Storm brewing in Louisiana basketball

Team Sportsplex in Baton Rouge

AAU basketball in Louisiana is in the midst of a transformation. Come inside to read how Baton Rouge, LSU and one of the best businessmen the state's ever known are involved.

Even with Johnny Jones returning to his alma mater and New Orleans' NBA franchise changing its mascot to reflect the state bird, the most interesting development underway in Louisiana basketball is happening at the ground level.

The Bayou State's prep scene – featuring a fragmented and too often overlooked AAU landscape for the past 10 years – has floundered in comparison to its football and baseball brethren.

As a result, Louisiana, a state in which eight of the NBA's top 50 players of all time either were born or played collegiately, has fallen on hard times in terms of national exposure and respect.

But a new foundation is being built in Baton Rouge that may not only change the game; it may stack the deck in a way the state has never seen.

All the more intriguing is that at the heart of this basketball revolution are one of the most successful businessmen in Louisiana history, arguably the top athletic company in the world and a local high school coach eager to put his state back on the map.

Their convergence and the fruits of their collective labor are forming the perfect storm for Pelican-state roundball to return to prominence.

Storm gains strength

Dunham head basketball coach Jonathan Pixley is invested in area hoops. So much so that the former Catholic High School and Samford University standout is carving out a niche in his side job that's expanding in scope by the day.

Pixley, in his ninth season at Dunham, moonlights as the coach and lead instructor of Red Storm basketball, a homegrown AAU team in Baton Rouge which Pixley seemingly stumbled into nearly a decade ago.

"The original premise of Red Storm was to take kids who were doing private lessons with me, who may not have been good enough to make other AAU teams, and offer them a place to play," explained Pixley. "It ended up attracting some more talented kids, and we had some success early on.

"We started with a 17-and-under team that finished runner-up in the state the first year and consisted primarily of private-school kids looking for a place to play. Since then we have grown. We've had normally three to four teams every single year. We just focus really on the kids who want to be here and want to improve every year."

Five years ago, one such kid who found his way into Pixley's gym was 10-year-old Ben Bernhard. A number of the other parents knew who Bernhard's famous father was even if Pixley did not.

"Ironically, I didn't even know who Jim was when Ben walked into the gym," Pixley leveled. "That's just how relegated I am to the gym, I guess. Then he (Jim) walks out and introduces himself to me, and people in the gym were saying, ‘You're a big heavy hitter now.' I told them I had no idea what they were talking about."

What they were talking about was the fact that Jim Bernhard, founder and CEO of The Shaw Group, Baton Rouge's only Fortune 500 company, was taking an interest in his son's passion, basketball. What none of them could have known at the time was Bernhard had been taking notice of an area where Baton Rouge was lagging behind other sporting cities across America.

"It all began when we started an AAU team in Baton Rouge because for fifth graders like my son to play spring basketball, there was no YMCA or CYO in the spring except for AAU," Bernhard recalled. "So we started that (at St. George). As we traveled throughout the country, I noticed from Virginia to Florida to Jackson, Miss., everyone had a minimum of some type of sportsplex. They were always busy. Kids were in there from basketball to volleyball to cheerleading. We looked around Baton Rouge, and we thought the need was there."

And so, after a few years and a slew of discussions with Pixley and his wife Donna, who runs and coaches Red Storm volleyball, Bernhard decided the time had come to rectify the situation. His son, whose AAU team was now under the Red Storm umbrella, and every kid in Baton Rouge for that matter would have a first-class facility to call their own. The idea of Team Sportspex was hatched.

As Bernhard detailed, the project was quite an undertaking, one greatly aided by a familiar partner. "BREC (East Baton Rouge Parish Recreation and Park Commission) enabled us to do it. They were able to put up a significant amount of money and the land. We raised a few million dollars to build the complex, and BREC worked hand-in-hand with us in making the gym available."

Bernhard estimates the facility, including the land, is worth about $4.2 million, with part of the financials to build coming from BREC but the majority of it being publicly raised.

The result, officially called Team Automotive Group Sportsplex, is a 30,000-square foot state-of-the-art recreation complex with three tournament play basketball courts, six youth basketball courts, five competition volleyball courts and a whole lot more. Baton Rouge's new gem, on the corner of Perkins and Kenilworth, opened in August 2012.

"In cooperation with BREC, I think it's been one of the most, no, I think it's been the most successful BREC program on a public-private partnership," said Bernhard. "It's really, really doing well. You couldn't ask for more. The ability to have something that I kind of compare to the Santa Maria Golf Course, a BREC golf facility that's above the rest. It's very popular and financially stable. This complex is above the other BREC gyms. It's very stable."

In Bernhard's eyes, Team Sportsplex fills a longstanding void in the Red Stick community.

