East Tennessee has a rich and storied history with local sports teams. Organizations like the Knoxville Ice Bears and Tennessee Smokies have become mainstays in our area. However, there have been a multitude of franchises that only spent "a cup of coffee" in Knoxville before dissolving and being forgotten.
Semi-Pro Basketball: American Basketball Association
“More than just a game.” This was the tagline of the newly revamped American Basketball Association in 1999, and by 2006, the ABA made its way to K-town.
Owners of the new team initially held a contest for its name with options such as the Tennessee Twisters or Knoxville Pros, but the Knoxville Noise was the overwhelming favorite with 82% of the fan vote.
The Noise debuted on their home court at Catholic High School in November 2006 with a 134-125 victory over the Tennessee Mudfrogs.
Unfortunately, the crowd was sparse with only about 150 fans in attendance.
The fledgling team tried to boost these numbers by offering the chance to be the team’s 13th man, giving away prizes, and even holding an autograph signing with local reality show star and Flavor of Love Season 1 winner, Hoopz.
None of these tactics were enough to keep the team around.
By the end of their first season, the Noise played a total of just 12 games with only a few being held at home.
In January 2007, the Noise made its intentions known to drop its affiliation with the ABA and make the move to the World Basketball Association. The move never happened and the Knoxville Noise faded into the ether.
The following year, it was announced that the ABA would try its hand once again in the Scruffy City, this time with the Knoxville Storm.
By the time they tipped off in November, the team’s name had been changed to the Knoxville Thunderbolts, and they made it all the way to the ABA playoffs in March before being ousted in the first round by the Texas Mustangs.
By May, the Thunderbolts were under new ownership, relocated to a new city and had another new name.
The team would be known as the Smoky Mountain Jam and was funded by Harlem Globetrotters legend Meadowlark Lemon. The Jam was initially set to play its home games at Maryville College before plans fell through and the decision was made to play in Pigeon Forge.
Lemon vowed his new team would channel their inner Globetrotter and focus on the family-friendly aspects of the game.
“This will be for families. Some of the big teams in other leagues are not family oriented. I think this is what we want to do here is bring families back together again,” Lemon said.
Unfortunately, Lemon withdrew from the organization due to health reasons.
After his departure, other investors left, and after their first two games were postponed indefinitely, the Jam never recovered and went the way of the Knoxville Noise before their first tip-off had even occurred.
Tennessee ThunderCats: Indoor Football
November 14, 2000. The Women’s Basketball Hall Of Fame welcomed the arrival of George Lemon: son of Harlem Globetrotters legend Meadowlark, and owner of Knoxville’s newest professional sports team, the Indoor Professional Football League’s Tennessee ThunderCats.
The franchise previously played in Topeka, Kansas as the Kings, but Lemon moved the team to Knoxville because he felt that quote, ‘Knoxville was the number 1 football market in the country.”
Expectations were high for the new team, and a month later, the ThunderCats had their first big signing of former UT Vols quarterback Sterling Henton.
Early the next year, the T-Cats, as they came to be known, held their first public tryouts. Hundreds of potential players came out to get a taste of the gridiron.
Only a lucky few out of hundreds would make up the ThunderCats’ squad of 30 and would only be paid $200-$300 for each of the season’s 16 games.
The T-Cats inaugural season kicked off on Friday, April 13, 2001, at the Knoxville Civic Coliseum, against the Trenton Lighting. Just hours before the first snap, quarterback Sterling Henton turned himself in to authorities after learning he was wanted for allegedly failing to pay child support.
This left the offense in the hands of stand-in Derrick Brown. The more than 2,500 fans on hand witnessed Brown lead the T-Cats to a 52-25 victory.
The ThunderCats’ season rolled on, and by August, they were 11-4 and found themselves in the IPFL championship game against the 15-1 Omaha Beef.
The Beef proved worthy adversaries during the regular season, besting the T-Cats on three occasions, but Tennessee handed their bovine brethren their only loss of the season the month prior.
