As a journalist suddenly serving as team president and GM, I couldn’t have chosen work that demanded a more radically different skill set. Instead of submitting text to be polished by editors and backstopped by fact checkers, I’d supply the last word on everything. And after 25 years of collecting a paycheck, I’d now be cutting them—as long as I could entice enough sponsors, and recruit enough investors, so those checks wouldn’t bounce.
I cold-called some prospects, and haunted entrepreneurs’ forums for others, looking for people willing to embrace basketball, Vermont, and the possibility that we might fail to beat the ABA’s long odds. At one point, massaging expectations, I said, “For ‘liquidity event,’ please think in terms of the day we uncork a bottle of champagne upon winning a title.” One day I turned up at Peak Pitch, an event hosted by two local venture capital firms. In this slopeside twist on the elevator pitch, a “Vermontrepreneur” could spend the ride up a chairlift at Bolton Valley Resort trying to wheedle money out of investors. Leaving the chairlift after laying my pitch on a venture capitalist named Matt, I realized I’d committed a sin as much entrepreneurial as journalistic: I’d buried the lede. Before Matt could plant his poles, I called out, “Oh, and one of every 12 users of the Internet has played some sort of fantasy sports. The Frost Heaves will do them one better. We’ll let fans help run a real team over the Web!” I never did receive Matt’s request for wiring instructions. But I locked down enough co-owners to forge ahead. Several came in at small amounts but brought symbolic value. Tom Brennan, freshly retired as the University of Vermont’s basketball coach after the Catamounts’ NCAA tournament upset of Syracuse, was then the most popular figure in the state. Jerry Greenfield, the back half of Ben & Jerry’s, was at first reluctant because, as he put it, “everything I invest in winds up failing, with one notable exception.” But he eventually agreed, and to sanctify the deal sent me off with a thermal tote of pint cartons. Local investors helped spread word through Vermont’s business community, where we desperately needed to find sponsors. Jerry put in a word with Ben & Jerry’s to underwrite the cost of that biodiesel bus. And the ABA had a couple of wrinkles to which we could sell the naming rights. One was that extra point after a backcourt turnover, thanks to the 3-D Rule, which Dick Tinkham had devised to shake pro basketball out of its half-court stupor. The ABA’s other saleable innovation was its 13th-Man Rule. For every game, the home team could suit up anyone from the community who would be eligible to play. Teams used it to build promotions by partnering with a nonprofit or celebrating a local hero. Maryland had suited up 7'7" Gheorghe Muresan, the former Washington Bullet; Strong Island had plopped Ed (Cookie) Jarvis, a 6’6”, 419-pound competitive eating champion, on its bench. As a way to underscore its motto of “110% Banking” (by which 10% of profits go back to the community), Northfield Savings Bank bought the 13th-Man sponsorship. But most of our efforts to find sponsors would founder. We were caught in the start-up’s conundrum. Show us you can succeed and we’ll support you. But if no one supports us, how are we ever going to succeed? Anticipating that vise, I weighed where we would play. We really had only two choices. Burlington was a lively city at the center of Chittenden County, home to the state’s most influential media and one-fourth of its population. But people there had plenty to do, and during the winter University of Vermont hockey and men’s and women’s basketball cast a long shadow. <div> <img src="http://www.si.com/longform/2015/frost-heaves/img/image5.jpg"/> By playing half their home games in Burlington and the other half in Barre, the Frost Heaves doubled their exposure—and fan base—in the state, and racked up the miles on I-89. COURTESY OF ALEX WOLFF </div> Central Vermont, on the other hand, was another world. Less than an hour down Interstate 89 lay the hubs of Montpelier, pop. 7,700, the only state capital without a McDonald’s; and the old granite-quarrying town of Barre, pop. 9,200. Barre was a one-stop refutation of every stereotype about Vermont. Industrial and ethnically diverse, the city, as legend has it, had gotten its name from a resident who won a fistfight back in the 1790s. Then, over the years, it had filled up with immigrants who cut granite from the nearby quarries or carved stone in the sheds. Once known as “New England’s Chicago,” the city had been down at the heels for decades because of cheap foreign competition. But if central Vermont tended to be smaller and poorer, its towns also leaned more toward hoop than hockey. They more sorely needed a cause to call their own. And Barre had something that, paired with a building in Burlington, made for a thematic whole. Covering college basketball over the years, I’d fallen in love with musty old places like the Palestra in Philadelphia and Mac Court in Eugene. Vermont had two such basketball temples. Each accommodated 1,200 to 1,800 people and featured an intimacy that, I was not too virtuous to calculate, would make for a homecourt advantage if we could only fill them with people. <div> <img src="http://www.si.com/longform/2015/frost-heaves/img/image6.jpg"/> The Aud, in Barre, was once listed by USA Today as one of the “Ten Great Places to Watch High School Hoops” in the nation. It would prove a comfortable and atmospheric ABA venue as well. MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHY FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED </div> “The Aud” in Barre was a WPA project from the ’30s, made from the very stuff pulled from those quarries. For two weeks a year the state tournament kept a ball bouncing on its floor, and as a result generations of Vermonters had grown to know and love the Aud, once listed by <em>USA Today</em> among the nation’s “Ten Great Places to Watch High School Hoops.” Burlington’s answer to the Aud was Memorial Auditorium. Darker and a decade older, it had a Phantom of the Opera vibe, thanks to a stage at one end and a balcony, ringing the other three sides, which could block a shot launched from too deep in the corners. But it too made you want to start a team to play in it. At the time Vanessa and I met, she lived down a dirt road in Windsor County from a Vermonter named Fred Ladd, who for decades had worked his family’s dairy farm. Fred once explained to her the equilibrium of a barn in use. The animals’ body heat helps keep the structure sound and the pipes from freezing, and a barn begins to die soon after the animals are taken from it. Vanessa, who had agreed to serve as assistant G.M., instantly recognized the relevance of Fred’s words to what we were doing: Two old buildings in two downtowns needed new life. If we couldn’t decide on one or the other, we’d play in both. It was a foretaste of what would soon become my management style: indecisiveness. In fact, this decision would turn out to be inadvertently ingenious. By playing in two pockets of the state, we would double our exposure and with it our potential fan and sponsor bases. People unwilling to commit to a full 18-game “I-89” season-ticket plan could justify a nine-game “Exit 7” or “Exit 14” package at about half the price. We would have just enough presence in both markets that each daily paper made sure to cover us, and two radio stations wound up broadcasting all our games, home and away, something no other team in the league could claim.