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Al Hamnik

Times Columnist

For six years, you were told by ownership that the struggling Gary Steelheads were committed to bringing a winning product to Region fans. After the 2005-06 season, they ceased operations and left the CBA, saying they were going in a different direction that would be less of a financial burden.

To the negative media, that meant oblivion, never to be seen or heard from again.

W-r-o-n-g.

Jewell Harris Jr., once the team's chief counsel, confirmed Monday that the Steelheads are likely to join the United States Basketball League in time to compete this spring. In fact, Harris said a new local ownership group featuring seven different parties, including himself, is being finalized as you read this.

The USBL season is 30 games, runs March through June, has a postseason tournament, even a draft. And it's a perfect fit for Gary in terms of lower expenditures, less competition for players, fewer games, better weather and less travel.

"We don't want to let the cat out of the bag because nothing is done yet. But the process is in motion," Harris said.

This much you can take to the bank: The Steelheads will keep the Gary Genesis Center as their home arena, have the same nickname but change the logo, Jaren Jackson probably wouldn't return, but some of the players might. Harris said the quality of play within the USBL is equal to the CBA and the NBA's development league. Many Steelheads last season continued playing in the USBL, which followed immediately after.

"A guy could play overseas or in the D-League and our season begins right when that's over," Harris said. "So the guys in the past we couldn't get because they were going overseas, they're at home during (the USBL). It has a nice niche by playing in the spring."

Whereas the realigned CBA favors the far western states and the east coast, the USBL pod is focused on the Midwest and Northeast with the Albany Patroons, Dodge City Legend, Long Island Primetime, Brooklyn Kings, Kansas Cagerz, Nebraska Cranes, Oklahoma Storm and Northeastern Pennsylvania Breakers.

"There are other groups interested in Midwestern towns between the Nebraska-Kansas area and Indiana and Iowa," Harris said of likely expansion.

The Hammond Rollers, a new ABA team, begin play next month and having seasons that don't run concurrently will help the respective gates of both Region franchises.

Harris admits a poor "business model" kept the old Steelheads from flourishing. Too many games. Playing week nights in the winter. Competing with high school ball. Poor marketing.

"With lower expenses, we can spend more money in marketing," he said. "I feel real good about this."

This new approach is long overdue. Like I tried telling the previous administration for six years, you don't fill arenas by word of mouth and with ads on the side of a grimy bus.

This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at ahamnik@nwitimes.com.

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