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The Coastal Spring 2018 Issue
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The History of Basketball in Jacksonville

Basketball in Jacksonville

Jacksonville is generally known as being a one-sport city. Between the Florida-Georgia game each year and the Jaguars of the NFL, football tends to get the most attention around here.

However, there are some sports that have a lengthy, albeit quieter, history in Jacksonville that are worthy of being honored.

Let’s take a look at how basketball’s presence in Jacksonville has evolved over the years.

JU’s magical run

The story of Jacksonville’s basketball history begins in the late 1960s. Around this time, little-known Jacksonville University was creating quite a buzz in the college basketball world, led by its young star Artis Gilmore.

The team rose to prominence in an era when well-established programs reigned supreme, and Cinderella stories were especially rare.

In 1970, they managed to reach the men’s basketball championship, where they were defeated by powerhouse UCLA.

While the team would largely slide back into obscurity after their unlikely run, it was enough to create a buzz about a sport to which Jax residents had previously paid little attention.

The Floridians

Right around the same time as JU’s tournament run, the Miami Floridians of the American Basketball Association decided to become a regional team. They dropped “Miami” from their name and became The Floridians, playing their home games in a few different locations throughout Florida.

One of those locations was Jacksonville, with the team playing several home games at the Jacksonville Coliseum during the 1970-71 season.

Attendance in Jax wasn’t up to standards, unfortunately, so the team dropped the city from their rotation for the next season.

The team then folded altogether in 1972.

First Jax pro team

The city would get its first chance at a professional basketball team of its own a little under two decades later, in the form of the Jacksonville Jets of the Continental Basketball Association.

The CBA was essentially an unofficial minor league for the NBA in the days before the D-League. The league produced NBA talent, with players like John Starks and Tim Legler crossing over into the NBA after starting in the CBA.

The Jets came to Jacksonville after being relocated from Pensacola. The team’s owner was Ted Stepien, former owner of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers. Stepien was a controversial figure because of his questionable decisions as the Cavs’ owner, and also because of statements he made suggesting that the NBA needed more white players.

Continuing his string of bizarre decisions, Stepien yanked the Jets out of Jacksonville after just a few months here. The franchise packed its bags for Mississippi, and would move another three times before its demise in 2001.

The Hooters (not the restaurant)

It didn’t take too long for Jacksonville to get another shot at pro basketball.

This time, the city secured a franchise in the United States Basketball League, a minor league formed in 1985.

The team was called the Jacksonville Hooters. They joined the league in 1988. By the 1990 season, the Hooters went 15-1 and finished at the top of the standings in a year that concluded without a playoff.

The team very briefly relocated to Daytona Beach in 1993 before coming right back to Jax.

In 1994, the team actually won the USBL championship – this would be the peak of its success.

The team would change its name twice – to the Shooters, and later the Barracudas – before leaving Jax in 1998 for Sarasota.

The JAM/SLAM Fiasco

The next attempt at a pro basketball franchise in Jax was the Jacksonville JAM.

The team was launched in 2006 as part of the ABA, and came around at a time when basketball had a particularly high profile in the city. The Orlando Magic had begun holding their training camp at UNF, with a scrimmage that was open to the public. The U.S. men’s basketball team practiced for the Olympics at the Veterans Memorial Arena in 2004.

The arena also hosted the opening round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in ’06. (It would do the same in ’10 and ’15 as well.)

Unfortunately, the JAM seemed doomed from the start. The team’s ownership group, led by businessman Felix Krupczynski, was unable to afford the rent at JVMA, so the team would instead play its home games at UNF’s arena.

There also wasn’t a whole lot of money for marketing, meaning a lot of residents didn’t even know the team existed.

On the court, the team wasn’t bad – they finished with a division title in their only season.

After the season, the team’s players and Krupczynski had a disagreement over unpaid wages. Meanwhile, Krupczynski was also in conflict with the ABA’s leadership, leading the team to flee for the newly-formed Professional Basketball League.

Eventually, the PBL decided to take over ownership of the JAM, and rebranded the team as the SLAM. The team was supposed to begin play in 2008, but instead it quietly ceased operations.

Giants get it right

The most recent iteration of professional basketball in Jacksonville has been, by far, the most successful.

The Jacksonville Giants joined the ABA in 2010 as a new franchise owned by local attorney Ron Sholes. The Giants, unlike the JAM, would play in the Veterans Memorial Arena and would be broadcast on local TV and radio.

In their first season, the Giants averaged almost twice as many fans as the JAM and easily advanced to the playoffs.

Jacksonville even played host to the 2011 ABA All-Star Game, which drew over 4,000 fans.

In the 2011-12 season, the team was joined for some games by Duke legend Christian Laettner. That year, the Giants went on to win the ABA championship for the first time.

By 2014, the team was averaging four times its first-season attendance numbers. It also won the league’s community service award that year.

It very much looks like the Giants are here to stay as long as Jacksonville wants them. The team has now won three ABA championships in just seven years, establishing itself as a minor-league powerhouse.

The future

The success of the Giants has even earned Jacksonville some attention from the NBA. The city was among the finalists to host the Orlando Magic’s D-League team, eventually losing out to Lakeland.

With the NBA growing like never before, speculation has begun about another round of expansion teams. Cities such as Seattle or Kansas City, which have hosted NBA franchises in the past, have been identified as the first priority for these expansions.

Depending on how big the league wants to get, however, a city like Jacksonville could easily sneak into these conversations.

Aside from that, the best path for basketball in Jacksonville is the one that’s already established: the Giants. The team looks to defend its 2016 title this season, with the 2017 championship tournament beginning in late March.

As long as the fans keep turning out to support them, the future is bright for the Giants.

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The Coastal
The Coastal is Jacksonville's newest magazine, founded in 2015 to provide news, reviews, and things to do for young people on the First Coast.