 2017

 

[1] The case was brought in federal court, as opposed to state court, because the scheme involved individuals and businesses acting across state lines and the universities received federal funding.

[2] In the two other complaints, Chuck Person and Lamont Evans are accused of executing another scheme where athlete advisors bribed university coaches to steer players to those athlete advisors once they entered the NBA.

[3] The NCAA Division I manual provides: “student athletes shall be amateurs in an intercollegiate sport”.  NCAA bylaws define “agent” as anyone who seeks to obtain directly or indirectly any type of financial gain or benefit from a student athlete’s potential earnings as a professional athlete”.   The definition includes “marketing advisor, financial advisor, contract advisor or brand manager”.  Athletes, coaches and staff have to certify each year that they are in compliance with NCAA rules in order to participate in NCAA sponsored sports. They also have an affirmative obligation to report any violations of NCAA rules including whether they have any knowledge of rules violations by others.

[4]  Last year’s top pick, Ben Simmons, signed a four-year contract worth up to $26.6 million with the first two years and $12.1 million guaranteed. By comparison the 16th pick in the draft received a deal worth $9.1 million with $3.9 million guaranteed.  See “Here’s how much money players lose when they fall in the NBA Draft”, Cork Gaines/Diana Yukari, June 2017, Business Insider

[5] A series of off-season competitions during which National Basketball Association teams try out different rosters of players typically consisting of a mix of rookies, second year players, and unsigned free agents.

 

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CALLING ALL FANS:  HELP BRING AN NBA PRESEASON GAME TO BUFFALO IN 2018/2019

After hosting the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament this week, Buffalo once again showed its passion for basketball. We are the former home of the Braves (now LA Clippers), have plenty of Division I college action, and we are a potential market for five pro teams and their D-league affiliates: Toronto, Detroit, Cleveland, Boston & the New York Knicks/Nets.  MSG TV, TSN, NBA TV will all provide coverage of the upcoming playoffs with expected ratings to be among the highest across the major professional sports leagues.

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Always interested in developing a shrinking number of untapped markets, you would think the NBA would have come calling on Western New York long ago.  After all, the Bills draw fans from Rochester to the East, Northwest Pennsylvania and Southern Ontario. We have travel and tourism groups working to promote the area; a number of former NBA players still live in Buffalo; the hotel industry is booming thanks to the Governor’s Buffalo Billion program; and we have the kind of faithful sports fans that still pine for the glory days of Bob McAdoo, Ernie D, Bob Lanier and Adrian Dantley.

So I’ve been working for a while with Coach Jim Baron and Paul Stasiak (NFADA) to entice a couple of NBA teams to schedule a preseason game here in Buffalo. We learned from the League Office that the teams make their own preseason schedule.  We started by contacting Detroit and Toronto.

The Knicks are further away but a Buffalo ex-pat is heading up MSG TV and signed a deal with the Pegulas to broadcast Sabres games.  A Knicks game in Buffalo sure sounds like additional good content.

Detroit has the most connections to Buffalo.  Coach Stan VanGundy was an Assistant Coach at Canisius College; Lindsey Hunter played for the Pistons and is now an Assistant Coach for the UB Bulls Men’s basketball team.  Not to mention that UB Head Coach Nate Oats came to us from Romulus high school in Detroit.  Bob Lanier was a Piston first round draft choice from St. Bonaventure.  It’s a 4-1/2 hour drive through Canada to the historic Palace in Auburn Hills or next year to the new Little Caesar’s arena in downtown Detroit.

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Toronto is the closest team, about 2 hours to the north via the QEW to the Air Canada Center.  Mark Jones from ESPN is from Toronto and growing up was a big fan of the Buffalo Braves.  The voice of the Raptors, Jack Armstrong, has family in Western New York. TSN television broadcasts are handled by Leo Rautins who played basketball for Syracuse University.  The Raptors availability in the short term may be limited because in the last few years they’ve committed to playing in the NBA Canada series during the preseason.

There are a number of other challenges.  One is that the new NBA collective bargaining agreement between the players and the league reduced the number of preseason games from 8 to 6.

The next concern is financial.  One of the teams would have to be the “home” team; i.e. on the hook for expenses incurred by having the game here. Costs associated with the arena, advertising, etc. We have to find out what the “guarantee” is – how many tickets we have to “guarantee” we can sell and at what price.  That information will come from the team that considers Buffalo as a home game.

We made some very preliminary inquiries to Pistons management who expressed possible interest if they were the visiting team. We have also reached out to the Raptors management.  Obviously, they are coming down the stretch in the Eastern Conference and then looking ahead to playoffs in April and May; after which their attention will be focused on the NBA draft in June.  It will be tough to keep a discussion going with them now about a preseason game in Buffalo in the next year or two but we will try to stay on their radar.

Until we get a commitment from at least one team we can’t really go full steam ahead to solicit corporate sponsors. I’ve been doing my research and making some contacts with businesses and professionals in marketing.  The age-old problem in Buffalo is that we don’t have any Fortune 500 companies here.  But I have a few ideas about marketing the event that we can explore with local companies.  The teams also have their own personnel who have experience hosting games in different venues.  Over the next few months I’ll continue to mention the prospect of sponsorships to national companies during my networking on behalf of R1 Sports Mgnt clients.

Locally, Mayor Brown and Russ Brandon have publicly expressed support for getting the NBA to come to Buffalo.  Business leaders, the NCAA host committee and power brokers like the Pegulas and the Jacobs family will ultimately make this happen but we have to show them that there’s a demand for the event.

So if you’d like to see an NBA preseason game here this is what we need:  please forward this article to anyone you know who would be interested; “like” it on twitter, re-post it on your Facebook page or Instagram account.  Let’s create some social media buzz about this idea.

