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Thursday, April 03, 2008

SlamBall Commissioner Pat Croce: "Who is Going to Tell me What's Impossible?"

Few people personify the ethos of living life to the fullest more than Pat Croce, who went from being the first physical conditioning coach in NHL history (1981, Philadelphia Flyers) to being the owner/operator of a chain of 40 fitness centers. In the mid-1980s he served as a trainer for the Philadelphia 76ers and then a decade later he acquired an ownership stake in the team and served for five years as team president, during which time the Sixers climbed all the way from the depths of the draft lottery to the heights of the 2001 NBA Finals. Croce is an avid motorcyclist, a best-selling author and he has also earned a fourth degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do.

His current passion is SlamBall, a sport created by Mason Gordon. Croce is the SlamBall Commissioner and he brings to this endeavor the same passion and energy that he has applied to everything else that he has done. On his website, Croce provides advice to help people be more successful. One of his tips is about the "elevator pitch," which he describes as "a concise, carefully planned, and well-practiced overview that you should be able to deliver in the time span of an elevator ride (which is usually less than a minute). The elevator pitch is the brief 'tease' typically used by entrepreneurs when pitching an idea to a venture capitalist for potential funding. Or by TV show producers trying to get their show idea picked up by network executives. Or by a publisher to buy your writing. Or by salespeople hoping to tickle customer interest."

On Wednesday, I participated in a conference call with Croce and listened to him share his vision for what SlamBall can become. Here is his "elevator pitch" for the sport, in which he dismisses the idea that SlamBall will have the same fate as the XFL:

"I don’t think that there is a comparison whatsoever! XFL was just bastardized football. Ours is not crazy basketball. Ours is a combination of basketball, acrobatics, extreme action sports where you will see things that skateboarders and bikers do with their equipment that these guys (SlamBall players) will be able to do with their bodies once they get used to the trampolines and the in the air momentum. The XFL was no good. Everyone watched the first half of that and you were bored. They were talking more about the cheerleaders than the game. Those who saw SlamBall on Spike TV in 2002 and 2003—you couldn’t take your eyes away from it; you were riveted. It was wild. Everyone looked like Michael Jordan above the rim and it was full contact! Whack, bam, slam you’re dead! It was wonderful. You had them whacking off of the boards like in hockey, you had the basketball prowess. I don’t see any comparison. I think that what UFC is doing to traditional sports SlamBall can do to traditional sports. We’re not saying we’re basketball. We’re not saying we’re hockey. We’re not saying were football players. We’re no different than skateboarding or snowboarding; ours is just a different sport for a different generation. The longevity of a sport is to be entertained and to see something different where you say, ‘Wow, look at that guy.’ XFL had nothing. It did nothing to make you say, ‘Wow.’ I think that the ratings of the XFL for the first half of the first game were wonderful and then they went down precipitously ever since then. I think that SlamBall is totally different. Once the players get used to the acrobatics and the aerial display of their own bodies we don’t know what they will be able to do in the air.”

I had an opportunity to ask Croce several questions; naturally, I could not resist inquiring about his experiences in the NBA and how they relate to what he is trying to do now with SlamBall.

Friedman: “You have had a very interesting career and life path, from being a trainer with the 76ers to owning the team to being a black belt and a motorcyclist. I am interested to know the background of how you first found out about SlamBall and how you got involved in the league.”

