The coach of the Rochester RazorSharks, the city's first-year expansion franchise in the American Basketball Association, paced back and forth, hands clasped behind his back, across the gym floor as his players hunched over and gasped for air.
A couple of the players, it seems, were not finishing their wind sprints in the allotted 30 seconds, a failure that capped off a generally underwhelming practice at the Metro YMCA last week.
"This is your job," he said sternly. "For most of you, this is how you earn your living. For most of you, this is all the money you make. But I'm not sure if we came to work today."
He paused a moment, letting his players absorb his chagrin as they stood along the baseline and waited for the cue to start running again.
"We couldn't play tomorrow if we had to," Baker said before telling the players that they would keep running until everyone came in under the 30-second bar --- which everyone proceeded to do on the next round of sprints.
After catching their breaths, the RazorSharks shot a few free throws and did some cool-down stretching before gathering at mid-court, then heading for a brief, closed-door, players-only meeting.
No doubt one of main topics of that meeting was their coach's ire with their effort.
"He had the right to be unhappy," said shooting guard and Greece Olympia grad Demond Stewart shortly after the players returned to the gym to collect their bags and chug some Gatorade. "Everybody seemed like they weren't into it today."
At the time, the team had precisely 11 days to get into it, and, despite the lackluster practice that day, Baker remained confident in the team's prospects and even said such down days will make the team stronger.
"It wasn't very good today," he said, "but it's all part of the process. I would worry if they were good every day."
The team practiced six days last week to prepare for its season opener against the Buffalo Rapids at Blue Cross Arena on November 5. Although some minor tweaking of the roster still had to be done, players, coaches, and team officials all shared the same basic goals: win and survive financially. They hope to meet the second goal by displaying a brand of basketball that attracts fans and separates itself from the often plodding, methodical half-court game offered by the sport's top league, the NBA.
"The first year is the most difficult, because you don't have any history," said Brendan Rooney, the team's director of player personnel, as he eyed practice. "But this is the year we put our stamp on [the game]. As the season goes on, as we play some games and the fans see the product on the floor, people will watch. It'll be an exciting brand of basketball."
In their inaugural, 36-game season, the RazorSharks will be one of 48 teams in the ABA. Five years after launching for the 2000-01 season --- in which the league had a modest eight teams --- the ABA has grown six-fold, with teams as far away as Tijuana and Beijing. Franchises have sprung up in what normally are thought of as small sports markets like Hawaii, Mississippi, and New Mexico.
And the league isn't done: ABA co-founder and CEO Joe Newman says he's expecting at least 20 more franchises for the 2006-07 season.
"We put together a business model, but we had no idea how attractive it would be" to investors, Newman says. "I don't know if we ever had any idea it would grow this fast."
That business model, quite simply, is to make games "fan friendly and family friendly," Newman says. One key piece of the model is ticket prices. Referring to the once-great Rochester Royals, the NBA team that left the FlourCity a half-century ago (and eventually landed in Sacramento as the Kings), Newman says "tickets 50 years ago for the Royals are the same as tickets to the ABA today."
The other facet of the ABA's business model is to provide fans with something different, something quicker, more high-scoring and more exciting than the current NBA. In fact, the modern incarnation of the ABA is openly courting memories of the original ABA, the upstart pro league that rivaled the NBA for about a decade in the '60s and the '70s and featured high-octane offenses, high-flying stars like "Dr. J" Julius Erving and George "The Iceman" Gervin, and a red, white, and blue ball, all of which contrasted sharply with the relative dull NBA and its drab orange ball.
To that end, the modern ABA has finagled the rules of the game to encourage a wide-open, full-court style of ball. To facilitate full-court pressing, for example, the league has its "3-D" rule, which adds an extra point to any basket scored off a turnover in the backcourt. And to discourage lumbering big men from posting up and simply backing in to the hoop, ABA rules place a three-second limit on dribbling in such situations, forcing big men to, well, shoot or get off the pot.