Our friends in traditional broadcast media and the Buffalo News, like interim Buffalo News sports editor Keith McShea, will be allies and advocates.  Lisa Wilson who ran the News’ sports department for the past six years just started March 13th as sports editor of ESPN’s The Undefeated.  Somebody must have her new email address.  There are Buffalonians all over the country, like Gail Hunter who is Vice President of Public Affairs and Event Management for the Golden State Warriors, that if called upon, would help.  Not to mention our local coaches and players who all have extensive lists of basketball contacts. Build support for the game and they will come.

So Let’s Go Buffalo – let the Raptors and Pistons know that “We the North” and “The Grind” were a way of life here long before becoming team slogans. That the “Home of the Braves” is still home to the NBA.

 

 

ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith for President

Nelson Mandela famously said “I never lose. I either win or learn”. That’s an appropriate sentiment with which to begin reflection on the lessons of last week’s presidential election. With the noise and vitriol fading, now is the time to take stock of where we stand as a country in the days since my candidate lost. Lest you think my candidate was HRC, and at the risk of taking a page out of Jay Cutler’s playbook, I will tell you for whom I cast my vote. Like Inside the NBA’s Ernie Johnson, I too wrote-in my choice for President: Stephen A. Smith.

As a white, 50-year old woman living in Buffalo New York, I have been told that I am a statistical demographic whose vote could have gone either way last week. I live in an economically depressed sports and former steel town; in the once-upon-a-time tony suburbs of a traditionally left-leaning county in Western New York. Had any of the pundits or pollsters bothered to ask me, I would have told them my political views mirror my choices in sports teams—not blindly loyal to only one team, year after year; accustomed to heartbreaking losses (Bills “wide right” / Sabres “no goal”) and defining a “win”, at times, differently from the rest of the country.

Stephen A. has recognized for a while now the interrelation between sports and politics.   His commentaries have a depth of vision that make the recent well-intentioned protest efforts of some NBA players seem less like a moral and organic movement and more like an ordinary and temporary reaction. In speaking about politics and sports, Stephen A. is the voice of middle America—not “white America” or “black America”, but rather the America of the loyal but discouraged who, like himself,  still have a lot of fight left. I never feel like he is talking down to me on First Take; I feel he is talking to me, not about me. He doesn’t distinguish between college educated and non-college educated people like the professional politicos do. He knows what I know: that even though I had the privilege of going to college, while most in my family did not, they are smarter than me in a lot of ways and half of them make more money.  Smith is unique in how he gets his political message across to sports fans. He can talk about political topics in a way that makes it seem like we are sitting across the dinner table from each other with the rest of our family.

Smith, long before Trump made it a campaign slogan, has always “told it like it is”. He took heat for saying that he thought the elite media was biased toward HRC [1] But is there any doubt in hindsight that the New York Times and mainstream “news” channels could barely conceal their deep disappointment about the results last Tuesday? He called out San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick: not because Kaepernick cared enough about social justice to take a knee; but rather because he didn’t care enough to take the time to exercise our most important right as citizens in a democracy. Smith passionately excoriated him for not voting, then announcing it and setting the wrong example for the kids who look up to him as a professional athlete.[2]

Stephen A. also came under fire with some groups when he said the Democratic Party took the black vote for granted, to the detriment of blacks.[3] His point was that the Democrats can be your favorite team but if they are playing poorly, raising ticket prices and disrespecting your fan loyalty, you may want to check out what others have to offer, consider your options, show them respect runs both ways.

Smith pointed out that African Americans heard something different when Trump said “Make America Great Again”. He said they heard “Make America White Again”.[4] Just as many career women heard him say “Make America a Men’s Locker Room Again”. Trump donned a baseball hat and talked about HRC’s lack of stamina. Sports metaphors have always been an effective communication device. Politics as sport and Sports infused with politics is our reality in America today.

In contrast to Kaepernick’s silent, symbolic protest, Smith joined many NBA players, as an active and vocal critic of the injustice they see in America. While stars like Carmelo Anthony[5], Lebron James, Chris Paul, and Dwayne Wade speak out on behalf of political causes and give their followers an outlet for their frustrations, Smith is their articulator-in-chief. Whitehouse press conferences would be relevant again if Stephen A. was the President, or even if he was the Whitehouse spokesperson (Mr. Trump are you listening?)

Events like Trayvon Martin’s murder, gang violence in Chicago, and racially inflammatory speech during the election all inspired NBA players and coaches[6] to DO something, to ACT[7]in the face of racism. I applaud these efforts but want to hold up a mirror for one second. Stephen A. why don’t we hear players asking why Becky Hammon (thanks Pop!) and Nancy Lieberman are the only women coaches in the NBA and demanding equality in that regard? You can hardly find a basketball blog that doesn’t have sponsored ads at the end depicting women in various states of undress. Players in recent memory have been guilty of tweeting pics of their girlfriend’s behinds. Many NBA dance teams put more emphasis on being sexually alluring than showcasing the quite obvious athleticism it takes to entertain crowds for two hours.  Thank heaven for Michelle Roberts. Like so many men, JR Smith wonders what to tell his daughters about the outcome of this election.[8] Its not what you tell her JR, its what you do to make sure she doesn’t experience prejudice the way you do. Instead of worrying about what you’re going to say to her, you should be asking yourself what you’re going to do so that she is never made to feel “less than”.

In this new politically aware age of the NBA, lets see some more white players don a hoodie. And lets not forget to protest discrimination in all its forms. While NBA Commissioner Adam Silver may be the choice of progressive liberals to run for president in 2020[9] I’m supporting a Stephen A. Smith candidacy. He’s a true independent. A man of the people; A voice for all of us out here in the heartland, united behind the NBA and our country even if it they aren’t always perfect.

