BAKERSFIELD, Calif. -- During a recent game, the whistle blew and the referee signaled, "Timeout Bakersfield.''
Coaches and players on the homestanding Bakersfield Jam looked around in confusion. They didn't believe they had called a timeout.
No, they hadn't.
"A fan yelled 'timeout,' and the ref granted it,'' said Will Voight, coach of the D-League's Jam. "That was a funny moment that typifies this crowd setting. They stopped play, but then when we explained we didn't call (the timeout), they put the ball back in play.''
The team, you see, plays home games at the Jam Events Center, which is the team's practice facility. Capacity is 420, and each box score this season has "(Sellout)'' written following that number.
Fans are right on top of the action. Sometimes too close. When Voight really does call a timeout, he's had to move his strategy sessions farther from the bench and onto the court so fans won't be sticking their heads in the huddle.
There's not a bad seat in the house. Fan Ryan Kuhns told his wife, Shannon, she was "liable to have a player in (her) lap'' if she didn't stop texting from her courtside seat and start paying more attention to the game.
"You feel like Jack Nicholson watching a Lakers game,'' onlooker Larry Reider said at a recent game.
It sounds great. Step right up and watch future NBA players from such a close vantage point you can see their beads of sweat and hear their sneakers squeak.
But there is a catch.
Want a courtside seat to see the Jam play? You have to buy a season ticket for the Jam's 25 home games for $4,000 apiece, and a minimum of two must be purchased.
There are other options, but we're not exactly talking standing room here. There are no single-game tickets available for sale.
A group can buy a table of six situated just above the courtside seats for $20,000 for the season. Or one can buy a loft beyond the baseline, which generally seats 12 and has a well-stocked mini-bar, for $40,000.
It's basketball for the elite. A dinner is served to each ticket holder before the game. Four girls take drink and refreshment orders at seats during games. The women's bathroom has granite counters, and looks straight out of the Ritz-Carlton.
Want to take a break during the game? There's a cigar room, which has plush leather seats and televisions for which to continue to follow the game.
But all of this luxury actually came out of survival for the Jam to exist.
For the previous three seasons, the Jam played at 10,000-seat Rabobank Arena in downtown Bakersfield. Even when the Jam drew a good crowd, the arena, cavernous by D-League standards, looked empty.
"We spent $80,000 to $100,000 a year in advertising. We gave away thousands and thousands of tickets and we could not get people to a game,'' said Jam owner Stan Ellis, 57, a chemical process engineer who owns several local businesses. "We scraped and we tried. We tried the million-dollar basketball shot. We did all those promos for radio stations with free tickets, and we could not get people to a game.''
The Jam averaged 2,100 fans last season, with the bulk of tickets selling for $7 apiece. But Jam officials are quick to point out many of the tickets had been given away.
With the economy in bad shape, it got so bad last summer the Jam announced the team would be folding. But a call came from D-League president Dan Reed to see if there was anything that could be done to keep the Jam afloat.
Suddenly, Ellis got an idea. He already had started construction of a practice facility. What if the Jam played there?
D-League officials were receptive. So Ellis, with assistance from his right-hand man, managing partner David Higdon, began to come up with a plan that would primarily cater to business clientele.
The practice facility, which was just a shell at the time, was configured to hold fans. Four elevated luxury lofts were built at one end and a bar area, where the pre-game dinner is served, at the other. The Jam bought chairs from last year's Final Four at Detroit's Ford Field that read on the each back they are indeed from the 2009 NCAA tournament.
Ellis said he can fit 696 fans into Jam Events Center, and that might be the case in a year or two. But for now he wants to keep the capacity lower in order to create more of a demand.
"Our business model is focused on businesses,'' said Ellis, who owns 93.5 percent of the team to 5 percent for Higdon and 1.5 for Los Angeles businessman Steve Chase. "We've got everything from a jewelry company to farming companies, a tire company. The list goes on. We're doing business and then a basketball game breaks out.''
Ellis doesn't deny it's a "gimmick.'' But it's one that could result in the Jam coming close to breaking even or making a small profit this season after it had been losing a million bucks a year.
Ellis, who paid $2 million to build the practice facility, said he began the season already $500,000 ahead due to not having to pay the $250,000 annual rent on Rabobank Arena and for saving $250,000 annually in expenses related to advertising and for having staff members sell tickets and for game-day operations.
"This could change the whole concept of minor-league basketball,'' said Chase, who was involved in business operations for 20 years for the Los Angeles Lakers and has worked in minor-league ball the past decade. "The problem is that expenses are so great and minor-league basketball is a tough sell because you have instability on your roster. You can't sell the players because, if you do your job, they're in the NBA and they don't come back.''
At Rabobank, it was extremely hard to sell season tickets because fans knew they could walk up for any game and get a good seat. But at the Jam Events Center, so far Higdon says three of the four lofts have been sold, 10 of the 14 floor tables, known as executive suites, and 84 of the 120 courtside seats, which adds up to $656,000 in revenue.
