Will Augusta Embrace the 706ers?
When Augusta’s new semi-pro basketball team needed a name, it went straight to the people for suggestions. More than a thousand locals chimed in with ideas for the new franchise: the Augusta RedHawks, the Augusta Rapids, the Augusta Drive. Eventually the team settled on the Augusta 706ers, a play on NBA franchise Philadelphia 76ers but, more importantly, a statement that the franchise belongs to everyone in the city of Augusta.
The term “homegrown” is indeed appropriate: the idea for a franchise began a year ago with a local military contractor and basketball fan named Scott Killebrew and has now manifested itself in a 14-man roster comprised of almost all local players, whether they grew up playing in the Augusta area or played at a local university. For most of them, it’s a chance to prove themselves as athletes who can compete with players whose skills and environment landed them spots in NBA development programs.
But the players aren’t the only ones with something to prove. Will Augustans show up to support a semi-pro basketball team? Franchises have come and gone over the years. Killebrew, who is the co-owner and president of the organization, and president of basketball operations Will Avery have a hungry team. They’ve sold their vision to the James Brown Arena, which will be the 706ers’ home court. Now they have to sell it to fans and make more along the way. Killebrew is confident there are fans in Augusta who are thirsty for a local team. Only time will tell. I talked to Killebrew about how the team came to fruition and what fans can expect come November.
What spurred you on to start a basketball franchise in Augusta?
Well, to be honest with you, it was my kids. I’ve got two children, both girls. One’s in the third grade, the other’s in pre-K. And come the wintertime there’s really nothing to do as a family. You’ve got Lights of the South, and now you’ve got Augusta on Ice, that type of thing. But there’s nothing to do indoors, sporting-wise. You know, summertime you’ve got the GreenJackets…and that’s a fantastic time, it’s a beautiful new facility out there. But again, there’s nothing to do in the wintertime. So a few associates of mine and I got together. We all work on base, we’re all veterans, and we’re defense contractors. You’re in a room with no windows for eight to ten hours a day, and you start to come up with ideas on how to make life better, you know? It was just one of those random ideas that I came up with one day. I pitched it to a friend of mine, and he was like, “Hey, I think this could work, and we started doing some research…one thing led to another, and here we are almost a year later to the day from when we bought the rights and formed the company. It’s been a roller coaster.
How did the team come together?
It is considered a semi-professional basketball team, and that’s based solely on the salary cap. Because I can’t pay these guys enough money to quit their day jobs, it’s considered semi-pro. But the talent of the league is on par with the NBA developmental program. So a lot of the guys that we were looking at were Division 2, Division 3 NCAA standouts that just didn’t get a fair shake in life. There’s a lot of talent that gets left behind that has to give up on their dream, or play in Europe or play in China or play in Africa or Australia. The statistics are even worse for Division 2 or Division 3 schools. I’d say over the last 5-10 years, it’s been around zero percent (who have gone on to play in the NBA). I think the last real big Division 2 college standout that made it to the NBA was Ben Wallace. Now I’m sure theres been some that have gone on to the NBA, but, you know, there’s a lot of talent that just doesn’t get a fair shake. And what are you gonna do when you’ve put 18, 19, 20 years of your life into something that you really love and you have a passion for, and then you’re told “no,” just because you went to Augusta University, or just because you went to Georgia Southern, or just because you went to USC-Aiken? Those opportunities aren’t afforded to you because of the environment. And that’s not fair. So what we did is we designed this program from the start to give those guys an opportunity to excel and to grow and to move on and to progress, if that’s what they so desire.
How did you make a head coaching selection?
We went out and we found Will Avery, the Westside high grad. He went to Duke University, played for Coach K, and then played for Minnesota for three years…he had about a (ten-year) career overall as a pro outside the NBA. So he came on board. Will and I instantly clicked. We shared with him our vision, and you know he has expressed interest, and we brought him on board. We bought the rights (to the team) in September of last year. By December, we had him lined up, and we were talking to him. And then we got him under contract to be president of basketball operations, which is kind of the general manager. What makes Will great is he’s been there before. He’s played professional basketball at every level you could possibly imagine. He’s played basketball down at May Park, getting sponsored by James Brown to do travel ball. It’s a great story. Will playing from travel ball to high school ball to college ball to the NBA—the pinnacle of the profession—and then taking his talents on the road and going to Europe and playing in Europe and playing in Israel and things like that. He know the in’s and out’s of the sport. His basketball IQ is immense. Nobody else is like him. But I think the thing that tops all of that is his love for the city. When we first mentioned this to him, he was like, “This is exactly what I’ve been looking for. This is exactly what the city has been looking for.”
What do you expect the public response to be for people going forward? Has there been a semi-pro team here before?
