There’s a new team in town, and Patrick Grayson says he expects the Tennessee Mad Hatters to fit right into Johnson City’s basketball landscape.
“I think people are going to be quite impressed with the competition,” Grayson, the Mad Hatters’ general manager, said Thursday during a news conference at One12 Downtown to formally introduce the team.
The Mad Hatters will play in the American Basketball Association, a loosely organized minor league with more than 100 teams in 12 divisions all over the country and in Canada.
D.C. Smith, who played for ETSU from 1977-79, was hired as the Mad Hatters’ coach, and he promises an exciting brand of basketball.
“I like to run up and down the court,” Smith said Thursday. “I like to get in people’s faces. Professional basketball, they run and there’s not a whole lot of set plays. I want to see our players use their skills.”
Smith has never lost touch with basketball since his days of playing for Sonny Smith, staying involved as a trainer and working with players up to college age.
“I think this is a really great opportunity,” he said. “I’ve been involved in basketball for many, many years. I’ve been involved in training and this is my first opportunity to work on the professional level.
“I’m a training-type of coach. I’d like to see you dribble better, run faster, shoot straighter. This league, that’s what we want to do. It fits real well for me.”
Grayson, a Mountain City native, ran an ABA team in Gainesville, Fla., last year with the hopes of moving to Johnson City this year.
“It was a test market,” Grayson said. “We wanted to see how it could do. I was afraid if I made too many mistakes, it would drive the product away and I wouldn’t be able to have a strong foundation here.”
As of Thursday, the Mad Hatters’ roster had six names, including former Science Hill players Jerome Odem and Danny Avery. Avery played half the season for the Gainesville team last year.
“It was awesome,” he said. “There was a lot of talent in this league. It’s real solid. It’s worth playing in it.”
Avery made quite a splash in his ABA rookie season, scoring 48 points in his second game.
“I was just in the zone and they were feeding me the ball,” he said. “It was pretty good.”
The rest of the roster will be filled after a public tryout on Oct. 22 at Legion Street Rec Center.
“We’ve had quite a few inquiries,” Grayson said. “We’re looking to pick up eight guys to go with the six we have. We encourage anybody. If you think you can play basketball, try out.”
Former ETSU player Andrew Reed played a little with the Florida team last year. Another ex-Buc, Greg Hamlin, is on this year’s roster, although he might be in line for a spot on a team in Italy, so his availability is unsure.
Smith says the depth of basketball talent in the area should lead to more local players having prominent roles on the team.
“That’s always important,” he said. “We want local players that can contribute to the team. It’s good for the fans to see their locals play. It’s good for their families and it’s good to see we have that kind of talent right here in the area. When you’ve got East Tennessee State and Science Hill, they have set up a pretty high bar and we’d really like to keep that continuing. It’s gonna be a lot of work.”
The Mad Hatters will compete in the ABA’s Mid-Atlantic Conference along with teams from Athens, Ga., Myrtle Beach and the North Carolina cities of Greensboro, Durham, Rocky Mount, Washington and Fayetteville. They’ll also play teams from the Atlantic South Conference, including the Jacksonville Giants,who went 23-0 last year.
The team opens the regular season Dec. 3 on the road against the Atlanta Experience. The home opener is set for Dec. 10 against Myrtle Beach. The 15 home games on the schedule will be played at Legion Street Rec Center.
“We tried to pick a place not too big too soon,” Smith said, “and try to work our way into other areas.”
Joe Avento is a sports writer for the Johnson City Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.