A huge domed complex planned by owners of Knoxville's new American Basketball Association pro basketball team would serve as a center for community sporting events as well as a home court for the team—if all goes as planned, says franchise general manager Chris Glisson. That could be a big "if," though, given the ABA's spotty history and the previous failure of an ABA team here.
"Our showcase is the Knoxville Thunderbolts," says Glisson; the team was announced as a new addition to the 9-year-old ABA in May. "But we want to get the community involved in all the sports our facility will have to offer. We want the city to feel it has some ownership in both the team and the facility. We feel the ABA is about community, and we love that idea. We don't think it's fair that fans living in an NBA city have to pay $2,000 just to watch a ballgame from courtside."
T-bolts owners the Huffson Group, a firm jointly held by the Huff and Glisson families out of California, has for the last 10 years run GENESIS International as the focal point of its operations. GENESIS is a Christian-rooted, non-denominational non-profit that creates outreach programs for orphaned and disadvantaged children the world over. "We're not a Christian organization, but rather an organization owned by Christians," says Thunderbolts president and Huffson co-owner Doc Glisson.
Several of the Glissons are moving or have moved here recently, for personal and family reasons.
Because of its previous experience in community outreach, Doc Glisson says building a huge sports complex in East Tennessee shouldn't be problematic for Huffson. In California, Huffson/GENESIS "created, from the ground up," two schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods—San Diego Christian Academy, and Aswet Patia Christian Academy, on the Pala Indian Reservation north of San Diego—and organized a multisport scholastic league in which both schools (and others) participate.
In West Africa, Doc Glisson says the group oversaw construction of the largest building in the region, the Refreshing Hour International Church—a giant community center, 5,000 capacity, with a college, a school, a seniors facility, and a business center. "In any of the missions we do, we've been involved with building the facilities," says Doc Glisson.
"This project isn't daunting to us; you just plan it, and you do it."
It was Doc Glisson who conceived the idea of owning an ABA franchise, says brother Chris, partly as a means to help his own son—a former San Diego high school standout—continue playing, as well as to assist other players whose careers fall short of NBA glory in "keeping the dream alive."
The fledgling Thunderbolts team have already held an August tryout at Grace Baptist Christian Academy, and a second in September.
Last week, the team announced the signing of former University of Tennessee players Damon Johnson and Jordan Howell. A key player as a back-up point guard in the Bruce Pearl era, Howell graduated from UT last year; having served with UT in the mid-1990s, Johnson played 12 years of pro basketball in Europe.
Glisson says one other former UT player has been signed, but not announced: "It's someone who everyone knows, and who everyone will be excited to have on the team," he says. Additionally, five other players will likely be signed to the squad based on their tryouts.
While he and head coach Chad Smith, formerly of South-Doyle High School, build the team, Chris Glisson says the rest of ownership is hashing out details of the 150,000-square-foot sports dome, which will include a 7,000-seat home court for the Thunderbolts, as well as additional athletic facilities including a retractable gym floor, enabling the space to serve as room for eight practice courts and four tennis courts, or as an indoor field suitable for football, lacrosse and soccer, surrounded by what would stand as only the second Olympic-sized indoor track in the state.
The overall complex will also include six franchise restaurants and six conference rooms, Chris Glisson says.
Where this would all happen is still a matter of speculation; Glisson says five sites across Knox County are currently under consideration for the facility, though he says he isn't at liberty to discuss the possible locations. A site decision should be announced in January, along with details on cost and ownership, he says.
Ambitious plans for a new sports franchise, and prospects for a citywide community sports facility—that's the good news. The bad news is that Huffson may face an uphill battle basing an ABA team in a city that has already seen one league franchise fail.
Founded in 1999, and beginning play in 2000, the ABA is heading into only its eighth season, due to a reorganization in 2002-2003. Its brief history has been marred by ongoing difficulties, including teams collapsing and successful franchises departing for other leagues.
A previous, short-lived Knoxville ABA franchise was indicative of the league's overall struggles—the Knoxville Noise opened the ABA season at Catholic High School in 2006, but folded midway through the season, having averaged only 300 fans per game.
The Glissons say the league is changing, however, and future ABA endeavors should have better footing. Beginning this season, the league will govern its various divisions through Regional Managers' Committees, which are charged, among other things, with evaluating the financial feasibility of its franchises. "It's like having a president's council," says Doc Glisson. "If a team looks like it can't finish a season, it doesn't play. We look at it and tried to help it get ready for next year.
"We've heard these concerns a lot: ‘We believe in you guys all the way, but what about the ABA?' But the league has binding contracts with each team in place now. They've really raised the bar."
"In Knoxville, we're coming in to clean up what happened before," Chris Glisson says.
With their home court still on the drawing board, the Thunderbolts will play the coming season at Grace Christian beginning in November, in hopes of christening a new facility with the opening game of the following season. "Grace Baptist's direction and leadership matches what we're all about, so that will be our home for the time being," says Chris Glisson.