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Thursday, April 12, 2012 04:39 pm

New basketball league brings hoops to Springfield

Springfield Xpress wants to bring community together

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When Steffen Spinks was a young boy growing up in Manteca, Calif., his mother didn’t want him to spend his time playing basketball. She encouraged Spinks to get involved in other sports because she worried that being a young, black basketball player came with a negative stereotype.  

Spinks, who is pursuing a history degree at the University of Illinois Springfield, said that he was eight or nine before his mother realized that he needed to play basketball.

“I was playing Little League soccer. I was the goalkeeper at the time,” Spinks said. “Basically, I was walking back and forth in the goal, not paying attention to the game, and I was acting like I was dribbling a basketball. My parents at that point realized, ‘Yeah, he needs to be playing basketball,’ so they stopped trying to put me in other sports.”

Spinks, who attended the College of Idaho before transferring to UIS in 2010, said that he learned about the Independent Basketball Association through playing in a 2011 winter basketball league in Springfield, which led to him meeting Springfield Xpress’ head coach Tives Gardner.

The Springfield Xpress is a community-based men’s basketball team in the Independent Basketball Association, which features a schedule of 15 games and a NCAA playoff system. The Xpress joined the 12-team league in the fall of 2011, but did not begin playing games until this spring.

The Independent Basketball Association is a Midwest-based winter and spring men’s basketball league that features players from various professional ranks ranging from college to the National Basketball Association’s developmental league. The IBA is an up-tempo style of basketball, which primarily features men in their twenties. Tickets to Springfield Xpress home games are $6. Games are at Lanphier High School.

Coach Gardner was working as a referee for winter league basketball games in Springfield when he observed Spinks playing. Gardner asked him if he would be interested in trying out for a new basketball team in Springfield.

Spinks was initially hesitant to accept the tryout because he had heard months earlier that another basketball player had tried out for the team, but “the tryout didn’t involve any real basketball drills.” Gardner reassured Spinks that the tryout was legitimate and that an IBA team was being created in Springfield.

Within a week Spinks, 24, accepted the tryout and soon was selected as a member of the Xpress.

Barry Bradford, chairman, co-founder and spokesman for the IBA, said that teams in the IBA are all league-owned, but a few of the teams are “sponsored” by specific individuals such as Jonathan Taylor, who is director of operations for the IBA and also sponsors the Xpress.

Bradford, of Chicago, declined to give an exact figure for how much it costs to own or buy a team in the IBA, but said that it typically costs between $30,000 and $40,000 to create a team and “do basic operations” like selecting a coaching staff and providing transportation to and from games.

Bradford, owner of the IBA’s Kankakee County Soldiers, said the purpose of creating a basketball team in Springfield was three-fold. Creating a basketball league in Springfield would allow local basketball players to improve their chances of being spotted by talent scouts from the NBA or overseas teams.

The league also hopes to get members of the Springfield community involved to serve as role models for Springfield’s youth. Bradford says that may lead to Springfield Xpress players serving in mentoring programs in Springfield schools and providing positive messages to students about topics like bullying.

Jonathan Taylor, who has spent the last nine years living in Springfield, said the Xpress is already getting involved in the community.

“The team provides a unique platform for us to spread a positive message in Springfield, especially considering we are getting involved with schools, social services agencies and other groups within the community,” Taylor said.

“Thus far, it has been really positive,” he continued, adding that the team visited St. Patrick Catholic School last month to have a session on sportsmanship and the negative effects of bullying. “The messages were really well received by the students.”

Contact Neil Schneider at nschneider@illinoistimes.com.

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