There have been several attempts. If you do a little digging and a little research into the sports market here, you’ll realize very quickly that a lot of things have been tried. We’ve had two hockey teams. We’ve had two indoor arena football teams, and we’ve had several attempts at starting basketball at various levels. Most recently was a team called the Georgia Soul. They were a women’s team in the Women’s Blue Chip Basketball League…they ended up winning their national title two years ago. (The owner) has since moved on, she’s active duty military, she had to move to Savannah. And the team had to fold. There have been several attempts at men’s teams, but nothing to the level that we’re trying to pull off. I’m not talking bad about anybody that’s ever tried to do anything, because we all know they laid the groundwork for where we’re at now. Had they not come before us and tried and failed, we wouldn’t be where we’re at. We wouldn’t have just signed a deal with the arena. You know what I mean? Overall, the reaction we’re getting is very positive, very encouraging, and very enthusiastic.
Augusta’s need something like this for a long time. In our opinion, the city can’t take another fail. We’ve had all those team come and go. And really if you look at the history and the way the media coverage is, all of that negative press for every time a team has failed has fallen on the arena. And you know Chris Bird, the facilities director down there, and I have had several long conversations, and we were very slow to get the arena and were very methodical in our process. Because we wanted to make sure that the mistakes of the past were never repeated. That way we wouldn’t fail and that way the negative publicity wouldn’t fall on the only thing that still exists, which is the building.
Do you know what some of those reason were for some of those failures of past teams?
It’s a problem that we’ve noticed that’s kind of common in Augusta: marketing. Communication is critical, and if you don’t communicate times and locations and events and things like that…nobody knows that events are happening. That’s kind of commonplace throughout the whole city. It’s not just the entertainment industry. It’s tourism and travel. If it’s not the Masters, I can’t tell you what it is. We realize marketing has to be at the forefront of everything we do, which is why we took the grassroots approach and took our time and really tried to cultivate this.
How do you find players?
We had two open tryouts, and I can’t even tell you how many closed tryouts we’ve had. Just guys coming in, getting worked out. We really tried to focus down on creating a local, organic kind of feel. And all of our guys, with the exception of two players who are from New York…all of our guys are local, within the CSRA. We’ve got guys like Xavier Collier who grew up here, went to Benedict College. “TC” Fields from Augusta University, recently finished his NCAA eligibility, set to graduate in December. And even our coaching staff…coach Oliver Ottley, who’s one of the all-time leading scorers for augusta university. So from the top down, we’ve built this program that is just so engrained the community. And it’s designed that way to get over those hurdles we talked about with the sour sports markets.
Do all these guys have ambitions to move up?
For all of them this is a dream come true for them. To be able to play basketball at a professional level…to do what you love…to get paid to do what you love..that’s the dream of everybody, right? Nobody wants to go to a boring 9-to-5, they want to get paid to do what they love. And that’s the opportunity that we’ve given these athletes. But to sit here and say that every one of our athletes is complacent and happy where they’re at, that would be a lie. They all have dreams of making the big money and playing in the big cities and playing under the big lights and continuing to do what they love. The plan is to get these guys national-level media exposure through playing basketball that will grant them opportunities…to play for NBA developmental programs or to play in Europe and to make the money that they are obviously worth and to move on and to move up. There’s no reason why any of our guys should not be in the NBA developmental program right now.
So now, it’s almost a farm system within itself. As we get players spun up on the system, they play games for us, they get national-level exposure, and then they move on to bigger and better things. The way we look at it, if you play for us for more than five years, then there’s something wrong…unless you really love playing for us. Then by all means we’d love to keep a talented athlete and keep winning games and keep having that positive fan experience. I fully expect the Atlanta Hawks developmental program to kind of pay close attention to us, or maybe some of Will’s friends who are still involved in the game. But yeah, it’s not uncommon for scouts to come out to this level and pull talent.
What league is the team playing in?
We play in the American Basketball Association. Now that name might sound familiar. In the 60s, that league was formed and in the 70s, it merged with the NBA. The two leagues are now separate, and we as a league got a couple things. We got a tricolored ball, so the red white and blue ball is back. And the records still stand. So we have 50-plus years of history that is included. Now when Joe (Newman) tried to create a new ABA, he went for big markets right in NAB’s back yard. He went to LA, Chicago, Detroit, I think Houston…and the NBA just crushed them because of market share. So a couple years in, he took a year off to regroup and restructure, and he took a small-market approach. So cities like Topeka, KS, and Augusta, GA, and Macon and Savannah…these smaller markets that don’t get national media attention now can be brought to the forefront and have an opportunity to shine.
Do you think that there are fans out there in Augusta who want to come watch basketball?
You just look at statistics, right? Everybody likes to fall back on solid numbers. You look at statistics and the numbers don’t lie. Im not gonna sit here and bore you with all the numbers, but there’s enough fans statistically in the CSRA to fill the arena over and over and over again. Now whether they all come out to a game, that’s different. Cause everyone’s a fan of the sport at various levels. Our job is to get them into the arena. How we’re gonna do that is create the most fan-friendly, affordable entertaining experience possible. There’s not gonna be anything like this in the CSRA. We’re gonna try to capture everything that is magical and exciting and entertaining about going to an NBA game and putting in in the James Brown Arena with local guys, local talent, local fans, and we’re gonna capture a little of the magic that happens at a NCAA level. It’s gonna be a nice mixture. it’s gonna be so much fun, and I cant wait.