[1] http://www.breitbart.com/video/2016/11/11/espns-stephen-a-media-literally-tried-to-win-election-for-hillary-sidekick-disputes/

[2] see Twitter @firsttake @stephenasmith November 10, 2016

[3] http://www.breitbart.com/video/2015/03/18/espns-stephen-a-smith-for-one-election-every-black-person-should-vote-republican/

[4] http://defendernetwork.com/videos/trending/stephen-smith-reacts-trump-winning-election/

[5] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/10/sports/basketball/carmelo-anthony-lebron-james-election.html?_r=0

[6] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/13/sports/basketball/kerr-gundy-popovich-criticize-donald-j-trump.html

[7] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/early-lead/wp/2016/11/10/the-message-was-loud-and-clear-in-nba-and-nfl-a-struggle-to-accept-trumps-election/

[8] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/early-lead/wp/2016/11/09/raw-emotions-surface-as-nba-player-asks-how-to-explain-trumps-election-to-his-daughter/?tid=a_inl

[9] http://paceandspacehoops.com/posts/29167112/why-nba-commissioner-adam-silver-should-run-for-president-in-2020.html

 

A Tribute to Coach Jim Baron

(by guest author Kyle Clarke; edited by Cheryl Meyers Buth)  

 Canisius College Basketball Coach Jim Baron walked away from a legendary career this past March to spend more time with his family.  He retired as he had always coached, with class; a noble warrior quietly heading home after battle.  He embodied Theodore Roosevelt’s famous description of the character of men, seemingly so rare these days, who humbly dedicate themselves to our mutual betterment:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

(Excerpt from the speech “Citizenship In A Republic” delivered at the Sorbonne, in Paris, France on 23 April, 1910).

Having coached at two Division I schools in Western New York, St. Bonaventure and Canisius (and the University of Rhode Island in between), Coach Baron earned a special place in the hearts of local college basketball fans. On the occasion of his unexpected retirement, he offered fans a glimpse into his life beyond coaching: “I have given this decision a lot of thought and I just feel like it is time for me to step aside,” Baron said in a statement at his retirement press conference. “This profession demands a lot. I recently went overseas to see my boys play basketball professionally and there I realized, I have not been able to see them or my granddaughters much at all the last few years. I want to be a dad and I want to be a grandfather.”

Before becoming the patriarch of his own family, Coach Baron enjoyed a basketball life as both a player and coach himself. He was born in Brooklyn. His personality, style of play, and coaching mentality all reflect the toughness he learned growing up. He played for St. Bonaventure in the mid-70’s where he was known for his hard-nosed, defensive play. Baron was a talented scorer but he was typically tasked with the job of shutting down the opposing team’s best players. He played a key role in leading the Bonnies to the NIT Championship in 1977 and, notably, also earned “The Ideal Bonaventure Student” award. In later days he always held up the notion of the student-athlete as a worthy and necessary ideal to be achieved.

After graduating from college, Coach Baron went on to play professionally with the Rochester Zeniths of the Continental Basketball Association and won a championship in 1979. The Zeniths played in downtown Rochester, New York at what is now known as Blue Cross Arena.

Coach Baron’s first coaching position was as an assistant at Aquinas Institute in Rochester, New York. The following year, Baron became an assistant coach at NCAA Division III Rochester University. Baron quickly rose through the college coaching ranks, becoming an assistant at Division I Loyola College in Maryland.  In 1980, Coach Baron had an opportunity to return to his alma mater as assistant coach for St. Bonaventure University. Following a short stint with his former team, Baron joined the Notre Dame coaching staff, learning under the legendary Digger Phelps as an assistant coach from 1981 to 1987. There, Baron helped Notre Dame make the NCAA Tournament in 1985, ’86 & ’87. The Irish were ranked in the top 25 in both 1986 and 1987.  In 1988, Coach Baron received his first Division I coaching job at St. Francis University in Pennsylvania.

When Coach Baron set foot on the St. Francis (PA) campus, the basketball program was in rough shape. In the five years prior to Baron’s tenure, the Red Flash accumulated a record of 54-85, a win percentage of just 38.8%. From the time that he took over to when his tenure with the team had ended, Baron’s record was 74-71 with a win percentage of 51.0%. The highlight of his time with the Red Flash was the 1991 season which saw the team clinch their first and only NCAA Tournament berth in school history. Due to the success that he was able to achieve with St. Francis (PA) he was then afforded an opportunity that very few coaches receive in their careers.

In 1992, Coach Baron took over the basketball program at his alma mater of St. Bonaventure University. He lived up to his reputation of turning around struggling basketball programs. Similar to his experience at St. Francis, Coach Baron was dealt a bad team in a tough conference and was asked to make the Bonnies competitive. Prior to his arrival the Bonnies had just a 34.3% win percentage during the tenure of its last two head coaches. During his tenure Baron was able to revive the program, accumulating a 50.2% win percentage and leading the Bonnies to three NIT and one NCAA tournament appearances. The Bonnies came into their 2000 NCAA tournament game matched as the 12th seed playing Tubby Smith’s 5th seeded Kentucky Wildcats, that included eventual NBA players Keith Bogans, Tayshaun Prince, and Jamaal Magliore.  The Bonnies were able to mount a fierce second half come back and push Kentucky to double overtime before falling to the Wildcats by a score of 85-80.

I remember going to grammar school that day in my Bonaventure jersey and our teacher allowing us to watch the game and share in that experience with the team and the rest of the community. During his time as head coach, Baron left an unforgettable impression on the residents in Olean, New York; and to this day I still enjoy the “Baron Sausage Sandwich” at the local Angee’s Italian Restaurant. Bonnies’ fans will always compare teams to Coach Baron’s squads and the exciting way winning a basketball game can unify a small town and beyond.

After a nine year stint with his alma mater, Baron was hired away by in-conference rival University of Rhode Island. Baron’s longest coaching tenure was with the Rams where he spent eleven seasons. Coach Baron took what had been a mediocre team and turned them into consistent conference contenders, finishing in the top half of the conference standings in all but four of those eleven seasons.  Coach Baron led Rhode Island to five NIT appearances, in which the best season ended with an NIT semifinals appearance. The Rams pushed eventual champion University of North Carolina to within one point of elimination in an overtime thriller. The highlight of Baron’s time in Rhode Island however was coaching his oldest son, Jim Baron Jr., for four seasons. During his playing career Jimmy was a 3-point specialist. He holds many Atlantic 10 Conference records for both single season and career marks. Jimmy is still currently the all-time leader for the Rams in 3-pt Field Goals made, 7th in 3-pt Field Goals Attempted, 4th in 3-pt Field Goal Percentage, and 3rd in True Shooting Percentage.