"It's a good feeling when you go there Saturday morning. It's kind of like the old CYO used to be," Bernhard continued. "It's where all the kids come down and play on Saturday morning, and the parents come watch them and have a cup of coffee and then have the rest of Saturday free. That hasn't happened in Baton Rouge in a long time, and it enables kids from all different races and economic backgrounds to gather up and have a little fun in the morning and get to know each other a little bit. So it's great. It's been one of the most rewarding things I've ever done."

On a typical weekend, Bernhard says the facility, which can seat 750 people, welcomes in more than 1,000 guests, from adults to children. Just this past weekend, Team Sportsplex hosted three AAU state tournaments, bringing in teams from Shreveport to New Orleans to Lake Charles. Said Bernhard, "They come and stay in hotels and spend money and go out to eat. It's a great deal for Baton Rouge."

Pixley, of course, sees the value in community outreach. He also knows how profound an effect Team Sportsplex can have on his Red Storm program, which now includes three middle school teams and three high school outfits.

"When we were recruiting kids from around the state, we did everything we could to get them down here first, not only to have a meeting but to bring them and say ‘This is your home. This is where you're going to be practicing,'" said Pixley. "At the center of each court at Team Sportsplex, it's got the big Red Storm logo with the volleyball and basketball out there. It's just one of those deals where you feel like we've arrived. We have our facility that Baton Rouge has needed for so long. Now we can host events. We can attract kids from all over."

The next domino to fall for Bernhard and Pixley helped equally as much in the name of recruiting.

Nike checks in

While Jim Bernhard was engaged in the business transaction of his lifetime, selling Shaw to CB&I for a reported $3 billion in February 2013, he also oversaw a deal nowhere near as lucrative in scope but every bit as important to the future of youth basketball in Louisiana.

Nike, aware of the new facility, requested a firsthand view and trekked to Baton Rouge. The global sporting conglomerate was looking to relocate its in-state high school program, one of 40 in the country, from Shreveport.

"I'm not really sure why all that went down (in Shreveport) to be honest with you," said Pixley. "I just know we were approached as were several other clubs, as I understand, and it was kind of the perfect storm with our Red Storm program – last year our 11th grade team won the state championship – and then we just got the new facility in Team Sportsplex down the road and obviously having a guy like Jim Bernhard involved with the program helps. I think it was timing more than anything else."

Suddenly, a fledgling complex constructed more for community purposes than anything else had validation on an entirely different level when Nike went all-in.

"The (Nike) contract had been with another group in Shreveport for 18 years, and they were dissatisfied I think," explained Bernhard. "It kind of, for the lack of a better term, gave a check or a swoosh to what we were doing. It gave just another stamp of credibility that we were doing things in the right way, and Nike knows that. We wanted to be associated with them, and they want to be associated with us over the long term."

That's how the three Red Storm high school teams came to be known as Nike Team Louisiana. They compete as part of the Elite Youth Basketball League, which Pixley describes as "the highest level of exposure you can get on an AAU-type circuit because it doesn't conflict with a lot of AAU events."

"The EYBL is, to shorten things, the best of the best," continued Pixley. "You've got 40 Nike teams in the entire country. We're one of them. So the idea is to, if you can at the end of the first four tournaments, qualify based on your record for the Peach Jam, which would put you in the top 24 teams in the country. That's what everybody is shooting for."

The Peach Jam, scheduled for July 10-14 in North Augusta, S.C., is the mountaintop of exposure for high school basketball players. College coaches and assistants flock to the event every year in high numbers.

It hasn't regularly been the case in the past 10 years – since the likes of Glen Davis and Tyrus Thomas came through the Baton Rouge ranks as part of a once-in-a-generation crop of local talent – that Louisiana-based AAU teams had that kind of exposure. On the contrary, boys from the Bayou have become relatively easy to overlook, with the truly talented ones electing to play AAU ball on different teams, sometimes teams even residing outside state borders.

Now, with Nike Team Louisiana (which Pixley intends to one day rename to the Red Storm) in place in Baton Rouge, a transformation is happening. The state's best talent, and even two players from Houston, are flocking to one program, excited to practice under the Team Sportsplex roof and wear that Nike logo.

"The team that was based out of Shreveport had some really good talent," said Pixley. "I just think the fact that it's based out of Baton Rouge now will help centralize things, so to speak. The idea is for these kids to be on the same radar as the kids in California, Florida, New York, Texas or wherever. I think we have some of the best players not only in the region but in the country down here. There's no reason they should be under-recruited. We have several guys who are getting recruited pretty heavily, but I think they will be recruited more heavily now that this situation is available to them." Bernhard, ever a champion of his home state, sees eye-to-eye with that logic. He also knows the opportunity many of these kids are being afforded for the first time.