Croce: “David, that’s a good question. It was the summer of 2001 and I had just left the 76ers. I finished my five year term from worst to first with the team. We busted the Lakers out here in (game one) of the Finals of 2001. A friend of mine, Mike Tollin—the movie producer and director—came to me with an idea that he and Mason Gordon were pursuing, this game called SlamBall. He told me to come out to L.A. and see what they were doing. They knew that I had stepped away from the 76ers and said that they would love to have me be involved. Mike Tollin, to me, is one of the smartest guys on the planet. He’s got common sense and book sense. So I came out, and he was doing the show ‘Arliss’ at the time and I forget which movie he was producing at the time. I saw these guys—the whole court was probably about three or four feet off the ground and it had glass all around it—and it looked like Michael Jordan everywhere. I didn’t know what was going on. I see them hitting each other and the training was going on and they were hitting and rolling and doing all these kinds of drills. I thought, ‘This is outrageous.’ I liked it and I got captivated. I left and said to Mike that I was interested but that I’m not the perfect demographic; I wanted to bring my 21 year old son Michael and see what he says about it—and I won’t prejudice him about it at all. I think that in January or February 2002 I brought Michael out to see it as they were training and getting ready for the first season and he was in awe; he loved it. He was captivated by the athletes, by their conditioning and not only their aerobic capacity but I should say there should be another term for it—‘aerobatic’ or whatever you would call it when you do something in the air when you are up there that high. After that I got involved as a spokesperson and helped give it some validity and authenticity by talking about it to Jim Rome and Dan Patrick. We invited Jay Leno and Jay Mohr and the ‘Best Damn Sports Show’--I forget which big football player it was but he said, ‘This is BS’ and he got out there and got his ass kicked. It was so funny and so cool to see this macho guy who could not do squat against these guys who were nimble and used to the tramps. I was hooked and I’m still hooked. I wouldn’t be involved otherwise. If you know anything about me—if you go to my website PatCroce.com and obviously David you’ve done some research on me—I only pursue things that I am passionate about because I don’t have to work. I want to be able to enjoy this journey and I really like this sport. I think that this is going to go somewhere and I love Mason and Michael because they are not complacent. They will not settle for whatever we had. We want to take it to what we don’t even know exists yet.”

Friedman: “What specifically are your duties? You are listed as the commissioner of the sport. We have a clear idea of exactly what David Stern and Roger Goodell do; we see them publicly and understand what their duties are. What exactly are your duties and your day to day involvement with SlamBall?”

Croce: “Hey, that’s a great question. I’m doing one of them right now. I want to preach the gospel. Just think of me as David Stern on steroids—or on caffeine, but I don’t drink coffee. I set the law. For instance, if those athletes are not in shape, they are not coming to camp. Mason is the CEO and he runs the SlamBall league but what I can do as commissioner is help to ensure that any policies, procedures and amendments--anything that we put in the commandments of the league, whether it is about players who fight getting expelled or anything else--all the players know that I walk the talk. If it’s in writing, then I will adhere to it. If players don’t do what they are supposed to do they will be fined or suspended. I will make sure that I lay the law down. I did it with Allen Iverson and I will do it with them.”

Friedman: “You were a trainer with the 76ers. I know that the championship team (in 1982-83) was really in the forefront in terms of hiring John Kilbourne as a dance coordinator and looking at flexibility and conditioning and using and applying that in sports. Since it is the 25th anniversary of that championship team, what memory stands out most for you from your experience as a trainer with the 76ers and how did you apply those experiences to your future endeavors as an owner and now as a commissioner?”

Croce: “I wasn’t there in 1983. I didn’t come on until Charles (Barkley) came.”

Friedman: “Right, you were there starting a little bit after that.”

Croce: “I did know Kilbourne, who was the first to bring that kind of flexibility (training) to the NBA. I was the first conditioning coach in the NHL in 1981 with the Flyers. He came on (with the Sixers) and then he brought me on the next year because of Andrew Toney’s injury and to get the ‘Round Mound of Rebound’ down from a svelte 300 to 250. I’ve always been a master proponent of fitness, of conditioning off the court, off the ice, because I believe that since the bodies are their tools these athletes have to be in fine tuned shape flexibility-wise, strength-wise, aerobic-wise, anaerobic-wise, core-wise. So we were doing plyometrics and that kind of stuff back in the 80s. When I was with the Sixers (as owner/president from 1996-2001), probably my biggest frustration was that Allen Iverson, the little SOB, would not work out off the court. He just wouldn’t do it. God gave him such great gifts that he thought that his talents would last forever. You know what, he’s defying gravity right now. It was such a bummer to be the conditioning guru who could not get this guy to do it. He thought it didn’t matter; he would do it but he would not do it with the intensity that a Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan would do it. I would say, 'Bubba' (Iverson’s nickname), come on, you’ve got to train.’ Here, as the commissioner of SlamBall, I can dictate that every athlete will be doing off court training. Every athlete will come to camp in shape. When I first started with the Flyers in 1981, they’d come to camp with hockey sticks under one arm and a case of beer under the other and I had to get them in shape. They’d be throwing up. Bobby Clarke and Reggie Leach and the others—camp was for getting in shape back then. Then, the Russians really taught America that you have to do all this dry land training to be a great hockey player. I think that has permeated everywhere, except maybe baseball.”