In 1992, Coach Baron decided to accept a job that brought him back to Western New York, as head coach of the Canisius College Golden Griffins.  Canisius College had a proud basketball tradition. The legendary John Beilein had coached the team 15 years before.  In the interim, the Golden Griffs had just one winning season. Over the course of the previous five seasons before Baron showed up, they had a win percentage of just 33.7 %. And once again, as has been the common theme throughout Baron’s career, he made an instant impact. Following a season where the Golden Griffs won a mere 5 games, Coach Baron was able to win 20 games immediately upon taking the helm. In fact, in his four years with the team Coach Baron was able to accumulate a 55.3% win percentage and a post-season berth to the College Basketball Invitational in three of his four seasons. Similar to his experience at the University of Rhode Island, Coach Baron was afforded the opportunity to coach his youngest son, Billy Baron. Billy was able to shine for his team where he averaged 20.7 ppg, 4.5 rpg, and 5.1 apg over the course of two seasons with the team. During the 2013-2014 season Billy earned MAAC Player of The Year honors behind a 24.1 ppg, 4.9 rpg, and 5.3 apg effort to accompany a 20-win season for the team.  As Coach Baron referenced in his retirement press conference, both of his sons, Jimmy and Billy, are currently playing for successful European basketball teams.

Attorney Sal Martoche, former Appellate Division Judge and United States Attorney for the Western District of New York, is also a Canisius College graduate and basketball season ticket holder. I was able to talk to Judge Martoche about what Coach Baron meant to the program over his 4 years with the school and the praise was overwhelming: “Jim brought such a fire and passion to the sidelines. We have not seen a competitor like him since John Beilein”, Judge Martoche told me. He also recalls how adaptable Coach Baron’s teams were throughout the years stating that “if a team wanted to slow down and play in the half court, Jim could do it. If they wanted to get out and run and play at a quicker pace, Jim could do it.” We spoke of the great discipline that Coach Baron brought to the game and how he was able to get so much out of the players he recruited.

One thing Coach Baron was always good at is recruiting local talent. For example, at Canisius he was able to get players such as Phil Valentie (Aquinas Institue), Adam Weir (Canisius HS), and Jermaine Crumpton (Niagara Falls HS). Along with giving local players a chance to play at the Division 1 level, Coach Baron was able to help his players achieve something that can be easily forgotten in the world of collegiate sports — a college degree. “If his graduation rate isn’t at 100% than it is very, very close” said Judge Martoche.

While he had the privilege of teaching his players the invaluable lessons that all athletes learn through competition such as discipline, hard work, respect for each other, and teamwork, Coach Baron was able to give his players a chance at life after basketball. They can take off their jersey and put down the basketball, but nobody can take away the memories; intense games, road trips, the feeling of enjoying a good team win or busting your butt in practice following a loss. And most importantly, nobody can take away the education that was earned throughout the time they were fortunate enough to learn something about life from Coach Baron.

While in the coaching arena, before his eyes passed the shadows cast by other legends of the coaching world, great masters of the game; Coach Baron stood as tall as any of them in his love of the game, talent and leadership. His legacy is in the imprint he left on innumerable student-athletes for whom he was mentor, surrogate father and role model. As Theodore Roosevelt concluded his tribute to one of our greatest allies at the Sarbonne in 1910: “You have had a great past. I believe you will have a great future.”  We wish you all the best on the road ahead, Coach. You have set an example for all of us, no matter our walk of life. You have given us the gift of shared memories and taught us how to win in the face of adversity and how to lose with grace.  On behalf of a grateful community of basketball fans, we sincerely thank you.

 

Sources:

Wikipedia

St. Bonaventure“, College Basketball at Sports-Reference.com

http://www.sportsreference.com/schools/st-bonaventure/, 1 Jan. 2000. Web. 19 Sept. 2016.

 

Canisius“, College Basketball at Sports-Reference.com.

Http://www.sports reference.com/cbb/schools/canisius/, 1 Jan. 2000. Web. 19 Sept. 2016.

 

Saint Francis (PA)” College Basketball at Sports-Reference.com.

Http://www.sportsreference.com/cbb/schools/saint-francis-pa/, 1 Jan. 2000. Web. 19 Sept. 2016.

 

Player Bio: Jim Baron” Player Bio: Jim Baron. N.P., 20 Oct. 2010. Web. 20 Sept. 2016.

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Underdog Narrative: A Brand Biography that fits Buffalo Businesses

In January 2016, I launched R1 Sports Mgnt, after being certified by the National Basketball Players’ Association (NBPA) as an agent. I plan to continue working in my law firm but did not expect my partners to financially back a business idea with long odds of success; and, for many reasons, one in which I would be considered an underdog. I structured the company so the success or failure of R1 Sports Mgnt would not affect the profitability of our law practice.

Since founding our law firm in January 2013 and now with R1 Sports Mgnt, developing marketing and branding strategies have obviously been a priority. Thinking about attracting clients necessarily involves thinking about who we are and the identity of the company. Would the success I’ve had practicing law translate to being successful as an Agent? If I was an underdog, how would that translate into my company’s biography and marketing plan? After a lot of thought, for me it comes down to a simple question: Are we “Nike” (inspirational, elite and exceptional) or are we “Under Armour” (no expectation for success but beating the odds through hard work)?