"I always say I'm Louisiana committed and Louisiana proud, every since I built my company and now working with Nike and the Red Storm," Bernhard explained. "It gives an opportunity to the young men who have some athletic ability to be seen on a national scale. These groups at Nike will play from Los Angeles to Minneapolis to Virginia to Dallas, performing at a minimum over the spring and summer with these teams where all the national coaches will be able to evaluate their talent. Along with that, a lot of these young men are traveling on an airplane for the first time. Some of them have never been to Los Angeles or Dallas or Miami, so it gives them the opportunity to experience something they may not have had the opportunity to experience in any other way."

With such an enticing package available, Pixley feels the best will want to remain in Louisiana now to play their AAU ball, joining forces instead of dividing and diluting the state's collective power. Such a shift in mentality, to Pixley, is overdue.

"It's an interesting mix. You take Brian Bridgewater, for example. He's been playing (AAU ball) in Houston for the last three years," Pixley said, looking back. "If we had this Nike deal, Brian Bridgewater is playing for us. There's no reason for the talented kids in the area to leave."

What remains to be seen is if that thought process will extend itself to LSU.

Win-win-win?

Capturing Louisiana by getting the best and brightest under one roof with the ability to travel to the biggest national tournaments is big news on its own. So too is the tangible impact on the Baton Rouge community that Team Sportsplex is already having.

The next question, though, could well result in a third boom. What does all this mean for the future of LSU basketball?

For one, head coach Johnny Jones' son plays on the Red Storm's eighth-grade team. But, with the talent currently assembled in the program, featuring players from some of the state's best prep programs like Riverside, University High and Brother Martin, it's a safe bet that Jones' interest will extend past his own flesh and blood.

If there is a positive correlation between the Red Storm's success and LSU's future recruiting endeavors, Bernhard and Pixley don't seem to mind it one bit, even if they can't technically endorse the state's flagship university.

"I hope so. I want it to," Pixley responded when asked if LSU could benefit. "Obviously I can't have any direct communication with those guys (at LSU) about that. They never have and they never will. I think Johnny Jones is the right guy for the job. I think (assistant) David Patrick is the right guy for that staff. I know the rest of the staff as well, and I think those guys are building something really good.

"Really and truly, we want to be kind of an extension, actually more of the lead into what they're trying to accomplish. Here's why: When I was playing in high school, Baton Rouge was the center of high school basketball. New Orleans was huge as well, but we felt like here in Baton Rouge we had the best basketball to offer. We want to get back to that point. Ultimately the goal is to help Louisiana basketball out and get this thing back to where it's not just a football and baseball state. That's where it is right now."

Bernhard's two cents: "What's good for basketball in Louisiana is great for LSU. I remember when Dale Brown used to go to every high school in the state and give them a purple-and-gold net. If it's good for basketball, if it makes basketball popular, if it's good for developing athletes, hey, it's great for LSU. And right here in Baton Rouge, it certainly is a special place. As it is we (LSU) can only take one or two or maybe three athletes a year for the basketball program, and typically Baton Rouge alone has more than that amount as far as Division-I players."

In fact an infusion of recognizable LSU basketball alums has already begun at Team Sportsplex, as Bernhard explains, with the kids being the beneficiaries.

"Right now we have Stanley Roberts giving lessons in the gym," Bernard recounted. "There's an athlete who's come back, is working hard, has got his life turned around and is really doing a great job. Heck, if you're in high school in Baton Rouge or anywhere around, I mean it's pretty special to come and get Stanley Roberts to give you a lesson on playing with your back to the goal.

"We have a lot of the ex-LSU athletes (involved). Collis Temple Jr. is on the Board of Directors of the gym. I mean we have a lot of ex-LSU athletes that are involved in helping coach the teams, giving clinics. I'll give you an interesting story on Collis Temple's daughter. She started playing basketball, and she looked at her dad one day and said, ‘Dad, you know, I kind of like this volleyball more.' So now she's a volleyball player for the Red Storm."

With the family atmosphere evident and growing inside the new complex, the culture of LSU basketball is certain to become part of the family. It may have started with people like Roberts and Temple, who Bernhard confided has been "egging me on" to build something like Team Sportsplex for years, but it will continue into the future, especially with LSU legacies like Wayde Sims (son of former Tiger Wayne) suiting up for the Red Storm.

In the end, Pixley probably sums it up best when talking about Bernhard, saying, "He wants to see Louisiana succeed in every aspect."

After relinquishing the reins of a Fortune 500 company he created, and in the midst of swirling rumors that he could become the country's next Energy Secretary, Jim Bernhard took time to steer basketball in Louisiana in the right direction.

The reward that is the sport's future in Baton Rouge and throughout the state will almost certainly pay him back in years to come.

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