In the world of professional sports, teams who claim a Super Bowl trophy, NBA championship or World Series win are welcomed home by crowds of adoring fans and a ticker-tape parade. It’s not quite the same when the national champions are a group of seventh-grade basketball players, but that may change next weekend.
In July, the South Georgia Kings seventh-grade squad defeated a team from Puerto Rico to earn the national championship trophy at the 2012 Youth Basketball of America National Tournament in Kissimmee, Fla.
On Saturday, Sept. 1, the community is invited to honor the SGK athletes for a job well-done and watch as they showcase their skills. The event is organized by Liberty County District 5 Commissioner Gary Gilliard, who has a passion for basketball and a personal relationship with the players.
“This was not a weekend tournament where they went to Savannah and beat 16 teams,” Gilliard said. “This is not a state recreation title where they went to Atlanta and won the Class B championship. This is a national title. And while there may be other national tournaments in the United States, they won this one and that is a pretty big thing. Liberty County is home to many things, but right now, we are home to a national champion.”
Gilliard is president of Seven Ministries of Liberty County, a nonprofit organization that offers a variety of services to people in the community. One of their programs involves youth mentoring, and Gilliard said the team’s coach, Shane Smith, is setting a good example for the boys.
“He is coaching teenage boys, and they are doing good things in the community,” Gilliard said. “It is something positive in the community. I thought the best way to recognize them would be to have an outdoor basketball game where these young men can come in and showcase their talents. When you have a team that can win a national title, you just have to figure that if these guys continue, some of them — maybe two or three of them — can continue on to play Division I basketball.”
Gilliard invited all the local elected officials. Hinesville Mayor Jim Thomas and Commission Chairman John McIver will serve as honorary coaches for the SGK’s Red vs. White inter-league scrimmage. Gilliard also invited basketball players from Bradwell and Liberty County High School to participate in a slam-dunk contest. The Kings also will compete in a 3-point shootout at halftime.
Gilliard said City Councilman Keith Jenkins and Dr. Sinclair Thorne of First Calvary Baptist Church will put on a martial-arts exhibition as well. Lady Tiger basketball coach Faye Baker, who Gilliard said he considers the face of basketball in the county, will toss the ceremonial tip-off at 11 a.m.
Gilliard said drinks and food will be provided, but donations will be accepted.
“Other than showcasing the talent, we want to have a fundraiser. … The AAU season just ended, but it starts up again real soon,” he said. “Even though we are not charging a fee, we will accept donations so anybody that wants to (can) give us a head start for next year.”
“It’s a wonderful feeling to have the support of Gary and Seven Ministries,” coach Shane Smith said. “It means a lot to me and also the kids. They have continued to support us, and we really appreciate it.”
The event is at Jack Carter Park — a place Gilliard remembers fondly.
“Jack Carter Park — it’s been called that for the past 25 years, but before it was the park it was just a playground where a lot of people honed their basketball skills,” he said. “Some of the best basketball players in the county learned to play basketball on that field. It’s a historical playground. Jerome Smith (coach Shane Smith’s father) had the playground at his backdoor, and right across the street, Donell Woods was the coach. When we played ball out there, we were surrounded by our mentors. And we played some good basketball. And to bring this team into what I consider this historic site for basketball, that was my first thought. But to get the community together to recognize them, that is the thing.”
Gilliard said AAU programs have helped boys grow into respectful young men and talented basketball players.
University of Tennessee basketball player Jordan McRae and University of Miami player Rion Brown grew up playing in AAU leagues in the county and state.
Team mentors, leaders and the South Georgia Kings coaching staff’s hard work to keep kids moving in the right direction should be recognized, according to Gilliard.
“Ernie Walthour has an AAU team. Marcus Scott has one. … We could raise a little money, but also get the community behind the positive aspect in what the youth in this community are doing,” the commissioner said. “Other than being able to run and jump and shoot, there are some other things that these kids that are in those programs are doing. They have to maintain a certain average to be able to play. They have to be upstanding and do things a certain way just to be in that program. You may be a better basketball player than somebody on the team but if you don’t meet the criteria, you don’t play.”
Gilliard also would like to see a sign honoring the team somewhere in the city.
“You can come into Liberty County from a certain direction and you will see a sign saying, ‘Home of DeLisha Milton-Jones.’ You can go to Pembroke through 119 and Fort Stewart and they have a sign saying Pembroke is the home of Miss Georgia 1992. Ludowici has a sign, ‘Home Andy Fuller, world arm-wrestling champion,’” Gilliard said. “This is Liberty County and we are home of DeLisha Milton-Jones, but we are also the home of a national basketball team. I don’t know if people really realize how big of a deal that is. But it is a pretty big deal.”
• 11 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 1
Jack Carter Park, located at East Mills and Rebecca Street.