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."

To say the least. A challenge battling apathy, especially in Southern California, where no one gets excited whether the NFL comes or goes. A challenge to engage a region, Orange County, where professional sports at any level has yet to prove they really belong ("What time is the Mighty Ducks game?" "What time can you get here?").

The county has been the final resting place for all manner of sports franchises ranging from the World Football League Southern California Sun, minor-league baseball and men's and women's soccer to men's and women's volleyball, team tennis, men's and women's basketball, and roller hockey. All of them saw the numbers, a county of significant size—2.8 million—with people who make lots of money, are active and sports-minded. Add to that the fact it's bordered by Riverside County and its 1.5 million and that the neighboring greater Long Beach area adds close to another million. Then there are the tourists drawn by the theme parks, the beaches and the conventions at, hello, the Anaheim Convention Center. It seems a can't-miss. But they all have.

In fact, the Surf isn't even the first ABA team to try. Back in 1967, the Anaheim Amigos lasted one season, setting records for turnovers, low attendance and pissing off players who didn't get paid. The Amigos were like the rest: ignored while they lasted; forgotten as soon as they were gone. The general manager of the management group that bought the team and moved it to LA said, "The Amigos have been buried, and we burned their uniforms."

And so it goes.

When you see Surf players such as Long Beach State's Juaquin Hawkins (a late training-camp cut by both the Lakers and Clippers) or former Atlanta Hawk Fred Vinson playing hard, you understand their payoff: the Surf's best player, Joe Crispin, was called up by the Phoenix Suns earlier this season. But when you see the front office workers doing two and three jobs, you wonder if their labor doesn't tread over from laudable to foolhardy. Why risk the energy on Orange County? Forget about minor-league sports—the county has already lost one NFL team and has been passed over by at least three NBA teams. The once-popular Ducks play to a half-filled Pond and the Angels, mentioned as a possible victim of contraction, are notable for playing in a venue where hometown fans are regularly outnumbered and outshouted by the opposing team's rooters.

Chase and George Jr. say you battle all that with low prices—the best ticket in the house is just $20, the lowest $4. You offer an entertaining brand of basketball and players that are willing—at the team's insistence—to sign autographs and pose for pictures. You bring in high school bands, you have high school players compete in shooting contests, and you get the Anaheim cops to play the Anaheim fireman in a pregame event.

"We're not selling basketball," Chase says. "We're selling affordable family entertainment."

"It's all about taking care of the fans," says George Jr., who regularly presses the flesh with the fans.

This is a lesson he did not learn from his father. George Sr. once owned the Seattle Mariners, something that gave the old man none of the joy his son gets from the Surf.

"It wasn't like he talked about it," George Jr. says. "One day, he came home and told us at the dining room table that he just bought the Seattle Mariners. I said, 'What's that? A high school team?'"

George Sr. was a disaster as an owner. When, in 1994, Seattle Times sportswriter Bob Finnigan listed the 10 worst days in Mariners history, Argyros's purchase of the team ranked No. 2, just behind the 1994 strike that wiped out the World Series. George Sr.'s main problem as an owner—and why he is reviled to this day in the Northwest—was that he was an absentee owner who lived in Southern California and seemed interested only in sucking as much money out of the franchise as possible.

Having learned his lessons from dad, George Jr. is the most visible team official at every home game. But is that enough?

Lee Hamilton, host of the popular Sportsnight radio show on XTRA-AM 690—which he broadcasts several times per month from Orange County locations—said he believes it may be enough. The reason most teams don't make it in OC, he says, is poor management. "When the Ducks were winning you couldn't get in the building," he notes. But he allows that the county has special challenges.

"I think Orange County is a fractured market," he says. "You've got bad transportation across the county, especially going from east to west, which makes it very difficult to draw from Riverside. I think you've got a Hispanic community that has yet to be mined. Still, I think if the right product is there, the people will come."

Of course, people have to know the product exists, and that's a problem in Orange County, where because of its place between LA and San Diego, doesn't have a major television outlet. Much smaller markets, in fact, have much more TV coverage, while Orange County is relegated to news bureaus from the major local TV stations. Local outlet KDOC will broadcast some games, but those games are as popular with the viewers as you'd expect for a station that constantly broadcasts Perry Mason.

With no true local TV station and a limited budget, the team doesn't see the value advertising on outlets that don't target Orange County. Likewise, local TV stations haven't exactly leapt on the Surf bandwagon. Oh, there was that period in the beginning when the team got some attention for hiring A.C. Green as a vice president of basketball operations. All the local stations turned out to interview Green, most famous for his spirited championship play with the Lakers as well as his claim that he's still a virgin, but there wasn't that much talk about the team. It kind of went, "So, why you doin' this? Uh, huh. Hey, how's that virgin thing working out for you?" And they were gone.

And the Surf needed all the boosting they could get, especially since the team's first day of operation fell on Sept. 10.

"The next day, everything stopped," Chase says.

The team kept their doors closed for a month. There was talk that the league would not play this year. As it turned out, two teams from the New York area decided not to. But the rest of the league went on. Still, having lost a month to promote, sell season tickets and arrange group sales proved significant.

"It affected everything," Chase says. "One, you had less time to take care of things. And two, people, whether they were corporate sponsors or fans, were nervous to spend money."

The season went on, and as it stands now, the Surf have the second-best record in the league and average close to 1,000 people per night. There's talk that the New York teams will join the league next season—a season preceded by months and months to promote and sell the team.

But none of that matters on this night. The Surf find themselves behind coming down the stretch, and George Jr. falls into silence. He still nods and shakes hands with the fans who ask for a moment because there's always time for the fans. In fact, the following week, Jeff Bird will be approached by an arena worker carrying four tickets for floor seats.

"These are for you," he'll say. "They're from George."

"Gotta take care of the fans," George Jr. says.

But he doesn't say much more right now. After staging a furious comeback, the Surf lose 112-110. The fans, who've gotten progressively louder as the game has progressed, don't seem too broken-up. The game was good—the winning bucket scored on a frantic length-of-the-court drive ending with a dunk—there was a bit of trash talk, tough play and halftime events like the little kids trying to make layups while swaddled inside oversized Surf uniforms. Good family entertainment.

Still, right now, George Jr. doesn't have anything to say about it. Deep in thought about the game (and perhaps the league? The county?), he stares out onto the floor. And, then, suddenly turning . . .

"'The Pain in Spain'?!" he says. "What is that?!"

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