Midtown: Community

Bringing hoops to Midtown

Hey, basketball fans, there’s no need for the jitters when the final buzzer sounds on college basketball tomorrow night. Your love affair with the round ball can continue right here in Midtown.

That’s right, folks. We no longer have to drive south to Charlotte or north to D.C. for post-Final Four action.

Meet the Raleigh RoughRiders, our very own semi-pro team, courtesy of the Florida-based Continental Basketball League and T.L. Ricks, owner of Summit Entertainment and Sports Group, LLC on Wake Forest Road.

And, also thanks to Ricks, there’s a nearby rival: the Garner GrayHawks begin play this season. The duo are joining CBL teams in Durham, Fayetteville and Charlotte.

The RoughRiders and the GrayHawks will compete May 4 in a season opener for both teams. Tipoff is 5 p.m. at The Dream Center at 5616 Fox Road, giving the RoughRiders a slight home court advantage. The GrayHawks’ home court is the J.D. Lewis Center on Garner Road.

Ricks acquired the RoughRiders for the 2012 season and bought the rights to the GrayHawks this year. Player contract negotiations are underway, he said.

Ricks isn’t a former jock hanging on to the glory days. He’s a businessman.

“Our footprint is to be the community basketball team,” said Ricks, a native of Milwaukee, Wis. “These teams bring the excitement of quality entertainment – and it’s family fun at an affordable price.

“We connect the sports fan, businesses and the community. We bring them all together in a fun environment.”

Ricks imagines gyms filled with seas of RoughRider black and red and GrayHawks gray and white. “My dream crowd is about 600 to 700 people at the Dream Center,” Ricks said.

Ricks is no newcomer to minor league professional sports. His career in sports marketing began more than a decade ago in St. Louis with the United Basketball League’s St. Louis SkyHawks. He later became a minority owner of the RiverCity Rage, a semi-pro indoor football team in St. Louis.

In 2011, Ricks revisited his sports roots to launch Summit, with blessings and support from his family.

Community ties

The RoughRiders’ and GrayHawks’ nine-man rosters are local recruits of former college players and those who return home on break from professional play abroad.

“When they come home after their season, we invite them to represent Raleigh and play for the RoughRiders and the CBL,” Ricks said.

The new teams offer players a chance to stay connected off-season with home fans and communities. They also stay in shape with competitive play in structured environments. And, since CBL games are May-June only, the same players also are free to compete in area summer leagues.

Ricks relies on Summit’s community connections with local businesses that help feed franchise coffers as team sponsors.

During half-time and timeouts, they run events that are each sponsored by a business and include an element of fan involvement. It could be a free-throw shooting contest or a dribbling race between the youngest of fans. Participants win prizes from sponsors.

Ricks also offers a Charitable Partner Program for local nonprofit organizations. A highlight: the RoughRiders dedicate a game to promote the nonprofit’s cause and give the organization a portion of the game’s proceeds.

Own dance team, mascot

Also unique to the CBL’s Midtown team are the Lady RoughRiders. The nine dancers were recruited locally, too, by coordinator Shanika Rasberry.

Rasberry, who leads a squad of young cheerleaders and dancers at the Carolina Pines Community Center, has danced for four years for various semi-professional football leagues in Raleigh.

“I’ve gotten excited about the basketball league because this is the first time,” Rasberry said. “It’s a big change for us. We always dance for semi-pro football leagues, outside on a big field.

“Now, we’re inside, closer to the crowd. We can really interact with them. We’re going to have fun.”

Easy interaction makes the RoughRiders mascot, Roughie, happy, too.

For 18-year-old Aaliyah Arnold, who doubles as the “lovable brown puppy dog,” it’s only natural.

“I’m a goofy, silly person, but I’m shy,” said Aaliyah, who graduates from Athens Drive High School in January. “In the mascot suit, nobody knows who I am, so I can be silly and goofy.

“I can do things to bring out my inner character that I’m usually too shy to show,” she explained. “He’s an all-around puppy who communicates with everybody.”