Spouted by Spike Lee and less-well-known fans alike, courtside trash talk is a fixture of U.S. professional basketball. But as Greece resident James Schutz has learned, when hoops vitriol goes online, it can be costly.
Schutz was hit in late July with an $80,000 judgment over comments he was accused of making about the Premier Basketball League Inc. on a sports fan website. Agreeing to a judgment proposed by the PBL's lawyer, U.S. District Judge James Zagel approved a $30,000 penalty for defamation and two other counts the league accused Schutz of in a civil suit and added $50,000 in punitive damages.
According to a PBL complaint filed in the Northern District of Illinois last November, Schutz used the screen name Buffal00 Sports Fan to post multiple messages on the OurSportsCentral.com website that falsely accused the league of fixing a championship tournament and delivering the 2011 league title to the Rochester RazorSharks.
The RazorSharks are partly owned by PBL chairman Severko Hrywnak M.D., owner of a Chicago-area surgical hospital. The team is managed by Hrywnak's brother, Orest Hrywnak, a local resident and the RazorSharks' co-owner.
The RazorSharks have won four league titles in six seasons of play. Three of their championships came since the Hrywnaks pulled the team from its original league, the American Basketball Association, in 2005 to form and join the eight-team Premier Basketball League.
According to the league's lawsuit, Schutz posted online jibes including one calling the PBL "nothing more than a scam" and another insinuating that the league's 2011 tournament might have been "the biggest game fix in pro sports finals history."
"Face it," said another post. "The PBL fixed games and they will never overcome that. EVERY team in the PBL said they fixed games and they all quit because of it. The stats prove they fixed the games."
The lawsuit quotes eight similar PBL-disparaging messages allegedly posted by Schutz on the fan site.
"Sev should have thought twice about running a fixed league for the Rochester team he owns. We found out 'Doc' had ZERO integrity and continued to fix the championship for Rochester instead of (listening) to the other PBL teams begging him to stop," posts stated, in apparent reference to Severko Hrywnak.
Hrywnak said he was not previously acquainted with Schutz and had no knowledge of him beyond the postings. The PBL chairman referred further questions to league attorney Arthur Radke of Robbins, Salomon & Patt Ltd. in Chicago, who referred a reporter to court filings in the case.
"As a direct result of these defamatory statements, PBL has lost potential investors in certain existing and potential team franchises and the league itself has spent employee time in countering the false statements and has incurred legal fees to remedy the situation," Radke stated in a brief.
At the time he allegedly wrote the offending posts, a period that roughly coincided with the PBL's playoffs in April 2011, Schutz owned and ran the Atlantic Coast Professional Basketball League.
Schutz took over the ACPBL from a previous owner several years ago and ran it until December 2011, said Brian Graham, the league's current owner. Graham is a real estate broker in Brooklyn.
Though he did not voice surprise that Schutz had been accused of defaming the PBL, Graham spoke no ill of Schutz, who, he said, seemed motivated by love of basketball.
Graham lavishly praised the RazorSharks and the PBL as well-run in a minor-league basketball industry where standards are not always as high as he would like: "We're small; the PBL is awesome."
Graham became acquainted with Schutz after the team he owns, the NYC 524, joined the ACPBL during its 2011 season. Describing himself as a church-attending family man, Graham said he believed Schutz was overburdened with the responsibilities of running the ACPBL and had decided to turn the league over to him as a kindred soul who shared similar values.
Schutz transferred the league to him in December, asking for no money, Graham said. Graham is planning to legally reincorporate the ACPBL under a new name, the American Professional Basketball League. He described the planned reincorporation and name switch as a precaution to avoid liabilities. He was aware of no liabilities but said he did not want to take unnecessary chances.
He supplied a Dec. 26 email Schutz sent to ACPBL members to explain his sudden departure. It paints a picture of a man under considerable stress.
"I have been without health insurance for 24 months now," Schutz wrote in the email. "I have had a part-time job that I have been doing (along) with working for the ACPBL. The company recently offered me full-time status that comes along with medical, dental, vision and retirement, but is contingent on me working 40-55 hours per week, all at various hours, including weekends and during game times. With this new current work schedule and a infant son, it has taken me until today to send in the box scores and player of the week from December 17/18. That is not me, or what the ACPBL is about, and you all deserve better (than) that."
It is not clear why Schutz never answered the PBL lawsuit.
A process server swore in an affidavit that she personally had served Schutz with a notice of the federal court action, handing him court papers last November at his home on Paddy Hill Drive in Greece.
Asked about the PBL suit in a phone interview this week, Schutz said he had no knowledge of the case or the $80,000 judgment, which was filed in the Chicago federal court July 31 and memorialized in the Rochester federal court Aug. 20.
The interview ended when the line suddenly went dead after Schutz was asked about the process server's affidavit. He did not respond to a subsequent voicemail message.
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