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News> ABA team thinks Connecticut fertile ground for talent

By David Borges, Register Staff
BRIDGEPORT — The charming old gym inside the Cardinal Shehan Center served as sort of a basketball version of “Field of Dreams” on Saturday morning.

On one end of the floor was Kano Edwards, the 6-foot-9 former Bridgeport Central standout, throwing down dunks in big man drills. On the other end, ex-University of New Haven star Cassius Chaney and Hyde product Travis King knocked down jumpers.

Later in the afternoon, those three and a host of other familiar names and faces went at it in a full-court scrimmage, where there was no shortage of talent and desire. The players came in all shapes and sizes — from 7-foot, 295-pound Joseph Dorsett-Jeffreys to 5-9 guard Tyshawn Gillespie — and all were chasing the same dream. Or, perhaps more accurately, all were looking to keep their basketball dreams alive.

The Shehan Center hosted the second of four tryouts for the Connecticut Topballerz, an expansion team in the American Basketball Association. Yes, that’s the same ABA of Julius Erving and George Gervin waaaaay back in the day — they even still use the old red, white and blue basketballs. Only instead of providing competition to the NBA and, eventually, merging with the older league, the modern-day ABA — which consists of some 95 teams — largely exists to give players an outlet to keep playing basketball and showcase themselves for scouts from other pro leagues. And that’s right up the alley of the team’s co-owners, Trevor and Aaron Hairston.

In 2007, the Hairston brothers founded Topballerz.net LLC, a company designed to help athletes — primarily football players — get to the next level of competition by getting them in contact with agents, scouts, etc. Last year, an ABA team from Alabama contacted the Hairstons looking for some help.

“They saw we were heavily into scouting players and helping players get exposure,” Aaron Hairston said. “They contacted us as a service. (They said), ‘We want to hire you guys to run our scouting department.’ That’s when we said, ‘Hey, why can’t we have our own team here?’”

So they did a little research on the ABA, contacted league president Joe Newman and realized that Connecticut, and particularly the New Haven area, could be fertile ground for a franchise.

The Topballerz will play a 30-game schedule, with 15 home games to be played at Albertus Magnus College. The season begins in mid-November and runs through March. The Topballerz will have a 12-man roster, eight of whom will travel, as well as about five practice players. The team will likely play in the Northeast Division, primarily against teams from New York and New Jersey, and as far south as Virginia. They will be the only ABA team in New England.

“The ABA has a pretty short shelf-life,” said Hamden’s D.J. Huston, an assistant coach and director of player development. “A lot of teams fold rather quickly, but they don’t have basketball minds behind the operation. But if you go about it the right way, you can have a very, very successful business venture and team. Especially in the area we’re in, I think we have a chance to be extremely successful.”

The Topballerz haven’t named a coach yet, but it is apparently down to James Johnson, a longtime AAU coaching stalwart in New London, or Larry Lessett, a veteran ABA coach who also was the head man at Maryland-Eastern Shore.

The Hairston brothers, who hail from New London, have plenty of contacts in the sports world. Aaron played football at Southern Connecticut State and, after a few years playing minor-league football, played two seasons with the New England Surge of the Arena League. Trevor played football at Hampton University and also played semi-pro ball.

They’ve received calls from players around the country who’d like to try out for the team. But one thing is very clear: the Topballerz would like to be as local as possible.

“We want to keep it in Connecticut and really put Connecticut on the map,” Aaron Hairston said. “There’s a lot of guys who just don’t get the opportunity, because there’s not any local teams at the high level of competition. We want to start that up.”

A quick look around Saturday’s tryout reveals this to be true. There was Edwards, the Bridgeport product who went on to play at Texas-Pan American; King, the New Haven native who played at George Washington and Maryland-Baltimore County; Gillespie, the former Glastonbury High and Western Connecticut State standout; and Chaney, an Old Saybrook product.

There was also Antoine Waller, the former Harding High star; Walden St. Juste, who played at Albertus Magnus; and Ansonia’s Tristan Shields, who played at Franklin Pierce College. Bridgeport’s own Marcus Cox, the former UConn player, popped in early on and expressed interest, though he didn’t work out. New Haven’s Kaseem Johnson is also interested but had a workout in Germany on Saturday, and Bridgeport’s Julian Allen and Dale Saunders each had prior commitments.

“I want to keep playing as long as possible,” said King, who just completed his career at UMBC. “Overseas, anything in terms of playing professionally, I’ll be happy with it. I’m definitely excited about the whole opportunity. Having a professional team come here is definitely a good opportunity.”

Added Edwards: “I’m very, very excited. It’s a great opportunity. I couldn’t sleep last night, I woke up like four times, just looking at the time to see if it’s 10 a.m. to go work out. It’s a great opportunity and I want to take full advantage of it.”

King, who has a data entry job at Universal Health Care in Meriden, and Edwards, a substitute teacher at Bullard-Havens Tech, aren’t going to be giving up their day jobs to play for the Topballerz. Players will be paid weekly and by skill set, participation on the team, even marketability. That could mean good news for a guy like King, who literally lives down the street from Albertus Magnus and could probably guarantee a few extra fans in the gym.

So could Bobby Moore, the former Hillhouse star and New Haven playground legend. Moore had expressed interest in trying out for the team but, alas, failed to show up to Saturday’s tryouts.

“We’re not going to wait for anybody,” said Trevor Hairston. “ We’re going to move on and just hope that guys who are looking for that opportunity will take advantage. We’ve always felt that all we can do is bring opportunity to the guys. If guys want to heed it or not, it’s up to them. Hopefully, we’ll get the best from Connecticut.”

The Topballerz will have two more tryouts: on July 31, at Connecticut College in New London and another a couple of weeks after that at Albertus Magnus.

“We want to be community-based,” Trevor added. “We want to do fundraisers at boys and girls clubs, YMCAs, create the opportunities for kids at a young age to give them something to look forward to, something to strive for, knowing that they can go to college and play ball.

“And if all else fails, they can always play for the Connecticut Topballerz.”

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