HOOP DREAM

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The point guard makes a low, controlled dribble, buying time as two defenders move in tight with their hands.

Then Rogers Barnes, a former Morgan State star, jerks upright, lobs a pass to the far edge of the backboard, and watches as a 6-foot-7 teammate, Curtis Massey, takes the red-white-and-blue basketball on his fingertips, drops it through the net and circles back to the floor, clapping.

It's just a moment during practice for the Maryland Marvels, the newest pro basketball team in the state, but for owner James Agbai - whose newly minted squad plays its first-ever game at the Severn School in Severna Park tonight - things seem to be coming together like a well-timed play in the paint.

"I'm so pleased," says Agbai, 32, who bought the rights to the American Basketball Association franchise for $20,000 last year and is "working double overtime" to get things ready for opening tipoff. "The Marvels will feature athleticism. Not street ball, not just playing for its own sake. We'll be about athleticism with a purpose."

Wherever they finish in the minor league ABA standings, the Marvels already seem an extension of their owner, an upbeat Laurel businessman-entrepreneur with degrees in engineering and business, a "total willingness to make a fool of myself" and a bigger goal: making sure the Marvels do things the right way on and off the court.

"Why am I doing it? We're going to positively infect people," he says.

He predicts a division title, and as practice unfolds, you half believe him. His coaches - Ron Moore, an ex-NBA center, and Kevin McDuffie, a veteran of the European pros - bark instructions. Sneakers squeak as the players run their "suicides," finish drills, work on defensive moves.

On the sidelines, Agbai, in dress shirt and tie, keeps a running commentary on his players, a speedy mix of rec-league superstars and ex-college starters, all of whom still have to keep their day jobs.

But his eyes are everywhere, and he doesn't miss a chance. He spots three teenagers near the entrance, watching quizzically.

"I'm James," he says, extending a hand and slipping them a pocket schedule. "Our first game is Sunday at 5:06. It's going to be serious fun."

Heroes

James Agbai grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., the eldest child of a car salesman father and a social-worker mother. He remembers there were always people in the house. "My mother worked with the homeless in New York City for [decades]," he says. "Anybody and everybody was welcome at meals in our home. That's just the way it was."

He loved Knicks star Patrick Ewing and, of course, Michael Jordan. Like many kids, he was keen on playing pro ball someday.

But his parents gave him perspective. "I had to do my homework before I could play ball," says Agbai, who describes himself as a straight-A student. "I was one of those cool nerds, just big and good enough to make the team. It was hard to make too much fun of me."

The University of Vermont offered him a full scholarship and a liberating truth. At freshman tryouts, he learned he didn't have what it takes to play college ball. Agbai settled for an electrical engineering degree, selling Amway products on the side.

Verizon hired him as a project manager on FiOS accounts, transferring him to Maryland in 2005. But his mother, Grace, died not long afterward, and then his marriage collapsed.

It was the hardest time of his life, Agbai says. But hoops "realigned" him.

Baltimore-area basketball, he says, was marked by excellent but rugged play. He sensed a need for a league in which the games and language were clean. Drawing on a talent for bringing people together, he founded the Stembridge Adult Basketball League, a rec league in Essex.

He started with four teams in 2006. Now there are 16. Slots fill up in fewer than two hours on signup day, and as many as 200 spectators, including kids and grandmothers, are known to attend games.

One player, a man from Prince George's County, told Agbai a story. The man's son had watched a game and afterward told his father, "Dad, when you're out there, I forget about LeBron. You're my hero."

"Want to know why I do basketball?" Agbai says with a shrug. "That's why."

Movement

Watching his league's games convinced Agbai there was another need. There are many more talented players in the state than can possibly find basketball jobs. "They need a Plan B," he says. A friend, ex-Utah Jazz player Corey Crowder, told him about the American Basketball Association, a minor pro league founded in 2000 by sports impresario Dan Newman, and a vision for the Marvels started taking shape.

The league's results have been mixed. Newman has granted franchises from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Bellingham, Wash., and the ABA has seen more than 50 teams fold, according to the Los Angeles Times. But as the 2009-2010 season begins, 56 teams in eight divisions are scheduled to take the floor, from the Seattle Zhen Gan in the Northwest Division to the Bahama All-Pro Show in the Southeast Division.

The Marvels will vie in the Northeast against teams from New Jersey, New York City, upstate New York and Temple Hills, earning between $50 and $450 per player each game.

The quality of play could prove uneven. The ABA boasts numerous ex-college stars, including Barnes, a mainstay of the Morgan State team that made the 64-team Division I NCAA playoffs last year. One specialty blog, Sports Business News, calls the ABA a "sideways step" from college ball and a step down from pro leagues such as the Continental Basketball Association.

Agbai, as usual, couldn't wait to investigate for himself. Last weekend, he traveled to South Orange, N.J., to catch the home opener for the Jersey Express, the team the Marvels face on their home court at Severn School.

What did he see? "A lot of guys standing around, watching their teammates 'style' and dunk," he says.