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Last week the Boston Celtics played the Memphis Grizzlies at TD Garden. I was lucky enough to sit in the first row behind the media. When the players made their entrance, “IT4”, Isaiah Thomas, looked even shorter than he does on television. The height differential with other players is shocking when you see him up close. How could someone at such a disadvantage because of his size have achieved all-star status? Playing in a sport where lack of height is almost an insurmountable disability, Thomas must have been considered an “underdog” his entire career. Yet he was the one we were there to watch. He got the ball for Boston’s first possession and I rooted for him, this small man among giants to succeed against such odds. And he did. In fact, he took over the game because he is so fast—he gets out on the break and even when outsized moves so quickly its hard to see everything he’s doing.

A few days after the Celtics game, the University at Buffalo Men’s and Women’s basketball teams won the MAC Championship and earned bids in the NCAA Tournament. With simultaneous victories in the MAC championship by the men’s and women’s teams, local sportscasters were proclaiming a “historic day”, “the best day in Buffalo basketball since the Braves left town”, and on ESPN Sportscenter they were referred to as “Buffalo Buzzer beaters”. For the men, it was a back-to-back conference championship and national tourney appearance. The Women had never played in the NCAA tournament.

No one had high expectations for either team at the beginning of the season. The UB basketball program had suffered a black eye in 2015 when the MAC player of the year was suspended from school, former Coach Bobby Hurley left for Arizona State with another of the standout players, and Athletic Director Danny White left for a job in Florida. First year head coach Nate Oats and newly appointed Athletic Director Allen Greene were left trying to right the ship without any big name players. By any definition, UB would have earned the title “underdogs”.

In 2010, Harvard Business School researcher Anat Keinan published the results of a study[i] of how companies intentionally communicated their humble roots to consumers as part of their underdog brand biographies[ii]. These researchers wanted to see the application of such constructs specifically in the area of consumer marketing and product branding. The question was whether consumers would identify with the disadvantaged position of the company and its passion and determination to succeed. Not that those companies were never successful or met with less success than competitors; rather they highlight humble beginnings, hopes and dreams, and struggles against adversity in terms of a disparity in resources; economic, educational or personal obstacles; or other external factors in the process of achieving success. In other words, their marketing highlights their journey toward their goal instead of the attainment of the goal itself.

We are familiar with numerous other iterations of this theme: David vs. Goliath, loser vs. winner, rags to riches. Underdogs show qualities of perserverence and resilience, determination and defying others’ expectations. Examples of underdog marketing run the gamut from Oprah Winfrey’s success after overcoming abuse, sexism and racism; to Apple, a company started by Steve Jobs in his garage; to Under Armour taking on Nike[iii].

Kevin Plank founded Under Armour in 1995 in Baltimore, Maryland (see http://www.ua.com). Less than twenty years later the company is second in market share to Nike, having displaced Adidas, and its products are sold worldwide. Plank was 23 years old and started the company in his grandmother’s basement. He maxed out his credit cards to get about $40,000 for start-up costs and had spent through nearly all of it in a year. He sold clothing out of the trunk of his car. His first team sale was for $17,000, took almost a year, and came right before his business was poised to go under.

Under Armour didn’t find success by imitating Nike, but rather by focusing on what differentiated them: “We work with athletes who most people wouldn’t or didn’t draft in the first round, or who they wouldn’t traditionally give a prima ballerina title to. We pick that athlete with a chip on their shoulder and their desire to win because it aligns with their own attitude”.[iv] For example, Steph Curry, someone who attained success by training every day to become a better shooter and keeps working at it even after a record-setting season (seemingly the incarnation of their slogan “It’s what you do in the dark that puts you I the light”).

Other examples that would fit Under Armour’s brand might be Herb Brooks and the US Olympic Hockey team. Closer to home, Randy Smith of the Buffalo Braves would seem to be an ambassador for Under Armour rather than Nike. Smith went to a Division III school, wasn’t drafted by Buffalo until the seventh round, 104th overall, and was a longshot to even make the team. Not only did he make it, he was the MVP of the 1978 All-Star game. He set the NBA iron man record playing in 906 games and it took 14 years for that record to be broken.

Nike partners with the most successful athletes and they urge consumers to “just do it” –there are no excuses for not reaching your potential. Under Armour looks at what happens after that initial effort, after “just do it” and partners with athletes who embody qualities of hard work, with a “things don’t come easy” attitude, to sustain success. Where Nike is inspirational, Under Armour is reality; its about the dirty, sweaty work that goes into actually being successful.

I think its an interesting dichotomy – why people find themselves aligned with the underdog who is expected to lose, when most people would say they want to associate themselves with winners. The Harvard team included researchers in marketing and psychology. They found that there were not many studies about the underdog narrative, especially consumer-related models. They theorized that these types of stories resonate with people more during difficult social, economic and political times, giving people hope when the outlook is otherwise bleak.

For the past thirty years, financial crises and income inequality have become mainstays in American life. People are working harder and more hours for less money and few find their jobs rewarding enough to justify the effort. Buffalo, a small city, has struggled – it has been economically depressed and faced an unequal playing field in business, leading to difficulty attracting companies and keeping younger members of the workforce from leaving. In Buffalo there is at least a perception of a lack of social mobility, blue-collar values are a strong undercurrent in the local culture. Buffalo may be particularly well situated for this type of marketing. In other words, the more a person perceives himself/herself as struggling against the odds, the more appeal for the underdog brand.

 

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Whether we are talking about a company finding the right athlete for its brand, or thinking about a marketing campaign for a university or our city, the underdog narrative is one that will continue to play well in Buffalo. One thing I’ve learned is that to be successful you have to know who you are and be authentic. I am a Buffalo gal through and through. For me, if its between “Just Do It” or “Protect this House”, I believe its not enough to “just do it”, you have to plan and prepare for how you’re going to be successful. It takes hard work and grit and determination; not just today but everyday. It takes perserverence and thick skin, your own under armor. I may be an underdog but at R1 Sports we know “opportunity doesn’t have an offseason”. You have to keep working. Just ask the members of the UB basketball team.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[i] “The Underdog Effect: The Marketing of Disadvantage and Determination through Brand Biography”, journal of Consumer Research——-

[ii] refers to the story of a brand’s origins, experiences and evolution

[iii] see “Under Armour’s underdog strategy to becoming the anti-Nike”, Mallory Schlossberg, Business Insider 9/8/15

[iv] Id.

