Note: The following is an excerpt from Santa Cruz Warriors broadcaster Kevin Danna’s new e-book titled “A Eulogy For Professional Basketball In Idaho”. The e-book is currently available on Inktera, Kobo and will soon be on Amazon, Apple and Barnes and Noble. Kevin Danna can be found on Twitter with @kevo408.
“It’s good shit, man. And now it’s gone.”
Paul Waldon followed the familiar path to his courtside box suite as he said this. Along the Idaho Stampede side of the baseline, it was the same spot he’d had as a season-ticket holder from day one.
Waldon brought his Stampede game program from November 14, 1997, to commemorate tonight’s contest. He’d given this quite some consideration – maybe he should rock his 2008 D-League championship hat, instead – but in the end he settled on the inaugural program with the first-ever Stampede roster card, the numbers and names of players aligned both alphabetically and numerically.
The program was a sign that, for Waldon, this was a special event. Tonight’s game against the Santa Cruz Warriors wasn’t just the regular season finale; he was sure it was going to be the final game in team history. He could see the writing on the wall that the Idaho Stampede, after 18 seasons in 19 years in Boise, were about to be relocated by their NBA parent club, the Utah Jazz, to Salt Lake City.
He had good reason to believe this. Nothing official had been announced yet, but the team had been completely silent on a potential agreement to extend their lease at CenturyLink Arena in downtown Boise. And with the recent trend of minor-league teams moving closer and closer to their parent clubs, he could read between the lines. A team that had survived more than forty Continental Basketball Association and NBA Development League franchises was about to meet the end of its road in the Treasure Valley.
The Stampede were 19-30. The playoffs, as they had been for seven years running, were out of the question. With Santa Cruz also 19-30, it seemed like the only thing on the line this Saturday night was avoiding the cellar in the Pacific Division of the D-League. But it was more than just that for Waldon; for him, it was probably the last time he would see his team.
“I looked at the program last night, which I typically don’t do,” Waldon said. “And I thought, this has been kind of special. We have seen some elite athletes play here for going on 20 years now. I don’t know – I’ll miss it, if it happens. If it happens, I’ll miss it.”
But there was still one game left, and if Friday night’s game was any indication – a 108-104 Idaho victory over Santa Cruz in overtime – tonight’s game at least figured to be entertaining, even if it was a battle for fourth place.
As the teams took the court before pregame introductions, the Idaho coaching staff made its way over to Waldon and shook hands with the Stampede superfan. Jordan Brady, an assistant coach who had also played for the Stampede, gave Waldon a fist bump and some parting words.
“We still got 48 minutes!”
Bill Ilett was nowhere near CenturyLink that evening. He had been spending most of his time in Palm Desert by then. The man who founded the Stampede couldn’t stomach it; he didn’t want to be there for the funeral.
Ilett is synonymous with Boise. Born and raised in Idaho’s capital city, he was the first student body president and part of the first graduating class from Boise College (now Boise State University) after its transition to a four-year school. Outside of studying at Long Beach State for a semester and spending some time in the Air Force Reserves in Texas, Boise was the only place Ilett had truly called home.
After a successful two-decade stint in the commercial truck leasing business, he sold his company, TransCorp, at the age of 50 but stayed on as a consultant, leaving him with more time on his hands. So the big basketball fan had an idea – bring professional hoops to Boise.
In 1996, Ilett made a trip to the St. Louis offices of the Continental Basketball Association, at the time the premier minor league for pro hoops in North America, to take the first steps towards placing a minor league basketball franchise in Boise. Ilett then visited Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the home of the Sioux Falls Skyforce, and Omaha, Nebraska, home to the Omaha Racers, at the suggestion of CBA employees to get a closer look at some of the teams. He loved what he saw in Sioux Falls and started a friendship with Skyforce owner Greg Heineman that lasts to this day; whenever Idaho and Sioux Falls played throughout the years, the loser would buy the winner an In-N-Out burger.
Omaha? Not so much.
“If I had made the trip the other way and started in Omaha, I probably would have never gone up to Sioux Falls, and there would probably never have been an Idaho Stampede,” Ilett said. “I saw the best first and then a rather rugged-run franchise down in Omaha.”
The Skyforce is coming off a 2016 D-League championship, setting the league record for regular season wins in the process and drawing good crowds on a consistent basis; the Racers folded in 1997.
