Bizarre firing for groundbreaking coach

Posted: Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Sally Anthony's antics fit perfectly in the colorful, crazy history of the American Basketball Association, the red-white-and-blue ball league where fans once hanged an owner in effigy.

It's not clear yet whether Anthony, co-owner of the fledgling Nashville Rhythm, is to be ridiculed or pitied, much less figuratively lynched, for her bizarre rant on court against the groundbreaking woman she hired to coach a men's pro team.

What possessed Anthony to shout and swear at Ashley McElhiney for playing popular newcomer Matt Freije, Vanderbilt's all-time leading scorer?

Anthony was all for Freije last week, when he was signed for a two-game deal for $10,000. Now Freije was playing his second game on Saturday night against the Kansas City Knights and Anthony ordered him benched.

What drove Anthony to fire McElhiney and deliver an ultimatum to the players, threatening to fold the team if they didn't like it?

McElhiney, the 23-year-old former point guard at Vanderbilt, had proved herself a credible coach, leading the Rhythm to six straight wins to start the season and an 18-7 record that put the team third in the ABA's Blue division and sixth overall among 33 teams.

McElhiney's age and sex didn't matter. The players, to a man, liked her and respected her. They're in this minor league, with roots that go back to Julius ''Dr. J'' Erving, hoping to get a shot at the NBA. They think McElhiney can help them get there.

''We definitely want Ashley to be the coach,'' the Rhythm's Adam Sonn said. ''She's done a phenomenal job. Sally totally overstepped her boundary, without even talking to the other owners about why she would do this. It's a mystery to us, a ridiculous soap opera.''

Anthony, a singer who owns the team with her husband, Tony Bucher, and his business partner, Justin Christian, hired McElhiney to great fanfare last spring.

''My goal was not only to put a competitive team on the floor, but to give qualified females opportunities they are not normally afforded,'' Anthony said at the time.

''I'll be at every game and if I see anyone give Ashley a hard time, I don't care if it's some big 6-foot-8 guy, I'll walk right out there and yank him off the court. ... I wouldn't care if we both got technicals. I will not let Ashley be disrespected by anyone.''

Anthony, who last year put out a rock CD called ''Vent,'' and appears on the cover as if she had a bruised cheek, saw her team and others being a stepping stone for a woman someday coaching in the NBA.

Instead, Anthony stepped all over McElhiney in front of her team and fans.

In the third quarter against the Knights, with the Rhythm trying to come back from 18 points down, Anthony charged onto the court to confront her coach.

''She lit into Ashley, saying, 'You work for me, I pay your salary, you need to pull (Freije) off the floor,''' Sonn said.

McElhiney, who has declined to discuss the incident, tried to ignore Anthony and continue coaching. Security guards eventually led the owner off the floor.

The Rhythm came back to win 110-109. McElhiney didn't go into the locker room, but Anthony did — to deliver her ultimatum to the players.

''We don't even know Sally Anthony,'' Sonn said. ''She's one of the owners of our team, the face of the ownership, but has never been in contact with any of us about anything.

''Nobody answered her. We just wanted to get out of there. It was crazy. I've never seen anything like this happen in my life. This was just an out-of-control thing, stemming from something that nobody really knows about.''

McElhiney's firing is all the more perplexing since the Rhythm's next game is Saturday night against St. Louis in McElhiney's old high school gym in Gleason, Tenn.

At some point after the incident, The Tennessean reported, Anthony wound up at Vanderbilt hospital.

''I tripped on some stairs and hit my head last night,'' Anthony told the newspaper Sunday. ''Some people think that I did it on purpose, but I just tripped.''

She declined to go into further detail.

On the same day, Anthony told The City Paper in Nashville that she was bit by a dog and her back was hurting.

She also said she knew nothing of the efforts to sign Freije, yet she appeared at a news conference last Thursday to praise his addition.

McElhiney told The Associated Press that she did not want to discuss the matter at the moment, but would have something to say ''in a few days.''

By that time, the Rhythm players hope, she will be back on the job.

''We're confident things will be resolved,'' Sonn said. ''We're feeling good that Ashley will be reinstated as the coach. The other owners will overrule Sally.''

The old ABA had all sorts of characters. Virginia owner Earl Foreman, who sold off Erving, George Gervin and Swen Nater within a year, was hanged in effigy nightly by furious fans.

The league had a coach named ''Slick'' and players named ''Fatty'' and ''Goo.'' It had Marvin ''Bad News'' Barnes, who disappeared from time to time.

Sally Anthony, welcome to the club.

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at

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