Coming Soon to an Arena Near You…NBA Basketball back in Buffalo?

Being an NBA fan in Western New York takes dedication. If you’re lucky you can catch some basketball news when WGR 55 radio carries ESPN sports-talk programming which happens to include occasional NBA topics. The Buffalo News publishes the league standings but not much more. Even after Golden State’s record-breaking start this season, surpassing the previous best start in NBA history by the ’95-’96 Chicago Bulls’ Jordan/Pippen glory team, barely a whisper about it was heard here. ESPN and NBAtv covered the story non-stop for days leading up to the record-tying game and showed complete game re-runs for days after. T-shirts being sold on NBA.com with “16-0” appearing under the Warriors’ logo are bestsellers nationally, just in time for Christmas. Team apps, the internet, ESPN/TNT and NBA League Pass are the only lifelines for local NBA fans. This begs the question…is the lack of NBA coverage in Western New York due to the fact there are no NBA fans here? Or is it that NBA fans don’t tune in when the media exclusively focuses on the built-in markets of football and hockey? It’s a “chicken and egg” problem that depends on your perspective.

I recently sent an email to Greg Ried, General Manager of Entercom which operates WGR sports radio. I wondered why there wasn’t more (some, any) NBA coverage. I volunteered to contribute content, provided some examples of local connections to pro basketball, and suggested starting with some well-advertised podcasts to gauge interest.   He responded by saying Entercom’s research shows the Bills and Sabres are the most popular topics. Maybe so; but should they be the only topics? Especially when neither team is having a standout year? Does the media define the market for sports in Buffalo? Perhaps the “research” (and ratings information) shows few NBA fans amongst current listeners, true, because there is no basketball coverage on Buffalo’s premier sports radio station.

Everyone knows Buffalo was a former NBA city in the days of the Buffalo Braves, now Los Angeles Clippers. But Buffalo’s basketball ties are not just ancient history. Buffalo has hosted the NCAA tournament in 2000, 2004, 2007, 2010, and 2014 with great success. Buffalo will again host the tournament in 2017. The attendance at each of the soldout games was a boon to the local economy. It has given the Pegula Sports family a chance to show off Harborcenter as a worldclass entertainment venue. Buffalo’s development of the canalside district and the waterfront have also been featured. Our own Division I college basketball teams, St. Bonaventure and the University of Buffalo, have both made recent tournament appearances.

I believe Buffalo is undergoing a resurgence of sorts and reemerging as a real basketball town. There are several former NBA players who are now coaching at the college level in Western New York. For example, Donyell Marshall is an assistant to Head Coach Nate Oats at UB. Marshall was a first round, fourth overall pick and played in the NBA from 1994-2009. Current NBA player Jonas Jerebko, whose family lives in Lancaster, is a forward for the Boston Celtics. Jerebko’s father, Pete, played for Depew High School and set scoring records at Lemoyne College. He is now the Athletic Director at Erie Community College. David Hart, class of 1983, is in the Buffalo State Athletics Hall of Fame. Hart’s son Matt is a junior guard for Division I George Washington, a team that upset No. 6 ranked Virginia earlier this year. At least one NBA scout that I know of still has a house in Clarence, New York. So there are plenty local basketball ties.

Growing up, our neighbor used to take his daughter and me to Buffalo Braves games[i]. NBA games are, in my opinion, the most family friendly of all professional sports. And the most inclusive. Like many young women in WNY I played basketball in high school. I never played hockey or football. Although I enjoy both, I do not have the love or appreciation for them that I do for basketball. Off-the-court the players union is represented for the first time in their history by a woman, Michele Roberts, a lawyer by profession. On-the-court there is a woman referee, Lauren Holtkamp, and two women assistant coaches, Becky Hammon (Spurs) and Nancy Lieberman (Kings). Not to mention that women have their own professional league, the WNBA, that was founded in 1996 with the full backing of the NBA.

Inspired by these changes, after 20 years of practicing law I decided earlier this year to apply for certification from the National Basketball Players’ Association to be a player-agent.[ii] I have represented my share of athletes on both civil and criminal matters but I wanted to get more involved in the overall sports life of the client. It’s been great getting the chance to talk basketball with other agents, local college coaches, scouts and execs from several NBA teams.

Over the past month, I’ve gone to three cities to see basketball games; Cleveland, Detroit and Toronto. These Great Lakes cities are all within easy driving distance for fans from Buffalo. Cleveland and Toronto are both about 2 hr. 20 mins and Detroit is just over a 4 hour drive through Canada. The games are affordable, fast-paced, exciting and the arena entertainment adds to the overall experience for fans. All three teams are competitive this year. The Reggie Jackson-Andre Drummond pairing in Detroit is reminiscent of the legendary Buffalo Brave combination of Ernie “D”[iii]-Bob McAdoo[iv] (McAdoo was an assistant coach for the Miami Heat for 18 seasons until last year; http://www.nba.com/coachfile/bob_mcadoo). Cleveland has Lebron James and is the 2015 Eastern Conference Champion.[v] Toronto has a dynamic trio in Kyle Lowry, Demar Derozan and Demarre Carroll.

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I propose that one time per year, two of the Great Lakes teams play a regular season game in Buffalo. An annual NBA game in the First Niagara Center: Cleveland-Toronto, Cleveland-Detroit, Toronto-Detroit. Alternate teams every year. A sure sellout. It is a very different experience being at a game in person than watching it on tv. Fans quickly become personally invested. Even if they only go to one game a year, they still may be consumers of NBA products; whether NBA League Pass, NBA.com clothing/gear, videogames, or other memorabilia. And the payoff may last for more than one season even if they don’t go back to another game. The easiest way to create more fans is to have them attend a game.

