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A whole new old ball game

County natives hoping to take Rizers to top of the ABA

Posted: June 26, 2012 4:27 p.m.
Updated: June 27, 2012 5:00 a.m.

Some athletes fade to gray or, they are led out to pasture when their playing days are done.
In virtually every instance, however, they long for another day or two in the sun when they can lace up the shoes, put on their uniform and give it another try.  They are not ready to let go, but most are never given that opportunity.
Devin Lee will not have to worry about working his way back onto the basketball court: It’s easy to do when you own the team.
When the former North Central School guard and his wife, Nikia Knox-Lee, herself a former athlete at Lugoff-Elgin High School, purchased an American Basketball Association franchise for Columbia, -- the Palmetto State Rizers -- Devin Lee did not buy the team to showcase himself or to live out a professional basketball dream. But don’t be surprised if the team’s co-owner laces up his sneakers a time or two and takes to the hardwood.
“I will ... I am actually going to suit up a play in a couple of games,” said the 2003 NCHS graduate.
Talk about your involved owner.
But this venture is about much more than just Devin Lee playing the game he loves again. It is about giving back to the community which, he said, is what the ABA and the Rizers are all about. “We’ll be doing a lot of fund-raising and charity work around the area,” he said of a venture which he first brushed aside before jumping into head first.
Lee, a member of the U.S. Navy, is based in Virginia Beach, Va. A few months ago, out of the blue, an acquaintance approached him about looking into buying an ABA franchise. He was told to check out the league’s Website and to give serious thought about becoming a team owner.
For two weeks, this friend kept asking Lee if he had checked out the Website and learned about owning a franchise in a circuit which fields teams throughout the world. Finally, Lee relented. And, during some spare time, he logged onto www.abalive.com. He became intrigued by what he read and saw online.
“I was at work in the military and this guy came to talk to me, for about two weeks straight, and said that I should check out the ABA Website,” Lee said of first learning of the ABA. “I said, ‘Why would I do that?’ He told me, ‘To check out the market and buy a team.’ I told him that I didn’t think that I was financially ready to do something like that.
“For two weeks, I brushed him off before I looked at (the ABA’s Website), made some phone calls and then, looked at the numbers and the market area. A lot of people have been trying to get the Columbia market area. So, we sat down and talked and also had some phone conversations. After that, I gave him the money, set up the market and then, my wife and I chose a team name and things like that.”
Admitting that his wife was skeptical at the start of the process, Lee said Nikia has immersed herself in the operation and has become a business partner as well as the operation’s understated voice.
“She keeps me very organized. She talks to me about this and  that and keeps me from jumping out too fast,” Lee said while on a recent trip back to Camden. “She keeps me grounded.”
For those who remember the old ABA, a league which started its nine-year run in 1976 and gave players such as Julius Erving, Dan Issel, Artis Gilmore and George Gervin, among others, their professional start, the reincarnation of the circuit plays with a red, white and blue basketball, as did its predecessor.
And, like the old ABA, this league has regional franchises and has its own set of unique rules designed to make the games exciting and keeps fans involved. There is a sixth foul rule in which a player who picks up his sixth foul may remain in the game but when he commits another  foul, the opposing team gets an additional free throw, plus the ball.
The most unique innovation may well be is the 3-D Rule. This comes into play when the 3-D light goes on when the offensive team loses possession of the ball while the ball has backcourt status or, when the ball goes out-of-bounds after touching the frontcourt or, if the offensive team does not establish ball control in the frontcourt, the 3D Light will remain in effect.
When the 3-D light is on, an additional point is added to the point value of the field goal. (i.e. two-point baskets count as three and three-point baskets count as four points. The 3-D Rule remains in effect until the team scores, attempts a free throw for a personal foul; or the other team gains control of the ball. When the defense commits a foul within 3-D, the number of free throws will be increased by one and, when the defensive team receives a technical foul in 3-D time, the 3-D light remains on following the free throws.
“The 3-D Rule makes the game a whole lot different,” Lee said as he read the rule from the league’s rule book, which he carried with him. “It’s fast-paced and a lot of defense is played once the 3-D Rule comes into effect. There is a lot of pressure defense in the league.”
Armed with a three-ringed notebook, Lee has two recruiters already working in the area; his former Knight teammate, Brandon Drakeford, and Raymond Patterson of Camden. All the Palmetto State Rizers need now is a team. That part of the equation will begin to be filled out this weekend when the franchise hosts its inaugural tryouts on Saturday and Sunday, June 30 and July 1 at the Beatty Terrace facility in Columbia. Another two-day tryout is set for July 28-29. (see accompanying info box)
