The Albany Patroons and a phone call threat in 1985

This Saturday, the Albany Patroons documentary will debut in a screening at the Palace Theater in downtown Albany.  The documentary features several Patroons players and coaches, past and present, and looks like a tremendously well-detailed and documented history of our beloved basketball squad.

In honor of this documentary – and in anticipation of the Patroons’ upcoming 2018-19 season in the newly-branded TBL basketball league, I have a classic story from the Patroons’ early days.  It involves one of the Patroons’ superstars at the time, the opposing head coach, and a phone call that may or may not have crossed the line.

It’s March 31, 1985.  And the night before, Patroons forward Frankie J. Sanders – the “J” stood for “Jumpshot” – received a late night phone call from the head coach of the Tampa Bay Thrillers, Bill Musselman.

“I have friends who eat nails, and they’ll be in Albany tonight. So watch it.”

Both men spent the first two games of the CBA Eastern Division Finals screaming at each other, both on and off the court. By the second game, which Albany won 113-100, both men were given technical fouls for “unsportsmanlike conduct.”

On the morning after Game 2, the Patroons were still packing their bags at the Tampa hotel, ready for a quick flight back to Albany. As he was packing, Sanders received a telephone call from Bill Musselman. Immediately after the call, Sanders told Phil Jackson, told his teammates, told reporters at the Albany nespapers, told anybody who would listen, that Bill Musselman had threatened his life over the telephone. Sanders swore that Musselman had some big friends ready to kill if Sanders continued his scoring barrage.

Musselman claimed all he ever said was to calm down. Sanders swore that Musselman threatened his life. But that night at the armory, Musselman did indeed have some large enforcers in attendance. “He shows up the next day in Albany with two guys,” recalled Assistant Coach Charley Rosen. “One guy was an ex-football player with Cincinnati, 300 pound guys with necks two feet thick, monster guys, guys who look like they eat glass. And they just walked around next to Musselman, one on one side, one on the other side, nobody said a word, they didn’t say anything. Frankie was like 5 for 20 that game and we lost.”

According to Bill Heller’s book, Obsession: Timberwolves Stalk the NBA, CBA Commissioner James Drucker quickly brought both parties into a makeshift Armory office. Without mincing words, he told both parties that if the threats and trash talk didn’t stop immediately, he would withhold all playoff money for both teams. Quickly, both men shook hands and made nice for the photographers.

But now it was Game 5, with the winner headed for the 1985 CBA Championship.

We’re in the fourth quarter. The Pats’ John Wiley had possession of the ball, the home team leading 88-87 with less than twenty seconds remaining. Wiley dribbled the ball around the key, while the crowd started chanting, “eight … seven … six … Five … FOUR …” With three seconds remaining, Brian Martin fouled Wiley. All Wiley had to do was hit both free throws and the Pats would win.

Wiley bricked the first shot.

The second free throw was good, and Albany had an 89-87 lead.

Musselman called time out, and gathered the players around his chalkboard. In the time out, Musselman designed a quick play around Thriller forward Linton Townes.

As play resumed, with only three seconds on the clock, Townes worked the ball past Derrick Rowland and fired a jumper that went through the hoop. Buzzer. Overtime.

The first team to lead by three points in overtime would face the Detroit Spirits in the championship series.

Lowes Moore got the ball in overtime and launched a three-point play. It twanged off the rim. Tampa’s Freeman Williams got the rebound, dribbled up the court, and sank an easy layup. Frankie J. Sanders took another three-point prayer into the air. The ball missed the rim entirely.

Rebound by Les Craft. Deep pass to Williams at an unguarded Patroons basket. Williams tossed in an uncontested layup, and the game was over. Tampa Bay 93, Albany 89. The Thrillers would advance the championship game, beating the Detroit Spirits four games to three.

For Albany, the season was over. Bill Musselman had beaten the defending CBA champions. And he did it with a play drafted right on the spot.

It didn’t take too long for The Phone Call Series to become a CBA legend, an apocryphal story of insane coaches and loony players. The series most remembered as a battle of wits between Bill Musselman and Frankie J. Sanders was reduced to a cute blurb in the 1985-86 CBA Media Guide playing off the old AT&T slogan – “Reach Out, Reach Out and Touch Someone.”

Lowe 3-7 3-4 9; Williams 12-33 5-8 29; Martin 2-4 2-3 6; Townes 9-21 10-10 29; Valentine 0-3 2-2 2; Moss 3-9 4-4 10; Craft 2-5 3-4 7; Glass 0-0 1-2 1; Dietrick 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 31-83 30-37 93.

Wiley 3-10 3-4 9; Rowland 4-8 5-8 13; Moore 9-16 3-3 21; Wheeler 3-7 1-1 7; Sanders 10-22 4-4 24; Kuczenski 1-3 4-7 6; Elliott 1-2 0-0 2; Green 2-4 2-2 6; Ancrum 0-1 1-2 1. Totals 33-71 23-31 89.

TAMPA BAY 21-24-21-22-4 93
ALBANY    25-22-18-24-0 89

Three-point goals: Townes. Rebounds: Tampa Bay 50 (Craft 13, Martin 12), Albany 35 (Wiley 11). Assists: Tampa Bay 16 (Lowe 7), Albany 21 (Moore 8). Fouls – Tampa Bay 22, Albany 27. Technicals – Craft (unsportsmanlike conduct), Tampa Bay (illegal defense). A-3,715.