My husband attended games with me last month. From a marketing point of view, that meant two people spending money on tickets, food, drinks, and souvenirs at each arena (we are now the proud owners of a 3-1/2 foot

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LeBron James bobblehead).  We also went out to a couple of local establishments (Ciccarelli’s, Gretzky’s & Pannini’s) in each city. We stayed at a hotel in Cleveland and Detroit. I have tickets to several more games in 2015-16. Now multiply the amount we spent by “X” number of people, like us, who decide to adopt the Cavs, Pistons or Raptors as their “home” team. Now multiply that number for every year that the NBA plays here. Finding a new market and growing the popularity of the NBA would be a win-win prospect.

Professional sports teams playing in alternate venues is not a new concept. For example, under previous ownership, the Buffalo Bills played once a year in the Rogers Centre in Toronto. The team also began to hold training camp at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, New York, just under 2 hours from their stadium in Orchard Park. Geographically southern Ontario fans have always made up a small but steady share of ticket revenue for Bills games. This was a chance to test the demand for an NFL team in Toronto’s large sports market if the Bills were sold to a Canadian buyer when former owner Ralph Wilson died. In my opinion the main purpose wasn’t simply to increase the popularity of the sport in an untapped market; it was to entice potential buyers and drive up the purchase price of the team. But the point is, it is possible for a professional sports team and their fans to adjust to one game during the season being played at a foreign venue.

The NBA game has changed dramatically since the early ‘80s and has really exploded in popularity in the last 10 years. Playing a game in Buffalo would allow some older fans who haven’t followed the pro game in a while to re-familiarize themselves with the League’s more professional on-court product and cleaned-up image. Younger fans, or those who can’t afford to travel out of town to attend a game, would be thrilled to see players they’ve only previously had the chance to watch on tv or stream on their computer. As an NCAA host city Buffalo’s arena has proven easily converted from hockey to basketball. There are adequate media facilities, parking and other amenities. Buffalo would be showcased in other NBA cities and the event could be a talking point for officials at the Buffalo-Niagara convention and tourism bureau (www.visitbuffaloniagara.com). The NBA doesn’t need to commit to more than one year at a time. If I’m wrong and the game doesn’t generate interest or cross-marketing opportunities or have a measurable economic benefit, then they end the experiment.

I think the idea of playing a pro game in Buffalo is good for basketball fans, good for Western New York and good for the NBA. The logistics can be worked out. For example, the host committee for the NCAA tournament that has experience promoting basketball games here could be a key partner in the effort along with Pegula Sports and the Snyder Corporation. Other local businesses would surely step up to participate. President and CEO of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, Dottie Gallagher-Cohen, could bring government resources to the table with the help of our elected officials. I would volunteer to serve on a committee to study the feasibility of hosting the event or to resolve any legal issues. Together we can bring the NBA back to Buffalo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[i] Paul Snyder had purchased the team and ultimately sold it in a deal involving SanDiego and Boston. Mr. Snyder, CEO & President of Snyder Corporation went on to develop Darien Lake Amusement Park and the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Buffalo. ( www.snydercorp.com)

[ii] certification by the NBPA allows me to act as agent for players in the NBA, WNBA and D-League players. As a lawyer I do not need separate certification to serve as an agent in the International League (FIBA).

[iii] On October 26,2015, Milt Northrup of the Buffalo News wrote an article about Ernie “D” DiGregorio, former Braves Rookie of the Year and third pick in the 1973 NBA draft, joining the Buffalo 716ers team of the American Basketball Association as director of community relations. The 716ers played last season in the Premier Basketball League, the same league as the Rochester Razor Sharks, whose owner also is the league chairman. Buffalo’s first home game on a 14-game league schedule will be Dec. 12 against the Northern Indiana Monarchs at the ECC Flickinger Athletics Center.

[iv] For more on McAdoo who left North Carolina before his senior year and signed with the Braves in 1972, went on to lead the League in scoring three straight years and was League MVP See Spartanburg (S.C.) Herald Journal, November 25, 1976 (news.google.com); www.nba.com/history/players/mcadoo_bio.html;

[v] Ironically, the Buffalo Braves were an expansion team in 1970 along with the Cleveland Cavaliers. They beat Cleveland in their first game and Cleveland went on to have the worst record in the League that year. The Braves were in Buffalo for a total of 8 years, making the playoffs in 1974, 1975 & 1976. The team was subsequently moved to SanDiego and became known as the Clippers. See NBA.com (official Buffalo Braves page)

What do a stingray, NBA legend Clifford Ray & the Orlando Magic have in common?

Although I usually blog about NBA legal/business topics, I’m going to veer from the normal path and write about my recent adventures in Florida.

On October 9th, while on vacation, I was swimming in the ocean at St. Pete’s Beach when I must have kicked a stingray. Its venomous bony tail snapped up and the ray punctured my left ankle. I felt a sudden sharp pain and when I looked down saw the head, of what I thought was a shark, swimming in front of me from left to right just under the surface. The stingray was a light tan color and appeared to be about 3 feet wide. I panicked and swam to shore barely able to hobble out of the water. The wound looked like someone had pounded a large nail into the side of my foot and it was bleeding profusely. My husband ran to the front desk of our hotel for help and they told him I’d have to go to the hospital. Since the hospital was only five minutes from our hotel down Gulf Blvd he told them to forget calling an ambulance. He said it would be faster not to wait. He grabbed me under the arm and more or less dragged me from the beach to the car.

The pain from the venom was excruciating. I began to shake uncontrollably and felt chilled. I later learned that the venom causes tissue damage and the necrotic tissue causes secondary infections and nerve damage. At the time, as the venom quickly spread, my foot, ankle and lower leg started to swell. The venom spread under the skin like spilled ink turning my foot gradually a mix of red and blue.

