Tawan Slaughter has the drive and ambition to make things happen, and her first venture into the business world with the upstart Buffalo 716ers men’s basketball franchise could lead her to something far more lucrative. What better way to enhance one’s business prospects than to succeed in a venture that has failed so miserably in the past?
Minor league basketball in Western New York has been quite laughable and unstable. Back in 2005, the Buffalo Rapids begat the Buffalo Silverbacks, who eventually became the Buffalo Sharks, leaving a trail of frustration and unpaid bills. That brings us to the 29-year-old Slaughter, a Western New York native who isn’t in the business of selling fool’s gold. Only a dream or two.
“I’m going to separate myself by coming through on the things that I say I’m going to do,” said Slaughter, the owner, team president and coach. “I’m going to actually come through on my word. I don’t make promises I can’t keep. I don’t tell players I’m going to pay them if I’m not.”
Slaughter barely recalls the failed business models of the past. She was too busy starring on the court at the time.
She played at Christian Central Academy in Williamsville, where she averaged nearly 40 points a game for a career total of 2,256, which is fifth in Western New York history. In college, Slaughter played point guard first at Fredonia State, then Buffalo State, where she graduated with a degree in communications. She earned tryouts with the WNBA’s Washington Mystics and Los Angeles Sparks.
Now’s she’s given up her job teaching and coaching to devote her time to running the 716ers. She isn’t drawing a salary but makes ends meet by substitute teaching and refereeing.
“Nothing too strenuous while I’m working on this,” said Slaughter, who will graduate next week with a master’s degree in physical education from Canisius College. “I can still live and get by.”
Slaughter and her partner, Franklin Jackson, purchased the franchise from American Basketball Association Commissioner Joe Newman in November of last year for a reduced price of $5,000.
“Being a woman, I got a way bigger discount than you normally would because he wanted minority women to be a part of it,” Slaughter said.
Jackson eventually left the organization to form the Buffalo Blue Hawks, who are scheduled to compete in the Ohio Valley Basketball League next season. As of last week, the 716ers moved into the Independent Basketball Association/Premier Basketball League. The ABA recently changed ownership and the IBA/PBL gives the team more stability and travel partners.
“I have close teams to me like Rochester, Albany,” said Slaughter, who owes a $3,500 entry fee. “There’s not as many teams nearby in the ABA and I would have to do a lot of traveling.”
The roster lacks players, but that could change by this weekend. Slaughter has organized a combine under the direction of the Los Angeles Summer Pro League from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at Holy Angels Academy and she’ll take 12 players from the event to compete in the Summer Pro League in July. Phil Jackson coached his first game in the SPL and Violet Palmer, the NBA’s first female referee, got her start in the league. Walt Thompson, the SPL’s vice president of operations, sees a similar springboard for Slaughter.
“One of the things we always felt that was important was diversity across the board, and having a woman like Tawan Slaughter leading the charge in an area where we had never had an imprint on was a perfect setup for us,” Thompson said. “Not only are we giving young men an opportunity to play in the summer pro league, but the opportunity for a young lady to set up her own premier pro team. Her tenacity has been a godsend for us.”
Slaughter is civic minded, reaching out on the grass-roots level with a tutoring, mentoring and motivational speaking program in the inner city. She runs a weekly program at Harvey Austin Elementary School.
“We’re basically saying, ‘How can we help you?’ I don’t see any other teams doing that in the school system, working with the kids. The principal lets us in and we go into the classroom and assist the teachers with an after-school program that we started. It’s not just basketball.”
The 716ers were scheduled to play their regular season games at Holy Angels but the school recently announced it was closing. Slaughter still plans to host a summer league at Holy Angels and part of the proceeds will be donated to the school.
“We’re reaching out to the alumni now to work with them to do this fund-raiser,” Slaughter said. “We’re going to try and help save the school.”
Yet her biggest challenge is divorcing her product from the failures of the past.
“It’s been difficult because I’m getting, ‘Well, I gave this team the money and they just took it and didn’t do anything with it or I never saw the benefits from it,’ ” Slaughter said. “It’s kind of hard to get people to trust us.”
Slaughter is working with a streamlined, personalized business model. Large corporate sponsors are welcome, but she wants a deep bench of local businesses. She would like to run the team on a $50,000 budget.
“We don’t want to seem unreachable,” Slaughter said. “When people go on our social media sites they say, ‘Oh, you responded right back to me. I was surprised.’ It’s not just someone sitting at a desk and responding for me.”
Out-of-pocket expenses have been about $5,000, Slaughter said. She’s paid for practice jerseys and T-shirts and the rental of the JFK Community Center. Player salaries have yet to be determined.
“I applaud Tawan for making a go of this and bringing basketball back to Buffalo,” said Modie Cox, one of the original Buffalo Rapids. “The football around here hasn’t been successful, the hockey has been struggling, so it would be nice to have a good basketball team to cheer for.”
Team tryouts are set for Sept. 28 and the season begins in March, with the plan to play exhibition games in October, November and December. Slaughter’s pitch to potential players is not salary, but playing opportunities overseas.
“I’m not looking at it for the entertainment value of it, but I want players to live their dreams,” Slaughter said. “These are opportunities to sign contracts. I’m looking for my players to be here one or two years and then sign on the professional level. Everyone knows the situation up front. There’s no secrets. I tell people you’re not going to move here from North Carolina and think that you’re going to have a free ride, it’s not going to happen.”
With Slaughter there’s a sense of something bigger on the horizon.
“I’m just trying to be an entrepreneur,” she said, “who creates opportunities.”