Miami Exports a Little Heat to Sioux Falls
There’s no doubt that Sioux Falls has staying power. Read Scott Cacciola’s article below from the New York Times about our Sioux Falls Skyforce.SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Not long after he was released by the Oklahoma City Thunder in September, DeAndre Liggins learned that the N.B.A. Development League affiliate of the Miami Heat had acquired him. Liggins, a shooting guard, figured the team was in Florida. He was wrong.
“They said it was in South Dakota,” Liggins recalled last month. “I said, ‘What?’ ”
The Sioux Falls Skyforce, who are bound for the D-League playoffs, and the Heat, who have won two consecutive N.B.A. championships, have forged one of the more unusual and innovative partnerships in professional sports. Undaunted by geography, the Heat have allocated significant resources — staff, money and winter coats — to the Skyforce in an attempt to replicate their philosophies on a D-League scale. That this is happening in South Dakota, of all places, is no accident.
“We wanted to align with them regardless of where it was,” said Pat Riley, the president of the Heat.
The Skyforce, a franchise that has functioned without interruption since 1989, is one of minor league basketball’s most stable organizations, no easy feat. While other clubs have come and gone over the past 25 years — 64 opponents at last count — the Skyforce have endured.
The team now plays its games in a gleaming 3,250-seat arena called the Sanford Pentagon, which opened in September. And while the Skyforce have had loose affiliations with several N.B.A. teams, including the Heat, since joining the D-League in 2006, this is the first season that Heat executives are in full control of the Skyforce’s basketball operations. It is a grand experiment in the Great Plains, and an unconventional marriage.
The Heat have South Beach, winter temperatures in the 70s and fine Cuban cuisine. The Skyforce have the Big Sioux River, more than 40 inches of annual snowfall and a Beef ‘O’ Brady’s. (Riley said that Sioux Falls, with its brick storefronts and old mills, reminded him of his childhood in Schenectady , N.Y., in the 1950s.) Only basketball has brought these two franchises together.
“This is like a whole new birth for the Skyforce,” said Greg Heineman, 65, the team’s longtime owner.
Pat Delany, the team’s first-year coach, said the Skyforce’s daily activities were imbued with “Heat culture.” Riley estimated that 80 percent to 90 percent of Delany’s sets are identical to those used by Erik Spoelstra, the coach of the Heat. Delany, a former advance scout for the Heat, even uses the same terminology — everything from red to black to blitz, which is code for a trapping style of defense. Liggins plays the role of LeBron James. The system works in Miami, so the assumption is that it should work in Sioux Falls, too. Sticking to the blueprint also helps make for a smoother transition whenever the Heat sign a player off the roster.
“It’s seamless,” Riley said in an interview last month. “I think it’s becoming a necessity that every team has a minor league franchise that they manage themselves.”
Ownership models vary in the D-League. Some teams are operated by independent owners. Others are the property of N.B.A. teams. (The Knicks, for example, will own and operate their own D-League club next season in White Plains.)
And then there are hybrid partnerships, like the one between the Skyforce and the Heat. While the Skyforce run the business side of the franchise, managing everything from ticket sales to in-game entertainment, the Heat hire the coaches, cover the travel costs and acquire the talent.
Greg Heineman’s son, Mike, who is the Skyforce president, said he was glad to cede control of the basketball team to “people who know what they’re doing.” After finishing out of playoff contention the past three seasons, the Skyforce wrapped up their regular season Saturday with a 31-19 record. The team, the fourth overall seed, will face the seventh-seeded Canton Charge (28-22) this week in the best-of-three opening round of the D-League playoffs.
Heineman said the Heat had been a gracious caretaker of the team, and anything but an absentee landlord. Consider Octavio De La Grana, a player development coach with the Heat since 2006, who relocated to Sioux Falls with Delany to work as an assistant coach.
“They could’ve just hired anybody,” Mike Heineman said. “The fact that they were willing to give up their own resources to make it work here says a lot.”
Henry, Isiah and Jazz Bear
No detail is too small. At the start of the season, the Heat sent the Skyforce an iPod full of music for morning shoot-arounds so that D-League prospects like A. J. Davis and Larry Drew II could listen to the same songs as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. The team changed its colors from teal, black and silver to red and black. The rebranding effort even extended to the team’s cheerleaders, who used to be known as the Skyleaders. Now, they are the Force Dancers as a homage to the Heat Dancers. (The Force Dancers even have a little flame coming off the ‘E’ in their logo.)
For Delany, 33, who joined the Heat in 2002 as an intern in the video room, the opportunity to coach the Skyforce came as a surprise. He was scouting for the Heat in the playoffs last season when he met with Andy Elisburg, the team’s general manager, in San Antonio. Out of curiosity, Delany asked about the team’s new alliance with the Skyforce. He soon found himself relocating to Sioux Falls. His hair has turned considerably grayer this season.
“He knows our language exactly,” said Adam Simon, whose responsibilities as assistant general manager of the Heat include acting as general manager of the Skyforce. “He relays our message.”
With the exception of those who are on assignment from their parent clubs, the majority of D-League players are free agents who are eligible to be signed by any N.B.A. team. That includes most members of the Skyforce, whose contracts are paid by the league. Still, the emphasis is on player development. Delany often finds text messages from Spoelstra waiting for him after games.
“It’s the understanding that everything you do has to mean something,” Delany said. “If you shoot a pick-and-roll jump shot in a skill session, that one shot has to mean something to your career, even if you’ve done it 50,000 times already.”
