As one of those journeymen who entered the NBA as a second-round pick only to be traded several times throughout his career, Ike Austin knows all-too-well the business interests driving professional basketball. His pro career started in Utah, went through France and Turkey, and continued back in the states, stretching from Los Angeles to Miami. He understands sometimes you have to roll with the punches and pack your bags for the next city—or country—on a moment’s notice when you’ve just unpacked them.
Whether it’s playing for 20,000 roaring NBA fans or 20 individuals in a run-down recreation center in Istanbul, Austin simply wants to be an integral part of the game now that his playing days are behind him. After 33 years, the American Basketball Association returns to Utah with the ex-Jazzman assuming the roles of owner, head coach and mentor of the Utah Snowbears, providing a chance for other players just to be part of the game.
While the afros and leather trench coats of the original ABA are gone, the red, white and blue basketball and patriotic flavor of the old Utah Stars returns to Salt Lake City for the revived league’s fourth season. Not to be confused with the NBDL [National Basketball Development League], the ABA is a training league that functions independently, and is not directly affiliated with the NBA.
For those who make the cut, the Snowbears are the next step in professional basketball for hometown heroes including Weber State’s Harold “The Show” Arceneaux and ex-University of Utah center Cameron Koford. The team also features former Wisconsin guard Clay Tucker, and forward Chris Osborne from Austin’s own PAC-10 alma-mater, Arizona State.
According to Austin, players out of college need a home to prepare for the next level in their professional careers. With a lot of phenomenal college stars not making the NBA due to an influx of international and high school lottery picks, the ABA is a sensible alternative. And with an arena located inside the Lifetime Activities Center on the SLCC Redwood Campus, it’s the perfect size for a team looking to persevere in a market alongside the Utah Jazz.
“It’s all about getting a look and chance to make a name for yourself. There’s only a certain window, and if you don’t make it between around the ages of 21 to 27, that’s it, the window is closed,” says Austin about keeping local, post-collegiate players in America as opposed to settling for careers in the European leagues. “It’s more enticing for the guys to grow in the ABA because they have a better chance of getting called up [to the NBA].”
However, bringing an ABA team back to Utah is going to be a challenge for Austin. Prior to acquiring the Snowbears earlier this year, the one-time Most Improved Player of the 1996-97 season had his hands full as part-owner of Rib Alley restaurant. He even frequently played hip-hop and R& records at Kristauf’s Martini Bar to unwind after a long day’s work. But Austin has temporarily put aside culinary pursuits and outside interests to make the Utah Snowbears a competitive club that not only appeals to the West Valley market, but also to fans from Ogden to Provo as well.
Like so many basketball coaches or owners, Austin desperately wants to win, and he’s certainly not going to go easy on his team. As part of the training process, every morning at 6 a.m., he’s out at the Kearns Oval with the team running alongside Olympic athletes and medalists. He notes that by having access to choice practice facilities in the valley, it gives the Snowbears an edge as they attempt to steal the ABA title from the Long Beach Jam.
In addition to the hard work on the court, Austin feels it’s important to get the Snowbears out in the community, working with local Boys & Girls Clubs and putting on clinics in area schools. In fact, the team recently returned from North Star Elementary where the players not only taught 220 elementary kids basketball skills but also lessons about saying no to drugs. The youngsters were also told that no dream is too big or too small to accomplish.
If the Utah Stars could bring a title to Salt Lake City in the early 1970s, then with a great deal of hard work, determination and fan support, the coach feels there’s no reason why the Snowbears can’t be the next team to deliver a championship title to Utah.
“One thing you can always count on with the ABA is a high-scoring, fast-paced game. Basketball is a form of entertainment and when you have teams in this league signing everyone from Dennis Rodman to Master P, it makes for an interesting product,” notes Austin on what fans can expect when attending an ABA game. “If I’m putting my name and money behind this franchise, you can bet it’s going to be done right. Ultimately, people want to see you win, no matter what level it’s on. We’ve worked hard this year and when we come back [from a season-opening road trip], the home crowd will see first-hand what this team is all about.”
UTAH SNOWBEARS Home opener vs. Calgary Drillers SLCC Lifetime Activities Center 4600 S. Redwood Rd. Friday, Nov. 19 7 p.m. www.utahsnowbears.net