Metropolis: Wednesday, May 22, 2003
Minor League, Major Obstacles

Problems plague \r\nFort Worth’s Rim Rockers basketball team \r\non and off the court.


As the Texas Rim Rockers — Fort Worth’s startup United States Basketball League franchise — prepared for their first home game just over a month ago, team CEO Mark McClure’s optimism was unbridled and effervescent.

“The people of Fort Worth are going to be treated to a level of basketball they have not witnessed in quite some time,’’ McClure boasted on the team web site. “We have a strong coach in Robert Reid ... and a strong GM in Don Wesley, and I am confident that the team they put on the floor will impress and surprise a lot of fans. ... These two have a long history of pro hoops, and I’m sure it will show on the court and in the win/loss column.’’

Since McClure made those predictions in mid-April, the team has won 1 of 16 games. Reid, a former Houston Rockets player, stepped down as coach, and McClure resigned as CEO. And, when it failed to produce the required up-front payment, the team lost the Fort Worth Convention Center as its home court.

How ’bout them Rockers?

Left standing among the ruins but determined to rise above them is the team’s general manager and new CEO, Donald Wesley, a 55-year-old former schoolteacher accustomed to challenging work. Wesley’s day job is supervising the state parole office in Longview, trying to help convicts make the difficult transit from prison to free world.

“The parole office is minor compared to this,’’ Wesley said. “You’re making a lot of decisions you’re not used to making. You have to be judge and jury, mother and father. It’s stressful. I hope the end justifies the means, giving people the opportunity to live their dream.’’

He’s trying to deal with the shambles left behind by McClure — financial problems, unhappy sponsors, a web site that can’t be updated because McClure put it together and is no longer reachable, and a team that’s trying to survive in a town that barely knows of its existence. At one recent home game, Wesley said, a total of nine tickets were sold.

One reason that Wesley is hanging in with a team that’s bleeding red ink: His son David, a guard for the NBA’s New Orleans Hornets, played high school and college ball in Texas and started his pro career with a Texas minor league team. “The purpose of this league is to give kids an opportunity. That’s where the focus should be,” he said.

USBL spokesman Dennis Truax acknowledged that the Rockers got off to a rocky start even for the minor leagues, but believes the team still has a good shot at stability. “I think the Rim Rockers can get through this,’’ he said.

Since it was founded in the mid-1980s, the USBL has placed more than 150 players, coaches, and executives on NBA teams. Wesley hopes to give some of his players a shot at stardom as well.

He’s got his work cut out for him. The Rockers didn’t have their players lined up until March and had trouble getting in touch with potential fans.

Plus, Wesley said, none of the owners actually lives in Fort Worth. With McClure off the roster, the Rim Rockers owners now include Wesley, his son, and two other investors from Richardson. The team is still looking for other investors.

With new coach Rick Williams and a group of new players, Wesley hopes the Rockers can rebound and win the support of Fort Worth’s business community. The team needs “the city and the chamber of commerce to get behind us [and say] ‘the Rim Rockers are our team,’” he said.

When the Rockers were 0-11, Wesley said the owners decided to bring in some new players “and the guy we contacted for the new players also wanted to coach the team.” Reid, he said, put the team’s interests ahead of his own, swapping coaching for front-office duties.

With Williams and his new players, the Rim Rockers won their first game, beating the Oklahoma Storm 130-126 on May 13.

Fort Worth may have given the Rim Rockers a tap-water reception thus far, but the team doesn’t seem 100 percent sold on Cowtown either. Wesley said McClure settled on Fort Worth after ruling out Dallas and Arlington — Dallas because of the Mavericks and Arlington because the team couldn’t find a place to play ball.

The team was to have played its games at Fort Worth Convention Center, which might have attracted greater crowds, but couldn’t make the first rent payment. “They didn’t meet the requirements of the contract,’’ said center spokeswoman Marsha Anderson.

