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Thunder demise at hand
By Craig DeVrieze/ QUAD-CITY TIMES

The trust charged with selling the debt-ridden Continental Basketball Association for former NBA superstar Isiah Thomas abandoned that effort Thursday afternoon, announcing instead that it would return each of the league’s teams to the owners from whom Thomas bought them 15 months ago.

Since former Quad-City Thunder majority owner Jay Gellerman said he has no interest in taking back ownership of the club, that effectively means the end of the Quad-Cities’ 14-year-old professional basketball franchise.

It could mean the end of the 55-year-old CBA as well, although Thursday’s move by the trust does leave open the door for former owners of more successful CBA teams to reassume control and become part of the International Basketball League.

“It is a sad day for sports and a sad day for this community,” Thunder general manager Kim Evans said.

The league has suspended play indefinitely, meaning the Thunder’s scheduled Saturday home date at The Mark of the Quad-Cities obviously will not be played.

Evans, who along with coach Bob Thornton and the rest of the Thunder staff has not received a paycheck since Jan. 19, said she was given few instructions concerning the transition in a Thursday afternoon conference call of league general managers.

Evans said league president Don Welsh recommended closing all team offices, since none of the league personnel officially is employed right now.

Evans said she hopes to receive better answers to give to season ticket holders and sponsors today. She could not say whether fans who have tickets for any of the Thunder’s 18 remaining home games will receive refunds.

Steve Hyman, executive

director of The Mark, said the loss of those 18 remaining home dates won’t be a problem for his building. He said the league and team were current on their rent.

Trustee Ivan Thornton said overdue paychecks owed to players on three teams from a week ago — including the Thunder players — will be paid by Thomas. He said back-pay issues for league employees such as Evans and the Q-C front office staff are among details that will be decided by trust lawyers today.

Gellerman said he was not contacted by the trust or any representative of Thomas concerning the plan to hand teams back to their former owners.

“What the hell does that mean?” Gellerman said when told of the trust’s announcement. “We are not interested in resuming ownership of the franchise, but I am interested in getting the money we still are owed from Isiah Thomas, who personally guaranteed it.”

In a complicated series of purchase agreements, Thomas bought the Thunder and eight other CBA franchises, along with the league office in Phoenix, for more than $9 million in October of 1999.

He still owes an estimated $2 million on that purchase price.

Representatives of two other former ownership groups — ex-Idaho Stampede majority owner Bill Ilett and former Fort Wayne Fury partner Jay Leonard — also said they will not take back their clubs.

Leonard, a car dealer in his Indiana city, said the trust and Thomas are trying to turn away from debt-ridden and damaged goods. The Fort Wayne News-Sentinel reported Thursday that the league is more than $1.5 million in debt.

Said Leonard of Thomas: “It is like he bought a car on a five-year loan, drove it for two years, blew the engine, dropped the trannie and then drove it back and said, ‘Here, you can have it back.’ ”

Thomas has been attempting to sell the league since last spring, and in August of last year he became head coach of the NBA’s Indiana Pacers.

On orders of the NBA Board of Governors, Thomas placed the CBA in the control of a blind trust in October to avoid being in conflict of interest with his job as Pacers coach.

Since then, the trust, led by New York City investment banker Thornton has been attempting to find a new owner, but recent talks with a number of prospective buyers fell apart while the league itself grew deeper in debt.

Gellerman declined to name the original price tag for the Thunder but said Thomas still owes him and his Q-C area partners about 30 percent of that.

Gellerman purchased the team from original owner Anne Potter DeLong in 1996.

The Thunder and the CBA always had been a challenging business. The Thunder never have turned a profit, even though they have been one of the league’s most successful teams on the floor.

Before this year’s team — which will complete a partial season at 8-12 — the Thunder had endured only one losing campaign and won a pair of CBA titles, in 1994 and in 1998.

Still, attendance declined almost annually. In their first three seasons, the Thunder ranked second among 16 teams in CBA attendance. The club averaged more than 4,000 fans per game for its initial five campaigns, while playing in cozy Wharton Field House.

It was seventh out of nine teams the previous two seasons, with declining averages of 3,238 fans in 1998-89 and 2,835 last year. Through 10 homes games this year, the franchise was dead last among 10 teams, averaging fewer than 975 fans per game.

Portions of qcthunder.com use information from the Quad-City Times that is no longer being linked to on their site.