Tuesday night was a good one for the Idaho Stampede. Now they can only hope it was the start of something bigger — and not a one-night stand.
The CBA's best played Boise on Tuesday night, and if the house wasn't exactly rocking for the league's All-Star Classic, at least Qwest Arena wasn't a collection of empty seats. (Note to the fans in attendance: It's OK to cheer or even talk during a basketball game. At times, it sounded like a funeral in there.)
Nearly 4,000 tickets, 3,883 to be exact, were sold for the game and its ancillary events at Qwest Arena, which holds slightly more than 4,200 as it's presently configured for basketball.
It was a huge upgrade from the Stampede's average crowd, slightly less than 2,300. Just the kind of exposure the franchise is desperate for. And apparently more business than the Qwest Arena Pizza Hut was anticipating. It sold out and closed 3 minutes into the second quarter.
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Between its Raider-style Nampa-to-Boise shuffle — each city has been home to the team twice since 1999 — the Stampede have struggled to consolidate their gains with fans, establish a true familiarity and garner real community attachment. Attachment is difficult when your best players succeed by leaving the franchise for better opportunities.
Isiah Thomas' disastrous management as league commissioner didn't help either, leaving the franchise out of business for a season and a half, starting in February 2001. (For the Knicks, Isiah's current employer, such a reprieve might be welcome.)
Then there's the competition for the Treasure Valley sport fans' dollars. The Stampede begin play in November, otherwise known around these parts as football season. Even as attention shifts to the hardwood, there's high school hoops and Boise State basketball to cure the basketball jones.
Not to mention Idaho's Qwest Arena co-tenant, the Steelheads, whose success, stability and uniqueness — where else are you going to see hockey? — have combined to make them enormously popular in the market. The Steelheads average more than 4,300 fans per game and attract a much more lively (and alcohol-influenced) crowd.
Given their circumstances then, Tuesday night was vitally important to the Stampede. With courtside seats sold out and plenty of irregulars in the stands, the franchise needed a solid showcase. After all, someday the owners would like to turn a profit.
The game, a 119-110 victory by the Western Conference (the Stampede's conference), wasn't award winning. It was an All-Star game. Playing with unfamiliar teammates and in front of more than two dozen NBA scouts and representatives often leads to uneven, though competitive play.
The dunk contest lacked the drama of, oh say, Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins circa 1988. Missed dunks have a way of killing the buzz. Alpha Bangura, the league's leading scorer who was recently acquired by the Stampede, nearly took home the title simply by making two in a row. Though the high-flying Bangura did rock two pretty sweet dunks in the final.
The 3-point contest gave the building a pulse, with Idaho's David Jackson getting a quasi-standing ovation after pouring in 21 points — out of a possible 30 — in the final.
Minor league sports are about more than just the game. It's an entertainment business. And as usual, the Stampede delivered off the court. They trotted out the Beale Street Flippers, an acrobatic tumbling group from Memphis, for halftime entertainment.
The Stampede Spirit dance team, obligatory basketball timeout eye candy, performed. Kids lined up for turns on the "Jumpy Clown," a trampoline-like play area, and fired away at generic Pop-A-Shot stations. The kids' sock hop is always a hit. Players, as they do after every game, signed autographs.
The Stampede did their best to convince the patrons, especially those with children, that they're worth seeing again, worth investing some time, money and, perhaps most importantly, emotions in.
But if the early fourth-quarter parade to the exits with the game still in doubt is any indication, they didn't do enough. In the next few months, you'll decide — with your wallets and your energies — the long-term viability of this professional basketball franchise.
Smart businessmen, after all, won't lose money forever.