Friedman: “Yeah, it does not seem to have caught on with pitchers completely--like David Wells.”

Croce laughs.

Friedman: “You mentioned that you got into SlamBall right after you left the Sixers.”

Croce: “When I left the Sixers I still kept a percentage of the team for another year but I got into SlamBall in the fall of 2001 when I started talking with Mike Tollin and Mason Gordon.”

Friedman: “You had such a passion for the Sixers and for basketball--like you do for SlamBall as well--is there any way that you might decide to be an owner or a managing general partner with an NBA team?”

Croce: “David, you know what? I’m still passionate about the NBA. I still talk with David Stern and Adam Silver and I’m still an NBA fan. I’ve learned in life—I’m smart enough now—to know to never say never. So I would never say never because you don’t know. You don’t know. If an opportunity presents itself, you don’t know. Philadelphia is my home and so it was very special. The problem is I couldn’t leave there without making the Sixers a winner or otherwise they would have burned my home down.”

Friedman: “That’s pressure.”

Croce: “Way pressure. Look at everyone who has left Philadelphia. It’s scary because if you don’t do well there, they’re not a patient bunch. They’re passionate and that passion can fuel their dreams so strongly that you’ve got to win--and I loved it.”

Friedman: “Have you had any involvement with their commemoration of the championship team?”

Croce: “Oh sure! Even when I was there, I had the team back—Julius (Erving) and Moses Malone and Bobby Jones and even (trainer) Al Domenico and (former GM) Pat Williams and (Coach) Billy Cunningham. I even retired Charles Barkley’s jersey. I can’t remember everything that I did during those five years because it melds together with the time that I was a conditioning coach and physical therapist about 10 years before I became the President and minority owner. I was involved in every one of their tributes. Are you kidding me? We don’t have that many champions in Philadelphia; the ’83 Sixers are the last championship team we’ve had.”

Friedman: “Are you still in contact with Andrew Toney? I know that he does not stay in touch as much with the group.”

Croce: “You’re right. I was in touch with him when I was running the team but I haven’t been in touch since then. You’re right. He is very aloof, very introverted. Maurice Cheeks offered him an assistant coaching job.”

Friedman: “I remember that.”

Croce: “I thought that he was going to take that. You know the guy, the hardest one to reach who I could never get? He wasn’t from the ’83 championship team. He was from the Billy Cunningham team..."

Friedman: “The championship team that Cunningham played on?”

Croce: “Yeah. When was that?”

Friedman: “That was 1966-67. Was it Hal Greer?”

Croce: “Hal Greer! I called Hal Greer and I wanted him to come back because I got everyone else back in the house—but I couldn’t get him. I wanted Hal back in the house but he just had such a negative response, I guess, in reaction to the former ownership that he would never come back.”

Friedman: “Yeah, that’s another story with the Sixers but I think that a lot of people have that attitude with that particular group.”

Croce laughs.

Friedman: “The reason I asked some of those questions is that I grew up as a Sixers fan, particularly of that team in the 1980s with Dr. J and Toney. I think that Toney is one of the underrated players of all-time. It is really a great tragedy what happened with him with the foot injuries and that his career did not have a natural progression or a natural conclusion.”

Croce: “Oh, you are so right—that he didn’t leave on a high note so that everyone could just see him leave the building like Julius did.”

Friedman: “I guess because there was not MRI technology, people did not really understand exactly what his injury was and there was all that controversy about the situation.”

Croce: “He believed—or he overheard—the owner say that he was faking. That is really what set him off. I was there; I was his physical therapist taking care of him.”

Friedman: “That was a plantar fascia situation, right?”

Croce: “No, it was more than that. It also involved his ankle. He had a problem with the sub-talar joint.”

Here are some of Croce's other thoughts regarding SlamBall (the topic is listed in italics and Croce's answers are included within quotation marks):

Why has SlamBall been on hiatus for several seasons?

