Local ABA basketball landscape is a convoluted mess

by Thomas Leturgey

Change was in the air when the defending American Basketball Association (ABA) Steel City Yellow Jackets lost to the Burning River Buckets in the regional playoffs in Pittsburgh on April 1. The Yellow Jackets weren’t going to repeat as ABA Champions, and much like when Sid Bream slid under Mike LaValliere’s tag in the National League Championship Series in 1992, there was a grim feeling that the team was going to break up. 

In frustration, team co-captain Tone Reddic Sr. immediately announced his retirement from the league. A founding member of the team, Reddic’s season had been truncated by injury and other disgruntlement. Players like center Brandon Burnett, who has an open invitation to return to Spain, said he wouldn’t return to the Steel City’s franchise, while others presumably would come home in October. 

In the months that followed, there was a long time of team silence. Then, right before the team traditionally announced tryouts and other preseason preparation, team owner and head coach Ace Pippens noted that the team was going to take a one-year hiatus. In the ABA, teams taking hiatuses aren’t novel. After the winningest team in modern ABA history, the Jacksonville Giants lost to the Yellow Jackets in the semi-finals of the 2022 playoffs, word came that they were going to re-tool. The former five-time defending, and 7-time overall ABA champions have never returned and there isn’t a hint that they will. 

When the Yellow Jackets traveled to Baltimore for the Final 8 in 2022, the team representing the South Central Region, #4 ranked Austin Bats, never arrived. Many ABA teams operate on shoestring budgets, and the Bats didn’t have enough money to make the trip. Regardless of that hiccup, they are still playing this year with a 2-0 record. 

The Baltimore Hawks, a friendly rival and perpetual thorn in the Yellow Jackets’ on-court side, was owned by Greg Brown until last year. He was promoted by league CEO Joseph Newman to ABA President. Brown sold the franchise to focus on league operations and it lasted until the end of last season. 

This ABA isn’t the American Basketball Association of lore, where The Pittsburgh Pipers (later Condors) were charter members for the 1967-1976 rivals to the National Basketball Association. The current incarnation has been—without mainstream fanfare, since 2000. The Yellow Jackets first took to the court locally in 2014, and next season was to their 10th anniversary. 

When the team won its lone ABA National Championship, Mayor Ed Gainey hosted the celebratory parade in downtown Pittsburgh. It has been Gainey’s first, and so far only, professional sport festivity of its kind. 

The temporary shelving of the Yellow Jackets in Pittsburgh meant an entire roster of players was without a team in one of the country’s top 25 markets. Pippens, who has been transparent about plans to start a trucking business that promises to put him on better financial footing for the future—he wants to lure global talent to town and take a future squad to Mexico—has convinced the league office this is just a one-year gap. 

On November 28, Pippens posted on social media that he had been hired as Interim Head Boys Basketball Coaching position at Westinghouse High School. In follow up comments, Pippens said the opportunity would provide him and the team more exposure and visibility once the professional team returned to action. 

In the unemployed on-court interim, former Yellow Jackets co-captain Gilmore Cummings purchased an ABA franchise he dubbed the Pennsylvania Starz. Team owners are coy about start-up costs and the ABA boasts an ever-expanding league of now-international teams—like Canada, Mexico, and entire divisions in Africa—so the league is delighted to add as many teams as possible. 

The first point of business for Cummings was to lure long-time friend and perennial ABA All-Star Reddic out of retirement. The duo got the band back together, including forward and co-captain Claude Scott, Jr., guard Brandon Johnson, guards/forwards/twins Tim and James Jackson, as well as guard Amaru Caldwell and forward Jason Arrington. The team practiced and scheduled an entire slate of games. 

The problem was the ABA offices were adamant that the Starz stay out of Pittsburgh. Newman reiterated that the city was Steel City Yellow Jackets territory, despite the aperture. The ABA approved Cummings’ plan to operate in Beaver County, although that was where Don Wayne’s Western Pennsylvania Wolverines has been licensed and in full operations for five years. 

Wayne’s team had been the Beaver County Indians until last season. Seeking a rebrand after six years, Wayne changed everything, including colors from red to green, and the team transformed into the Western Pennsylvania Wolverines. His market remained Beaver County with a declining population of 166,000. The city of Pittsburgh’s population is a declining 300,000. [In comparison, Chicago, with a consistent 2.69 million population, is currently allowed to maintain three separate ABA franchises in its Black Division.] 

The Wolverines, however, reportedly couldn’t find a home base gymnasium in all of Beaver County. Undaunted, Wayne has inked a deal for the Western Pennsylvania Wolverines to play a few games in Triadelphia, West Virginia. He says they will also play inside in Connellsville, Fayette, County. 

Many Pennsylvania Starz players played together for years at A Giving Heart’s gymnasium in the Allentown neighborhood, started their season…but it wasn’t in its mandated Beaver County. Informants repeatedly told the ABA office that Cummings’ team was “illegally” playing at the Market House in the South Side, just 1.1 miles from the gym at A Giving Heart. 

The league wanted the Starz to play “25-30 miles” from the city. Beaver County is 33 miles away via the Parkway West. Detroit’s Team Network and the Wolverines traveled to Pittsburgh to face the Starz to open the season. Three ABA-sanctioned referees officiated each game; both of which were won in definitive fashion by the veteran Starz club. Cummings’ team was loose and jovial in the victories and their future looked bright. 

But behind the scenes, efforts to complicate the season were afoot and the league was determined to keep the team out of Pittsburgh. On November 15, stating that the team played where they weren’t permitted and comparing the situation to current conflict in the Middle East, Newman followed through on threats and suspended the Starz. Referees were forbidden to officiate games and a heartbroken Cummings shuttered the team. 

Meanwhile, the Wolverines were awarded a win instead of a loss against the Starz. They won another game and became the #17 ranked team in the entire ABA. The Wolverines lost in a peculiar game last weekend to the Wyoming Clutch in eastern Pennsylvania. Wayne’s troupe, crippled with illness and injury, traveled 4.5 hours with only five players for a game that ultimately ended, 78-31 in an agreed-upon one half of play. They dropped to #25. 

[Just in case anyone was wondering, Triadelphia, West Virginia is 53 miles from downtown Pittsburgh and Connellsville is exactly 50 miles away.] 

Cummings last week announced that the suspension against the Starz was lifted by the league, presumably with an edict to stay out of Dodge; however, all of the ABA teams had long solidified their schedules. With teams coming and going, no one had an opening to face the Starz. 

A merger of sorts had appeared to solve some problems. Both sides said that a quartet of Cummings, Reddic, Scott and Troy Simons—a promising guard who scored 47 points in two games with the Starz—were reported to play last Sunday in Columbus. 

The group was to supplement a talented club led by Stephon McGinnis, who scored 50 points in a game earlier this season and scored a unique-to-the-ABA five-point shot from further than half court. Randy Whitley, Clifton McNair, Demitri Ford and Marcus Mason are all productive players for the Wolverines, and one-time Yellow Jackets teammates LeAndre Evans and Stephen Vorum come off the bench for Wayne. 

Oddly, not one of the Starz made the trip to Columbus on Sunday, December 3, and the Wolverines fell to the Wizards, 174-104. Wayne’s team drops to 3-2 on the season and out of the Top 25. The Wolverines will continue to move forward in an increasingly muddy basketball landscape. 

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