The ThunderCats came back from an 11-point halftime deficit to best the Beef and bring home the IPFL championship in their very first season.
As George Lemon celebrated with his team, it seemed the ThunderCats dynasty had just begun in Knoxville.
Their second season, however, seemed it was plagued from the offset.
During the off-season, the IPFL folded and the ThunderCats joined the 25-team National Indoor Football League. Attendance dwindled from around 4,000 to only around 1,000.
On top of that, financial issues within the organization led to a revolt by players against George Lemon over not being paid. The fallout led to Lemon’s exit from the team.
Off-the-field drama aside, the team was solid on the field and made it all the way to the conference championship game before being ousted by the Ohio Valley Greyhounds.
The T-Cats finished their second season 11-5, and in October 2002, it was announced that the ThunderCats organization would be dissolved to make way for a new NIFL team named the Tennessee RiverHawks.
Things for the RiverHawks started off promising enough with the hiring of former UT Vol quarterback Heath Shuler as head coach, but by the third game of the season, Shuler either quit or was fired depending on who you ask.
The RiverHawks were up the creek without a paddle by the end of the season, relocating to Greenville, South Carolina.
It would be nearly a decade before Knoxville saw another indoor football team. In 2011, the Knoxville Nighthawks began their 2-year stay in the city and ended their time here finishing dead last in both seasons, with a combined record of a dismal three wins and 21 losses.
Manon Rheaume: Knoxville Cherokees
History was made on September 23, 1992, when Tampa Bay Lightning goalie, Manon Rheaume became the first woman to play in a major professional sports league.
She spent 20 minutes in the net, stopping seven out of nine shots that came her way.
“I can skate, and I can stop some pucks, that’s why I decided to come here. I didn’t do this to be the first woman, I do this because I love hockey, and I want to go higher. If I don’t come here to try, I won’t know what I can do,” Rheaume said.
Manon signed a three-year contract with Tampa Bay, and a year later, after playing two games with the Lightning-affiliated Atlanta Knights, Rheaume was sent a few hours north to play for the Knoxville Cherokees.
After a disappointing season of only 19 wins, the Cherokees hoped Rheaume would boost not only their number of victories but their dwindling attendance as well. However, head coach Barry Smith made it clear that Manon would have to earn her spot between the pipes.
“I’m willing to work with her in practices and game conditions to try to improve her, just like I am with any of the other contract players that come down. I’m not going to treat her any differently and I don’t think she wants to be treated any differently,” Smith said.
With only two weeks to go before the start of the season, it was time to get down to business, and Rheaume was feeling right at home with her new team.
“The guys are great. I have no problem with the guys here. They talk to me and accept me and it’s fun. I really like the team here," Rheaume said.
On November 6, 1993, Rheaume made her debut, starting the game against the Johnstown Chiefs. The Knoxville Cherokees set their all-time attendance record with a sold-out crowd of 4,805 fans, and Manon received a standing ovation when she took the ice.
She stopped 32 of 38 shots and helped the ‘Kees snap a three-game losing streak with a 9-6 victory.
Rheaume made her second start for Knoxville on November 24th against the Huntington Blizzard. She had another stellar game, stopping 25 shots and almost recording a shutout in the Cherokees’ 8-1 victory.
By February, Manon had played four games for Knoxville, winning or tying everyone, but on her 22nd birthday, she was gifted with a new team.
Tampa Bay management felt her talent could be used elsewhere and transferred her to their other Knights franchise in Nashville. The move was bittersweet.
“I find it hard to leave here because the people here are nice. The city, everybody here was nice to me. What’s going to be hard for me the rest of the year is to leave because I really like it here,” Rheaume said.
As fate would have it, Manon’s first game in a Nashville uniform was against the Cherokees. She must not have missed Knoxville too much, as she made 39 saves en route to a 6-5 overtime victory against her former team.