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|| News Item: Posted 1999-02-04

The Demise of the ABL
By Aric Crabb

Three years ago while a student at San Jose State University I was given the opportunity to document a little bit of history. A team I did not know anything about was playing in a league I had never heard of, and it was all taking place in my backyard. I accepted a job as the team photographer for the San Jose Lasers of the American Basketball League. This women's league played a traditional basketball season in small venues across the country starting with eight teams, expanding by one team in year two, and completely folding in the first part of their third season.

From the start I knew it would be a challenge. I was a 20-year-old college kid who did not know the business I was about to be thrown into. I called all my mentors, Brad Mangin, Don Smith, Martha Jenkins and tried to gather as much knowledge and information as I could, before entering into this venture. Day rates, expenses, ownership, resale, all of these topics were new to me and I had to learn them all quick.

Lucky for me the crew running the ABL was new at their jobs too, and over the first season mostly by trial and error we came to what was actually a great contract for the photographers.
I was getting to shoot strobed basketball, learn about remotes, edit my own take and I was having a great time. Nobody wanted any of the photos I was taking but I was having a ball and learning a fantastic amount about photography and the business of being a freelance sports photographer. None of which you learn in school.

So as I was failing out of San Jose State, I was learning how to send out second, and at times third and final, notices on invoices. I was learning about putting several hundreds of dollars of expenses on credit cards only to have the bill come due before my paycheck arrived. I was learning how to deal with PR flacks who would come up to me in the middle of a game, tap me on the shoulder and ask if I could come up to the concourse level and take a quick picture of a table. Amazingly those pictures were used just about as often as all of the game action and portraits I took.

Throughout my two-plus seasons with the ABL, people would constantly ask me if that was the NBA league and I would say no. Then they would say "well then it is not going to last." Well I am amazed that it survived as long as it did. The ABL had no advertising, no TV contract and barely any media coverage. I truly believed at the beginning that it would be one season and out. The quality of play was good, but not any better than two good women's college teams going head to head.

It was fun to watch, but as far as great basketball goes it was far from that. It was more of a team game with much more passing than in the men's game, and from the baseline I could stay interested. I never could watch as a fan, and I could not watch them play on TV The game just seemed too slow.

I am convinced now that the league is gone for good, and owing me thousands of dollars which I am also pretty sure that I will never see, that the original plan was to start up and get absorbed by the NBA. Once the NBA made it clear that they had no interest in the ABL the powers that be decided to ride it out for as long as they could.

What steams me is they were going to call it quits they still had games going on. Employees were working on, not having a clue that two days later it would all be gone.

Photographers were still shooting film, and the box office was still selling tickets, for something they knew would not exist in two days. But that was another learning experience for me!

The players were great. The most down to earth professional athletes I have ever met. Dealing with the players in the ABL was a pleasure in compared to dealing with the players in the NBA. The ABL players were truly happy to be there playing the game, and they were all willing and ready to do whatever the league needed. So as far a photographing them, it was a cinch. They always showed up on time and stayed for as long as I needed them to stay.

On a road trip to Portland during the first season I was the first male to travel with the team and though at first they were a bit weary, by the end of the short trip I was one of the gals. They would not hesitate to talk about pouring ketchup in the tampon dispenser in the locker room, or what guys in the crowd they thought were hot that night. Those moments I will miss and will cherish as part of my experience with the league.

Lucky for me I was tipped off-hours before the league went belly up and was able to have the league owned strobes removed from the arena for safe keeping by me. Knowing that I had just sent them a bill for the past month totaling in several thousand dollars and they had been stalling on paying a past due bill for several thousand more, I felt I needed something of theirs to hold as collateral. And just in case my gut feeling of not getting paid at all comes true, then at least I will not be leaving this experience empty handed.

I had also been withholding my film from this season since I was owed money and it will be nice to have those images for history sake somewhere down the line.

Overall, except for being owed lots of money, the ABL was a great experience. It gave me a chance to do something I would have not had the opportunity to do with any of the other professional leagues in the market today. It gave me an unbelievable opportunity to learn and grow as a photographer and as a businessman. I am truly glad for the experiences (good and bad) I had with the team the players and the league.

(Aric Crabb is now a staff photographer for the Alameda Newspaper Group.)

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