The Topeka Sizzlers were a CBA franchise that lasted four seasons from 1986-90 and featured a number of players who played in the NBA including JoJo White, Lloyd Daniels, Haywoode Workman, and Duane Ferrell.
The Sizzlers, which have been Topeka’s only professional basketball team, created a lot of buzz in their first season in Topeka with an average crowd 3,500, but then the team struggled, interest began to fade, and unstable ownership led to the Sizzlers leaving Topeka for Yakima, Wash.
Although the Sizzlers were not around very long and had the worst record in the CBA during their time in Topeka, many people still have fond memories of the former team that sported yellow jerseys with red trim.
“It was a lot of fun,” said Jerry Schemmel, who was the radio announcer for the Sizzlers. “I really enjoyed working in that environment. It was basically the minor league system for the NBA and it was a little bit of a renegade league. There was a lot of movement with franchises, a lot of shaky ownership, a lot of trouble with general managers and coaches, just a crazy league. There was a lot of uncertainty, but at the same time it was a lot of fun.”
Fresh out of Washburn Law School, Schemmel jumped at an opportunity to work for the Sizzlers for one season in Kansas City before the franchise moved to Topeka in 1986. The first Topeka Sizzlers team featured a trio of players– Ron Kellogg, Cedric Hunter, and Calvin Thompson–from Kansas’ 1986 Final Four team, which led to the excitement.
“The steadiest guy was Cedric Hunter,” Schemmel said. “He was a very solid point guard, very good defensively, wasn’t quick like the NBA point guards, but he was very solid. I think he had a nice little career.”
Schemmel, who is currently an announcer for the Colorado Rockies, remembers his first game as a broadcaster for the Sizzlers. It was in New York against the Phil Jackson-led Albany Patroons, who were one of the best teams in the league.
“We beat his team by like 20 points and Joe Binion 28 points and 20 rebounds or something and I remember looking at Phil Jackson’s face and it was like, ‘What just happened here? Who are these Sizzler guys and how did they beat us by 20 points?” Schemmel said.
When Schemmel first started working in the CBA, the league was thriving as a feeder league sending close to 50 players to the NBA. During the Sizzlers existence, the CBA also became synonymous for producing quality head coaches for the NBA, which included Jackson, George Karl, Bill and Eric Musselman, and Flip Saunders.
There were a number of unique rules in the CBA including teams being awarded points for winning the period, playing the red, white, and blue ball, and the sudden death overtime period, which ended when one team led by three points.
“You could get the tip, hit a 3, and the game was over, which happened several times,” said Schemmel, who noted the Sizzlers went 6-6 in overtime play. “It was always an interesting strategy of what you would do if you got the tip. Would you go for a 3 or go for 2 and try to get a free throw or whatever it may be. Some games would last another half an hour and I remember there was one game that lasted seven seconds in overtime and we got beat when the tip went to the point guard and he pulled up for 3 from way downtown and the game was over.”
UNIQUE BACKCOURT: WHITE & DANIELS
The second season for the Sizzlers featured an intriguing backcourt that paired up JoJo White, a 41-year old eventual Hall of Famer and former NBA champion with the Boston Celtics, and Lloyd Daniels, a highly talented, but troubled youngster from New York City who was kicked off the UNLV team before playing a game.
“JoJo White was a guy that you looked at and said, ‘You know what, he’s still got it all, but he’s lost steps and it’s going to cost him,’” Schemmel said. He knew how to play defense, knew the nuances, knew how to get in the lane, knew all of the tricks that the NBA guys had, but he was just too old. There was no question about it. He actually had some really good games and it was fun to see him, but you could tell after a few games that he wasn’t going to be ready for the NBA again.”
White’s comeback attempt lasted only a month as he struggled to keep up with the younger, more athletic players. Still, there were flashes with White, who scored over 14,000 points in his 12-year NBA career.
“One time he picked an opposing point guard clean and ran down and actually dunked the ball, which we had never seen him do before in practice or a game,” Schemmel said. “That’s the one play I remember and the other thing I remember is that he was just a class guy. He was really a good guy. Here he was in minor league basketball after this amazing NBA career, but had time for everybody. He was a great teammate, great with the media, and great with the fans.”
Daniels eventually made his much-anticipated Sizzlers debut in 1987 after months of discussions, but was cut after a few months after failing to attend drug rehab and for being out of shape.
“To have him, it was flashy and fun, a glorified thing because he was such a big name out of high school,” said Schemmel, who remembers researching Daniels at the local library before he joined the team. “He was a good player, but not a great player—he really wasn’t. You could see flashes of being that 6-7 point guard that they compared to Magic Johnson, but he was really inconsistent. His talent got him into the NBA for a little while, but in the CBA he was probably an average player.”
Daniels played four more seasons of minor league basketball before the San Antonio Spurs finally gave him a shot in 1992. He never lived up to the hype in the NBA playing in 200 games scoring 1,411 points with six different teams. He played for 28 teams in his 20-year professional career in 12 different countries.
“He was a very quiet guy, very reserved, very cooperative, and very friendly, but there were red flags,” Schemmel said. “Even when he was with the team we were hearing stories that he was doing stuff off-the-court that he shouldn’t be doing. We actually had a babysitter, a guy that would go on the road with us and keep him in check and make sure he was in his room and all that and I think that helped. Once he left and there wasn’t that responsibility, he started doing some things that he regretted.”
EXCITEMENT EVENTUALLY FADED
The Sizzlers’ best team was in their first year at 24-24 followed by three dismal seasons including posting the league’s worst record in each of their final two years. Their .325 winning percent (69-143) was the worst in the CBA during their time in Topeka. In their third year attendance was already cut in half before only hundreds showed up.
Ownership changed from Bernard Glannon to Jim and Bonnie Garrett, which resulted in a variety of lawsuits before the Garretts eventually sold the team to Bob Wilson in May 1990 for $550,000. Wilson then moved the team to Washington and renamed the team to the Yakima Sun Kings.
The CBA, which began in 1946, eventually began to fade and has been on hiatus since 2009.
“It’s disappointing,” Schemmel said. “When the NBA put the D-League on the map, I thought that was the end of the CBA because the NBA is going to wield its power, were not going to compete with that. It hung out around for a few years after that, but eventually I knew it was going to go away and it has. It’s probably for the good and we have great memories. The way it happened was great, but the way it ended probably wasn’t so great.”
LIST OF FORMER SIZZLERS
Joe Binion, Marvin Branch, Glen Clem, Lloyd Daniels, Mike Davis, Howard Evans, Duane Ferrell, Ricky Grace, Peter Gudmundsson, Ken Green, Hubert Henderson, Dave Hoppen, Cedric Hunter, Craig Jackson, Elfrem Jackson, Clay Johnson, Ron Kellogg, Tony Mack, Kevin McKenna, Carlton McKinney, Richard Morton, Perry Moss, Charles Murphy, Kevin Nixon, Brian Rahilly, Mike Richmond, Jim Rowinski, Will Scott, Andre Spencer, Calvin Thompson, Brian Vaughns, JoJo White, and Haywoode Workman.