Friday, December 14, 2001

Fledgling pro team tips off

ABA franchise features plenty of local figures

By Ray Schaefer
Enquirer contributor

        CRESTVIEW HILLS, Ky. — Pro basketball has returned to Kentucky. The Kentucky ProCats, the newest franchise in the resurrected American Basketball Association, announced plans to play in the league's second season, which opens later this month. The ProCats will play at Thomas More College's Connor Convocation Center.

        The new team and its roster — including former UC, Xavier and Western Kentucky University stars — were unveiled Thursday.

        Five former collegiate stars well-known to the Tristate were introduced as ProCats Thursday : Holmes and Western Kentucky product Jack Jennings; the University of Cincinnati's Melvin Levett and Damon Flint; Xavier's Gary Lumpkin; and Western Hills star David Shelton, who played at the University of Tulsa.

        “This is going to be great for Northern Kentucky,” said Mike Mangeot, chief executive officer of Century Construction of Erlanger and president of the ProCats. “Cincinnati doesn't have a professional basketball team; Northern Kentucky does.”

        Officials with the Tristate's newest professional basketball team think local ownership and playing a few miles south of the Ohio River are enough to help the franchise turn a profit.

        The ProCats debut Dec.26 in Anaheim, Calif., against the Southern California Surf and play their first of 21 home games against the Indiana Legends Dec.30.

        The players said playing in the United States was much better than continuing far-flung professional careers in Israel, Argentina and South Korea, especially after the Sept.11 terrorist attacks.

        “Safety is more important in my life,” said Levett, 25, who played part of a season with the Cincinnati Stuff of the now-defunct IBL, and a year in Spain.

        Jennings, 32, led Holmes to the 1988 Ninth Region title and later played in Israel, the Netherlands and Argentina. He said he was about to return to Argentina before he changed his mind.

        “A lot of my family and friends have never seen me play professionally,” Jennings said.

        Though team officials say a small profit is possible, cracking the Greater Cincinnati market will be tough.

        The Stuff folded, as did the Cincinnati Slammers of the Continental Basketball Association in the 1980s.

        Kentucky used to have an ABA team — the Kentucky Colonels, which played in Louisville Gardens — but the team folded when the ABA folded and did not make the transition to the NBA, which picked up some ABA teams.

        Louisville is considering ways to raise funds to build an arena to house the now-homeless NBA Charlotte Hornets.

        Why do ProCats officials think they can succeed in Northern Kentucky? Three reasons: local connections, lower expenses and cheaper tickets.

        Mangeot is not the only one in the ProCats organization with ties to Northern Kentucky. Vice president Lanny Holbrook is a prominent local attorney; former Covington Grant, UC and Boston Celtics star Tom Thacker is director of player personnel; and head coach Ralph Underhill graduated from Lloyd Memorial High School in Erlanger.

        “I've known these people all my life,” said Underhill, who as head coach at Wright State led that team to the NCAA Tournament.

        “We've got local participation,” Mangeot said. “They're respected people in the community.”

        The ABA also fields teams in Kansas City, Detroit, Phoenix, Chicago and Tijuana, Mexico. Salaries range from $3,000 to $5,000 a month.

        Tickets cost $10 for adults and $5 for students. Games are scheduled so they do not conflict with University of Kentucky games.

        “We've got local participation,” Mr. Mangeot said. “They're respected people in the comunity.”

        The newer ABA has a touch of the older version, which started in the 1960s and lasted until 1976 -- the game is played with a red, white and blue ball.

        There are also three different rules from what you see in high school, college and the National Basketball Association:

        *The 3-D. If a team that steals the ball in the backcourt and scores on the ensuing possession, it gets three points for a 2-point shot and four for a 3-pointer.

        *The “Super Foul.” When a team commits its 10th team foul in a half, the opponent may elect to attempt an unguarded 3-point shot.

        *And the “Shirted Player Foul.” In the NBA, players must leave when they commit their sixth foul. ABA players may stay in the game after six, but opponents get two free throws and the ball on subsequent fouls.

        Others on the ProCats roster include: Isaac Spencer, who was the Ohio Valley Conference Most Valuable Player the last two years at Murray State; Duane Simpkins, who started three years at point guard at Maryland in the 1990s; and Sean Dougherty, a 6-foot-11 center who played collegiately at Wisconsin and professionally in Europe the last three years.

        In addition, Mr. Spencer said he is trying to sign former University of Kentucky standout guard Jeff Sheppard.

        Mr. Underhill said fans will see a team that presses all over the floor on defense and plays an uptempo game on offense, which Mr. Thacker said will be popular south of the river.

        “I think Kentucky appreciates basketball more,” said Mr. Thacker, who won two NCAA titles at UC, two NBA crowns with the Celtics and four with the old ABA Indiana Pacers. “They live and die with it more.”


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