By that summer, Ilett was determined to bring a CBA franchise to the Treasure Valley. Not wanting to take the entire financial risk, he reached out to his Boise community and heard back from about 20 people who were interested in investing in the new team. Ilett eventually whittled it down to 11 investors including himself, ranging from corporate types to entrepreneurs to politicians.
Of course, the CBA still had to approve the franchise, which it tentatively did in August 1996, but there was just one more hurdle to clear: the team had to sell 3,000 season tickets before the end of the calendar year. Ilett and the staff worked diligently to meet the quota with time to spare, and the CBA gave the team final approval in December. The Idaho Stampede – at least partly named after the Snake River Stampede rodeo that takes place every year in nearby Nampa – was born, at the price of $800,000 to Ilett and his investors.
The timing was perfect; at the end of the 1996-97 season, three CBA teams – the Omaha Racers, Oklahoma City Cavalry, and Florida Beachdogs – would be discontinued. In a testament to the fragility of CBA teams at the time, the Beachdogs and the Cavalry played in the 1997 CBA Finals, with the Cavalry defeating the Eric Musselman-coached Beachdogs four games to two in a heated series that according to The Oklahoman saw one player spit on a fan and threaten an official and Musselman get into several dustups with Cavalry fans and the police officers working the games in Oklahoma City.
Opting to spend a “year zero” in 1996-97 to get the franchise on its feet, the Stampede would begin play in the 1997-98 season, helping to offset the loss of the Racers, Cavalry and Beachdogs.
With the franchise established, now came the business of putting together the roster. As an expansion team, the Stampede needed to secure the rights to players to be able to field a team. Leading this charge was director of player personnel Eric Chapman, a veteran of the CBA ranks who had spent the past four seasons as an assistant coach and director of player personnel for the now-defunct Omaha team.
“It was a lot of fun, certainly. To get in on the ground floor with an expansion team from a basketball perspective was very challenging,” said Chapman, who also worked as the director of player personnel for the Albany Patroons. “That first summer after I was hired, we had I think five different player drafts that we went through to put our roster together – we had dispersal drafts and expansion drafts and college drafts, and all that kind of stuff. So it was a busy, exciting time, and it was a bit chaotic, because most expansion teams you’re building on the fly and rebuilding.”
Chapman and the Stampede put together a 10-player roster – Ashraf Amaya, Deryl Cunningham, Devin Davis, Dennis Edwards, Nate Erdmann, Ernest Hall, Nate Huffman, Rusty LaRue, Erik Martin and Jared Prickett. The head coach was Bobby Dye, a former Boise State coach who also led Cal State Fullerton to the Elite Eight in 1978. His assistant was Ernie Wheeler, who worked for two years at Boise State with Dye. Clay Moser was the CEO and general manager, and George Barrios was his assistant GM. The athletic trainer was Mike Williams, and the basketball interns were Bryan Gates and Ken Johnson.
With the roster and staff intact, the Stampede christened the brand new Idaho Center in Nampa on Nov. 14, 1997, in a game against the Sioux Falls Skyforce, which was coming off a dominant 47-9 season.
The house was nearly packed, as 6,531 fans came out to the 7,773-seat Idaho Center. On the court, Idaho shook off an early deficit by going on a 23-6 run and building a 58-34 halftime lead. The lead expanded to 29 in the second half before Sioux Falls made a run. The Skyforce couldn’t erase the entire deficit, however, and the Stampede won 102-92 behind Amaya’s 22 points and 10 rebounds.
After the game, the team announced to the fans in attendance that LaRue, who went for 11 points, seven assists, two steals and two rebounds in the win, was getting called up to the Chicago Bulls.
“Here we were, a minor league team and people in Idaho were trying to figure out what the CBA was all about, but there was no bigger basketball story in the United States at that time than Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls,” Chapman said. “So for our top player in the very first game that we debuted in Idaho to get national recognition and get called up to the Bulls really legitimized what we were all about.”
Marking the success of the Stampede’s opener, one of the local newspapers, The Idaho Statesman, published extensive coverage of the night. They published a game recap story, an opinion article regarding Larue’s signing with the Bulls, and a sidebar story entitled “Stampede is CBA’s model franchise.” It was official; the Idaho Stampede were off to a roaring start on the court and in the Boise community.