La Crosse Catbirds

Michelle Kelly

Catalog Number: 1995.023.01

 Copyright La Crosse County Historical Society

Copyright La Crosse County Historical Society

In 1985, La Crosse joined the Continental Basketball Association.

Formed in 1947, the CBA was two months older than the National Basketball League.

The CBA started as the Eastern Pennsylvania Basketball League, expanding to become the Eastern Basketball Association. After adding a team from Alaska, the league changed the name one final time to the Continental Basketball Association. As the CBA, the league truly became continental, playing 14 teams from 14 states.

The La Crosse Catbirds originated in Louisville, Ky., in 1983. They played as the Louisville Catbirds for two seasons before the team was bought by Norm Gillette and D.B. Reinhart in 1985 and moved to La Crosse.

In the first five years in La Crosse, the Catbirds led the CBA in attendance, averaging more than 4,500 fans at the La Crosse Center. La Crosse was a training ground for NBA head coach Flip Saunders, who was known for leading the Minnesota Timberwolves and died in 2015. The Catbirds were one of the CBA’s longest-running teams.

The CBA came into financial trouble in the late 1990s and early 2000s. By the end of the 2001 season, the CBA filed for bankruptcy. After bankruptcy, the CBA floundered before merging with the International Basketball Association, finally marking the end of a CBA-owned league. The CBA/IBA partnership lasted from 2001 to 2009, ending in 2010.

The Catbirds were in La Crosse for nine seasons, from 1985 to 1994. Of the 84 teams that played during the CBA’s height, 1979 to 2001, only five teams lasted longer in one city than the La Crosse Catbirds. The La Crosse Bobcats were La Crosse’s second CBA team and lasted five seasons, from 1996 to 2001. La Crosse was home to a CBA team for 14 seasons.

La Crosse is one of six cities that has brought home two championships, one in the 1989-90 season and another in the 1991-92 season, beating the Rapid City Thrillers both times. Catbirds were defeated in the championship once in 1985. La Crosse’s later team, the Bobcats, made it to the championships in 1999, losing to the Yakima Sun Kings.

The La Crosse County Historical Society has a championship ring from the 1992 season. The ring was donated to the Historical Society in 1995, only three years after the 1992 championship. In 1990, the Catbirds beat the Thrillers in a spectacular 4-1 series, while the 1992 game was much closer, with the Catbirds winning 4-3 and clinching their second championship.

Unfortunately, sustaining a minor league team was expensive. Despite the Catbirds’ best efforts and the city of La Crosse’s financial help, the team was sold to a Pittsburgh businessman after the 1993-94 season. They were renamed the Pittsburgh Piranhas and had a stellar first season in Pennsylvania, making it to the championship game in the 1994-95 season. The team only lasted that first season outside of La Crosse, folding due to lack of attendance, in 1995.

This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on June 9, 2018.

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