Croce: "The hiatus occurred because we had it on Spike TV those first two years, though it wasn’t called Spike the first year; I think it was called TNN and then they switched to Spike. We didn’t want to be a made for TV sport. We want to be a traditional sport, a franchise sport similar to Arena Football on a second tier compared to the big four sports. So we went on a European tour, an Asian tour and we were looking all this time for a broadcast partner who is a big player, a global player like IMG. We needed someone who had the power, the bandwidth to create an international splash with sponsorships, with venues, with practice facilities so that we could take this to the next level. We weren’t going to settle. We did not want to be a cartoon sport for TV. That was not what we wanted. We are looking at all kinds of ways to take the sport to the next level. One of them is that we have engaged a consultant named Vance Walberg, who is notorious for his dribble drive offense that (Coach John) Calipari is using to take Memphis to the Final Four. We read about him in Sports Illustrated and he has come in and consulted with us to see how we can make the plays not only more high energy, more intricate but so that--like the pick and roll in basketball--we can come up with our own plays in SlamBall. Mason Gordon, the CEO and creator of SlamBall is fanatical. He is nuts about this. We don’t want what you saw a few years ago. We want to take this to the next level, whether it’s the players, the plays, the technology of the court. We have a philosophy of continuous improvement."

How will fans be able to watch SlamBall?

Croce: "We have some great opportunities (for deals with TV networks) and we hope to announce that soon. We want it on a network. Obviously, there will be some great internet strategy associated with that. With IMG as our partner, Chris Albrecht--who is one of the key players in IMG who you might have heard of because he was the Chairman/CEO of HBO, who brought them ‘The Sopranos,’ ‘Entourage’ and ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’--is our partner in this and he and Michael (Tollin) and Mason (Gordon) have spoken with (NBC's) Dick Ebersol and CBS and FOX and Versus. We are looking at a variety of tiers so that you can see it. We have to make it viewable. We could have the best sport in the world, but if people don’t see it what good is it? We want to make sure that we are internet savvy so that we have a multiplatform network so that you can see it in a variety of ways. In June we will film all of this year’s tournament. This Monday we have tryouts in L.A., followed by tryouts Tuesday in New York and Thursday in Florida. The following weekend is when camp starts--two weeks of intense camp, during which 120 athletes from the draft will be weeded down to 64. Then for the next six weeks they will go through extensive training with their coaches and trainers. The month of June is when we will film all of the games, either here in L.A. or in Las Vegas. We have also been offered (a venue) in New York, so I don’t know where it is going to be filmed this year but the goal next year is to have a franchise league in eight to 10 cities so that there is a Philly team, a New York team, an L.A. team so it’s the real deal and we have teams at venues where you can see them live. When we did this for Spike TV we filmed for several weeks at Universal Walk right here in L.A. It was live for people to see and the stands were packed but I can’t answer that right now in terms of where we are filming in June but we’ll let you know right away. The best way is to see it live. Shaq came and Snoop Dogg came--to watch it live is unbelievable."

Where do you see SlamBall being in five years?

Croce: "The same place you would have seen snowboarding or skateboarding or beach volleyball. I want to see it in the Olympics in 2012. People always say, ‘You’re nuts. That’s impossible’ but remember that I was a trainer who became an owner of an NBA franchise, so who is going to tell me what’s impossible?"

For more information about SlamBall, check out the official website.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:24 AM



At Friday, April 04, 2008 2:39:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

The 76ers are a bit strange in that throughout the years their management has always seemed to have an icy relationship with its players.

I think Hal Greer is bitter partly because he feels he never got a shot at being a part of the organization after retirement like some of his white teammates (Cunningham, Guokas). Chet Walker (who also has never seemed close to the 76ers organization) discussed this frustration in his autobiography. Wilt Chamberlain didn't even have his jersey retired until 1991. Then you look at the 1983 team and how they tried to trade Dr. J to the Clippers, traded Mo Cheeks (while leaving it to reporters to inform him), and mistreated Andrew Toney.

At Friday, April 04, 2008 6:26:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Dr. J once lamented that few Sixer greats have ever walked out the front door--i.e., retired as members of the team. Guys get traded, cut or just fade away. You cited some examples in your comment and, as you mentioned, Doc himself almost joined that group. Wilt, Barkley, Iverson, Cheeks and Toney are some of the prominent Sixers who did not finish their careers with the team.

I did an article about Greer for Hoop a while back but was never able to get in touch with him for an interview.


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