The Colorado Xplosion finally rated a front-page story in the Denver Post's December 23 sports section. The team's accomplishment? Going out of business.
The demise of the American Basketball League didn't come as a complete surprise, however, since the startup had been on tenuous footing since its first tipoff in 1996. And the beginning of this season was accompanied by increased speculation that there wasn't room in women's professional basketball for two leagues. While the summer-playing, NBA-financed Women's National Basketball Association had secured high-profile television contracts and big-name national sponsorships, the ABL struggled to get minimal coverage on Fox Sports Net and to have a couple of token playoff and All-Star games broadcast on CBS ("Court and Spark," December 17).
But the timing of the ABL's collapse was brutal. Looking newly energized, the 3-8 Xplosion set off what might have turned into a winning streak during two games in mid-December--had the league not declared bankruptcy and suspended the rest of the season on December 22. By then, Xplosion players had taken off across the country for the holidays, and coach Linda Hargrove scrambled to find them so that they wouldn't have to hear the news on television. By then, the team was already a sad footnote to history, since the Xplosion had played the last ABL game ever, against the Chicago Condors at the Denver Coliseum on December 20.
The decision to call a permanent time-out was made at a late-evening board meeting on the 21st. League CEO Gary Cavalli placed much of the blame on TV networks and national corporations, announcing in a press release that "although we had the best product, we could not find enough people to confront the NBA and give us the major sponsorships and TV contracts we needed." Only the week before, ABL officials had claimed ticket revenues were up, but it would have taken a reported $10 million just for the league to finish this season--and no investors were willing to sink that kind of money.
On December 29, team spokesman Tim Simmons rounded up any Xplosion players, coaches and front-office workers who were still in town and bought them lunch at Chopper's Sports Grill in Cherry Creek. It was the first time many of them had seen each other since hearing the news--and it might also be the last. So they passed around basketballs and autographed them.
"It's very sad. I think it's really just hitting me today," said forward Dana Wynne. "I think the league was a great honor. It gave players the opportunity to play. I wish it could have been more."
Wynne even grew philosophical about the character-building side of sports. The league's dissolution, she noted, "gives us experience getting through hard times in our lives--which these are."
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Some of the team's players are headed to foreign women's pro leagues. Practice player Nickie Rouillard was leaving for Austria on Sunday. "I assume it's somewhat like this but almost a world apart," she said. "I've heard positives and some negatives--the payroll, how you're treated. But I'm going there to be a positive addition, to try to feel at home away from home."
Other players hope to sign with their former rival, the WNBA. "I think I've got as good a chance as anyone," said forward/guard Crystal Robinson. But if the WNBA doesn't grab her, she pointed out, "I do have a degree to fall back on."
A few members of the team already have jobs off the court. The Xplosion's former director of communications and office manager, Hope Wagner--a 1998 summa cum laude graduate of the University of Nebraska at Kearney who earned dual degrees in sports administration and journalism--is working as a waitress at Chopper's. On Tuesday she served her former co-workers lunch.
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