When I saw that the new American Basketball Association was expanding to Mobile this season, I thought back to the recent ESPN documentary that focused on the original league that was absorbed into the current NBA in the mid-1970s.

I remember high-flying dunks by Julius “Dr. J” Erving, cloud-scraping jump shots by George “Ice Man” Gervin and massive rebounds by Artis Gilmore. Throw in the advent of the three-point shot and the iconic red-white-and-blue ball, and it was a brand that often outshined its larger competitor.

The latest version of the ABA, though, has an entirely different mission (while using the same colorful ball). Not only do they want to put on a good show, they are also looking to be mentors to their local community.

Mobile TornadoesCharlie McCants is the owner of the Mobile Bay Tornados. After a club in Mobile folded a few years ago, he jumped at the chance to buy a franchise and return a team to the city. McCants has experience with the ABA, having worked for the league’s Gulf Coast Flash located in Gulfport for the last three seasons.

“I think Mobile is a great market for an ABA team,” McCants said. “The main difference with the ABA now, is that it’s not on the same talent level of players as the NBA. But, we have seen some of our players move up to the NBA and to leagues overseas.”

The current version of the ABA, which got rights to the name from the NBA, has almost 90 teams spread throughout the United States. The Tornados are in the Gulf Coast Division, joining the Flash along with teams based in Montgomery, Hattiesburg and Jackson in Mississippi, plus New Orleans, Monroe and Shreveport in Louisiana.

“I feel confident that we will have a strong rivalry with Gulfport,” McCants said. “I know the owner, and he does not want to lose any ground to a first-year team. I can’t wait to play them at home on Nov. 23.”

The Tornados are coached by the legendary Alfred Perkins, who played at Toulminville High School and Bishop State Community College. Included in his 30 years of coaching experience was a state title with the Leflore girls’ team. Perkins was also the coach of the former ABA team Mobile Bay Hurricanes in 2010.

“I remembered him from that first season,” McCants said. “It was great to get someone who knows Mobile so well.”

The team conducted tryouts back in the summer, and then had a mini-tournament several weeks ago to try and finalize the roster. The Tornados will carry 12 active players, with three held in reserve.

McCants said most of the home games will be played at Davidson High School, including the season opener Nov. 2 against the Hattiesburg Hornets and a game Nov. 9 against Monroe. Two other games will be played at Bishop State.

While the original ABA rosters were full of characters (Do you remember Marvin “Bad News” Barnes?), McCants wants his team to be filled by men with character.

“We are giving these players an opportunity, when they might have missed out before,” he said. “This is a chance to perform on the next level, and have a chance of moving up higher.”

But McCants also wants the players to be role models. Last week, the team talked to a group of youngsters on topics such as discipline and being good citizens. They also played a charity game to benefit breast cancer awareness.

“We are really looking at getting into the community,” McCants said. “Helping all the kids is important. A lot of kids are just stuck on the streets, and we would like to give them some direction.”

Among the projects on which the Tornados will pair with the ABA is “Fast Break For Reading,” a program run by the International Reading Association that gives students special incentives to pick up books. Teams donate game tickets to local schools, which then use the passes to encourage more reading.

Another program is “Bullies Are Cowards.” McCants said such efforts are important for the team to play a positive role in the community. The Tornados also plan to recognize people who make a difference, and will give retiring Mobile City Councilman Reggie Copeland — a longtime basketball official — a Lifetime Sports Achievement Award.

For the 15 home games on the schedule, tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children, while those under 6 will be admitted for free. McCants said special promotions are planned for fans throughout the season.

“We want to be more than a sports team,” McCants said. “We want to be a community project. We want to help develop our youth, strengthen the community and help local business.”

For more information, you can visit the team’s website at http://mobilebaytornados.com/

RUGBY SQUADS COMING TO MOBILE

One of the area’s oldest athletic competitions is set to return, as the 35th annual Battleship Rugby Tournament takes the fields at Battleship Memorial Park Nov. 9 and 10. Organizers are expecting from two to three dozen teams to participate.

The event has divisions for men’s and women’s club teams, plus men’s and women’s college squads. Because the national bodies for colleges have changed their schedules this year, tourney officials are not sure exactly how many student clubs will enter.

Some Spring Hill College graduates who wanted to keep participating in the sport formed the Mobile Rugby Club in the mid-1970s. The name was changed to the Battleship Rugby Club in 1978.

Lars Granade, one of the tournament’s co-directors, started playing rugby in 1981, and has been a member of the local club since 1991. The Battleship team has about 50 to 60 members, ranging in ages from 18 to 50-plus.

“It is a contact sport, and you will have some bruises and sprains,” he said. “But it is much safer than football. The worst injury I ever had was a broken pinky finger, and it was caught in somebody’s shirt when I made a tackle.”

Rugby actually precedes the American version of football by three decades, according to Granade. He said a student in Rugby, England, got tired of kicking a soccer ball, picked it up and starting running. In the process, he formed a new game.

There are two versions of the sports, one with 15 on a side and a newer form with seven per side. Rugby will be an official sport again at the next Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, going with seven players (the USA is actually the defending Olympic champion, as the last gold medalists back in 1924). The Battleship Rugby Tournament will use the traditional 15-player squads.

“The size of Battleship Memorial Park allows us to put out five full-size pitches (or fields),” Granade said. “With available daylight, we could have up to 40 teams participating.”

Granade said even without pads, he believes rugby is much safer than football. He said standard tackling in football has someone leading with their head. If they did the same in rugby, they would knock themselves out and the opponent would keep running.

A rugby “pitch” is generally 10 to 15 yards longer than a traditional football field, and 10 to 20 yards wider. The object is to get a ball on or across the other team’s goal line, and actually touch the ball down. This allows you a “try” – an attempt to kick through the uprights for points. Players advance the ball by running, passing to a teammate (no forward throws as in football) and by kicking the ball.

Granade said rugby may be rough, but participants can play for many decades. “The sport is good for all body sizes and types, and all ages. It is now played in most countries on the planet.”

One thing that rugby may be best known for is the camaraderie among all the players.

“Unlike most American team sports, the home team is expected to host the visiting team with a party,” Granade said. “You feed and drink with your opponent, regardless of the score. You have to be cordial. You make friends with people that have similar interests, and that friendship can last for decades.”

Granade also pointed out that an economic impact study was conducted a few years ago, in regards to the tournament, with hundreds of thousands of dollars flowing into the economy.

“If you bring in 30 teams to play, with 20 to 25 players and as many fans,” Granade said, “it could be at least 1,000 people in town for the weekend. You are looking at motel rooms, dining and shopping.”

The tournament starts as a round-robin, with seeding determined for the competition winners on Sunday. The championship games will start early that Sunday afternoon. Admission is $2 for parking at USS Alabama Memorial Park.

To get more information, visit www.battleshiprugby.com to learn about the local team and www.shiprugby.com for tournament information.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

I would like to thank everyone for their response to my first column in the last issue. I again encourage all of Lagniappe’s readers to submit information for future use to sports@lagniappemobile.com.

And between editions, please check out my tweets, by following @goulaguy.