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Fans lament move from Wharton, sale to Thomas

Jerry Matzen has strings from the nets that were cut down after both the Quad-City Thunder’s championships, in 1994 and ’98.

He has a basketball signed by every member of the 1990 team.

He remembers going on bus trips to road games with 50 other people and going to the airport to welcome the Thunder players home from successful road trips.

He has memories to last a lifetime.

But right now, what he mostly has is anguish.

Matzen was a rabid Quad-City Thunder fan. As he speaks about this week’s collapse of the Thunder and the Continental Basketball Association, it’s as though he is speaking about the death of a loved one.

“The word ‘devastated’ is being overused, but that’s how I feel,’’ Matzen said. “It’s been a big part of my life for 14 years.’’

The Thunder may not have attracted as many fans as the hockey Mallards or the arena football Steamwheelers, but for depth of devotion, it’s hard to imagine anyone topping the support of such people as Matzen, Tom McKinley, Burgess “Burgie’’ Pennington, Jeff and Cheryl Yates, and Dr. Jeffrey Shay.

“I’m sad, very sad,’’ Pennington said of the Thunder’s demise. “I expected this. I expected it from the very start of the season. Things haven’t been the same this year.’’

Pennington, who works for Strieter Motors in Davenport, seldom missed a Thunder home game.

“Only when I was sick,’’ he said. “And I’d have to be pretty sick for either me or my wife to miss a game.’’

Through the years, he became very close friends with many of the players, especially Rudy Keys, one of the stars of the 1994 championship team.

McKinley, a Rock Island resident, also grew close to the players. Every season he would smoke some turkeys and either bring them to the locker room or take them to a get-together at head coach Dan Panaggio’s house.

Cheryl Yates was the president of the team’s fan club the last two years and spearheaded movements to make the players feel more at home here.

Matzen, a retired phone company employee, won a WLLR drawing in 1990 that gave him season tickets for life. He not only missed just six home games during the Thunder’s 13½-year run, but he seldom missed a practice. About the only time he wasn’t there was when Panaggio would change the workout schedule at the last minute.

The Thunder franchise was part of the fabric of their lives. When it was torn away from them this week, it left a hole.

As Pennington said, everyone knew it was coming. But that didn’t make it hurt any less.

“You’d have to be half blind to not see this coming,’’ Matzen said. “But we kept hoping something would change. We kept hoping that a white knight would come along and we’d see it turn around.’’

“I think we all knew at some point that it would come to this,’’ Cheryl Yates said. “But I think it really kind of shocked us that the whole league went down.’’

Many of the fans recalled the franchise’s early days at Moline’s Wharton Field House as the best of times.

“A lot of people didn’t follow the team when it left Wharton,’’ Matzen said. “It wasn’t the same. They refused to go to The Mark.’’

“At Wharton Field House, with 3,000 people in there, it was rocking,’’ Pennington noted. “I love our seats at The Mark and I love the comfort of it. But I don’t like the high prices.’’

He said the move to The Mark was just the first in a series of events that changed the dynamics of the franchise.

Most of the fans point to one of the last major developments — the ownership of former NBA star Isiah Thomas — as the crushing blow. Thomas bought the entire CBA, made several changes that didn’t set well with the fans, refused offers to sell the league last spring, and finally ended up abandoning it by the side of the road this week.

“It’s a crime,’’ said Shay, a Muscatine physician. “It obviously is Thomas’ fault. He had chances to sell the league, but for whatever reason he decided to stick it to everybody.’’

Pennington said the league was headed downhill even before Thomas came along, but he feels the former NBA star finished it off.

“The changes he made deteriorated the league,’’ Pennington said. “Even to the few fans we had, it became less interesting.’’

Some of the fans also blame the local news media for the Thunder’s demise.

“Everything has been negative since last summer,’’ McKinley said. “There were a lot of things that shouldn’t have been printed. With all the negative publicity, it hurt corporate sponsors and it hurt season tickets.’’

Others blame the success of the Mallards. Many just blame their fellow fans.

“I hope the people in the community will say ‘Dang, maybe we should have gone out and supported them,’ ’’ Yates said.

Pennington said he thinks the Quad-Cities as a whole “kind of let down the Thunder.”

“People didn’t realize what they had,’’ he added. “They would complain about not having Triple-A baseball, but we’ve had Triple-A basketball. It hasn’t been appreciated here.’’

All the fans said they’d love to see some other basketball league bring a franchise to town.

“If another league came in, I’d go to the games,’’ Matzen said. “I just fear that the market isn’t there.’’

In the meantime, a lot of people who poured a lot of time and love and money into the Thunder will need to find something else to fill the void.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do,’’ Pennington said. “We’ll become more sociable with old friends, I suppose. Maybe now I might go to a Mallards game or a Steamwheelers game.’’

Shay said he may do the same.

“It looks like I’m going to hockey games now,’’ he said.

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