The players were trading elbows and verbal shots during a recent Buffalo Rapids practice. It was so intense inside the Park School gym that emotions almost reached the boiling point.
The heated workout put a smile on Tim Winn's face.
"I love it," the Rapids' all-star point guard said. "It shows that guys are still fighting. It shows we still have that fire inside to compete despite everything that has happened."
Indeed, a lot has happened to the Rapids in their first American Basketball Association season. After an auspicious beginning, shaky ownership and a nomadic existence due to the lack of a home site led many observers to believe that this attempt to bring professional basketball back to Buffalo was destined to fail.
Yet the Rapids are still in business, trying to sell themselves as a worthwhile venture. And according to the team's head coach and general manager, this franchise is going to be around for a while.
"It's supposed to be a struggle," said Rich Jacob, whose team hosts the Strong Island Sound at 2:30 Sunday afternoon at Park School. "This is not supposed to be easy. We're entering the pro game. It's a challenge every step of the way. But we have a product that people are interested in. The basketball talent, the excitement of the game and the winter activity in Buffalo, it all fits like a glove, and it will be here for a long time."
The survival of the Rapids looked doubtful in November when the ABA discovered that then-owner Gary Nice was not on good financial footing. Erie Community College, which served as the team's home venue, severed ties after a contract dispute with Nice. Shortly thereafter, Nice informed the team following a Nov. 29 game that he couldn't make payroll.
The ABA took the franchise away from Nice, who quietly moved back to Arizona. But a new ownership group headed by former Miami Dolphins owner Dan Robbie and Todd Weir took over in December. According to Weir, the owners are committed to keeping the franchise in Buffalo.
"Obviously, I can't afford to pour money into something that continually loses money," Weir said Friday. "But based on the economics of this program and Buffalo's appetite for basketball and the support we've got over the last six or eight weeks, we believe this can work."
For the Rapids to succeed long term, Weir said it's vital they find a permanent venue for home games.
Since leaving ECC's Burt Flickinger Center, the Rapids moved around before landing at Park, a small private school in Amherst.
Weir said Park has been a gracious host, but its gym holds only a little more than 200 people.
"We feel very strong about going forward," Weir said. "We will go forward on one condition, and that is if we can secure a venue at a price that gives the team an opportunity to grow into that venue."
One possibility is Buffalo State, which has offered the 3,500-seat Sports Arena for the Rapids' March 5 home finale against the Newark Express.
Weir would like to work out a long-term agreement with Buffalo State so the team can begin planning for the 2006-07 season.
"First of all, we appreciate Buffalo State giving us the use of their facility," Weir said. "If Buffalo State would say today, 'Boys, you have use of our facility next year,' I'm in, and I'm excited because at that point we can rock and roll with the entire business plan that we have to re-establish the Buffalo Rapids' credibility in the community."
Meanwhile, the Rapids are trying to put a good product on the court. They have a 9-15 record with seven losses by seven points or less. They had won six of eight games before dropping five of their last six and will need a strong finish in their final five games to reach the playoffs.
Injuries and personnel issues have forced the Rapids to make several lineup changes. Only a handful of players remain from the season-opening roster. Trevor Ruffin, one of the team's high-profile signings, was lost early in the season with a knee injury.
The roster turnover was unsettling, but ownership problems and financial issues were distractions that affected the team's performance early in the season.
"We were going into some games not really there mentally because we didn't know if we were going to get paid, if we were going to have a season and what was going to happen from day to day," guard Modie Cox said. "But ever since new ownership took over, we have been able to focus on just basketball."
The Rapids have talented players. Winn, the former LaSalle High and St. Bonaventure star, is the team's leading scorer and was selected to play in the All-Star Game last weekend in Sunrise, Fla. Cox, a former LaSalle and University at Buffalo standout, provides solid defense and leadership. Brad Buddenborg, who has a broken hand, is a terrific shooter. Johnny Tyson, a 6-foot-11 center with NBA experience, has been a force inside.
The Rapids have gotten contributions from former UB stars Turner Battle and Mark Bortz, though Battle left the team this week to play in a pro league in Sweden.
A midseason addition who has made a huge impact is guard Antoine Sims, who carried the scoring load when Winn and Cox were out with injuries. A Turner-Carroll product and former Division II All-American, Sims averaged 34 points in the Rapids' last three games, including a team-record 52 in a 136-90 win over the Boston Frenzy two weeks ago.
"I just wanted to prove the team didn't waste the opportunity by giving me a chance," Sims said.
Off the court, the Rapids are planning to establish offseason clinics, a youth-development camp and other youth-oriented programs to strengthen their bond with the community.
With better ownership and more focused goals on the future, the Rapids might finally be on the road to respectability.
"We've gone through the worst of the worst," Winn said, "and guess what, here we are still standing."