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Documentary captures fun, spirit of 1982-92 Albany Patroons

Documentary captures fun, spirit of 1982-92 Albany Patroons

Film paying homage to legendary CBA team from 1982-92 premieres Saturday at Palace Theatre
Documentary captures fun, spirit of 1982-92 Albany Patroons
Team president Jim Coyne, left, and head coach Bill Musselman celebrate the Albany Patroons' 1988 CBA championship.
Photographer: STEVE TWARDZIK/ALBANY PATROONS

ALBANY — By definition, the word "mecca," a place to which people want to travel, should not apply to any particular city in the old Continental Basketball Association.

If you aspired to a big-bucks career in professional basketball, you probably didn't want to be in the CBA.

That's especially true when you're doing it via "a bus ride at 5 in the morning through snowstorms to these little cities — Wichita Falls, Grand Rapids, LaCrosse, Rapid City ...," Mario Elie said in a phone interview last week.

"Man, I'm glad I went to Rapid City, though, because that's where the presidents' heads are. That's a Jeopardy question: 'Where are the presidents' heads?'"

Elie became a three-time champion as an NBA player and has been a long-time assistant coach in The League, but not before he spent two seasons in what can atypically — but accurately — be described as a mecca in the CBA. Yes, players and coaches wanted to come to Albany during the heady days from 1982-92.

And that's what a design and marketing company, Upside Collective, is calling its documentary about the legacy of the Albany Patroons: "The Minor League Mecca."

The film will premiere at the Palace Theatre at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. The debut screening is free to the public with a suggested $5 donation to benefit Siena College athletics.

There is also a pre-show VIP package from 5:30 to 7 p.m. available for $125 that includes food and drink, meet-and-greet with special guest George Karl and other former Patroons notables, and VIP seating for the documentary. Proceeds from the reception will benefit the Capital District YMCA.

What fans can expect from the film, which checks in at just more than 90 minutes, is a chronology of the 10 seasons during which the Patroons not only won two CBA championships and captivated a community starving for a pro sports team of any stripe, but also filtered a wealth of former and future NBA talent through the Capital Region.

That included not only players like Elie, Tony Campbell, Vincent Askew, Micheal Ray Richardson and Tod Murphy, but a Mount Rushmore of coaches carved in the likenesses of Phil Jackson, Bill Musselman and George Karl.

All three went on to coach in the NBA, Jackson winning 11 championships with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers, and Scott Brooks, Sidney Lowe, Rick Carlisle and Terry Stotts, all Patroons players or assistant coaches during that decade, also went on to become NBA head coaches.

Other players with lesser NBA connection who are highlighted include Patroons legends Derrick Rowland, Ralph McPherson, Lowes Moore and Frankie J. Sanders.

"We tried to do these guys justice," Upside Collective president Brendan Casey said. "It was a moment in time you couldn't re-create if you tried. I'm definitely proud of it, and I'm happy the fans will be able to see it."

The 39-year-old Casey and his crew interviewed more than two dozen people, including Jackson and Karl (Bill Musselman died of a stroke in 2000), and sifted through 10,000 slides and negatives with team photographer Steve Twardzik.

They also had the benefit of video game footage provided by former CBA commissioner Jim Drucker.

Besides the players and coaches, key interviews are with former Albany County executive Jim Coyne who brought the team to the Capital Region and spearheaded the drive to build the Knickerbocker Arena (since re-named the Times Union Center), and general manager Gary Holle.

The old Washington Avenue Armory, the Patroons' loud, packed, sweaty home gym before the team moved downtown to the much bigger and state-of-the-art Knick, is also lovingly portrayed in all its claustrophobic glory.

"It was a winning franchise, and they treated the players right," said Charley Rosen, Jackson's long-time friend, and his assistant coach during Jackson's four seasons in Albany. "Everything was first-class except the locker room.

"And they sent a lot of players to the NBA, which was also one reason they always got really good players. They wanted to play there."

The film is segmented in three stages, focusing mostly on Jackson's tenure and the one season in which Musselman, notorious for the villainy of a pro wrestling heel to Patroons fans for years, came to Albany and was embraced as a hero, especially after he won a championship with a team stockpiled with hired guns like Richardson.

The memories of people like Rosen create a rich tapestry of CBA life in general and the Patroons' role in it.

It was a world of boisterous Armory crowds, late-night bus rides, cheap motels and wonderful basketball.

"Phil's always been cool, he's the Zen master and takes everything in stride," Rosen said. "But he is one of the most competitive people I have ever met, which is why he got along so well with Michael Jordan.

"We're down in Pensacola. We got absolutely jobbed by these two referees, absolutely stole the game from us. We go back to the motel, and those refs were in the room right next to us. We could hear them laughing in there, so Phil started pounding on the wall and screaming at them ... 'WHAT ARE YOU LAUGHING AT?!'

"So they quieted down, and Phil was ostensibly going to sleep, but he was a light sleeper, anyway, and three or four times he started banging on the wall again and cursing them out.

"Then the next time we saw them in a game, they screwed us again."

The rollicking tale continues with Musselman, who was characterized by his legendary intensity and black book filled with the names of players and agents who could be summoned like mercenaries from all over the world at a moment's notice.

Among them was Richardson, who had recently been banned from the NBA for drug violations, but was a key player on the Patroons' 1988 championship team.

"He was one of a kind," Richardson said. "He says a lot of stuff he doesn't really mean in the heat of battle, and then the game is over and he doesn't even remember that he said those things."

"Back then, the CBA was pretty big because it was the only minor league to the NBA. The arena was old, but it was a nice, cozy arena."

Initially, Casey had no intention of producing anything beyond a short web video when the idea of a Patroons homage first came to him three years ago.

The more the interviews piled up, though, the more the project grew into something else. Sort of like the CBA team itself.

"It's not one season, it's over a decade," Casey said. "It was a situation where the stars were aligned with the right political climate and the mojo. You needed a big shot like Jim Coyne to get things done. Say what you want, but he had political clout.

"There was the political climate to make it happen, and it was an event. Mike Tyson would go to games."

For more information on the film, premiere and pre-show VIP reception, visit www.theminorleaguemecca.com.

Reach Gazette Sportswriter Mike MacAdam at 518-395-3146 or mikemac@dailygazette.com. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.

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