So now many of Bakersfield's top business leaders have a place to hang out that's not unlike a country-club atmosphere.
"Here everybody is in the club room,'' Susan Ferguson said from one of two courtside seats bought along with her husband Stan, who comprise The Ferguson Group real estate agency.
With packages sold, fans can get discounts on golf outings and to major pro sporting events, including Lakers and Clippers games two hours down the road in Los Angeles. Those in courtside seats can get 25 percent off tickets, executive suite holders 50 percent and those in lofts free tickets.
"Teams have made inquires,'' Higdon said of this concept possibly catching on in other D-League cities, saying four to five teams have sent top officials to look at the Jam Events Center. "I don't know if they'd want us to tell them who them are, but I guess one that is probably on the record looking to do something (similar) is Fort Wayne.''
With not every seat sold for the season and with the ability to place more than 100 in the bar area, the Jam uses available seats on a per-game basis to court potential clients, and Higdon said 50 go each game to underprivileged youths. With the vast majority of the season over, the Jam is willing to sell packages on a prorated basis.
But at the start of the season the price was $4,000 apiece for a courtside seat. If you're doing the math, that's an average of $160 per game, which makes many NBA tickets look cheap by comparison.
Kuhns, 32, who owns two companies in Bakersfield, admits he had to think long and hard about putting down that kind of cash.
"When I got my price tag, it was definitely something that I was like, 'Wow, elite basketball. That seems like a lot of money,''' said Kuhns, while puffing away in the cigar room during a recent game with Travis Ellis, 32, who also owns two local businesses and went in on an executive suite. "But I said, 'OK, let's do it.' I went in with my dad (Don). I came in very pessimistic. But then you see all the other business people here. Once you experience it, then you get it.''
Kuhns and Ellis both called it an ideal environment to entertain business clients, much like taking them golfing. And you can't beat the view.
"You're so close you literally have to watch your feet when the players come down the floor,'' Kuhns said.
The players don't seem to mind. Many say it's refreshing to play in such an intimate environment, one in which 420 fans sometimes can feel louder than 4,200 in Rabobank, which wouldn't even half fill the place.
"It's a good homey feel,'' said Blake Ahearn, a three-year D-League guard traded Tuesday by Bakersfield to Erie who had played against the Jam at Rabobank. "I think the whole point of this style is you're not going to get that many people but you're going to get that frenzied environment right around the court.''
And, yes, the fans are right around the court.
"Sometimes, when you take the ball out, that's a distraction because the fans are right there on the floor,'' Albuquerque guard Keith McLeod said after a recent loss to the Jam. "But it's great for the home team. I wouldn't mind playing here.''
Jam guard Jeremy Wise said, "You can hear everything the fans say.'' He admitted he couldn't keep from laughing when some fans earlier this season were yelling "Mickey Mouse'' to Los Angeles D-Fenders guard Joe Crawford, an apparent reference to his ears.
"You'll hear the good and the bad from fans,'' said Voight, who has heard some bad since his Jam, hampered by having no returning players this season, are just 10-27. "You've got people sitting directly behind the bench, and sometimes, when you're not playing well, they'll tell you. But I don't look at that as a negative. Sometimes that reinforces what I've been saying (to the players). There hasn't been any moment I wish we were playing in a big arena.''
What Voight also really likes is the team having its own practice facility. While the D-Fenders have a facility they share with the parent Lakers, the Jam is the only D-League team with its own.
Players can work out whenever they want. A building next door houses weight equipment for the team and even a steam room.
To further boost revenue, the team rents out the practice facility for $10,000 for corporate outings. And, with the Jam wanting to give back to the community, classrooms are being built in the facility for an after-school program, which will be coordinated by Reider and help at-risk students in the Bakersfield area.
"I think it's really neat what they've done,'' said Denver Nuggets vice president of basketball operations Mark Warkentien, the 2008-09 NBA Executive of the Year who scouted a recent game at the Jam Events Center. "With the economic downturn, rather than surrendering, these folks attacked the problem and saw opportunity.''
If there's one drawback to the concept, it's that the average fan can be shut out from attending games. But it's open for debate how much of a drawback that is.
"When we came over here, we said, 'Are we going to catch any flak? Are we elitist?''' Ellis said. "You know what, we have had not had one complaint. We've had maybe a dozen (people show up for games without tickets) since we started, and we let them in for free and let them have dinner.''
The Jam has invited back some former season ticket holders who can't afford the new prices to see some games. The team also has had brought in high school teams.
"They tried it the other way and it didn't work,'' said Eric Jones, manager of Tire Empire, which bought one of the lofts. "So why not try something else? The team wouldn't even be (in Bakersfield) anymore if it wasn't for the smaller venue. The bigger venue wouldn't support it.''
For fans who really want to see a Bakersfield game this season and can't get into the Jam Events Center, on March 13 the team will play its one game of the season at Rabobank. That would be the place Reider said has had the atmosphere of "a pea rattling around a barrel.''
Ferguson spoke while sitting courtside in one of the best seats in the house. But, no, he didn't call any timeouts.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @christomasson