Still Missing the Bighorns in the Biggest Little City
Dominic Matteoni reports on the basketball team’s sudden departure in 2018.
Local Ownership with a Sense of Community
The Reno Bighorns which lasted 10 years had epic teams, a legendary announcer, sons of former legendary Hall of Famers as players, and countless community events, much of this tied back to Herb Santos, a local personal injury attorney and driver of this entire process.
It all began in early 2008, when what was then the NBA D-League, decided to expand its operations westward. During their search, a team owner named David Kahn contacted a local AAU coach asking if he’d know anyone interested in forming a local ownership group.
Santos had a daughter who played on that AAU team. Upon Kahn’s inquiry, Santos, and a few others formed an ownership group; which turned into the renewal of the Reno Bighorns. (The Bighorns spent the 1979–80 WBA [Western Basketball Association] season in Reno. They were coached by Eric Musselman’s father and only lasted one year. Eric Musselman would also coach the Bighorns, in an epic season, but more on that later.)
The ownership group was called Southwest Basketball LLC, and the Reno Bighorns began their 2008–09 season and finished 4th in their division with a record of 25–25. Notable players included Patrick Ewing Jr., the son of the Hall of Famer, and Nevada grads Garry Hill-Thomas and Kyle Shiloh.
“It just sort of fell into my lap,” remembers Santos. “What I saw was great potential for a sports team in Reno and an inexpensive opportunity for families to spend time together.”
In February of 2009, Southwest Basketball LLC sold the team to SK Baseball, the owner of the Reno Aces. Santos however continued to be included in day-to-day operations as his passion for the organization never wavered. Also, his managerial expertise was something he knew was of value, as baseball and basketball are on two opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to how to manage them.
“I was told I was the number one fan,” Santos says. “I was doing all this stuff to really help the team survive.”
In December of 2010, the D-League (which became the G League in 2017) commissioner contacted Mr. Santos regarding taking full ownership of the team. After nine months of discussion, in August 2011, Santos became the majority owner of the Reno Bighorns .
Upon obtaining full ownership, Santos knew there was work to be done in terms of impacting the community in a meaningful way. According to him, the Reno Bighorns hosted around 11 events for the community before he took ownership. Once under Santos, he says the Reno Bighorns led the league in events held, with over 150 events for the community being planned during his tenure.
“I used to bring Bruno (the team mascot) and the team over to the Boys and Girls Club to serve Thanksgiving dinner, we’d give teddy bears to kids at the hospital, Christmas presents, whatever it took,” said Santos. “We wanted Reno to really feel like this was their team.”
Off the Court, A Mission of Philanthropy
A former member of the Bighorns front office staff, Keenan Polan, spoke very highly of the organization and its mission with philanthropy. Polan began his career with the Bighorns as an account executive, and ended as the President of Business Operations before starting a position with the Barracuda Championship, one of 47 stops on the PGA Tour.
“[Former players] Reggie Hearn and David Stockton (son of Hall of Famer John Stockton) are probably the best examples of that,” says Polan. “Stockton would bring Gonzaga alumni to games all the time. Reggie was really involved in a local church, and he’d have dozens of people coming from his church every game to watch him.”
“I think they saw just how impactful they can be to people as athletes, especially to children. They got a lot out of that,” said Polan.
Polan also spoke to how much it meant to the players. He was also quite the fan during their time here.
“I still have different Bighorns jerseys hanging up,” he said. Outside of coming to the games, I definitely miss the Bighorns family.”
Other people who worked closely with the Bighorns, like Bighorns announcer Dan Gustin, were given an inside look into how much the Bighorns emphasized giving back to the community.
Gustin, former “Voice of the Wolf Pack,” called UNR sports games for 33 years. Between baseball, football, and basketball, Gustin announced almost 3,000 total UNR sporting events; he called six bowl games and six NCAA Basketball tournaments. After 2008, Gustin began calling Reno Bighorns games, and was there for their entire 10-year career in Reno.
“It’s just one less thing that your city has to brag about,” says Gustin.
Gustin saw just how much they gave back and always wished the city recognized them as well. There was one player in particular however who’s actions really stuck with Gustin.
“I was broadcasting for some of the high school games, and sometimes I’d see Patrick Ewing Jr. and a few of his teammates there watching the game… just enjoying basketball.”
Ewing, son of NBA legend Patrick Ewing, was signed by the Reno Bighorns on December 15, 2008 and played for the Bighorns for a little over a year before being waived after being diagnosed with a Grade 1 MCL sprain.
Not only did Santos see the potential growth philanthropically, but he saw the developmental side of things too.
“That was something we always strived for with players, and even staff,” Santos said. “Because, you know, the developmental league is just that. There’s numerous towns and markets across the United States where we can say, you know, that person got their start with the Reno Bighorns.”
Some former Bighorns, like Danny Green and Jeremy Lin, made quite a name for themselves after going to the NBA.
Green had quite the performance during his short time with the Bighorns, averaging 20.7 points per game and 7.5 rebounds per game in just 16 games in Reno before getting called up to the San Antonio Spurs; eventually winning his first NBA Championship with San Antonio in 2014.
Jeremy Lin wasn’t there for much time either, averaging 18 points per game, 4.4 assists, 5.8 rebounds, and a little over two steals a game in just 20 games for the Reno Bighorns, before becoming a cultural sensation in the NBA, which was called Linsanity.
“Jeremy Lin is probably one of the best examples of the potential of development in the G League,” explained Santos. “After being drafted by the Warriors, he was sent down to the Bighorns and I believe it made him a much better player.”
Santos pointed out that around 45% of current NBA players spent some sort of time in the developmental league before their call-up.
Before Santos, the Reno Bighorns were affiliated with multiple NBA Teams such as: the Golden State Warriors, Utah Jazz, New York Knicks, Atlanta Hawks, Orlando Magic, Memphis Grizzlies and Sacramento Kings. Without a full partnership between the Bighorns and an NBA team, the only thing tying the Bighorns to those teams was the fact that those teams were the only ones allowed to call up Bighorn players.
Moving into the Realm of the Sacramento Kings
Santos was eventually able to obtain a full partnership with the Sacramento Kings and this initially provided the Bighorns with more money, more exposure, and an opportunity to work closely with one professional organization. This also enabled the Kings to have a better opportunity to obtain players outside of the draft and free agency. The plan was to keep the team in Reno for a number of years before looking for a new location.
Eventually, the Sacramento Kings elected to obtain full ownership of the Reno Bighorns.
“At first we did what’s called a hybrid,” says Santos. “I was still the majority owner, but the Kings handled all basketball operations. And then from there we realized it was a good match, and negotiated a purchase from the Kings for the team.”
Santos no longer holds any sort of management role with the team, but helps in more of an advisory fashion… providing insight to those once in his position.
“My role now is basically as an advisory role to, you know, provide the team with insight, provide them with, you know, things that worked for us, things that didn’t work. Help them not to reinvent the wheel and try to make it as successful as we can for the business side.”
As part of the changes, the team abruptly moved to Stockton, California in October of 2018. The team was formally rebranded as the Stockton Kings.
It was the end of a decade-long chapter. In 10 years as the Reno Bighorns, they finished with an overall record of 254–246 (win pct 50.8%). They made the playoffs five separate times (2009–10, 2010–11, 2013–14, 2015–16, 2017–18) and managed to reach the conference finals once in 2018.
Between visiting the Children’s Hospital many times, bringing students of all ages to games, providing internships and jobs for many local marketing students, and producing quality NBA talent, the Reno Bighorns left a lasting legacy of how an organization should be run and connected to the community.