Tryouts are open to high school graduates, former college players, free agents and “anybody who loves the game of basketball and has the athletic talent” for a season which will kick off in December at a yet-to-be-determined site for home games. Lee said he is approaching Spring Valley High School as to being the Rizers’ home court.
Those players chosen to become part of the team by the yet-to-be announced coaching staff will be paid according to their performance in the gym and on game nights, Lee said.
“It’s not a set pay scale. I’m going to go by potential,” he said. “I’m going to pay my players based on how they put out in practice and how they put out in the games.”
Due to his youth, Lee said that, at first, it is hard for those whom he meets to come to grips that he is an owner of a professional franchise, which will be the only one of its kind in the Midlands. “Other than that, I’ve had a lot of support from the Columbia area,” he said of being able to get his foot in the door with investors and potential sponsors.
Lee considers himself lucky to have landed the Rizers and a market which was a hot commodity until ABA commissioner Joe Newman awarded the franchise to the Lees.
“We’re the only professional team in Columbia,” Lee said. “A lot of people wanted the Columbia ABA market. There were four or five investors that I heard of, who were interested in the franchise. I’m going to get together with those people and see if we can’t come together as a team and make something work.”
Newman was also excited to welcome Lees and the Rizers to the ABA when the two parties go together for a meeting. “He said he is very excited about the Columbia market,” Lee said of Newman. “When we talked, he seemed very excited about me taking over the Columbia market.”
The ABA has become a springboard for its players to move from the circuit and hook on and sign contracts with professional teams overseas. In some instances, a player can make his way into the NBA while several players with NBA experience are playing or have played in the circuit. Lee thinks there is enough talent in the region to field a competitive team in Columbia. He said getting players from USC and Clemson would prove beneficial at the box office while not discounting a player who, for one reason or another, never made it to the college level, could make a name for himself in the ABA.
“That’s very important,” he said of getting players with name recognition to Midlands fans. “Most ABA teams send four to five players a year to play overseas. This is a great second chance for those guys.
“And, South Carolina has a lot of talent which doesn’t always make it to the college level. Those are the players who come to the ABA to get exposure. Sometimes, they can go overseas to play or, even the NBA.”
The Rizers will play in the ABA’s Mid-Atlantic Conference along with the Wilmington, N.C.-based Carolina Destiny, the Fayetteville (N.C.) Flight, the Myrtle Beach-based South Carolina Warriors and the Tennessee Mad Hatters. Lee said the Rizers will play teams from both Carolinas, Georgia and Tennessee. And, if things work out financially, he would love to take on some of the ABA teams from the West Coast.
Since having been granted the Columbia franchise, Lee has overseen the operation from afar in Virginia. But he is preparing to be reassigned by the Navy to a base in Jacksonville, N.C., thereby making his commute much easier.
He said he looks to the Myrtle Beach franchise, which went 28-2 in the regular season, and its owners as a model for the Rizers.
At the present time, Devin and Nikia Lee are a two-person front office, doing everything from working the phones to sending out press releases and just making sure word of the franchise gets out to the public, as well as the media. He said for an operation which is a few months old, things have started to come together nicely for the Rizers, which changed their name from the Young Rizers, which was the Lees’ first stab at naming the franchise.
“I’ve received a good reaction from people,” Lee said of the fruits of his and Nikia’s labor. “I have a recruiting staff in place, right now, and they have said they have received a positive reaction and that players are interested in the team. And, there are a couple guys who are on the fence (about trying out.)”
While the team will play its games in Columbia, Lee said the Rizers will not forget his and Nikia’s home base of Kershaw County. He expects to do charitable and fundraising work here once things start to get settled. He also said that any person wishing to join the Rizers as an intern may do so by logging onto www.abalive.com to get more information on being a part of the franchise.
Juggling a full-time job along with his new ownership duties has been a “real big challenge” Lee said with a smile. But for a basketball junkie like Devin Lee, he could not think of a better way to stay busy and get back in touch with his home region and state.
“Actually, this has been a great adventure because basketball has been my love forever,” he said. “So, I thought it would be a great idea to bring this back home to South Carolina. There are not a lot of professional teams here so, I figured why not bring a team back home.
 “This has made me a whole lot happier because I’m able to get involved back in my community again after having been away for a while. I just want to bring something back which will be a positive for South Carolina.”

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