February 5, 2017

ABA basketball hopes to drop Anchors in Worcester

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Matthew Wright / For Worcester Sun

From left, owner Tom Marino, former WPI star forward Clyde Niba and coach Anthony Leonelli hope the city ABA team's new name and home court add up to success.

They’re broke, they have no home-court advantage, and their original owner abandoned them just days before the season started.

But that’s not stopping the New England Anchors — a fledgling professional basketball team in an historic and once preeminent league — from settling in, finding success and keeping their eyes on a playoff spot.

Now, if only they can find a permanent home, and a few fans, maybe even here in Worcester. First, though, the team must finish its inaugural season.

The Anchors, who have played home games at South High Community School and Worcester State University, found themselves with a 7-2 record and ranked 20th in the Jan. 29 power rankings of the approximately 84-team American Basketball Association[Editor’s note: the volatility of the league makes an exact count mostly a guessing game.]

Under the new ownership of Worcester State alum Tom Marino, and led by head coach Anthony Leonelli, the Anchors are outscoring their opponents by an average of 33 points in their seven victories.

“[Leonelli] put together a ridiculous team. We’re 7-2 and we haven’t won by less than 16. Basketball-wise, things are wonderful. We score a ton of points,” Marino said.

The Anchors are averaging more than 126 points per game.

“We’ve got a great group of guys with great basketball backgrounds. These guys have bought into our plan and as a result we’ve won a lot of games. It’s been fun to watch,” Leonelli said.

Leonelli, a former assistant coach at WPI and Rhode Island College, is also the head baseball coach at Pine Manor College in Brookline.

“We have a bunch of guys that are selfless. There’s no egos. We compete for each other and we compete to win — both in practice and in the games. The character of the guys and the coaching staff really make this team,” said star point guard Tony Gallo, who hails from Lynn and is no stranger to high-level hoops.

Gallo averaged more than 17 points and 4 assists per game as a senior in 2011-12 at Division I Coppin State in Baltimore.

Recently, the Long Island Jaguars franchise folded, resulting in the cancellation of back-to-back games with the Anchors that had been scheduled for Jan. 28 and 29. That left the Anchors with two weeks off in between games and a chance to reflect on their season and the future of the franchise.

“It’s the nature of the ABA. There can be these weird gaps where we won’t play for a few weeks. It’s funny that the players are so good on all of these teams, but the infrastructure is so tenuous,” Leonelli said.

When the Anchors arrived in Elmira, New York, on Jan. 14, they had to wait for a Biddy basketball game to finish before they were allowed to warm up.

“Once the ball goes up, it’s professional basketball. There’s no question about it. But you have these weird, surreal, almost ‘Slap Shot’-like moments where we’re like, ‘What are we doing?’ ”

[Editor’s note: “Slap Shot” is a 1977 cult film chronicling the misadventures of a minor league hockey team.]

The dubious nature of the league — which when first conceived in the late 1960s and ’70s was a legitimate challenger to the NBA and debuted all-time greats like Julius “Dr. J” Erving, George Gervin and Moses Malone — is what put Marino in control of the Anchors in the first place.

While things are looking promising on the court, the off-the-court financial uncertainty and scramble to organize the new franchise are clouding its future.

The standard ABA schedule calls for a 20-game regular season, but the Anchors will only play 15 due to cancellations and the tenuous nature of other franchises. Through the first nine games, ticket sales were low.

“Sales are going horrible. No one knows about us. There’s no dough. There’s no money to craft a brand around the team,” Marino said. “The best we can do is go out and hand out tickets. We do a bunch of digital advertising through Facebook, Instagram, our own website, etcetera, but we aren’t in a spot to go someplace and pay for advertising.”

“Converting an audience from online to attending live events is very difficult, especially for something they’ve never heard of,” he said.

In an email to the Sun, CEO Joseph Newman, who helped relaunch the ABA in 1999, said the league “provides the best business model in professional sports,” and lists organization, training, marketing tickets/sponsorships, press/media relations, community relations, internships, promotions, merchandising, and website and social media as parts of the business model that allow franchises to be successful.

Newman understands that Marino’s battle is an uphill one to make the Anchors succeed. “We like Tom and think he will make a great owner, but [he] is on a learning curve.”

“Simple enough. Owners need to follow the ABA Initiatives/Keys to Success and they will have longevity,” Newman added.

Marino, 36, of Oxford, a business consultant who originally served as the Anchors’ marketing director, said the previous owner, Abdur Shabazz, “disappeared” on Oct. 17, just 12 days before the Anchors’ season tipped off.

“All summer long, the story from [Shabazz] was that we would have enough money. It wouldn’t be great, but we would be OK. I never got a dime from this guy,” Marino said. “The agreement was that once the season started, I would get paid. From my end, it was a way to get involved with a team without interning.”

Shabazz also owned a second ABA team, the Trenton Cagers, that has since folded.

Although Marino would not offer details about Shabazz’s sudden departures, he did say the ABA wasn’t ready to let two franchises fold, so he was able to work out a deal to take over the Anchors.

