Friday, January 26, 2007

Tom Doyle’s latest idea calls for 7-foot-8 Sun Ming Ming to play alongside 7-foot-7 Gheorghe Muresan and 7-foot-6 Manute Bol in the frontcourt.

The goal: Create a human hoops skyline that will earn entry into the Guinness Book of World Records and create a buzz for the Maryland Nighthawks, a Rockville-based team that plays in the obscurity of the American Basketball Association.

“I can also bring in some random 7-4 guys,” says Doyle, the Nighthawks’ owner. “They are all over the place. It is a way to get some media attention.”

Ming recently finished making the movie “Rush Hour 3” with Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker, but on this day he is just another innovation for Doyle. The 43-year-old lawyer and former amateur boxer has bigger plans than a Chinese player who stands nearly 8 feet tall. Ming is a regular member of the Nighthawks, while Muresan and Bol play only occasionally.

Doyle recently was named the chief operating officer of the ABA and faces the extremely tall order of fixing the dysfunctional league, one that has teams coming and going with great frequency.

If cleaning up that mess wasn’t enough, Doyle also is trying to find a new venue for his own team. The Nighthawks currently play in the cramped gym on the Rockville campus of Montgomery College, but Doyle has designs on building an arena in upper Montgomery County.

The facility would include 8,000 to 10,000 seats and, in addition to housing the Nighthawks, would play host to concerts and other shows and serve as a venue for such things as high school graduations — similar in function to Patriot Center in Fairfax County.

“It is something that doesn’t exist in the county and can really be used for the county,” says Doyle, who is gaining support in the county government. “It will help a lot of people and keep dollars as well as bring dollars into the county.”

The county council already has conducted a feasibility study, and the soon-to-be released results are said to be extremely positive. The arena likely would be a joint venture among the county and state governments and the private sector.

Doyle says he already has lined up $20 million from investors to fund the private side of the deal. In theory, the county and state would each kick in about $20 million to fund the project, which is expected to cost close to $60 million. Montgomery College-Germantown and the fair grounds in Gaithersburg are possible sites.

“People are starting to discuss the real possibility and places,” said county councilman Michael Knapp, whose district likely would play host to the new building. “These are places it actually can be done. It is still early, but it is gaining momentum and will get going even more in the next six weeks or so.”

‘One cool cat’

Neither the arena nor leadership of the ABA was on Doyle’s agenda three years ago.

Siegel & Doyle, his law firm, says it offers “a different breed of attorney,” one for whom casual clothes and plain talk replace suits and lawyer-speak.

“It’s a different approach,” says Doyle, who is wearing jeans and a T-shirt as he runs the sound system at a Nighthawks game. “I am not going to walk around in a suit in my office. I will be like this. I am more into paying attention to people and clients than a stereotypical law firm, which I kind of despise.”

Doyle became familiar with the ABA by playing pick-up ball with some of the Nighthawks players. He entered the ownership of the Nighthawks in 2004 when the franchise was about to go under in its first season.

Doyle said he has lost roughly $100,000 while trying to put the franchise in a position to reach a break-even point, which he said he is now near.

It’s not a deal he would recommend to anyone, he says, but he followed his passion and believed he could turn it into a moneymaker.

His first move was to relocate the team from the Showplace in Upper Marlboro, where they paid $5,000 a game in rent and drew fewer than 200 customers.

The fan base has grown slowly for the Nighthawks, most of whose players consider the team a part-time job and make between $200 and $400 a week for the 36-game season.

“It is definitely not profitable for him right now,” said Randy “White Chocolate” Gill, who is well known on the Streetball circuit and makes a bit more for promotional appearances and clinics. “He does it because he loves basketball and can do something for it. It’s a passionate thing. He has been a great inspiration in my life, helping me out.”

Taking over

Doyle was immediately critical of ABA founder and president Joe Newman, who seemed more interested in expansion than running a credible league.

Franchises could be purchased for $10,000 by almost anyone, and the ABA on its Web site called itself the “fastest-growing sports league ever.”

As a result, teams were underfunded and poorly managed. The ABA started the 2004-05 season with 35 teams, but few played their entire schedules. The league this season was slated to have 57 teams. But only 43 remain.

Twenty expansion teams, including one in Alexandria, have been announced for next season for the red-white-and-blue-ball league.

“The ABA was a great idea, but you have to have the leadership to follow through,” Doyle said of the low-cost, family-oriented league that features a four-point shot, nicknames like “SpongeBob” and postgame autograph sessions. “Mass doesn’t necessarily mean good. Until every team finishes the season, the papers aren’t going to cover you as legitimate sports team. I am banging my head against the wall sometimes.”

This season has been more of the same. The Baltimore franchise ran out of funds and folded. So did the Brooklyn franchise before NBA star Elton Brand bailed it out.

New commissioner John Salley, the former Detroit Pistons “Bad Boy” and current host of “Best Damn Sports Show Period,” thinks Doyle is up to the job.

“He’s like a step-back, cool-down guy,” says Salley, who envisions a league with a television deal and merchandising similar to major leagues. “I said, ‘For a short guy, you are really cool.’ He doesn’t have a Napoleonic complex. He’s like a silent Caesar who takes over a room. And he can relate to people from the street to the boardroom. He’s one cool cat.”

The league does have some credible owners and franchises for Salley and Doyle to rely upon.

Sports Illustrated writer Alexander Wolff owns the Vermont Frost Heaves; Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Charlie Batch co-owns the Detroit Panthers; and Baltimore Ravens quarterback Kyle Boller, ex-Baltimore Oriole Brady Anderson and singer Nick Lachey own the Hollywood Fame.

The mother of NBA star Allen Iverson owns the Richmond Ballerz.

The league also plans to go public, a move that could lead to the removal from power of Newman by the new board of directors and leave Salley and Doyle in charge.

“We are on the same page on how we need to do it,” says Doyle, who wants potential owners to put up a $20,000 application fee and have $750,000 to get a franchise going. “At the owners’ meetings, he was very sensitive to the Isiah Thomas debacle in the CBA.”

Thomas, Salley’s former teammate, bought that basketball minor league and led it into bankruptcy.

Doyle accepted the position on the condition he is given the “teeth” to fix the league. He does everything from ensuring teams are properly funded to getting teams to fax statistics into the league office.

“From a business standpoint, there is a huge opportunity,” Doyle says. “People like the product. They are just like, ‘When are you going to clean it up?’ The next couple months, really. … It is really nothing different than dealing with children. If there are no consequences, they will continue to do it.”

Building blocks

While Doyle attempts to turn around the league, he simultaneously will continue to pursue an arena in Montgomery County. He envisions crowds of between 2,000 and 3,000 for the Nighthawks and sees the new venue as a major asset for the county.

The plan is to have a “green,” environmentally friendly arena with box seats and an ice rink, perhaps for a minor league hockey club.

Doyle declined to identify his investors but said the group comes from a variety of places from institutional to local business people, sports figures and other celebrities.

“You would be surprised at the people who want to be involved,” he said. “It will create hundreds of jobs and fill a real void as people won’t have to leave the county to see entertainment like Sesame Street or Ice Shows. The early indications are all positive. No one has shot us down yet.”

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