move from Wharton, sale to Thomas
By Don Doxsie / QUAD-CITY TIMES
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
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
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
“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
“I hope the people in the community will say ‘Dang,
maybe we should have gone out and supported them,’ ’’ Yates
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
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
Shay said he may do the same.
“It looks like I’m going to hockey games now,’’ he