When Averill “Ace” Pippens received a call about becoming a head coach and general manager of a semi-professional basketball team, he had no hesitation.
“It was a no-brainer,” said Pippens.
Pippens, a coach of local basketball teams for 14 years, said the call came from a former player, about a new team called the Steel City Yellow Jackets.
At the beginning of their inaugural season in 2014, the team was thriving on the court, but struggling financially and threatening to fold. Pippens said he sat down with the team and asked them if they wanted were willing to finish the season without a paycheck. All of the players agreed, telling Pippens they weren’t in it for the money.
“It let me know that we had something special, so I didn’t want to let it go,” said Pippens. “The purpose was for these young men to have an outlet and an opportunity to play basketball after college.”
The team made the playoffs that year, and have made an appearance every season since.
Pittsburgh has had a complicated history with basketball teams. Its professional teams, the Pittsburgh Rens, the Pittsburgh Pipers and the Pittsburgh Condors, never lasted long. Since the 1970s, five semi-professional teams have folded.
All teams struggled with finances in an already saturated Pittsburgh sports market.
Being a semi-professional team isn't easy, either. The American Basketball Association has 100 teams intending to play at least 30 games a season, but fewer than half have the funds to consistently complete their season.
James Sutton, a McKeesport native and assistant coach of the team, said he understands the struggles of semi-pro basketball in Pittsburgh, having played for the most recent failed franchises, the Xplosion and the Phantoms.
“Every [team] has their ups and downs, it is what is,” said Sutton. “It’s a part of business, you go to see how long you can go, and when the well dries up you move on.”
Sutton said he gives advice to the entire team, including his younger brother Matt, a small forward on the Yellow Jackets, about handling life on a semi-professional team.
“You got to work on your game and make sure you stay competitive,” said Sutton. “You need to be professional like any other job you work.”
While the league shares the name of the original ABA, whose first champions where the Pittsburgh Pipers in 1968, the new ABA, founded in 2000, bares little similarity outside of using the iconic red-white-and-blue ball, the league is known for.
To make the game faster and more entertaining for fans, the league has altered its rules from the traditional NBA-style of play. For example, the ABA uses a “three, ten and out” rule for overtime. The teams play a three minute period of overtime, and if the game is still tied, they play until the winning team scores 10 points.
Gerald Brooks, a power forward for the Yellow Jackets, said another change requires players to make it to the offensive side of the court in a quick seven seconds.
“It’s lightning fast, there’s no games, no lollygagging,” said Brooks. “That’s why we run and train so hard in practice, because the game is so fast, scores can be over 120 points every game.”
Brooks calls himself one of the “dogs” due to his play style as an undersized big man. At 6'5" he finds himself going against traditionally taller players at the position of power forward and center. But he said he’s used to tough competition. He’s played alongside former Pitt standout Dejuan Blair at Schenley High School, and with similar undersized bigs at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Slippery Rock, and on a professional team in Ecuador.
“We’ve always been the leading rebounders and the hearts of the team, it’s what I bring to the team every day,” said Brooks.
Brooks said the smaller size of the team has allowed him to gain experience in operations off the court, like helping secure sponsorships. He’s proud to be a part of a team coached by Pippens, who he said dedicates himself to the community even when he’s not coaching.
Pippens is the Executive Director of A Giving Heart Community Center in Beltzhoover, where the Yellow Jackets play. His teammates explain his commitment to the community is also a big reason they love playing on the team.
“Look at what’s going on, and what he does for the community. Nobody owns their own basketball court,” said Brooks.
Co-captain Antonio "Tone Red" Reddic said he's proud of what the team's been able to accomplish in Pittsburgh. While leading the players on the team, he's earned numerous honors from his teammates and a nomination to the ABA All Star Game last year. His biggest goal, echoed by many of the other Yellow Jackets, is to capture the ABA championship.
“That’s the next level for us,” said Reddic. “We’ve shown we can compete with the best, and beat the best. We’ve shown we can make the playoffs, the next step is to bring home the gold.”
The Yellow Jackets are currently 3-1 in their season, and are hosting the ABA All Star Game in April 2018.