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The Team Santa Barbara Evicted : Basketball: The Islanders of the Continental Basketball Assn. won games, but their investors lost $610,000, and one called the former club president a crook.

April 14, 1990|JEFF MEYERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA BARBARA — Shirley Otto and a few hundred other fans are sitting on wooden bleachers before a Continental Basketball Assn. game between the hometown Islanders and the Rapid City (S.D.) Thrillers. A dozen future Laker Girls--dolled-up 10-year-olds wearing lipstick and leotards--finish their pregame routine. It's tipoff time, and Otto gets ready for the action to begin--off the court.

"I don't see him," Otto says, scanning the gym from her courtside seat. An Islander investor, she is awaiting the arrival of Craig A. Case, the embattled former president of the team. "He usually comes late," she says sardonically. "That way he won't run into any of us."

The Islanders score on a spinning inside move by Luther Burks, and the crowd cheers. Otto is too preoccupied to notice. She zeroes in on the last few rows of the bleachers, then frowns. "There he is," she says, indicating a heavy-set man sliding into his seat. Otto, a widow in her 60s, shakes her head. "He does have his nerve, I'll give him that."

Welcome to Islander basketball. In this, their first, and probably last, season, the Islanders won the Western Division title with a 37-19 record, making them the most successful expansion team in the CBA's 44-year history--on the court. Off it, they lead the league in controversy and melodrama. "It's the real 'Santa Barbara' soap opera," says Bob King, CBA vice president of marketing.

How the world turned for the Islanders this season: Investor Howard Schneider goes on talk radio and calls Case, one of the town's leading citizens, a crook; the CBA commissioner, a man who could settle a key issue, is killed in a plane crash, and the Islanders are kicked out of town, evicted for not paying bills and forced to play their playoff games in Ventura.

"They're a poor motherless team," Otto says.

Normally astute businessmen say they disregarded caution for the chance to become an owner of a sports team. All seven investors lost not only their money, a total of $610,000, but their team as well--the league took over the Islanders Feb. 23, declaring them "abandoned" and refusing to pay the team's creditors an estimated $500,000. Investors are alleging fraud by Case and blaming the CBA for contributing to the franchise's problems with questionable business practices. Lawsuits are planned.

Despite her losses--Otto alleges that Case "flimflammed" her out of nearly $250,000--she still feels deeply about the team. It was her vision that helped give Santa Barbara its first professional basketball franchise. Then she breathed life into the Islanders with money and nurtured them with emotion, attending all 34 home games. The collapse of the franchise, she says, "breaks my heart."

"None of us expected to make a fortune," Otto says. "We went in it for fun because there's nothing to do in Santa Barbara."

Otto didn't want a basketball team in town so she could be merely a patron of the athletic arts. She loves the game. "I was born and raised in Indiana," she says. "It's in the genes." Her family even had season tickets to the old Ft. Wayne Pistons, forebears of the Detroit Pistons.

In the mid-1960s, she and her husband moved to Santa Barbara. Several years ago, Otto's satellite dish pulled in a CBA game from Chicago. She remembers seeing a CBA commercial that basically said: "You, too, can own a pro basketball team." She stored the information "in the back of my mind."

In 1987, Otto ran into Bill Bertka, longtime Laker assistant coach and a Santa Barbara resident. She mentioned the CBA to him and her interest in bringing a pro basketball team to town. Bertka, 62, knew Case casually. They often saw each other at various charity functions and would sometimes discuss the possibility of the CBA putting a team on the West Coast, Bertka says. A year after his first conversation with Otto, Bertka brought her and Case together. They met for lunch twice. Otto says that Case impressed her as a man who had the requisite enthusiasm, drive and connections to go after a CBA franchise.

Case, a 42-year-old Santa Barbara native, owned the Case Detective Agency and a real estate investment company, and he was active in the community--he is a past president of both the Athletic Round Table and the Las Positas Park Foundation. Bertka calls him "a very prominent civic leader in the community." Otto saw no need to check further.

But had she promptly looked into Case's background, she says, she would not have invested. Santa Barbara County Superior Court records indicate that Case has been a defendant in several lawsuits. Among them: In 1985, according to court records, Santa Barbara Bank and Trust obtained a default judgment against Case for $72,195. In addition, Case and his detective agency have been involved in dozens of municipal and and small-claims court lawsuits.

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