When it became clear to St. Louisans that the Vancouver Grizzlies would not be delivered to a new home at Kiel Center on the wings of Blues owners Bill and Nancy Laurie, the rare breed that is the Missouri-bound NBA fan could not help but feel teased. We wanted to see Kevin Garnett gliding inside, Gary Payton taunting the opposition, Patrick Ewing sweating like a racehorse and Jason Kidd threading a pass up close and personal. We wanted an NBA team of our own, and what the media has of late called the best sports town in the country certainly deserved one.
Then David Stern, the nearly unchallengeable megalord who rules the NBA with an iron fist (and a velvet public-relations squad) said it was not to be. He made it clear that he would do what he could to hinder such a move, and then not even the Wal-Mart fortune could hold the St. Louis fans' deus ex machina together.
But oh, what a tease that was. Well, feel teased no longer, horny-for-basketball St. Louisans. Get your rocks off at a St. Louis Swarm game.
Hey, go ahead -- laugh. I know what you're saying: It's a semipro league for has-beens. It's slow and boring. What league is that, anyway? The IBL? Never heard of 'em.
Do yourself a favor and make the acquaintance of your local professional basketball team, the St. Louis Swarm. Do this because watching the Swarm is:
1. Exciting. In a recent contest against the Las Vegas Silver Bandits, the Swarm lead for almost the entire game. It seems as if we have it in the bag. In the final quarter, the Silver Bandits climb back and manage to take a slight lead. The crowd is on edge now. The Swarm lead the league in the standings and are not supposed to lose, especially at home. The teams are neck-and-neck for much of the quarter. The Swarm cling to a 100-98 lead with a minute left. A foul is called against one of our guys. Their free-throw shooter makes one. 100-99, Swarm. Time out, Swarm. St. Louis center Doug Smith chews nervously on his mouthpiece while in the huddle. Time in. St. Louis guard Erwin Claggett, carefully shielding the ball from being stolen, races downcourt. He looks to pass but can't find an open man. He sets himself behind the line and cans a huge three-pointer. The crowd goes nuts! 103-99 with 40 seconds left. The Silver Bandits can't come back. We win. Catharsis.
Along the way, Swarm fans witness a beautiful alley-oop, a satisfying dunk and two big three-pointers with less than five minutes left in the game by Antwain Smith; a rim-rattling reverse jam by Swarm franchise player Danny Johnson; a graceful three-pointer by big-man-with-a-soft-touch Doug Smith; Swarm head coach Bernie Bickerstaff saying, "Aw, you a fucked-up guy," to one of the referees and earning a technical foul soon after; a near-altercation between two rival coaches; and the ejection of a Silver Bandits assistant coach. Cool.
The International Basketball League in this, its first year, established rules that reserve some roster spots for former local standouts. Fans are excited to see players like center Doug Smith, who had his jersey number retired at Mizzou, and Claggett, the No. 2 all-time scorer for St. Louis University.
The cast of characters also includes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Jr., the "Little Captain," son of the legend; dominant scorer Danny Johnson, whose coiled-cobra cornrow hairstyle changes as often as Allen Iverson's; and "Magic 'Twain" Smith, he of the joyous smile and the talent to take the rock coast-to-coast. Half of the guys on the team are in the top 10 of some league-stat category, which is reassuring, because the inaugural IBL championship is on the line soon. As the second half of the season dwindles, the games are only getting more exciting. Winning it all is going to be sweet. And also:
2. Cheap. The best seat in the house is $14, and the cheap ones are $7. Try spending this little at an NBA game -- you'd need binoculars, if you could even get in. And the arena probably wouldn't be as:
3. Cozy. St. Charles' Family Arena holds about 11,000 and is reminiscent of the now-demolished Arena/Checkerdome. The place seems small, somehow. Compact. Personal. A ministadium. We twist around the industrial guts of South Fifth Street and we're there to do:
4. Our duty! If you're a basketball-loving St. Louisan, these are your guys. Watch them run and soar, dunk and sploosh, and you'll see that you don't have to be in the NBA to play to win. Rooting for the Blues is like yelling for blood in the Coliseum, and it feels good. Make no mistake -- the Blackhawks and Red Wings are the villains, and they must be vanquished. The Swarm are every bit as fast-paced and exciting as the Blues, and they can easily inspire the same sort of loyalty -- but they're not there yet, of course. That recent game against tough conference rival the Silver Bandits drew only an anemic smattering of fans. "We have some support," says Claggett, "but with the way we're doing, we should have more." For now, the Swarm are like a prized secret.
Swarm head coach Bickerstaff coached in the NBA for 26 years before landing here. "This is good basketball," he says of the IBL. "The competition level and the caliber have left me pleasantly surprised."
"If you haven't seen one of the Swarm games, come out and support us -- I guarantee you'll have a good time," says Doug Smith. "The more fans we get, the better we play."
The St. Louis Swarm play the Baltimore BayRunners on Saturday, March 25, and the San Diego Stingrays on Monday, March 27, at the Family Arena in St. Charles. Both games start at 7 p.m. Call 531-1111 for tickets.