Newman says that the new ABA style of play is closer to international and college ball as practiced by the University of Kentucky or DukeUniversity. When combined, Newman says, the relatively low ticket prices and up-tempo game will draw fans --- and make money.
"It's a much more exciting game, and it's affordable," he says. He also notes that while most teams "did OK, not particularly well" financially last season, "we've made some significant adjustments, so we hope it will be better this year."
(It is also worth noting that the new ABA is miles ahead of the NBA in terms of diversity at the management level: more than 60 percent of the teams are owned by ethnic minorities or women, and the ABA now features the Kentucky Colonels, who are owned by Stephanie Roach, the first African-American woman to own a professional sports team.)
Newman also believes the RazorSharks are a great --- and potentially profitable --- addition to the league. "Rochester has proved itself to be a great sports town," he says. "We're confident it will be one of the best franchises in the league."
The Rochester RazorSharks are run by president Severko Hrywnak and COO Orest Hrywnak, who seem to be committed to placing a winning product on the floor.
While the RazorSharks' roster will include several homegrown players, the team has also been willing to sign higher-profile athletes to the squad --- people like Chris Carrawell, who earned Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year honors in 2000 while starring at Duke and who believes he's already starting to make a connection with the local community.
"So far, to me it's been a satisfying experience," he said at last week's practice while nursing a twisted ankle. "I don't know most of the team, I don't know the city, but people on the street have been very receptive. It looks like there's lots of support. We have a good coach who's a good fit for the team and a hard-working group of guys."
That group includes Stewart, who graduated from Olympia in 1996 and starred at Niagara University before playing pro ball in Europe the last four years. Stewart said he returned home to play for the RazorSharks because he couldn't pass up "the opportunity to play in front of my family."
Giving back to the community that raised him is also a high priority for Stewart. "There's a lot of negativity going on," he says, referring partly to the spate of youth-centered violence in the city recently. "Hopefully we can be a positive spotlight. We have a lot of good guys here on the team, a lot of good role models and good citizens. We're trying to do the right thing and hopefully reflect on the younger kids."
Also expected to make the final roster is Scott Martzloff, a towering center who played on McQuaid's 1988 state title team and later suited up for Holy Cross. After playing for various teams in Europe and Asia for several years, Martzloff, like Stewart, was ready to return to the hometown stability the RazorSharks offer.
"I love the game of basketball," he said after practice last week. "This is a great opportunity, and I want to see it be as successful as possible. I want to be a part of something special."
Martzloff acknowledges that the league is pushing for a faster-paced style of play, but he also says that any team --- especially his team --- should first and foremost use what works.
"There is a lot of scoring, and they want to see a lot of exciting action," he said. "But when it comes down to it, to be successful you have to play together and have a strong defense."
Baker expresses similar sentiments. The tall, lanky coach with the salt-and-pepper goatee exudes an aura of lovable irascibility --- "I might be the nicest guy in the world if you come in to work," he tells his team, "but if we decide we're not going to work, I get shitty" --- and comes across as a stern disciplinarian who knows how to get the most out of his players.
Baker refuses to say if his team will follow the league mantra and employ a wide-open style of play. In fact, as of last week, he wasn't sure exactly how to describe his team.
"I can't call it because I haven't seen it. Check with me in a month," he said as the players filtered out of the gym. "We're going to do whatever we need to do to be able to win. If that means [scores of] 110-105, fine. If that means 55-50, fine."
Whatever their game turns out to be, it'll probably take more rounds of wind sprints to get there. Or maybe not.
"I'm already in good shape," Stewart said. "I'm ready to go."
The Rochester RazorSharks open their 36-game season on Saturday, November, 5 at 7:35 p.m. at Blue Cross Arena. Single-game tickets range from $8 to $25; season tickets are $120 to $360. The team will play 18 games at home this season, which lasts into March. Tickets and information: 232-9190, www.rochesterrazorsharks.com.