Playing hoops in our backyard

Kevin Copeland is selling two things. One is a 130-point-per-game,

run-and-gun basketball offense. Two is a chance -- an opportunity for

athletes from around the world to vie for treasured spots on NBA

teams.

The mix makes for "affordable family entertainment," which perhaps

as early as next year, will be based out of a 52-foot-high, lighted

air dome at the Orange County Fairgrounds, and maybe some day, a

full-fledged arena, he said.

Copeland, the general manager for the American Basketball Assn.'s

Orange County Crush, and four other partners have built the Costa

Mesa-based Crush around Head Coach Earl Cureton -- a member of the

1983 NBA champion Philadelphia 76ers -- and assistant coaches Corey

Gaines and Norman Nixon, the former Los Angeles Lakers guard. Cureton

had led the ABA's Long Beach Jam to a league championship.

With coaches in place, a motley team that includes NBA champion

Dennis Rodman, local standouts, a Pakistani player and a Taiwanese

star has been assembled. The group spans 22 to 44 in age and 6 feet

to 7 feet in height. Aliases include "the Michael Jordan of Taiwan"

and "The Worm."

Copeland, a marketer who has worked with Shaquille O'Neal and

Earth, Wind & Fire, has high hopes for the Crush, which is part of

the 37-team ABA. These days, the league -- contrary to the 1960s and

1970s, when it competed for talent with the NBA -- is a licensed farm

system for the NBA, Copeland said.

An ESPN television contract is ready to be finalized. Professional

dancers to energize the crowds are being assembled. Tickets can now

be reserved. Team officials are talking about Costa Mesa as a

long-term home, with an arena in the works. The air dome logistics

are being ironed out to begin playing at the fairgrounds as early as

January. As the details are worked out, the team is playing home

games at the Bren Events Center at UC Irvine. Its first home game in

the new 2004-05 season will be Thursday at the center.

"They are not playing for money," Copeland said proudly of the

players, whose salaries he acknowledged are not six figures. "It's

the love of the game and getting back to the NBA. That's another

reason we can offer the fans a great price."

In fact, Copeland said he knows players who turned down six-figure

contracts to play in Europe to have a chance to play in a league in

which they can more easily jump to the NBA.

Copeland sat down with the Pilot's Ryan Carter to talk hoops and

the area's new professional sports team.

Why Costa Mesa/Orange County?

The reason we chose Orange County was the love of sports this

community has. We've seen the kind of support here for other teams in

Orange County -- the Angels and the Ducks. Also, the community fit

the profile we were looking for, for family, affordable fun, which is

what the ABA is about. Costa Mesa became a byproduct of that simply

because we wanted to do something not traditional.

We really didn't want to come here and have our foundation at just

any arena. We did look at a lot of other arenas and basketball

facilities around Orange County, but because our season pretty much

coincides with the NBA's, and everyone else's, our choices were

limited. But we were looking for something different. We found that

at the fairgrounds, which attracts families. They have a great

facility there and they have a love for sports as well.

It was a good marriage for us to work with the fairgrounds, with

this existing fan base already there. It worked out well. My partners

and I felt that it would be a great relationship and made sense for

everybody, including the community, which we hope, in time, we can

get to love us as much as their existing teams here.

When did this all come about?

We made the decision in February this year, when we purchased the

franchise for this area.

How do you put a team together?

We're still doing it. I mean, quite frankly, the foundation of any

sports franchise is the team. Many think it's the building, the other

stuff, the office and staff and all that. But it really isn't.

Without the team, you don't have a product. That's the main focus of

what we're doing.

We first had to hire a coach. It took a few months of going back

and forth with different candidates. But with Head Coach Earl

Cureton, we knew this was the guy we wanted.

We got our assistant coach, Corey Gaines, and we have Special

Assistant Norm Nixon, who played for the Lakers.

Your coach sets your identity, and what kind of team he wants to

run. That's the kind of players you are going to get.

Six former players of the Long Beach Jam now play for us. He went

out and got other players. Once they heard what we had here, we

probably had at least 400 or 500 players and agents calling me to

play on our team.

Once we had that, it was easy for us to attract the kind of talent

that the coach needs to have.

Tell me a little about the makeup of the team? Where are these

guys from?

At the end of the day, we've got some local players from here in

Orange County, some from around the country and the world. It's a

great mix.

The offense they play averaged 130 points a game. They press full

court all the time. It's energy all game long. It's like a

run-and-gun, pressure offense and defense.

It's a very diverse group. We love that. Not everybody can play

this type of offense or defense.

So why should people come check you guys out?

One thing is that it is family, affordable fun. You get the talent

level and entertainment of the NBA at very affordable prices.

Some of out tickets are $7.50. Floor seats are $50. Fifty bucks is

not going to buy you much at a Lakers game. You have floor seats with

us.

Not that I'm slamming the NBA. Our job really is to help guys get

back to the NBA. We expect to lose players. We want to lose players.

And it's not just players. It's coaches, our Crush Girls, our

trainers, our equipment people -- we want all of them to have the

opportunity to move up to the other level. That's what we're here

for.

What does having Rodman on your team mean to you and the team?

Rodman's a great player. He's not just a marketing tool. To have

the five-time rebounding champion on your team is incredible for us.

The players respect that. He's a coach on the court. He knows a lot.

He's done a lot. He's got the nuances down. He can help us win, quite

frankly. He's only contracted to play home games.

Between the lines, Rodman comes to play basketball.

How'd you get involved in all this?

My background is in marketing and sales and food and beverage

companies. I've always had a love for sports. I played in high school

and junior college -- mostly football. I've done promotions with

athletes ... I've always liked that type of involvement. So, when I

was approached by this partnership to go after a team, they felt that

with my background and knowledge in marketing and sponsorships, and

businesses as well, that I'd be a good fit.

Anything else you want to add?

We are the community's team. We picked Orange County for a reason.

We're going to be here and be part of the fabric of this community.

We are going to be involved. We have community programs. We have high

school and middle school nights every week during the season at home

games. We're going to have high school kids perform, whether it's

band, cheerleading or through basketball clinics. We are a new team.

We are developing our identity. We're developing a lot of things.

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