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If 3-pointer falls in this league, is it heard?

The Anaheim Arsenal sweats out low attendance, but some fans are fervent. Orange County has a shaky history with basketball.

January 29, 2007|Dave McKibben | Times Staff Writer

The 554 fans attending the minor league basketball game between the Anaheim Arsenal and Albuquerque Thunderbirds had been quiet most of the night. So quiet, the squeaking of sneakers and players' grunts echoed through the rafters of the Anaheim Convention Center Arena, which was more than 90% empty.

But in the waning moments, people were waving white towels and gyrating to "Y-M-C-A," hoping one of the Arsenal "A-List girls" might toss a gray T-shirt their way. Scott Doll of Dana Point didn't take home a souvenir shirt, but he still felt like one of the lucky ones.

An Arsenal season ticket holder who shells out $80 a game for his courtside seat, Doll said he had never felt cheated.

"This is a great deal," said Doll, 46, an investment advisor who played college basketball at College of Charleston in South Carolina. "It's not the big leagues, but it's pretty good basketball. These kids are young and raw, but they have a lot of potential. Quite frankly, I'm surprised there aren't more people out here."

If more basketball fans don't begin to show interest in the expansion NBA Developmental League franchise, the Arsenal might go the way of the Amigos, Surf and Buzz -- professional basketball teams that were one-year wonders in Orange County.

Orange County is home to Major League Baseball and professional hockey. It was the last stop for the Rams before the National Football League franchise bolted for St. Louis. But the county's efforts to field a big-time basketball team have been less than stellar.

In 1967, the Amigos were one of the original teams of the American Basketball Assn. that eventually merged with the National Basketball Assn. Their brief history was colorful, to say the least. The Amigos cheerleader was a man dressed to resemble a "Mexican bandit," wielding a pistol. He sat near the Amigos' bench, and when the Amigos rallied, the bandit jumped up and down and shot blanks into the air.

At one point, the media relations guy had to suit up and play in a game. The Amigos, who also played at the convention center, finished in last place and left for Los Angeles after the 1967-68 season.

Another pro team, the Orange County Crush, was supposed to play in a five-story air dome at the Orange County Fairgrounds, but the facility was never built. Instead, the team -- which changed its name to the Buzz in the middle of the year -- played out its season at Concordia University in Irvine, then moved to Maywood in 2006.

Arsenal owner Louise Jones says she plans a longer tenure, but she acknowledged that the team needs to draw 2,000 a game to break even. Even by the most creative counting methods, the Arsenal is falling woefully short.

The team announced a crowd of 1,370 for Wednesday night's game, but that figure was based on the number of tickets handed out.

"We're not drawing as many people as we'd like," said Jones, who runs an Anaheim property management company with her husband. "But we went into this thinking we'd lose money the first year or two."

A farm club of the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers isn't exactly what Anaheim officials had in mind 14 years ago when a state-of-the art arena was built to house a big-time professional team. The Clippers played seven games a year at what was then the Arrowhead Pond for a few seasons, and arena officials came close to luring the Memphis Grizzlies to town in 2001.

Henry Samueli, the Orange County technology billionaire who owns the National Hockey League's Ducks, is trying to lure an NBA team to the arena, now named Honda Center. But for now, the Arsenal is about as close to the bigs as Orange County is going to get.

"I'm just happy to see that there's somebody showing some interest in putting on pro basketball in Orange County," Doll said. "Because there's some hunger here."

But there may be no one hungrier than Arsenal players, a collection of former college stars making $15,000 to $25,000 a year, about 5% of the NBA minimum salary. Jawad Williams, the team's leading scorer, is only two years removed from winning an NCAA championship at the University of North Carolina and playing before packed arenas and national television audiences.

The Arsenal is probably less exposed locally than the English Premier League soccer team of the same name. It has no radio contract and no newspaper staffing its games. Recently though, the team signed a deal with Cox Communications to televise four home games.

"I had no idea who they were," said Darlene Holmes of Fullerton. "I'm only here because my friend's son is playing in a YMCA game at half[time]." By the second quarter, Holmes found herself sitting courtside in a comfy leather chair. She had entered a contest in which the winner gets an up-close view of the action during a quarter and $10 for each Arsenal three-pointer.

"With the amount of people here, my chances were not too bad," said Holmes, who made off with $20 after her quarter ended.

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