RIO RANCHO — Although hopes hockey fans had last year when a rumor circulated that an ECHL team was headed here to play its games in the Rio Rancho Events Center melted, a former member of the world-champion Chicago Bulls says he’ll have an expansion team in The Basketball League playing here in March. 

“We are real,” says Cliff Levingston. “We have an official franchise.” 

Levingston, 62, was an NBA first-round draft pick in 1982 out of Wichita State; he played in the Association with the Detroit Pistons (1982-84), Atlanta Hawks (1984-90) and Bulls during their championship seasons of 1990-91 and 1991-92. 

Noting that, he says, “My success is teaching guys how to play the game,” which is odd in that he never envisioned in his early days being a coach in a later stage of life. 

Levingston will be the team’s general manager and coach, in the first season at least, of the team, which will have a name selected in a local contest. 

He has high hopes not only for the success of the team, but for his and the team’s involvement in the community. 

“I’m coming in to lay the foundation,” Levingston said, terming himself a “planner.”  

“Just because you have a sports team — whether it’s football, basketball or baseball — you still got to understand how to make it work in that community,” he explained. “I showed them (in Kokomo) how to build a franchise. … (Previous teams here) had no involvement in the community — you have to be in the community before the community will invest in you. You have to invest with them first.” 

According to TBL’s website, “The Basketball League is dedicated to delivering a World-Class Professional Basketball experience to our community, our fans and business partners.” 

TBL will start its sixth season in March; it has 52 teams and plays its games from March to July. The Rio Rancho squad will consist of 12 players. With Levingston designating one slot for a Native American, tryouts, starting later this month, will lead to the rest of the roster spots. 

“A far as local, I want to get as much local talent as possible,” he said. “As a matter of fact, we want to hire local people in the office, ball boys, (and) I’m looking for a local coach. … I want to talk with anybody and everybody.” 

“(The league) started out with eight (teams), and it grew and grew and grew,” he said. “I’ve been coaching in the league for three years.” He led the Kokomo, Indiana, BobKats in the recently completed 2023 season. 

“I start every year from scratch,” he said. “I believe in earning your keep. A lot of these other teams sign players; I don’t sign a player. I have my salaries and I have slots, my salary-slots. I tell guys from Game 1, ‘Earn your salary spot in training camp.'” 

“So, I’m a firm believer in the fundamentals of the game and understanding the game,” he said. “At my training camp, you better be in shape.” 

The last time the City of Vision had a pro basketball team playing its home games at the Events Center, then known as Santa Ana Star Center, was in the 2010-11 season, when the New Mexico Thunderbirds played their D-League games there. That team was owned by Sam and Jackie Bregman, the parents of Houston Astros third baseman Alex Bregman. Neil Holmes, who worked for the T-Birds, is also part of the TBL front office. 

The Thunderbirds had their first five seasons’ games at Tingley Coliseum; after the ’10-11 season, the team moved to Canton, Ohio. The T-Birds’ coach when they played in Rio Rancho, Darvin Ham, now coaches the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA. 

“Any minor league sport has its challenges,” Sam Bregman, now the 2nd Judicial District Attorney in Albuquerque, said then. “Sports franchises are a tough business, and we never quite got the attendance to where we wanted to get it.” 

State tournament high school basketball games, a handful of college teams and the Harlem Globetrotters have also played games in the Events Center.  

About the GM/coach 

Cliff Levingston was born in Missouri and raised in San Diego, where one of his mentors was baseball hall-of-famer Dave Winfield. 

Initially, Levington planned to play professional baseball. As an athletic youngster, “I hated basketball with a passion,” he said, but through hard work and good coaches, he became successful. “(Winfield) and my high school basketball coach started me playing basketball. He’s been a mentor of mine ever since ninth grade. We stay in touch all the time. 

“I never wanted to be a coach; I had no idea,” he said, “but the love of basketball and the knowledge that I have, it would be a shame not to pass it on.” 

When he made the move from first base to the court, he said, “I was never the best on any of my teams, but (my coach) showed me the fundamentals, drilled the fundamentals in and … I was one of the top five players in California my senior year.

Although the current crop of NBA players are “more talented than we were, more athletic than we were, but they don’t understand the game — they play the game, but they don’t understand the game … time, shot and score. How much time is on the clock? The score of the game? And the possession?” 

Levingston started his coaching career about 25 years ago, working his way up from the middle school ranks to a club team, “Then I moved up to high school, and in 2000, I got hired by the CBA’s Ft. Wayne Furies. … I’ve been in minor-league sports ever since.” 

Levingston has played basketball in New Mexico before, as his WSU Shockers were in the Missouri Valley Conference with New Mexico State University, and the teams played home-and-home series during his three seasons (1979-82). 

Levingston is also familiar with The Pit. 

“I was coaching at Indiana University/Purdue-Ft. Wayne … our first year playing D-1,” he recalled. Levingston couldn’t recall what season that was; the 91-66 Lobo victory was played Dec. 6, 2002. 

“I teach how to understand the game, how to play the game and how to keep a job,” Levingston said. “A lot of these coaches come and they’re trying to find the best talent … I love the hungry players, guys that want to play and advance their careers, and I show them how to advance their careers — and that’s my biggest success with minor-league sports.” 

Levingston has also received some advice about this market from former UNM football standout Terance Mathis, also a friend of his. 

“He said, ‘Cliff, if you go to Albuquerque, you make sure you get embedded in the community. If you don’t, you’re dead in the water,'” he heard Mathis say. “My stuff is kid-driven and community-driven, the only thing I’ve done my whole career.”

As for that pro career, he said his best memories came during his time with the Atlanta Hawks, even recalling most of his teammates’ names off the 1987 squad, including Spud Webb, Tree Rollins, Dominique Wilkins and a former WSU teammate, Antoine Carr. 

“That was the most fun I had playing professional basketball,” he said, attributing the team’s camaraderie — “unmatched to this day.” 

 Tryouts for the team will be held from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 28, at the Tamaya Wellness Center, 225 Ranchitos Road, on the Santa Ana Pueblo. The fee is $250; $100 for tribal members. Another session of tryouts will be held in November, Levingston said.