My husband ran into the hospital and came back with a wheelchair. He ran behind the wheelchair pushing me toward the emergency department. As soon as we came through the door the nurse skipped the routine questions about insurance and got up and retrieved a basin of steaming hot water. He poured in some betadine and forced my foot down into the water. It was counterintuitive, but the hot water actually helped combat the pain by breaking up the protein in the venom. Our intial instinct was to get ice to counteract the swelling, which would have been exactly the wrong thing to do. Several hours later, after x-rays to make sure no foreign objects were in my ankle and nothing was broken, I was given a prescription for antibiotics and told to keep my leg elevated.

Hospital personnel downplayed the seriousness of the injury. I’ve broken bones & not been in so much pain. For the next three days I was non-weightbearing. Gradually, as the swelling subsided and the infection healed I was able to begin limping around. It took about three weeks and another round of antibiotics before I totally healed.

In the meantime, still on vacation, we had tickets for the Magic/Heat preseason game on October 13th and there was no way I was missing it. We skipped all of our other planned activities but not this one. It took a while but I was able to limp from the parking lot, across the pedestrian bridge to the arena. Any truly dedicated basketball fan, with tickets on the floor, would have dragged a disfigured foot behind him/her and withstood the pain rather than miss an opportunity to sit right behind the players.

On the street they blasted music with a Mexican or Spanish beat and there were a lot of European fans, talking in a multitude of languages, about the professional soccer stadium that was going to be built a couple blocks away. The only bars and restaurants were two blocks over from the arena and none of them were crowded. It was definitely a family atmosphere with kids lining up with their parents to get inside the souvenir store at the arena entrance.

When we walked into the arena, this was the view from our second row seats behind the visiting Heat bench next to the water cooler. The usher told us the only thing that could get us into trouble was putting our drinks on top of the cooler. There was a hallway parallel to the baseline that led under the stands to the locker room. A rope was all that separated fans from players. Veteran players Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosch & Chris Anderson made my husband look tiny despite being 6’7” tall. The difference is how wide these guys are which is something that you can’t appreciate on television. TV also gives you no real idea how fast the game is or how much ground they cover in just two or three strides. Rookie Justice Winslow from Duke was solid muscle and already has the build of a mature man.

I was surprised how much the players on the bench were into the game. They were focused, listened to the coaches. Clearly Chris Bosch is their leader. He was vocal, helping the young Heat players recognize picks and cuts, and taunting “rook…rook….make the free throw rook….” whenever one of the Magic rookies went to the foul line. He seemed to be getting to Magic PF Aaron Gordon who, after an impressive dunk, motioned to the Heat bench in a kind of “how do you like that?” way. Bosch laughed out loud and mocked him. But then actually sat down next to Dwayne Wade and quietly said “that was impressive”. It was hilarious to watch all of this up close.

Wade and especially Bosch seemed to mentor Justice Winslow. Bosch walked up to him at many of the stoppages of play and spoke to him. Winslow would nod. After one good drive to the basket, Bosch yelled “that’s it…that’s it” and I finally saw Winslow smile.

Victor Oladpio played some minutes in the game and the Heat players talked among themselves about him. Judging by the jerseys being sold in the fan store, he is definitely a crowd favorite. Elfrid Payton’s was the only other number I saw anyone wearing.

I was hoping to get a chance to see Magic PF Andrew Nicholson who went to St. Bonaventure University south of Buffalo in Olean, New York. Ever since the Buffalo Braves left in 1978 and eventually became the LosAngeles Clippers, we have rooted for the local players who end up making it to the NBA. Christian Laettner (Duke), Damone Brown (Syracuse), Andrew Nicholson, Jonas Jerebko (Depew), Clifford Robinson (Riverside) – Buffalonians don’t have one team that we root for; rather we cheer for any team that has a player who used to be one of us.

Looking over to the right of the players bench, near the basket, there was a man sitting in the front row that had legs as big as tree trunks. I am not exaggerating. Despite simply being dressed in a mint green polo and shorts his size alone caused him to stand apart from the crowd. He made the Heat players look skinny. We learned from a security guard it was former Chicago Bulls & Golden State Warriors 6’9” center Clifford Ray. He sat alone, didn’t really talk to anyone except a couple of Heat players that went over to shake his hand. Security told us he comes to a lot of the Magic games. After his playing career he was an assistant coach in the league including for the Magic from 2005-2010. He may have been helping with some scouting or he might have just been enjoying the game.

The Heat coach, Eric Spoelstra, looked like an honor student still in college because of a combination of his smaller stature and baby-faced, clean-shaven features. Despite appearances, he clearly had control of the bench and used quick hand signals to direct the players on the floor. When he wanted to make a substitution, he would say a player’s name in a normal tone of voice – “Rich” for Josh Richardson or “you wanna get in?” while looking at a training camp invitee-all downplayed and understated. Not at all what I expected – even during the timeouts when he grabbed a chair and clipboard, he spoke articulately and quickly but did not get overly excited or raise his voice.

There were three assistant coaches sitting on the other side of our water cooler – I couldn’t figure out what their role was except that a member of the Magic arena staff would deliver printed stats to one of them at the end of each quarter. Otherwise, they had no apparent role during the game.

The rest of the assistant coaches sat on the bench between coach Spoelstra and the players. Notably, among them was Juwan Howard, one of the legendary “Fab Five” at the University of Michigan. As he walked out at halftime and my husband yelled “Fab Five” Howard reached over and gave him a fist bump. Howard was very active on the bench, during timeouts talking to the players, and clearly was enjoying himself.

My favorite moment, captured in the attached photo, was when Dwayne Wade let me take a picture of him. He didn’t play in the game but any disappointment at not seeing him play was made up for by getting to sit close enough that I pretended I was a member of the team.

So the moral of the story is… when you go through a very painful experience, keep going…it just may lead to something amazing. Think about what happened to me:  Sting…Heat…Ray…Magic!