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Thunder are history, but memories won’t die
By Craig DeVrieze / QUAD-CITY TIMES

The CBA’s first family took the news of the demise of the league and the Quad-City Thunder about like you might expect.

The Thunder’s First Lady did, too.

“It is probably one of the saddest days of my life,” Anne Potter DeLong said Friday. She was the Thunder’s sole owner from the November 1987 night when the Q-C team tipped off through December 1996.

“I gave everything I could. I loved the game and I loved the Thunder.”

Mauro and Dan Panaggio coached 759 CBA victories between them, 445 of those Thunder wins. Each has about that many memories.

“I am crushed by the whole thing,” Dan Panaggio said from Indiana University, where, sensing the trouble that lay ahead for the CBA and the Thunder, he took an assistant coaching job last fall.

“I remember great years, exciting years, great relationships. Now, it’s like my former high school — there are a lot of memories there, too,” said Dan, the second-winningest coach in CBA history.

“But guess what? It closed down and it doesn’t exist anymore. But there are a lot of people out there whose memories you can’t ever take away.”

Mauro, who retired in 1996 as the winningest coach in CBA history, watched the CBA grow from a van league to a bus league to the most competitive professional basketball league this side of the NBA.

“I am very saddened,” said the senior Panaggio, who coached the Thunder for their first four seasons before turning over the reins to his son. “A big part of my life was devoted to that league. I have a lot of fond memories. And some not so fond.”

Friday was a day for fond memories.

Former Thunder star Bill Jones remembered the close crowds at Wharton Field House and the bells that greeted former chief rival Charley Rosen of Rockford after Rosen dubbed cozy Wharton “The Phone Booth.”

Jones joined the Thunder in 1988, but said he was first charmed by the Field House when, as an Iowa Hawkeye senior, he watched ex-teammate Kevin Gamble play there for Thunder in ’87.

“People felt close to you, felt like they were part of it,” he said.

DeLong and the Panaggios remembered others who will forever be remembered as part of the Thunder’s lore. Like Don Mason, a do-everything front-office asset from the first year until cancer claimed him in 1995. And Fred Radunzel, who joined the staff in 1988 and was claimed by cancer last April after a difficult year in his dream job of general manager.

“There was a character,” Dan Panaggio said of the league and the team. “Anne Potter DeLong poured her heart and soul into that operation. There was my father, and all the things that he did. And when you think about it, Fred Radunzel literally poured his life into that team.

“I remember all of that.”

Said DeLong: “There were a tremendous amount of people who tried to make the CBA work and who put their heart, souls, money and selves into it. It is just sad.”

Seconded Jay Gellerman, who bought the team from DeLong and sold it to Isiah Thomas 15 months ago: “I really feel bad for the community. It is losing an asset to the quality of life here. This is, was, good basketball. We are not going to see that quality of basketball here again.”

Mauro Panaggio said it was a sad day for the future as well.

“Mostly, I feel badly for the players yet to come, the ones who won’t have the opportunity the CBA provided,” he said.

Yes, he said, the National Basketball Developmental League that the NBA plans to launch next fall will fill that bill for some. He doesn’t know, though, if it will be there for players like former Thunder star Chris Childs, who labored in obscurity for four years, battled off-court problems, found his stride with Dan Panaggio’s 1993-94 CBA champions and graduated to NBA stardom.

“The new league will give a kid a year or two and then forget them,” the old coach said.

Said Dan Panaggio: “They can have the NBDL. They will never have a Don Mason, a Fred Radunzel or a Crazy George. And I emphasize the Crazy.

“It had a lot of character to it, and it can’t be duplicated,” he said of the CBA. “It can’t be the same because you had an open system and you made it on your merit.

“You had great players like Anthony Bowie, Kevin Gamble and Derek Strong. It was great basketball and it was a challenge every night.

“Think back to the golden years in the early 1990s, when you had some of the best coaches in basketball, in my opinion. Bill Musselman, Flip Saunders, George Karl, John Treloar, Eric Musselman, my father ... You did your job and you got what you earned.”

Memories included.

Said Potter DeLong: “I love my wonderful memories and I will cherish them always.”

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