In 1989-90, the then-new Sioux Falls Skyforce franchise was playing games against the likes of the Rapid City Thrillers, Omaha Racers, or even the Cedar Rapids Silver Bullets in the Continental Basketball Association.
And now – in 2023-24, the team is owned and operated by the Miami HEAT and sending players up-and-down to the NBA in the NBA G League, which sits at 31 teams.
Much has changed over 35 years in professional basketball and in the city of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. However, there has been one consistent in an ever-changing world: the Sioux Falls Skyforce.
“It’s crazy, I never really thought that far ahead of what this could look like,” longtime Skyforce owner Greg Heineman said. “Back then, it was local town, local basketball. It is crazy to see the transformation from that to a few years ago. The HEAT had all five players on the court that spent time in Sioux Falls. We have come a long way. Through it all, we wouldn’t be here without the fans in the stands.”
To be the longest running minor league basketball team on the continent means you’ve battled through adversity time after time. The organization has made it through the toughest of times – ownership changes, new leagues, realignment, and even a pandemic.
“We have the best fan base for minor league basketball. They truly have carried us,” Heineman noted about how the Skyforce has been around for 35 years. “We’ve always had a great front office staff that has worked hard to sell our product. But not only that, our fans care about the team, organization and what we have stood for. We have survived some hard times, even recently. But without the dedicated fans and great staffs throughout the years, none of this happens.”
Being an event, not just a basketball game, is another reason Heineman feels the organization has been in the community for 35 years.
“People have come to our games for different reasons,” he said. “Kids come because they want to see the action and the players. Parents come because they want their kids to have a great time. We have some basketball fans, and some who just want to be entertained. Everyone loves a great halftime show.”
For Heineman, who helped guide the Force through many uncertainties, his initial purchase of the team in the early 1990’s was about the community – and keeping a ‘good thing’ in the city.
“We wanted to keep the Skyforce in Sioux Falls, plain and simple,” he recalled. “I had a few good friends and business associates approach me about going in with them on the team. We had nothing like it in the city before and we felt the community really needed to continue to have a professional basketball team in town.”
The Skyforce was a mainstay in the CBA playoffs, and one of the best run organizations in the entire league. The team went on to make nine CBA playoff appearances (six in a row from 1994-2000) and win two league championships (1995-96 and 2004-05).
“We take care of our players and coaches, then and now. But also, guys like playing in front of fans, and we’ve had great crowds throughout the years,” Heineman said. “Those are big reasons why Miami and Sioux Falls were so compatible (before the single affiliation). “
In 2006-07, the late David Stern (former NBA Commissioner) reached out to Heineman and the Skyforce joined the NBA G League. A league officially affiliated with the NBA completely changed the landscape – and created a true pipeline from the major-to-minor leagues.
“The level of competition, without a doubt, was the biggest change and adjustment for us,” Heineman said. “I don’t think players from the teams in the 90’s would be able to make a roster spot today. That is not a knock on any of those guys. It is just how the game has developed and is now played at a much faster pace.”
Sioux Falls has been an affiliate of the Detroit Pistons, Minnesota Timberwolves, Charlotte Bobcats, Miami HEAT, Orlando Magic and Philadelphia 76ers in different seasons from 2006-2013. Then in June of 2013, as many NBA teams were honing in on one G League team, the HEAT entered a single affiliation partnership.
“Our cultures match up well, almost identical,” said Heineman. “The Arison’s and Heineman’s have a lot of the same family ideals of how to treat employees, staff, players, fans, and business partners. The number of similarities is crazy, but that is what has made it such a fit and made that transition of being their affiliate so easy. There weren’t many changes because of how compatible we are.”
Since becoming the HEAT’s affiliate, the Skyforce has continued its winning ways, with four playoff appearances in eight full seasons (Sioux Falls was in play to make the playoffs in 2019-20 before the season was canceled – and opted out of the 2020-21 G League Bubble).
“The HEAT has truly embraced and invested in us and brought some excellent talent,” Heineman said. “Along with a shared philosophy and belief in the culture that’s been built. When you invest in those things, players and coaches will want to come.”
Heineman feels the Skyforce is in the best spot yet, and the future of the organization and G League is something to feel excited about.
“Between the HEAT and the Skyforce organizations, we will do everything to continue to make it the best experience in town,” he said. “The future is only up from here, especially with how the G League is changing for the better. The more NBA teams invest in the G League, the better it is for everyone. Each year, the talent, resources and attention get better, and more players choose the G League. It’s exciting to think about what the future holds for the organization.”