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Richmond, meet your new basketball team

on October 12, 2011

Fourteen-year-old Abdul Black loves basketball, but he’s not worried about the NBA lockout. He’s following a different league this season, and he’s already got a favorite player.

“I’m here to see ‘Little Pat,” he says, pointing toward a group of young men gathering at the bar at the Boiler House Restaurant Tuesday night.

You can’t miss them – since, for one thing, they’re taller than everyone in the room. They’re the Richmond Rockets, the city’s new American Basketball Association professional basketball team. Tuesday was their official signing party, and the Boiler House was packed with friends and family.

“We also call him ‘Brother Pat’ just to tease him,” Abdul says. “He goes to our church, Southside Church of Christ.”

Abdul Black (left) came to the Boiler House Restaurant on Tuesday night to cheer on family friend Patrick Mitchell (right). Mitchell, a Richmond native, is playing point guard for the Rockets. (photo by: Mitzi Mock)

A few minutes later ‘Brother Pat,’ or Patrick Mitchell as he’s known on the team, walks over. The new point guard stops to take photos with Abdul and his family.

“I am so excited for my city,” says Mitchell, who was raised in Richmond before leaving to play basketball at Sonoma State. “We can all watch a good brand of basketball and put away our egos, our pride and the violence.”

The Rockets will be playing their home games at the Civic Center Memorial Auditorium. They’ll be facing off against other West Coast ABA teams like the Sacramento Heatwave and the East Bay Pitbulls. The opening home game is November 10, with tickets starting at $10.

The team is made up of players from around the country, as well as a few who’ve been playing abroad. But local fans can look forward to seeing a few familiar faces on the court.

Mitchell and his Rocket teammates Milton Brown and Tita Davis led El Cerrito High School to the North Coast Section Division III championship in 2003.

“It’s a homecoming for me,” Mitchell says.

Davis, a shooting guard, thinks these close ties to the community mean players have an even greater responsibility to reach out to local youth. He spent the morning speaking at a school in Hercules.

“Unlike the NBA, there’s no distance,” says Davis, who was raised in foster care, going between homes in Richmond and Oakland. “Kids can actually get in touch with us.”

There are other differences between the NBA and the ABA. In the latter, players get paid significantly less and the teams have yet to build the the same visibility on the national scene.  But the league is growing in popularity. It’s already the largest professional sports league in the country with more than 80 teams, all of which use a grassroots business model that works closely with local businesses and collaborates with community nonprofits.  In Richmond, the Rockets are partnering with the Police Activities League.

But to coach Lamar Baker all you need to know is that the Rockets are here to entertain—and win.

“A high speed game, in-your-face defense, running up and down the court–that’s what you can expect from the Richmond Rockets,” he says. “It’s a new day in Richmond.”

Besides dancing during games, the Richmond Rockets dance team will appear at promotional events in the community and release a swimsuit calendar in December.

It’s a day that the team’s executives have been looking forward to for a long time.

“It’s a full-circle moment for me,” says owner Eric Marquis. “I’m so excited to finally introduce the team to the public.”

Marice De Los Santos, who does business development work for the team, remembers calling longtime friend and City Councilmember Jovanka Beckles when she first learned the team was coming to Richmond.

“Months ago I called Jovie and said, ‘I know you’re busy, but you’re going to want to call me. It’s about the community and basketball,’” De Los Santos says. “Because in case you didn’t know, Jovanka is an intense basketball player.”

“I told her, ‘You’ve got my full support,’” Beckles says. “This is going to energize the city. There’s not a north, central or south team—just a Richmond team. It will unify us.”

At least for the night, the team has managed to bring together different faces in the city. Councilmembers Beckles, Tom Butt and Corky Booze are making the rounds. City Hall officials and Chamber of Commerce members are here, too.

But Abdul could care less. His eyes are elsewhere.

“I play basketball for Salesian High School,” he says. “Now, I have something to work towards if I want to play professionally. They’re positive role models to look up to. Not everyone has that.”

Mitchell knows it.

“Abdul is watching me,” he says. “It’s going to keep me on my toes.”

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