In 2005-06, the Rochester RazorSharks pulled off what few, if any, of the other teams in the American Basketball Association were able to do --- succeed on and off the court.
In its first year of existence, the team won the ABA title and instantly became one of the league's financial successes by drawing a couple thousand or more fans a game at Blue Cross Arena. For a league that is still experiencing significant growing pains --- including the instability, financial and otherwise, of several franchises and the league as a whole --- the RazorSharks became a model for all other ABA teams to follow.
Now, as the 'Sharks begin their 2006-07 season, the team is faced with a challenge: what to do for an encore? On the court, Rochester will be without the services of last year's ABA player of the year, Chris Carrawell, who decided to ply his trade overseas this year.
But the team spent the off-season pursuing several prized free agents, including 2005-06 ABA first-team All-Star guard Caleb Gervin, who inked a deal with the RazorSharks in September.
The 'Sharks also have a solid nucleus of key players returning, including hometown favorites James "Mook" Reaves, the team's leading scorer last year, and Demond Stewart, who led the team in scoring during its playoff run. They'll also have 2005-06 ABA Coach of the Year Rod Baker back at the helm after he signed a multi-year deal with the team in July.
But perhaps the linchpin of the team's success is player/assistant coach Lazarus Sims, a former SyracuseUniversity star who acts as the team's on-court general.
"Every coach talks about his point guard being the coach on the floor," Baker says. "Our point guard actually is our coach on the floor."
After many years of working together, he and Sims have developed an intuitive connection. Says Baker: "He knows what I'm thinking before I say it."
Sims can also be a strict disciplinarian and in-your-face team leader. If players screw up, Baker says, "he'll go after guys. He'll take guys to the side and explain things. He'll grab them and yell at them. He'll do whatever it takes to get through to you."
City spent a few minutes talking with Sims after a recent team practice at the downtown YMCA. Sims talked about repeating as champs, attracting new fans, and fulfilling the job of player-coach.
City: What's it going to take to repeat this year?
Lazarus Sims: Focus. The main thing is focus, and the new guys coming in learning the roles, old guys accepting the roles, and just a total team effort.
Are you going to have a target on your back?
There's a chance, yes, for the first couple games. But then it's just, you gotta win games. You gotta win your home games, you gotta sneak out some road games, and some games you're not supposed to win, yougotta kind of sneak in the door and get those games. It's a target for a couple weeks, but then after that, it's just a normal season.
What type of game are you going to play this year?
The same game. We're gonna try to keep it exciting, up tempo, pretty much fast-paced, just try to keep fans into the game so we can get our normal crowd, then get more generated as word of mouth goes on.
You mentioned word of mouth. How do you think Rochester is embracing you guys?
They received us very well last year. I think this year it should be a lot better. We won the championship, so it's more exposure. Last year, it was like, "Let's see what you do first," and we showed them. So now it should be a little bit, "Alright, let's go see them now."
What's your job as a player-coach? What does that involve?
It involves me being a leader, taking control, and setting the tempo. Guys will have to follow my lead, and I'm going to have to lead by example, so I can't make some of the mistakes I could have made before. It's more, "Do as I say --- and do as I do, too."
What are your personal goals for this year? What do you want to achieve?
Personally, just lower down my turnovers that I had last year and try to get back to the championship and win it.
The RochesterRazorSharks 2006-07 home opener against the Buffalo Silverbacks takes place Thursday, November 16, at 7:05 p.m. at Blue Cross Arena. At the game the team will raise its 2005-06 championship banner to the arena rafters. Individual game tickets range from $9.50 for general admission to $26.50 for courtside. Tickets can be purchased at the BCA box office, by calling 232-1900, or going to ticketmaster.com.