Remembering the Frost Heaves with Alex Wolff
On Saturday, we checked in with Alex Wolff, a Vermonter and longtime writer for Sports Illustrated to get his thoughts on ESPN's The Last Dance. But Wolff played a key role in the local basketball scene as well.
"Well my mom and dad lived here, and I'd come up Summers with them when I was little," Wolff said. "I went to Summer camp outside Middlebury on Lake Dunmore, and I met my wife in the checkout line in a general store."
Wolff spent the first several years of his SI career working in Manhattan, but around the time he shifted from day-to-day news to feature stories, a major life event convinced him it was time for a change .
"When our first son came along, it just seemed to make more sense to be up here rather than in Manhattan where I'd kind of put in my time and we've never looked back," Wolff said. "And I can say that there's no better place to come back if you're a journalist, with a full notebook, and kind of make sense of a story than right here."
Wolff has witnessed some of basketball's greatest moments in person, but for him so of the most special occurred at the Aud in Barre.
"Well it was a crazy experiment," Wolff said. "I can say that Vanessa (his wife) and I sometimes look at each other and say, 'Did we really do the Frost Heaves?'"
They really did it. In 2005, Wolff founded a professional basketball team in the new ABA in Vermont, named after a certain road condition that contributes to the old New England adage, "You can't get there from here."
"Oh I knew what it meant, my earliest Vermont experiences were on a dirt road in East Barnard Vermont, so mud season isn't something I was unfamiliar with," Wolff said. "But yeah, it was actually kind of the inspiration for naming the team the Frost Heaves, you know it's never a simple thing to get from Point A to Point B."
Owing to his admitted bias for old barns dating to his days covering college hoops, Wolff decided the team would split its home games between the Barre Aud and Burlington's Memorial Gymnasium...but that wasn't the only reason.
"We can be this regional franchise where people in each of these two metro areas can get excited. You can't afford a full season ticket package, you could buy the exit 7 package or the exit 14 package and do half of it. So really I joke and say, 'Oh gee, it was my indecision, I couldn't make up my mind between these two but in fact, I think it was one of the keys to our catching on early," Wolff said.
There was another pretty good reason they caught on though: they won. A lot. Cabot native Will Voight's squad posted a 27-5 regular season and capped it off by edging out 40 other teams from around the country to be crowned ABA champions their first season in 2006-07.
"I think I'll remember most vividly that first title when we beat the Texas Tycoons in Barre, and the fire marshall had to have a very stern word with us afterward," Wolff said. "And you know, just that moment, put it in a bottle, and boy it made the state feel really really good."
They repeated the feat the next year, but the good times couldn't last forever. The 2008 economic meltdown had a devastating effect.
"It particularly hit main street and we counted on 'Mom and Pop' businesses," Wolff said. "And they were just having problems meeting payroll, struggling with inventory, so things were out of our control."
Wolff sold the franchise to a group of fans in 2010 in somewhat of a last ditch attempt to save the team, but by January of the following year, the party was over. The team's legacy can still be seen in various places, most notably the other major sporting venue in Barre .
"We had so many people around the state who really rallied and believed in us, and one of those people was Ken Squier," Wolff said. "He was determined that Bump would have a home at Thunder Road. He's now Speedbump the Racing Moose, and only a little bit of costume changes!"
Now could someone else fill the void left and start another pro hoops team in Vermont? Wolff says it was kind of a perfect storm for the Frost Heaves to achieve the level of success they did.
"We were the best team in the ABA which was a league that started the season with about 70 teams, and that took some doing. You can't count on that happening," Wolff said.
But most of all what he learned from his experience was the character of the people in the state, and he believes that has helped a lot over the last few months .
"You know Vermonters are hearty people, and that's something that we discovered first hand," Wolff said. "They help their neighbors and you know everytime I pull on a mask and go in to do some shopping, and see other people have done the same thing, I'm reminded of that same spirit. Freedom and Unity, you know, freedom we all love freedom and count on it, but the unity part is just as much of it too, it's our state motto and we've gotta look out for one another. And so far I think Vermonters are really setting a great tone and balancing those two things."
Like the rest of us, Wolff says he's looking forward to being able to see athletes step back on the court, and hopefully that comes sooner rather than later.