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In Character: Profile of Salem Stampede owner Anthony Veliz

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Saturday, July 01, 2006

It’s not about the ball

Entrepreneur Anthony Veliz ignites a pro basketball stampede in Salem.

By Oakley Brooks

In March, two weeks before a cast of thousands marched to the Capitol steps in Salem to protest a pending immigration bill, Anthony Veliz watched more than 1,000 people file into the Salem Armory to see his minor league Stampede basketball team play its first regular season game. Veliz once focused his energies on Latino empowerment, but this spring he sidelined ethnic politics for a franchise in the International Basketball League.

And so did his fans and sponsors. On one side of the Armory on that night, Harold Wood, owner of Harold’s Quality Auto Repair, watched the action intently from the suite for which he’d paid $2,500 as the game’s title sponsor. Wood describes his view on illegal immigrants succinctly: “What part of illegal don’t you understand?” As an avid basketball fan, however, he got hooked on Veliz’s free-shooting, two-handed-jamming group of ballers with the rest of the crowd at that first game. There was a sizable group of Veliz’s extended family and friends from Woodburn. Russian speakers from that town as well. And, of course, local Anglos.

“I don’t think any group held the floor in that respect,” Wood remembers of the diverse crowd. What he recalls more vividly was how the group ignited when the Stampede heated up following a slow start. As the team surged  to a second-half lead, eventually racking up 134 points and winning by 20, the Armory turned into a mini-revival. “I felt like the place was going to explode it got so loud,” Wood says.

Basketball, and nothing else, was the issue of the hour.

“I think because of who I am people half expected that it would be all Latino and the music would be in Spanish,” Veliz says, laughing. (Announcements are in English.) “We decided we just wanted to put the best product on the floor. In the world of business, I want to appeal to the masses, to basketball fans regardless of who they are.”

“All those issues [such as immigration] are sort of water under the bridge at the game,” he continues. “We can come together and enjoy a game whatever your political affiliation.”

That’s a somewhat more muted Veliz than the one who spoke up against an English-only schooling movement in the state Legislature in 2001. He was then a school board member in Woodburn, where programs are taught in Russian as well as English and Spanish. Veliz also started an initiative to register Hispanic voters in the late 1990s, and he made an unsuccessful run at the Democratic nomination for state representative in 2002.

His activism dates back to when he was the only Latino on the Woodburn High School basketball team (at 5’10’’, he could dunk) and he started an annual basketball tournament to give Hispanics more opportunity to play. The tourney, now in its 20th year, draws teams from across the country and the likes of Eduardo Najera, who played in the tournament as a member of the Mexican junior national team and is now an NBA regular.

Still, Veliz seems a pensive massager of change rather than a firebrand. Today at 39, following a stint in Nike’s community affairs department, he’s eager to be seen as an entrepreneur in a game he loves and still plays.

“I’m a businessman who happens to be Latino,” he says. “Once people get to know you, that label falls away. It’s still around and that’s OK. It makes you who you are.”

Right now, he’s consumed by the Stampede.

Veliz put up his own cash for the $55,000 the franchise fee from the 2-year-old IBL, which is headquartered in Portland and has three of its 24 teams in the area. With his wife, Melinda, serving as his part-time director of marketing, he’s the only full-time employee of the Stampede, and does everything from making sponsorship pitches in his pinstriped suit to answering phones at franchise headquarters, a two-room cubby of an office surrounded by insurance agents and optometrists in North Salem. He attends night practices during the week, makes road trips around the Northwest on weekends and still wears a bulbous bandage on his right middle finger stemming from preparations for the first game, when an unfolding table nearly tore off the top of his finger.

Despite the expense, he’s signed all of the best second-tier players he could, including Keizer native Grayson “The Professor” Boucher, who traveled on the popular street basketball tour sponsored by AND1 clothing.

“I like his philosophy even if I don’t always agree with it,” says IBL commissioner Mikal Duilio. “I question why he needs 13 great players, when he could get by with eight. But he wants to do everything at the highest possible level.”

Though the team has attracted decent crowds — Veliz says he’s hitting his target of 800 people a game — sponsors have been lukewarm to the Stampede. Veliz hoped to get $100,000 in sponsorships but only brought in $50,000.

“Everyone is waiting to see if he can make it through the first year,” Duilio says.

Veliz insists he’ll break even or clear a few thousand dollars this year. He’s talking about TV and radio play-by-play in two languages next year. Down the line, he’d like to promote boxing and become a players’ agent.

Meanwhile, with the Stampede preparing for this month’s playoffs, Salem residents have turned into dedicated armchair quarterbacks. Veliz is fielding a flurry of phone calls each week. Harold Wood thinks Veliz should make it easy for big league teams to buy the Stampede out of promising players’ contracts. Another regular tells Veliz what players should be seeing action. What background music to serve up at games and how loud is a popular topic among other callers. It’s all a little more than Veliz bargained for. “I doubt Paul Allen gets home and has messages on his machine from fans,” he says.

But he knows, in all the madness, what these calls mean. “They’re invested,” Veliz says.

“I think this city was looking for a team to rally around.”


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