“It was more or less a money issue,’’ Wesley said. “Our finances weren’t the greatest, initially.’’

The Rockers eventually found a court at Texas Wesleyan University’s Sid Richardson Center, at a price of about $500 to $600 a game, versus a couple of thousand for the convention center. The Rockers play the third of 10 consecutive home gamesThursday night at the TWU gym. Wesley said tickets are about $10 at the door.

Wesley hopes Fort Worth will embrace the Rockers, but he’s putting the team’s long-term prospects ahead of its zip code. “We would like for it to stay in Fort Worth,’’ he said. “But business is business. If it’s not going to be economically good for you, then maybe you need to move to another place.”

Wesley said he and his son sought out McClure, who was based in Addison, as an investor. A USBL official told Wesley that McClure had successfully run the Portland Mountain Cats in Maine some years back “and was interested in getting back in.”

“I think they won two league championships while he was there,” Wesley said.

Well, not exactly. “Mark was involved one year [with the Cats], which was the ’96 season’’ said Truax. “They finished second that year to Atlantic City.”

The Cats, like the Rockers, also had a rough start, though for different reasons. Officials sent several thousand fans away from the first home game after condensation rendered the court too slippery for safe play, according to a 1995 Portland Press Herald account. The following year the newspaper reported that USBL took control of the team following revelations that the Cats still owed “at least $55,000 in expenses from its first season.”

McClure could not be reached for comment on this article, but in an interview earlier this year, he blamed the Cats’ troubles on facility problems out of his control and on broken promises by a city official. That official is now deceased, but a worker in his office said the Cats’ problems had nothing to do with the city. “They were giving away tickets,” the worker said. “People just didn’t want to go.”

McClure has described himself as a motivational speaker and ex-Marine who started out in business by borrowing $2,500 on his Discover card and convincing a Portland landlord to toss McClure’s own cousins out of a waterfront bar they were running. His relatives were losing money in a great location, and they rejected his first “very generous” offer to buy them out, McClure said.

“So my attorney went directly to the landlord, found they were in arrears on rent. We made a deal to pay the back rent and buy the inventory from the landlord ... . He evicted them and I got the place for under $5,000.”

After Fort Worth Weekly published its first article on the Rockers, McClure responded with personal attacks and a vague threat. “Rest assured, myself and my many contacts throughout the U.S. have a nice surprise in store for you,” he wrote in one e-mail. “Just wait.”

Wesley said McClure was never more than a 50 percent owner in the team, although he liked to take an upfront role. “He was hung up on labels and titles and power,” Wesley said. “I think that’s part of the reason he’s no longer with us — the idea of being accountable to other people.”

He declined to describe the exact financial situation under which McClure left the team but said the ex-CEO’s departure was voluntary. “As he stated it, ‘I’m giving up my equity in the team.’”

A major problem, Wesley said, was that more advertising should have been done earlier this year, to tell people about the team. Now, he said, Reid is “doing a lot of public relations work for us, going to schools and out in the community.”

Even though the Rim Rockers’ own web site is in limbo, updated information on the team is available on the USBL site, he pointed out.

Wesley said attendance has been averaging about a hundred fans per game. “Most of the money right now is coming out of our pockets,” he said, because very little revenue is coming in.

“I would say that inappropriate ways of handling money initially put us in somewhat of a bind,” Wesley said. “Some sponsors did put up money and that money is gone. I’m not going to get into that. But basically we’re down to the wire and there is no money coming in.”

Wesley said he and his investors will “give it our best effort” to keep the team together through the remaining dozen or so games in the season. After that, he said, they will decide whether to try a second season here. If the decision is to keep playing in Fort Worth, he said, things will be done very differently next year, with advertising and an early effort “to get Fort Worth to adopt this team.”

If the team can get a fresh start in 2004, he said, “it can work.”

Editor Gayle Reaves contributed to this story.

Jennifer Briggs is a Fort Worth author and journalist.

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