By DAVID JONES
JERRY CORNELIUS for GTR Newspapers
Jono Helmerich, the new president of the Tulsa 66ers, is looking to enhance “the outstanding work done by outgoing president Joe Berry.” Berry left the team in early February to take a position in Ft. Worth.
“I think our coach, Joey Meyer, is the best coach in D-League basketball,” says Helmerich. “We’ve been decimated by injuries and have had lots of transitions and new faces. We need to have people together long enough to jell.”
The D-League Helmerich talks of is the development league for the National Basketball Association. The league is still in its experimental stage and Helmerich says, will evolve some more.
When the 66ers began play in 2005 there were eight teams and the 66ers were the farm club for the New Orleans Hornets (which have played most of their games the last two seasons in Oklahoma City while New Orleans tries to recover from Hurricane Katrina), the Milwaukee Bucks, the New York Knicks and the Chicago Bulls. This year the league expanded to 12 teams and the Bulls dropped off the Tulsa list. Next year, says Helmerich, the league will expand from 13 to 16 teams.
The NBA teams aligned with D-League teams send their not-yet-ready-for-prime-time players to where they can get valuable playing time instead of riding a bench with the big club. It is designed to help the advancement and development of the individual player.
“Eventually the NBA wants 30 D-League teams with each team assigned to one NBA team. The NBA is very careful where they’re placing a team. Tulsa should be proud it was chosen for one.”
The principal owner is David Kahn, who not only owns 80 percent of the 66ers but also owns majority positions with teams in Albuquerque, Austin and Ft. Worth. In each team he has sold a minority interest to local businessmen. “We have about 10 co-owners in Tulsa,” says Helmerich. “It gives us a number of backers from different backgrounds to act as ambassadors.”
“We’re in this for the long-haul. If nothing improved, if Tulsa was uninterested, we still are a year and a half into a five-year commitment, but the interest in the 66ers has been steadily growing. We’re making progress. We want to be here for years and years.”
Looking down the line, Helmerich says the ideal line-up would be to have Tulsa be the D-League franchise for a team in Oklahoma City.
“Oklahoma City is going to get an NBA team in the next new years,” he says. “I don’t think there’s any doubt about it. The way the city adopted the New Orleans franchise and supported it with sold-out houses did their cause a lot of good.”
Much speculation occurred when Oklahoma City businessman Clay Bennett bought the Seattle Supersonics, but Bennett is talking about keeping the team there, so whether the Supersonics would ever move to Oklahoma City is in question. The Hornets have vowed to move back to New Orleans next year.
Meanwhile, Helmerich is focused on getting a new general manager. “My stepping into the president’s position was to foster continuity between the management group and the team and its front office. We’re not out of the playoffs yet. We want to finish well and get off to a good season ticket sale for 2007-2008.”
“Our ticket sales, both season and for individual games, are up although our attendance figures were severely hurt by the recent ice storms. If only 150 people showed up for a game that’s the number we reported although we sold vastly more tickets than that. Season ticket holders who couldn’t make the games can trade their unused tickets in on general admission seats later in the season subject to availability. That’s just one of the advantages of being a season-ticket holder.
“We would love to sell 2,000 season tickets. We have one of the great basketball venues in the Fairgrounds Pavilion. The sound just echoes off the walls and builds the excitement. With acres of free parking surrounding the Pavilion you are rarely more than 100 yards from the front door, and often a great deal closer than that.
“We have a children’s area in the Pavilion where little ones who get restless during a game can get on a Jupiter Jump or play games. We also have an area where we can bring in catered food for everything from office get-togethers to family reunions.
“This is a work in progress. If an NBA team has a guy coming back from an injury it makes sense so send him down for some playing time so he can get his timing back in a way he simply can’t if all he does is practice.
“This is the first developmental league embraced by the NBA. The only direction I can see it going is up.”