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Sunday, Nov. 16, 2008

HOOP SCOOP

Albirex trio enjoyed success together with Vermont Frost Heaves


Professional sports teams rarely sign three free agents from the same team at the same time. So, hey, maybe a classic case of serendipity can play a part in making it happen.

Ed Odeven

Take the case of this season's Niigata Albirex BB, a bj-league team that returned only four players from last year's squad.

As the Albirex (4-4 entering this weekend) go through the early stages of a rebuilding year, three former Vermont Frost Heaves joined Niigata at the same time with one goal in mind: to win another title.

Shooting guard Brett Gravitt, forward Antonio Burks and center/power forward Dokun Akingbade played prominent roles for the Frost Heaves as they won their second straight ABA championship last spring.

So what's the connection between Vermont and Niigata?

Frost Heaves coach Will Voigt and Albirex coach Masaya Hirose share a common friend: Canadian Ken Shields, a former Japan national team assistant coach (2001) who recently coached the Georgia national team. Hirose contacted Voigt and told him what Niigata was looking for as it re-shaped its roster in the offseason.

The middle man was eliminated from the process.

"There was no agent involved at all," noted Voigt.

Akingbade leads Niigata with 22.0 points per game and is quickly becoming one of the bj-league's top rebounders (he has 12 or more rebounds in six games). Gravitt is averaging 8.5 points a game. Burks hasn't played yet; he's rehabbing a broken foot.

"We miss them very much, but a big part of the Frost Heaves' mission is for our guys who play for us to use the experience as a launching pad to greater opportunities overseas," said Alexander Wolff, Vermont's president/general manager who is more widely known for his quality writing in Sports Illustrated since 1980.

It's not uncommon for multi-player trades to occur, but three teammates rarely switch teams — and leagues — together at the same time.

Akingbade considers this oddity a benefit for Niigata.

"I think that it's an advantage because we know each other's game already," he said by telephone from Niigata. "We bring a winning mentality to the team."

Voigt agreed with that assessment.

"All three of them are winners," said Voigt, who worked as a video coordinator for the San Antonio Spurs in 2000-01 and also coached the Ulriken Eagles in Norway from 2003-06. "They do all the little things that a coach is looking for. Stats are one thing, but you can't learn everything from a stat sheet. . . . All those guys care about is winning."

This season, Vermont joined the Premier Basketball League, a second-year circuit which consists of top teams from the CBA and ABA over the past two seasons. (The team's Web site, citing Webster's dictionary, describes a Frost Heave as "an upthrust of ground or pavement caused by the freezing of moist soil.")

Wolff, author of "Sports Illustrated's 100 Years of Hoops," a book that should be on every basketball fan's must-read list, has nothing but fond memories of the new Albirex trio's time in Vermont.

"I still shake my head in amazement that a single club in Japan can have the great fortune of fielding those three guys — a guard, forward and center who were the rocks for our title team at each of those positions last season," Wolff told me. "Not necessarily the flashiest of players, but arguably the most reliable, even-tempered, consistent and productive."

Wolff has collected an ample supply of anecdotes over the years. His eye for details can shed some light on the dynamics of the Frost Heaves' team last year, and give Niigata fans some background on the team's newcomers.

"Dokun is a classic late bloomer whose development last season was steady and impressive," Wolff said. "He's very reserved but warm and sincere once you get to know him.

"Brett told me it took almost two weeks last fall before Dokun really said anything to him, but they wound up becoming very good friends."

Wolf described Gravitt, a former South Alabama player, as a guy who did "whatever the situation called for, offensively or defensively. He played a huge role in our victory in the title game (last season), playing on a bad ankle, yet making big plays throughout the final quarter. For a guy who had been MVP of Norway's top league to become a role player in Vermont proved to me that he cared only about winning — and he made big plays when we needed them."

Niigata fans are still waiting for Burks to make his season debut. In the meantime, Wolff dished out a heavy dose of insight about the ex-Frost Heave standout.

"Antonio has two rings to show for his two seasons with us, but I think he'll be the first to tell you that the second ring meant the most," Wolff said. "He was our captain, and he wasn't sure he wanted to come back — but once he did, he worked his leadership magic to get a young and new team to coalesce.

" . . . He's a remarkable basketball player — likens himself to Chris Mullin, a lefty shooter without the fastest feet. But he can bang with power forwards on defense, then confound them at the other end with extraordinary shooting range. He busted open untold many games for us with high-arching three-pointers."

From the land of Frost Heaves to Niigata, a place where rice is considered the best in Japan, this unlikely story is just beginning. The next chapter could provide another serendipitous surprise on the basketball court.



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