Hoop dream

For owner, players, team represents opportunity

  • Ron Moore coaches the Maryland Marvels, a minor league team that will play its first game tonight at Severn School.
Ron Moore coaches the Maryland Marvels, a minor league team… (Baltimore Sun photo by Gene…)
November 29, 2009|By Jonathan Pitts

The point guard makes a low, controlled dribble, buying time as two defenders move in tight with their hands.

Then Rogers Barnes, a former Morgan State star, jerks upright, lobs a pass to the far edge of the backboard, and watches as a 6-foot-7 teammate, Curtis Massey, takes the red-white-and-blue basketball on his fingertips, drops it through the net and circles back to the floor, clapping.

It's just a moment during practice for the Maryland Marvels, the newest pro basketball team in the state, but for owner James Agbai - whose newly minted squad plays its first-ever game at the Severn School in Severna Park tonight- things seem to be coming together like a well-timed play in the paint.

"I'm so pleased," says Agbai, 32, who bought the rights to the American Basketball Association franchise for $20,000 last year and is "working double overtime" to get things ready for opening tipoff. "The Marvels will feature athleticism. Not street ball, not just playing for its own sake. We'll be about athleticism with a purpose."

Wherever they finish in the minor league ABA standings, the Marvels already seem an extension of their owner, an upbeat Laurel businessman-entrepreneur with degrees in engineering and business, a "total willingness to make a fool of myself" and a bigger goal: making sure the Marvels do things the right way on and off the court.

"Why am I doing it? We're going to positively infect people," he says.

He predicts a division title, and as practice unfolds, you half believe him. His coaches - Ron Moore, an ex- NBA center, and Kevin McDuffie, a veteran of the European pros - bark instructions. Sneakers squeak as the players run their "suicides," finish drills, work on defensive moves.

On the sidelines, Agbai, in dress shirt and tie, keeps a running commentary on his players, a speedy mix of rec-league superstars and ex-college starters, all of whom still have to keep their day jobs.

But his eyes are everywhere, and he doesn't miss a chance. He spots three teenagers near the entrance, watching quizzically.

"I'm James," he says, extending a hand and slipping them a pocket schedule. "Our first game is Sunday at 5:06. It's going to be serious fun."

Heroes
James Agbai grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., the eldest child of a car salesman father and a social-worker mother. He remembers there were always people in the house. "My mother worked with the homeless in New York City for [decades]," he says. "Anybody and everybody was welcome at meals in our home. That's just the way it was."

He loved Knicks star Patrick Ewing and, of course, Michael Jordan. Like many kids, he was keen on playing pro ball someday.

But his parents gave him perspective. "I had to do my homework before I could play ball," says Agbai, who describes himself as a straight-A student. "I was one of those cool nerds, just big and good enough to make the team. It was hard to make too much fun of me."

The University of Vermont offered him a full scholarship and a liberating truth. At freshman tryouts, he learned he didn't have what it takes to play college ball. Agbai settled for an electrical engineering degree, selling Amway products on the side.

Verizon hired him as a project manager on FiOS accounts, transferring him to Maryland in 2005. But his mother, Grace, died not long afterward, and then his marriage collapsed.

It was the hardest time of his life, Agbai says. But hoops "realigned" him.

Baltimore-area basketball, he says, was marked by excellent but rugged play. He sensed a need for a league in which the games and language were clean. Drawing on a talent for bringing people together, he founded the Stembridge Adult Basketball League, a rec league in Essex.

He started with four teams in 2006. Now there are 16. Slots fill up in fewer than two hours on signup day, and as many as 200 spectators, including kids and grandmothers, are known to attend games.

One player, a man from Prince George's County, told Agbai a story. The man's son had watched a game and afterward told his father, "Dad, when you're out there, I forget about LeBron. You're my hero."

"Want to know why I do basketball?" Agbai says with a shrug. "That's why."

Movement
Watching his league's games convinced Agbai there was another need. There are many more talented players in the state than can possibly find basketball jobs. "They need a Plan B," he says. A friend, ex- Utah Jazz player Corey Crowder, told him about the American Basketball Association, a minor pro league founded in 2000 by sports impresario Dan Newman, and a vision for the Marvels started taking shape.

The league's results have been mixed. Newman has granted franchises from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Bellingham, Wash., and the ABA has seen more than 50 teams fold, according to the Los Angeles Times. But as the 2009-2010 season begins, 56 teams in eight divisions are scheduled to take the floor, from the Seattle Zhen Gan in the Northwest Division to the Bahama All-Pro Show in the Southeast Division.

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