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Virginia's best return for summer fete


Mark Woods reports on summers in Virginia

The school bells are eerily silent at John Marshall High School. The classrooms gather dust, devoid of noise and banter, no books nor pencils on display at this time of the year .

School's out for summer but in the gym however, Thursday nights deliver a rapturous chorus of applause, not for the students for those who have from this corner of Virginia to strut their skills and drive to the hoop away from the humid air outside.

The MC booms through a microphone which has surely seen better days, his exuberance failing to transcend the muffled commentary.

At each break, the kids rush the polished parquet, anxious for their shot at the aged baskets. The game re-starts once this ritual is completed. Game takes precedence over The Game. 

Only then do the lines form at the food stall, where the hosts are the only ones there who seem disinterested in the screeching of shoe and the slamming of leather through the rings.

The NBA this ain't but for the balling fans of Richmond, a city devoid of the League, this is the highlight reel. The best the capital of the Old south has produced come back here each off-season, reunited by the hardwood and by the chance to supplement their incomes from the other nine months of the year.

Six teams, all convened at short notice, doing battle. Newman Group has the grandest kit. A perk offered by the league's founder and point man, the NBA stalwart Johnny Newman who organises a number of events to fill up his empty months.

So too the Wallace Express, led by the Detroit Pistons rebounder emeritus Ben Wallace.

Yet the side whose name adorns the first place on the wall of the gym  contains a name more akin to the BBL. "We've been rolling this summer" proclaims Ted Berry, my guide for the evening's entertainment and local boy made good. 

His shorts as lengthy now as on a chilled January evening in Edinburgh, the Rocks star is greeted at every turn, his exploits in this locale prior to his overseas adventure, it seems, scarcely forgotten. Respect earned and enduring.

"This gives me a chance to get some competition," recounts the BBL All-Star between games. "It's not enough to make me peak at this time of year.  I still have to work out every day in the gym and work on my skills. My handling needs some work right now. But it's good money and the balling gives you props back home."

His is not the only face I recognise. His afro now pared back into rows, Chandar Bingham, once of Thames Valley, is pushing his side in a close match. In fact, with up and down scoring, overtime seems to be par for the course here.

Amid the opposing ranks is Kendrick Warren, a dynamo at London Towers last term but struggling with his shot here. Missing a chance to win the game on the buzzer, his errors in the extra period condemn his team to defeat, his form less than luminant.

We speak briefly before he races off to an engagement elsewhere. Towers, he claims, have made him an offer, but he will wait to see what else is out there before signing on. Likewise Bingham, not scarred by his experience in Bracknell, would like to find a job elsewhere too.

So would they all perhaps. With a notepad in hand, and as a rare white face in the bleachers, I must look like a scout. Berry interprets but requests for phone numbers of those teams who might offer a passage to Europe prove a popular request.

Hoops dreams start here.  Not in the playground, Berry underlines. "That stuff, you want to keep away from. It's too dangerous. They play for money. And the balling is different. More freestyle."

Not that Richmond seems to care. Ball is all they came to see and with night falling, they pour back home. 

The sign above the door re-affirms the gospel. 'Where character forms and stars are born'.

Character is a necessity to thrive here. There might be no names in lights but each one who ends up making their mark can make themselves a local idol.

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