- - Thursday, November 10, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION

I went to the home opener of the local professional basketball team last week, and it was great.

The place was rocking and the team, though they lost, played with heart and determination.

No, it wasn’t the Washington Wizards at the Verizon Center.

I sat courtside for the first home game of the Prince George’s Valor — the new entry into the basketball minor league known as the American Basketball Association — at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, Maryland, and saw an atmosphere that was loud and exciting.



Fans filled the gym and were standing and wildly cheering for this team they had never seen before, as the Valor — not the Washington Valor, Ted Leonsis’ entry into arena football that may not have a league to play in by the time they make their debut in 2017 — but the Prince George’s Valor fought their way back from a 20-point deficit to nearly defeat the Fredericksburg Grizzlies in a 132-128 entertaining loss.

“That was real magical,” said guard Benjamin Cumbo, Jr., 26, a former junior college player from Landover, Maryland, who, like most in the league, are hoping for a chance at the next level — playing overseas or an NBA Development League team. “Even though we lost it felt like we won. The energy in that building was absolutely ridiculous. We showed heart and fought back. Because of that game I think we are going to have a great season.”

They had only opened half the bleacher seats in the high school gym, but all those seats were filled — many with families with young children — and it was as much fun as I’ve seen people have at a professional sporting event in this area since I can remember, and all for $5 admission. Their next home game is Nov. 19 against the Virginia Storm. You can find out more by going to their website www.pgvalor.com.

I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for minor league sports, particularly the ones that operate without a net — the independent, entrepreneur enterprises. They often have the best entertainment value, particularly for families, and are built on people following dreams.

The Prince George’s Valor are the dream of LaDonna Smith, an author who parlayed her books on marriage and relationships into putting up the money for an ABA franchise.

“I was working with the former Baltimore Pearls team in the ABA,” she said. “The owner wasn’t going out and being very aggressive in marketing the team. Nothing was manifesting. So I left and moved back to Prince George’s County. I kept calling the owner to see if I could buy the team. I got no response. And no response from the ABA.

“Last year while watching the NBA finals, I decided to try to get Joe Newman (the owner of the league) on the phone and said I wanted to pursue my dream. After two hours, he said, ‘LaDonna, I am confident you can do this.’ He sent me the contracts, I looked them over. I signed it, and now I own the market for Prince George’s County.”

She has no basketball background, other than growing up in a family where brothers played. But this has been her dream — like it has been for Charles Pickard II to be a professional basketball coach.

“My main objective is to be a professional coach,” said Pickard, a former women’s small college and men’s high school assistant coach who got the job coaching the Valor through LinkedIn. “l am not looking to stop here. I want to go further.

“I am 38 years old,” he said. “That is why we are here. You get a lot of second chance opportunities in the ABA.”

That’s what makes it so much fun — the atmosphere of opportunity. They play a 21-game home schedule in the ABA — yes, the same name as the legendary maverick league from decades ago where such stars as Julius Erving played. Businessman Joe Newman revived the name, and the current lower-level version of the league, in 1999. And yes, they use the old ABA red, white and blue basketball.

The league has 104 teams in 12 divisions. The Valor play in the Chesapeake Division. Players can make from $100 to $500 a game.

Smith said they will have a vendor’s market in the lobby of the gym before games, which on opening night included clothing and jewelry sellers and the nonprofit Hepatitis Foundation, which handed out thunder sticks to the crowd. Sponsors include Broadwater Bail Bonds.

Things were a little shaky on opening night. Smith hoped to have a dance team. But on this night, it consisted of kids pulled out of the crowd. They had to find someone to use the sweeper to keep the floor dry under the basket. But as far as opening nights go for a small time professional sports endeavor, it was a rousing success.

“The Prince George’s community really showed us some love,” said Ricky Branham, 31, a District native and former Northeastern State player who heard about Valor tryouts through social media. “I think this is a great opportunity for me.”

It’s the stuff that dreams are made of.

Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes and Google Play.

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