In a phone interview, Newman didn’t mince words when describing Shabazz’s tenure as an owner. “Abdur Shabazz is as bad as anyone that I’ve had in many years. He did nothing that he said he would do and left Tom in a very difficult position. On a scale of 1 to 10, I would rank Tom pretty high and I would rank Shabazz a zero.”

Multiple attempts to reach Shabazz by phone over the course of two weeks went unreturned.

“I can understand a team owner that doesn’t have much money or much capital and is struggling. I cannot understand not being candid and honest and straightforward,” Newman added.

The ABA requires each team to have a player salary cap of $120,000 per year. The average ABA player can make about $500 per game. However, Marino said the Anchors could not afford to pay its players this season.

“It’s not all that uncommon that teams have financial troubles at this level. I told them exactly what was going on and said I understand if they wanted to go,” Marino said. “I was upfront with them and they seemed to appreciate that.”

“Morale is good,” Leonelli insisted. “To Tom’s credit, he let them know right away what the deal was. And we said, ‘Anyone that doesn’t want to hang around, we get it.’ But for a lot of these guys, what’s important is the tape they’re getting and being able to play a higher level of basketball. It’s been really beneficial for them.

“Any time you get guys to hop in a van and head to Elmira, New York, to play basketball, you really can’t question morale too much,” Leonelli added. “It’s a difficult situation. I think the easy thing to do would have been to shutter it and to try again next year, and the fact that that didn’t happen is a credit to Tom.”

According to forward Clyde Niba, former captain of WPI’s men’s basketball team, “By the time we found out what was going on, we had already found our chemistry. So it was kind of hard for guys to drop out because we didn’t want to let each other down.

“We got together and decided that we are going to keep playing because it was such a good opportunity.”

Niba, originally from Atlanta, is finishing up his chemical engineering degree at WPI and will be graduating in May. He led the Engineers in scoring last season (15.4 points per game) and to a spot in the Division III national tournament.

“We came into it thinking we were getting paid, but ownership switched up at the last minute and that came as a surprise to everyone,” said Gallo, who signed with the Anchors just days before the ownership change. “Most guys here are looking to play at the next level. They need the game film, they need to show they’re playing and putting up stats.”

For Gallo, the paycheck isn’t as necessary as for other players. The Melrose native is director of Skill and Development for Premier Hoops basketball training camp on the North Shore.

“I’m just here to have film and for the love of the game. But if I have the option to get to the D-League [NBA Development League] or play overseas, then I’m going to do that,” Gallo said.

“Besides Coach Leonelli, he’s a big part of the glue,” Marino said of Gallo. “When he didn’t leave when it hit the fan, I think that was the example we needed to not have exodus. At our level, it’s not about money. It’s about accumulating gameplay tape for scouts and agents.”

Even with everything they’ve encountered in the rear-view, Marino, Leonelli, Gallo and the rest of the Anchors continue to look ahead, to the ABA playoffs set to begin next month in Baltimore.

“We’re pretty obviously a playoff team, but anything can happen. We will certainly be in the conversation and can make some noise in the playoffs for sure,” Marino said.

According to Newman, the Anchors will “most likely make the playoffs,” and he notes that they are the highest ranked team in the Northeast Division and are one of a handful of first-year teams in the top 25 power rankings.

However, Newman said, due to the Anchors playing less than 20 games, their playoff berth will have to be approved by the division chairman. In this case, it’s Jersey Express owner Marsha Blunt.

The Anchors are 1-1 against the Express this season.

Leonelli said, “We don’t know much about teams in their other divisions. But we have a lot of great players that can do a lot of great things. If we get the opportunity to get down there, then we will do our best to try to win a few games.”

The playoffs begin the weekend of March 11-12. There are three weeks of play-in rounds. The location of the play-in rounds will be determined once the playoff field is set. The Final Eight will begin April 5-9 in Baltimore.

Marino said the team will find a way to make the trip. “There’s no doubt we will be there. I’ll sell my body if I have to.”

Leonelli, who has coached at the college level for the past 11 season, credits the maturity of his team and the unselfishness they show on the court as the reason they find themselves in the spot that they’re in.

“In college, some kids think they know everything, but these guys have gotten over that and are looking to have fun,” Leonelli said.

When the season ends, Marino will have decisions to make.

Ultimately, Marino said his goal is to find a permanent home in Worcester, where basketball has enjoyed a long, and often proud, history, from Holy Cross and Assumption national championships to the Dave Cowens-led Bay State Bombardiers of the Continental Basketball Association and the Worcester Counts of the World Basketball League.

“Until we played [at South] on Dec. 11, there hadn’t been a pro game here in 27 years,” Marino said. “We figure it’s worth a shot here in Worcester.

“The league has a team in Boston and in Springfield. And in Connecticut. So there’s really no other place to go. We could go to New Hampshire, but long-term this is definitely a better market,” he said. “It’s been a roller-coaster this season. Once we get through this, we will have time to plan the right way for next year.”

The Anchors are on the road for the final games of the season starting on Sunday, Feb. 12, against the Boston Conquerors at a location TBA. Tickets are $10, or $5 with any school ID.

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