Gregory Dennis: Remembering the Frost Heaves
Some people do crazy things in midlife. They get divorced from a person they love, or they change careers or move across the country for no apparent reason.
But almost no one can say their midlife crisis involved creating a professional basketball team. A team that brightened the days of a rabid coterie of cowbell-clanging fans amid the winter gloom — and gave Vermont its first professional sports championships.
But Alex Wolff can say he did that.
Along with his wife, Vanessa, Wolff founded and ran the aptly named Vermont Frost Heaves.
For a few years, the team was an undeniable part of modern Vermont. It featured a biodiesel team bus, local food served at games in Burlington and Barre, a mascot called Bump the Moose (a word-play on the team name) — and free advertising in the form of the frost-heave warning signs that are part of every Vermont spring.
The Wolffs started out more than a decade ago by purchasing (for $5,000) the territorial rights to Vermont from the American Basketball Association. Supported by a small arena of investors from around Vermont and by the Wolffs’ uncompensated labor, the team made it through three full seasons.
In fact, the Frost Heaves persisted during a time when half the ABA franchises folded. Amid all that, the well-coached players brought home two ABA championships.
Looking back on the experience today, Alex Wolff muses, “I guess there was, about it, a little bit of a sports car taken out for a spin when you turn 50.”
It was quite a ride. And Wolff, now 58, has now told the story in all the detail it deserves. He’s written a glorious (and gloriously long) article for Sports Illustrated, where he’s has worked since 1980.
“I figured writing about the whole journey would have some therapeutic value,” he told me.
The print version of the article ran a couple weeks ago. The best version is on the Sports Illustrated website as a “long form” article of 15,000 words.
The web version, available for free online at www.si.com/longform/2015/frost-heaves, features interviews with Wolff and Coach Will Voight, who is a native Vermonter, plus some memorable photos and game videos.
As with most of Wolff’s writing when he’s not out covering a big event like the Olympics, the article was written in his personal office, which occupies the refurbished loft of an old Cornwall cow barn.
In retrospect, it seems a small miracle that the Frost Heaves ever amounted to more than just basketball road kill.
The easy part was creating the team concept, which provided lively subject material for the magazine where Wolff is a senior writer.
He wanted this to be a purely Vermont venture, and the magazine didn’t invest a dime in the team. So after creating and beginning to sell team merchandise, Wolff had to get creative about finding investors. “When your basketball team is just a logo, plus some shirts and caps, it’s a lot simpler than when you actually start to play games,” he says.
Among the investors was Tom Brennan, the retired UVM basketball coaching legend who lent his name and support. So did Jerry Greenfield, who cofounded a Vermont ice cream company you may have heard of.
Wolff hoped to crowdsource funding somewhat like the co-op that runs the Mad River Glen ski area. He even created a share for five of the guys who are regulars in a pickup basketball game where he and I sometimes play.
Seeking venture capital money, Wolff heard about something called the Peak Pitch. At this “only in the Green Mountains” event, Vermontrepreneurs were matched with potential investors.
The catch: You had to give your new-business pitch to a would-be investor as the two of you rode up the chairlift together.
Exactly how crazy a prospect was that? Before Wolff could do the Peak Pitch at Bolton Valley, he recalls, he had to take a couple ski lessons from a Middlebury College student “so I could get down the mountain without breaking my neck.”
Alex and Vanessa had two very young kids when the team was launched and they created the team mascot. The ever-cheerful Bump the Moose was the team’s most visible manifestation other than the players themselves.
The Wolffs’ kids were so young at that time that they thought Bump was, like Santa Claus, a living, breathing creature.
Their parents preserved that illusion as long as they could, with Alex once wearing the mascot costume at a birthday party for his young son.
Coach Voight drew on his vast network to recruit a largely black team of players to this largely white state. The team lived together in Shelburne, “ate ramen together,” Wolff says — and won the revived ABA’s first two championships.
Sure, it was minor-league basketball. But having seen them play a couple times, I can tell you those guys could play.
Nonetheless, as one observer of the basketball scene told Wolff, every story about a minor-league basketball team ends with “until the franchise folded.”
The Frost Heaves were no exception. The Wolffs had to drop out after three years, and the Barre booster club tried for a fourth season but couldn’t complete it.
Like a frost heave flattening in the summer heat, the team folded.
Nonetheless, the legacy of the Frost Heaves survives.
The fans got a lot of joy from the team. The players made lifelong friendships, sharpened their games, and in some cases were able to continue their careers for years afterward.
And Alex Wolff got the story of a lifetime.
Looking back on “the highest highs,” he says, one thought that inspired his written recollections of the team was this: “I thought it would be great if you could bottle that for the people who experienced it and put it on the shelf — then once a year, take it down and toast each other.”
Wolff’s article is just that — a bittersweet (but mostly sweet) toast to the late, great Vermont Frost Heaves, and to everyone’s quintessentially American basketball dreams.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @greengregdennis.
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