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Albany Patroons: Minor League Mecca

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What do Phil Jackson, George Karl, Rick Carlisle, Scott Brooks, Michael Ray Richardson and Tony Campbell all have in common?

The NBA, of course. And Albany. Yes — Albany?

Before their successful careers in the NBA, all were either on the court or the sidelines for the Albany Patroons — a pro team in the Continental Basketball Association in the Capital District from 1982-92 and 2005-09. (The Patroons returned in 2017 in a lower league.)

Jackson, an 11-time NBA champ who’s one of the greatest NBA coaches of all time, won his first championship when he led the Patroons to the 1984 CBA title.

He would go on to win six more with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, as well as five with Kobe Bryant and the Lakers.

Brooks, current head coach of the Washington Wizards, and Carlisle, who holds the same position for the 2011 NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks, were guards on the 1987-88 CBA champion Patroons team, coached by the late Bill Musselman.

Before those NBA glory days came many loud nights at the dingy Washington Ave. Armory in downtown Albany. Enter Brendan Casey — the 39-year-old East Greenbush native and executive producer of “The Minor League Mecca,” a 90-minute documentary looking back at the rich history of the Patroons in the CBA.

His three-year project included over 23 hours of raw interviews. It led up to the film’s first public showing last month at the Palace Theatre in Albany.

It all started with an interview with Jackson. Once that happened, Casey knew he had something.

Legendary Head Coach Phil Jackson, pictured with basketball. credit: Steven L. Twardzik

“I got to learn what Phil Jackson’s personality and coaching style was,” Casey said. “I learned how George [Karl] approached the game…as they grow older, they have so much insight into the game and life itself.”

In attendance for the showing: Patroons greats including former player/current head coach Derrick Rowland, former Patroons/NBA player Tony Campbell and Karl, the 2013 NBA Coach of the Year, one of just nine coaches with 1000 NBA wins. That puts him in the same company with Jackson, Pat Riley, Larry Brown, and Gregg Popovich.

Karl spent two seasons as the head coach for the Patroons, 1988-89 and 1990-91, leading them to a 50-6 record in 1990 while going a perfect 28-0 at home that season. He was named CBA Coach of the year for the third time that season. “The Albany Patroon family of basketball has a tradition of excellence,” Karl said at the premiere. “It’s nice to be a part of it.” Casey, a Columbia High and Villanova University grad, attended Patroons and Siena games as a kid.

He marvels at the decade from 1982-92 in which the documentary takes place, chronicling the untold story of the team’s quick rise, championship success, and swift downfall. Casey portrays a city that desperately wanted a professional sports team to grab onto and support.

It was the perfect match; as cable was booming, ESPN sent the games from tiny Albany to a national audience.

Legendary ESPN journalist Bob Ley, who has been with the Worldwide Leader all 39 years, is also shown in the film. He was the play-by-play man for many of the during Albany’s best years.

Current ESPN play-by-play voice Marc Kestecher, a Guilderland native who is now lead voice for the NBA on ESPN Radio, started his career as the radio voice of the Patroons.

Casey remembers a different era for sports fans, who grew up without smartphones, Netflix and UAlbany and Siena playing at the Division III level. On a cold February day in Albany, the Armory was the place to be. “Mike Tyson was there. Local celebrities were there. National celebrities too. You had to be here,” Casey said.

Although the showing was a one-time premiere, Casey’s plan is for the documentary to be available in the coming months for anyone who wants to relive this special time in Capital District sports history.

For more information, visit patroonsmovie.com and @patroonsmovie on Twitter.

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Rob "Lep" Lepelstat is the sports editor of the Albany Student Press. Along with the ASP, Lep works as Vice President of ATV and sports director for WCDB. He's also had internships at CBS/ Westwood One Sports, ABC Television in NYC, ESPN Radio Albany, etc.

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