Hoops Rebound Nicely

May 28, 2002
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WALKER — If the Grand Rapids Hoops ever undergo a name change, the local pro basketball franchise should seriously consider reinventing itself as the Phoenix. After all, in just a few months the business rose from the ashes sprinkled on it by the Continental Basketball Association and, like the mythological bird, soared to the title tilt of the International Basketball League.

But despite that remarkable turnaround, a name change to Phoenix or otherwise is not in the franchise’s game plan. Hoops co-owner Joel Langlois said the business has already been there, already done that, and not only bought the T-shirt but also had them silk-screened.

“They tried that once. That was a mistake,” said Langlois.

He, of course, was referring to when the Hoops became the Mackers in the mid-1990s through an ownership change, a business that he had a small share of. Today, Langlois and his father, Bruce, not only own the Hoops but also the venue they play in: the DeltaPlex Expo and Convention Center in suburban Walker. And Langlois feels that combination, along with his confidence in the league and the marketing direction that the franchise is likely to take, is what provides hope for the Hoops.

But before this story goes any further, it should be made known that Langlois is not a newcomer to organized basketball. Besides his ownership role in the Mackers, he has more than two decades of experience in one aspect or another of the game. So when he and his father pulled the Hoops from the CBA bonfire, neither were rookies to the business of sports or individuals that were fulfilling an egotistical desire.

When they became owners of the Hoops in February, they made a business decision that both felt good about.

Why?

Well, they believe the franchise was made for their building, not the Van Andel Arena. In the DeltaPlex, they believed, the business would prosper.

The arena, Langlois said, is a great place to play in but much too large for the Hoops or any other team in the league. In fact, Langlois sold his interest in the Mackers when he learned they were re-becoming the Hoops and were relocating from the 4,000-seat Welsh Auditorium to the 11,000-seat arena.

“Starting at that point in time, I said that team needs to play in this building,” he said of the former Stadium Arena, now the renovated DeltaPlex. “Even (Hoops founder) Tom Reubens looked at buying this building way back then to move the team into, because teams that are successful in this sport have to be in a building that makes basketball exciting for everyone and not get that cavernous feeling that they got downtown.”

Besides the intimacy the DeltaPlex offers, the building provides other advantages to having a successful franchise, like owning the rights to concessions and parking, and being able to have the first crack at weekend dates. Those are items that the Hoops didn’t have full control over at the arena. Now, as Langlois put it, everything is in a single pocket.

Although the club is closely examining exactly who its target demographic is, Langlois is fairly certain it’s the average Joe; the blue-collar worker who wants to treat his kids to a game and some concessions for around $20.

“That is what minor league professional sports is supposed to be all about, just like the Whitecaps,” he said. “My goal is to ensure that if people want to come to a game, they can afford to come to a game.

“Certainly, we’re going to be doing some corporate business. That has to happen.”

As an added draw, the franchise will invite high schools to play before Hoops games next season. The plan is to try to match natural rivalries in non-conference games.

As far as the IBL is concerned, Langlois easily expressed a complete confidence in the league’s future. He likes the league’s makeup, cities that are free of competition from the National Basketball Association — something the revived but faltering American Basketball Association can’t claim. He also likes the regional feel the IBL has created, minus the coast-to-coast travel expenses the ABA owners had to cover.

“Geographically, we’re located in Gary, Rockford, Cincinnati and St. Louis. These are all cities that we can bus to. So the cost to travel becomes a lot less. The teams become more viable because the expenses are lower. Salary caps are in line with what you can do that makes sense.”

The IBL requires that each owner submit a letter of credit to the league office in case the franchise fails. The credit is then used to run the business for the remainder of the season, which removes that burden from the league’s other owners. That concept is relatively unique to minor pro sports and Langlois felt it added a value to the IBL that other leagues don’t have.

“I think the IBL is in the right spot right now. We have some good leadership in Ralph Rossi. He has a good head on his shoulders and has had some good talks with the NBA.”

Langlois said he wasn’t sure whether a player agreement could be struck between the IBL and the NBA, especially with the NBA starting its own developmental league this fall. But, to be honest, he didn’t seem overly preoccupied with that element of the business.

“I don’t think it’s critical, but I think it makes it easier,” he said of an affiliation. “I do have confidence in this league, though.”

Langlois also seemed to have a quiet confidence in himself, part of which he has picked up from those around him. Namely people like General Manager Dave Grube, who runs the daily operation of the franchise from his DeltaPlex office.

He picked up another part of that self-assurance from the thousands of astonishingly positive phone calls, letters, e-mails and handshakes he received since February and the full-house of screaming supporters he witnessed at the team’s final regular season encounter.

Then there was the resilience. That rise from the ashes of a burnt-out league to the top of a new beginning.

When the business scorecard gets fully analyzed this off-season, Langlois will have every reason to feel confident and excited about November’s coming. There will be a 13th season, and luck might have absolutely nothing to do with the Hoops’ potential success.

“The overall theme is the team survived a time that half the teams didn’t. And not only did they survive, they made it to the last game of the playoffs,” he said. “This is not my team, it’s Grand Rapids’ team and we’re going to be here for the long-term. I look forward to seeing people out here and I appreciate all the support they have given us.”

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