Still, there are daily reminders that this is minor league basketball, with all its requisite quirks. There was the game earlier this season when Bill Walker, a former forward with the Knicks, approached the public-address announcer to request that everyone start calling him Henry, which is his middle name. And while Walker, 26, would love to get another crack at the N.B.A., he said he appreciated the Skyforce’s professionalism: the training, the coaching, the attention to detail.
“It beats sitting behind a desk eight hours a day,” he said.
If many players regard Sioux Falls as a pit stop in their pursuit of larger stages, that also applies to others associated with the franchise. The team’s first mascot went on to become Jazz Bear for the N.B.A.’s Utah Jazz. A former cheerleader won a spot with the Chicago Luvabulls, the Bulls’ dance team.
Perhaps the most beloved player in Skyforce history was Victor Page, an electric but volatile guard out of Georgetown who spent four-plus seasons in Sioux Falls. In a game against the Idaho Stampede in 1997, Page grabbed a broom from behind one of the baskets and used it to attack an opposing player named Ashraf Amaya. Page drew a 20-game suspension. He went on to become the team’s career leading scorer. In 2004 the Skyforce retired his jersey.
At a recent home game, Greg Heineman occupied his usual courtside seat next to the opposing bench. He ordered a whiskey, then another. He very much appeared to be enjoying himself. He motioned to Doug Overton, the coach of the Springfield Armor and a member of a sizable fraternity. “Used to play for us,” Heineman said.
The owner of an insurance company in Sioux Falls, Heineman bought the Skyforce in 1993 with three partners because they were concerned that the team would either fold or move to a different city.
“That was the only reason,” said Heineman, who now co-owns the team with Mike. “We didn’t want it to go away. It was good for the community.”
The Skyforce have become a labor of love for his family. When Darryl Dawkins played for the Skyforce for one season in the mid-1990s, Mike Heineman was his co-star in a television commercial for a fitness center. Heineman, who was 15 at the time, had one line: “I’ll see you in the paint!”
In good years, the team has broken even. In bad years, not so much. Greg Heineman recalled how the team clinched the C.B.A. championship in 1996 by winning its best-of-seven series against the Fort Wayne Fury. The problem was that the team needed only five games to do it. Heineman had two home sellouts lined up for Games 6 and 7 — and an additional $50,000 in ticket revenue. Just like that, the money was gone.
The closest the franchise came to folding, he said, was the result of Isiah Thomas’s handiwork. In 1999, Thomas headed a team of investors that bought up the entire C.B.A., including the Skyforce. Thomas, Heineman said, had given him an ultimatum: sell me your franchise, or find another league. Heineman said he had no choice.
Horrendously mismanaged, the C.B.A. went broke in February 2001. Heineman reacquired the Skyforce through bankruptcy court and found a temporary home for the team in the International Basketball League for the remainder of the season. Several lean years followed. Heineman said the team had to regain the trust of the paying public.
“If we had shut down,” he said, “we never would have been able to start up again.”
A New Chapter
In February 2013, Mike Heineman was seeking additional stability for the franchise through a hybrid partnership, but the situation was looking bleak. He was sulking one night, he said, when his wife, Susie, told him to snap out of it. The Heat had been sending the Skyforce some players in recent seasons, and their executives had always been cooperative and enthusiastic. Why not shoot them an email and at least make them say no? He had nothing to lose.
So Heineman hammered out a three-page sales pitch that espoused the virtues of the franchise: its long ties to the community, its history of success and its family-owned philosophy. Heineman also cited the team’s facilities, which he felt were unrivaled in the D-League. At the top of that list was the imminent opening of the Pentagon at a cost of $19 million, as well as an adjacent field house that would feature a state-of-the-art weight room.
Heineman had several family members proofread the memo before he sent it to Elisburg, Simon, Riley and Nick Arison, the Heat’s chief executive. It was a half-court heave. After Elisburg visited Sioux Falls to see the site (the arena was seven months from completion), he invited Heineman to Miami. By late April, the Heat and the Skyforce had a two-year deal. Riley said the benefits far outweighed any inconveniences.
“They’ve been the sole owners since the early 1990s, and they really want to be build entertainment, and they really want to win, and they really want to promote Sioux Falls,” Riley said. “There’s not a whole lot going on there. So this is important to them, and we realized how important it was to them.”
When Riley visited Sioux Falls in October, Mike Heineman picked him up at the airport in his Ford Expedition. Riley spent the day visiting staff at the Pentagon before delivering an hourlong speech, without notes, at a Chamber of Commerce dinner. Greg Heineman later sent him a case of frozen steaks.
“A dozen of the finest they can offer,” Riley said. “They are delicious. We save them for special nights.”
Before its recent game against the Armor, the Skyforce staged a pregame clinic for a group of Girl Scouts. Craig Smith, a former N.B.A. power forward who had just joined the team, signed autographs using his nickname, Rhino. Bleacher seats went for $8. It was a sellout.
“People aren’t buying tickets,” Mike Heineman said. “You’re selling tickets.”
Everyone here makes sacrifices. For Delany, it means going long stretches without seeing his wife and two young children, who are back home in New Jersey. For the assistant coach Sean Rooks, who is 6 feet 10 inches, it means flying commercial in planes the size of Volkswagens. He has mastered the fine art of finagling his way into exit rows, which have additional leg room. “It’s a seat hustle every time,” he said.
For Tre Kelley, a point guard and the Skyforce’s leading scorer, it means passing up more lucrative contract offers from overseas teams to pursue his dream of reaching the N.B.A. He is not willing to give up on it yet, not after playing for nine teams in eight countries since going undrafted in 2007.
“It would be the greatest moment of my life if it did happen,” he said.
For now, he has found a home in South Dakota, along with the Heat. He considers it good company to keep.