Our Little Secret

The ABAs and Anaheim Surf attempt to do what few OC teams can: Survive

There are 500 people—maybe—in the Anaheim Convention Center Arena, which seats 8,800. They are a quiet 500, so when a moment of silence is asked for the victims of Sept. 11, the silence goes well beyond respectful to eerie, vacuum-packed, like holding your breath in deep space. It's so quiet that when the Southern California Surf and the Phoenix Eclipse resume warming up, you can hear a boy ask, "Which one are the Surfs?" and a man answer, "I'm not sure."

The Surf are home again, back after a couple of weeks on the road, back after playing American Basketball Association foes such as the Eclipse and the Kentucky Pro Cats and Indiana Legends, where, rumor has it, they played in front of 44 people. There are 10 times that many people here, but they're a quiet 10 times as many, and once the game starts, you can hear Jamel Thomas encourage Eclipse teammate Kevin Simmons to "Yeah! Chill his ass!" in the cheap seats (which are very cheap) where Jeff Bird is sitting.

When Bird heard Orange County was getting a professional basketball team, he came down and got season tickets the next day. "I wanted to come out and support a professional team because, you know, it seems like they need all the help they can get," says Bird, referring to an Orange County professional sports landscape that is volatile to say the least. "Plus, I thought it'd be fun. It's pretty good basketball, and the prices are great."

Bird pays six bucks for his seat in the front row of the terrace level. He likes the seats, though he says he dreams of sitting down in the floor seats just one time. What he sees—and hears—from his perch is an entertaining brand of basketball pushed by hungry young players, some with NBA experience, eager to impress NBA scouts (there are seven in attendance tonight) and ABA rules that reward aggressive defense—teams are given extra points for baskets that come off turnovers in the opponent's backcourt—which in turn opens the floor for the offense to run and gun. As a result, ABA teams usually score in the 100s.

Perhaps, if you're an NBA fan, you've forgotten how to count that high since the NBA has become a half-court league producing the likes of the Miami Heat (who scored just 56 points in a game early this season) and the Charlotte Hornets (who got just 66 last month against the Lakers). The Surf scored 46 points in the third quarter against Kentucky.

And there is that aspect of the ABA that we hold dear about any professional sport.

"Friggin' refs! They're blowing the friggin' game!"

This is George Argyros Jr., one of the Surf's three principals. At the games, he is in constant motion, especially his mouth, while seeming under constant attack from his sport coat. He flits around the arena, talking with fans here and referees there, encouraging players—a short, stocky ("Just say it: I'm fat," he says) man rolling through the place like an olive in a near-empty cocktail glass. He does a bit of this and bit of that for the team: not only attracting corporate sponsors, but also attempting to drum up media interest in the team. It was George Jr. who called the Weekly and invited us out to watch a game and write a story.

"I was hoping we could do this and put aside some of the issues your paper and my family have had in the past," said George Jr., referring to the long-running antagonism between his father, George Sr., and this publication stemming from George Sr.'s support of an airport at El Toro and evidence that his apartment company ripped off tenants for millions of dollars. The airport is dead now, and George Sr. is out of the country, George W. Bush's appointed ambassador to Spain, though that hasn't necessarily smoothed things out. The week of George Sr.'s posting to Madrid, the Weekly wrote a story about him headlined, "The Pain in Spain."

Like George Jr., everyone associated with the Surf performs multiple jobs. Players and cheerleaders are required to sign autographs after games. Media specialists help out with promotions. General managers help arrange photo shoots. Even team owner/president Steve Chase multitasks, not only running but also arranging group ticket sales and more.

"Do you know where I was this morning?" Chase asks from the team's Irvine offices. "I was talking to 45 people at the Villa Park Rotary Club. I never had to do that with the Lakers."

Chase was an executive with the Los Angeles Lakers for 20 years. His office is most notable for the size 22 basketball shoe belonging to Shaquille O'Neal that sits kiosk-like atop his desk.

Why take this on? He points to the shoe.

"The day we signed the guy who wears that shoe, we sold 2,000 season tickets—I mean, like that," he says, snapping his fingers. "The job had just become far less challenging. The team just kind of sold itself. So it's very different being here, but I love it because it's a challenge."

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