- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 2, 2005

You’re fired.

That catchphrase has been reverberating around the sports universe since the 30-year-old owner of the Nashville Rhythm dropped the two-word bomb on her stunned coach courtside in the third quarter of a home game on Saturday night.

The victim was 23-year-old Ashley McElhiney, coach of the minor league American Basketball Association club and the first woman to coach a professional men’s basketball team.

The owner was Sally Anthony, an aspiring pop star who once gave fans at a Rhythm game free copies of her new album. On Saturday, she gave them something else, storming onto the court in the middle of the game to order the coach to bench a new player, Matt Freije.

McElhiney refused. Mrs. Anthony shouted profanities at the coach, then fired her in front of her shocked players. Security guards restrained Mrs. Anthony and escorted her from the building after the game.

“I can’t explain it,” said Adam Sonn, a player who was seated next to McElhiney on the bench. “I’ve never seen anything like that. For someone to storm on the court while the game is on and threaten to take Ashley out of there, it’s just ridiculous.”

The dispute over Freije, a former NBA player who starred in college at nearby Vanderbilt, appears to have been about money.

Freije signed a two-game, $10,000 contract, far above the $200 to $500 a week most ABA players earn. Mrs. Anthony claimed the contract caused resentment among the rest of the roster, which several players denied.

McElhiney stayed on the court after the incident, and her team rallied from an 18-point deficit to win by one. Afterward, Mrs. Anthony went into the locker room and told the players that she had fired McElhiney and that they could support the decision or Mrs. Anthony would fold the team.

“She’s an owner. I give her that, and she’s the face of ownership. But she’s not what she thinks she is,” Sonn said.

Mrs. Anthony’s turbulent night, however, was not over.

A woman describing herself as Mrs. Anthony’s sister-in-law called paramedics to Mrs. Anthony’s home early Sunday morning, saying she feared Mrs. Anthony had overdosed on Xanax, a drug used to treat anxiety.

Mrs. Anthony was taken to Vanderbilt Medical Center and released Monday.

Mrs. Anthony told the Tennessean newspaper on Sunday that she tripped on some stairs, hit her head and woke up in “the psych ward.” The same day she told the City Paper in Nashville that she had been bitten by a dog. Her mother later told the Tennessean on Monday that Mrs. Anthony was hospitalized because of a bad back.

Mrs. Anthony co-owns the team with husband Tony Bucher and Justin Christian. None of the three could be reached for comment yesterday. McElhiney also has declined to comment.

However, Rhythm officials released a brief statement in which they apologized to “Ashley McElhiney, our fans, Lipscomb University [where the team plays], the city of Nashville and our sponsors.”

The team did not address McElhiney’s employment status or rumors that Mrs. Anthony and her partners will fold the franchise.

The team said it would make a decision on a course of action “as soon as possible.”

ABA Chairman Joe Newman said he does not plan to fine or suspend Mrs. Anthony.

“This was definitely an episode in poor judgment, but I liken this to a sales manager at a Ford dealership getting into an argument with their salesman right there on the floor,” Mr. Newman said. “Ford doesn’t get involved to deal with something like that. It stays within the franchise.

“Whatever caused this situation, [Mrs. Anthony] is taking more a beating in the court of public opinion than anything I could do.”

The ABA was forced to suspend operations for the 2002-03 season to reorganize. The league, which has a franchise in District Heights, is seeking to expand next year to 70 teams from 32. It is considering teams that would play at the D.C. Armory and in Baltimore.

Mr. Newman said the incident in Nashville has helped those plans.

“This episode has definitely made us high-profile, no question,” Mr. Newman said. “I’ve got 1,500 people who have filled out questionnaires interested in owning an ABA team. I got calls today from all over, places like Utica and Rome, New York, and Jersey City [N.J.].”

The incident hasn’t been a complete loss for McElhiney, either.

McElhiney quickly won the respect of her team in her first season and posted a 17-7 record before Saturday’s incident.

Yesterday, she was named one of the coaches for the ABA’s upcoming All-Star Game, and Mr. Newman said she will be allowed to coach in that game regardless of her status with the Rhythm.

Sonn just can’t wait for it all to blow over.

“Why [Mrs. Anthony] would pull something like this is beyond me, and it was embarrassing for all parties involved,” Sonn said. “I just think that things are going to settle back down, and you know later this week things will get back to normal.”

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