The Marvels will "blow them off the court," Agbai says with a laugh. "Coach Ron is pressing a smart, fast, uptempo game, lots of movement from the first whistle to the last. The fans will love it."

Role models

Agbai, too, rarely sits still. When you're starting up a new sports franchise in the middle of a recession, there's no time.

Since buying the team last year, the new CEO has played the roles of button-down businessman, diplomat, talent scout, carnival barker and one-man think tank.

"My employees hate me," he says jokingly of his four-person, part-time front office. "I call them at 3 in the morning and say, 'Hey, why haven't we tried this idea?"

First came the players. Last summer, Agbai used the Internet and handmade fliers to spread the word about two open tryouts in the fall. He and the coaches chose 20 players for their speed, athleticism and "basketball I.Q.," Agbai says.

But to the owner, the Marvels are a mission as much as a team. He interviewed the players one at a time, telling each he expected a team of positive role models for the community. He required a clean-cut look - coats and ties, no scraggly facial hair - and a willingness to appear at local schools as well as at charity fund-raisers.

At a final camp in October, he even invited fans to vote on their favorite players. (He granted coaches a veto.) "What better way to learn the likes and dislikes of our community?" Fans tended to favor smart, scrappy players - most of whom made the 10-man final roster.

The team includes Kyle Sullivan of Howard County, a shooting guard who gives pro bono coaching clinics in his spare time; Barnes, the slashing guard from Morgan; Maurice Davis, an Anne Arundel native; and Jamel White, a graduate of Gallaudet University in Washington.

Because he can't hear whistles, White gets off to a late start during wind sprints at practice. He still usually beats the others.

The Marvels are 4-0 in their exhibition games. Barnes leads the team with a 27-point average. White, sign-language interpreter in tow, has averaged 9 off the bench.

"You can't win without players like that," Agbai says.

Impresario

At practice, which is held at a Prince George's County high school, Moore and McDuffie, both high school coaches in their other lives, are twin towers of instruction.

The 7-foot Moore, who played for Chuck Daly's conference champion Detroit Pistons in 1989, exhorts defenders to keep their hands low. The 6-foot-11 McDuffie, a one-time first-round draft pick of the Boston Celtics, reminds them to "keep talking to each other."

The practice is crisp and professional. "These guys work 9 to 5, then come here and work hard," Moore says. "They're smart enough to realize this is their opportunity to make it to the next level."

The car dealer's son, too, is hands-on, especially when it comes to a Marvel motto: "It's not just a game - it's an experience."

Starting tonight, for a $10 ticket, fans will not just see a professional basketball game a mere 20 minutes south of Baltimore. They'll be able to win prizes during "Name That Tune" and other game shows (Agbai will emcee), hear the team's "kid journalist," Zach Bowers, interview fans in the stands, get their faces painted, hear live rock, eat custom Marvels cupcakes and even enjoy special skin lotions in the restrooms.

"Sometimes my attention to detail scares even me," Agbai says with a laugh.

Is he nervous as the 30-game schedule draws near? Does a layup equal two points?

Sometimes, he says, it occurs to him to wonder whether the community will buy enough tickets to help him break even. "Did I jump in too fast?" he wonders.

A frightening thought, especially given that Verizon recently told him it would be eliminating his job in a few weeks, leaving him jobless after 11 years.

But Agbai is too busy to fret. For one thing, he'll now have more time to pursue his professional dream. For another, the season opener is near, and there's too much to do.

Moore addresses the players, who surround him on one knee, and a young man wanders over to watch the end of practice.

The owner swings into action.

It's a guy named Pete. He's the janitor.

"Hi, Pete, I'm James," the CEO says, sticking out his hand. "Our first game is Sunday night. We going to see you there?"

Marvels miscellany

Team colors: red, gold, black and white in honor of the Maryland state flag.

Logo: a basketball in flight. "It's meant to look like a crisp pass," says James Agbai. "It symbolizes our way."

Coaches: Head Coach Ron Moore, who backed up center Bill Laimbeer for the 1989 Pistons, is varsity coach at High Point High School in Greenbelt. Assistant Coach Kevin McDuffie, varsity coach at Howard High in Ellicott City, grew up in Baltimore playing with future NBA stars Reggie Lewis, Sam Cassell and Muggsy Bogues.

Trivia: Moore and McDuffie will drive players to away games in a rented 15-passenger van. ... Agbai's younger brother, Uka, has played on pro teams in Venezuela and Germany. ... The Marvels are partnering with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation in Linthicum and other Anne Arundel charities. ... ABA home courts range from elementary schools to 8,000-seat arenas. ... On Valentine's Day, Agbai will host a Chuck Woolery-style dating game.

Quote: "Our kids need direction; that's why we do what we do." - Coach Ron Moore

If you go

What: Maryland Marvels opening game vs. the Jersey Express

Where: Edward St. John Athletic Center, Severn School, 201 Water St., Severna Park

When: 5:06 p.m.

Tickets: $10 each, available at the door

For more information: Go to marylandmarvels.com.

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