This is a cautionary tale for the Yakima SunKings as they head into their next — and uncertain — phase of the franchise that will begin with the hiring of a new coach and general manager after the abrupt firing of Paul Woolpert, who held both positions.
Events of the past couple weeks bring to mind one of the other significant crossroad moments for a team that dates back in 1990.
In 1995, after years of mostly losing basketball, the team, then in the Continental Basketball Association, won its first championship, electrifying a fan base that had stood behind them despite the years of on-court struggles.
Mo McHone was the team’s wildly popular head coach and a hero for finally bringing home a winner and fully expected to return the next season.
But at the same time, the franchise was going through an ownership change, with a group of local business people stepping up to purchase the team to prevent it from leaving Yakima.
McHone and the new owners reportedly clashed over his salary and the group opted to let him go and hire former Tri-City Chinook coach Calvin Duncan for, according to reports, the same or possibly even more money than they were willing to pay McHone.
That shocked fans and led to a swift reversal in the team’s fortunes, with Yakima going 19-37 in 1995-96, 25-31 under Duncan (who was fired after 10 games) and George Whittaker the next season, and sitting at 12-20 before Whittaker was canned in 1997-98 in favor of Woolpert.
McHone, meanwhile, landed in Sioux Falls, where he led the Skyforce to the 1995-96 CBA title and reached the finals twice more in his four seasons there.
Now, these SunKings face a similar situation after owner Jaime Campos stunningly fired Woolpert, with whom he had clashed with several times this past season, just a couple of days before the team played at Albany in the deciding game for The Basketball League championship.
Woolpert, who assisted McHone and later guided the SunKings to three more CBA titles and last year’s North American Premier Basketball League crown, was extraordinarily popular with both players and fans. He was the face of the franchise — particularly since its return last year.
Campos now faces the daunting challenge of replacing someone fans readily identified with the SunKings — and he has to get it right for the future of the franchise.
He said it’s not about him or the coach, saying in a phone interview earlier this month, “The one thing that doesn’t change is the Yakima SunKings. It’s always about the Yakima SunKings.”
That’s true but it’s also not clear if Campos truly recognized Woolpert’s importance in the eyes of fans and sponsors as well as his ability to attract players that made Yakima the winningest team the past two seasons and instead viewed him as simply an employee who, in Campos’ mind, overstepped his authority one too many times.
There will be damage and some fans or sponsors may not return until they see the direction the team takes — whether it finds a coach and general manager who continues the winning ways or ones that conjure up memories the team’s failed fortunes that began with the hiring of Duncan.
With so much riding on these pending decisions, it’s imperative that Campos take his time and be as through as possible to try and make the right choices.
There should be no rush to fill either vacancy, particularly the head coach, with the offseason having just begun.
While finding a coach who will be successful is crucial, it’s just as important that Campos find the right general manager. Someone who can not only work with the owner to identify qualified coaching candidates but also be able to restore any lost confidence in fans and sponsors who were left surprised, disappointed and perhaps even betrayed with not just Woolpert’s firing but the timing of the move.
Then they need to be able to convince players that they can trust that ownership won’t suddenly pull the rug out from under them like it did last week, leaving them without their coach and, in a residual move, their best postseason player as Renaldo Major opted to focus on coaching that game and did not suit up (Major did not return messages seeking comment on his decision).
How difficult a challenge that will be remains to be seen but Campos said in that same interview that he spoke with all the players and he said they all told him they would consider returning next season.
On the plus side, the SunKings have built a solid reputation for treating players well, particularly compared to other teams the past two seasons where some missed paychecks among other troubles. Reached this past week, guard Robert Duncan didn’t rule out a return and also expressed a sentiment I’ve heard echoed by nearly every player the past two seasons when he said, “Personally, I love playing for the Yakima SunKings.”
Of course, none of this will matter if David Magley, president of The Basketball League, can’t shore up his operation and other franchises.
That’s not lost on Campos, who said, “The league needs to get better. The league needs to do its homework (on potential owners).”
There were failings again, with Kansas City and New York not expected back, but also some positive signs beyond Yakima and Albany. Owensboro and Mesquite improved their operations, while Tampa Bay and Raleigh had solid debuts.
Magley acknowledges there are issues but said the league took a step forward this year and expects to add several more teams, citing Columbus and Dayton in Ohio, as well as moving the San Diego team to Salem, Ore., with a belief that Bellevue will come on board after sitting out this season.
For SunKings fans, though, none of that really matters right now.
They have more pressing concerns much closer to home and will certainly be watching closely as Campos makes his first meaningful personnel decisions since hiring Woolpert prior to last season.
Campos remains committed to the SunKings, which he views as something that adds to the quality of life in the Yakima Valley, and expressed confidence that the team will remain successful in the future.
“People ask, ‘What will happen to the SunKings?’ Nothing,” Campos said, adding that Woolpert’s departure was part of doing business. “I fired an employee. We make decisions in life and every decision has consequences.”
Yes they do. And Campos has to make sure the one he makes on his next coach and GM have positive outcomes.