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Debut of Wintarian Blacktop League brings high-quality outdoor basketball competition to Howard County

Less than 24 hours before the first game was scheduled to tip, Rob Davis III and his family were still working on putting the finishing touches on the brand new outdoor basketball court behind Celebration Church in Columbia.

Netting was still being hung, with painting and other cosmetic clean up still on the agenda, but as the debut of the Wintarian Athletics Blacktop Basketball League approached, Davis III was filled with encouragement.

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“It may not be completely finished, but it’s close and seeing it all come together over the last month has been incredible. We had a vision and pushed to make it a reality,” said Davis III, a 2014 graduate of Marriotts Ridge High who was named Howard County boys basketball Player of the Year as a senior and is now taking on the role of director for the new league.

With three men’s games christening opening night on July 30 — and several more contests played over the first weekend — the league indeed kicked off as scheduled and delivered on its intended goal of providing outdoor basketball competition during a time when indoor options have been limited due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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And despite only breaking ground on the facility a few weeks earlier and getting registration underway in early July, Davis III never wavered in his belief that everything would fall into place.

“There were definitely some worries, especially it being the first time we have done something like this and then of course you add in all the stuff with the pandemic. But once we set the start date, I knew we would make it work,” Davis III said. “As long as we had the court, lines and a couple hoops … that’s all we needed. I know how long everyone has been waiting to hoop again.”

There were plenty of former Howard County high school stars playing on opening night, including three of the last five boys basketball Players of the Year — Daeshawn Eaton (2019), Ryan Davis (2018) and Trea Keys (2017).

Eaton, who was named a first team Maryland JUCO All-Conference selection as a freshman at Howard Community College last winter, said it was the first real game he has played since the beginning of March.

“No doubt, I’ve definitely missed that feeling of playing … it’s so much better than just shooting and working out on my own,” Eaton said. “I’ve never done an outdoor league before, just watched on TV, but it was good. Hot, but not windy, so it didn’t really change how you play.”

Ryan Davis, who is slated to be a redshirt sophomore on the men’s basketball team at Millersville University this winter, said he was impressed with the product as well.

“You would definitely never know this all came together in a month-and-a-half. It’s a high-quality court, they have nice indoor hoops and the competition is really strong … at least from the games I saw,” Davis said. “It’s way better than playing pick-up.”

The men’s league has 17 teams registered to play weekly games through the end of September. There are also leagues for high school boys and high school girls underway, with six teams scheduled to participate in each.

Rob Davis III, League Director of the Wintarian Blacktop Basketball League, competes in a game on a new court at Celebration Church in Columbia on Friday, July 31.
Rob Davis III, League Director of the Wintarian Blacktop Basketball League, competes in a game on a new court at Celebration Church in Columbia on Friday, July 31. (Brian Krista/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Building a basketball court and starting a league was something Davis III, his father Robbie Davis — lead pastor at Celebration Church — and brother Robinson had discussed casually before. But it wasn’t until the coronavirus pandemic shut down indoor basketball facilities that they decided to turn the idea into something tangible in terms of an outdoor surface.

“I’ve always had this dream of building a gym that was linked to the church, a kind of multi-purpose facility. Then this whole thing happened and suddenly there was a real need for a place for people to be able to play,” Davis III said. “We first really started thinking about how we could make it work in late May, early June and then by July we had begun installing the court.”

Davis III also credited his uncle Bernard Durham for assisting in the process and said the administrative advice he received from one of his former high school coaches Mike Smelkinson has been invaluable as well.

Smelkinson, a Howard County Player of the Year (2004) in his own right while playing at Long Reach, has run several summer and fall leagues over the years. He was able to provide tips on how to handle the registration process and suggest little details that make for a successful setup.

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Big picture, Smelkinson said he can see something like this taking off beyond this summer.

“Even when the dust eventually clears in terms of the coronavirus, there is something to be said for a competitive outdoor league. I remember I personally grew up playing pickup all the time at Rockburn [Park],” Smelkinson said. “In more recent years, with more indoor options available, blacktop basketball has faded away. But maybe this is the start of a comeback.”

Davis III said he’s already thinking ahead.

“Now that we have the court, there are a lot of options. My hope is not only does the league turn into a yearly thing, but it’s a place where there are eventually open runs, camps and training for those in the community,” he said. “We’re excited about the possibilities.”

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