Commentary | Can Florida Gulf Coast's run to Sweet 16 rejuvenate hoops interest locally?

adell@bradenton.comMarch 27, 2013 

Good basketball players in Manatee County usually wind up trading in their sneakers for a pair of football cleats or baseball shoes before they graduate high school.

Thanks to a bunch of kids few wanted out of high school, the landscape has changed -- hopefully for more than just a week.

Within a span of about five days, Florida Gulf Coast University has breathed life into a sport that many have left for dead in Manatee County, which once evoked fear in opponents entering its borders for a game of five-on-five.

Palmetto head boys basketball coach Reggie Bellamy, who has played and coached at the college and high school level, hopes the FGCU run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament will show kids here that the sport can be a way to a free education and maybe a little glory on the hardwood.

"FGCU is everybody's dream. I am using it as an opportunity to communicate with kids that you can do a lot of things in basketball," Bellamy said. "There is a definite recognition of basketball in the state of Florida now. How that is going to transform to Manatee County, I don't know. But hopefully it puts a priority on it.

"I don't think a lot of kids here feel they can reach their basketball dreams, and that's not true. But there is a misunderstanding that you can pick up a basketball in October and get a Division I scholarship. Football and baseball are operating year round, and basketball has to be the same way."

Despite being known for football, Manatee County has had three Mr. Florida basketball players (fewer than only Dade and Polk counties) in Clifford Rozier, LeRon Williams and Adrian

McPherson from Southeast, which is tied for the most along with perennial power Miami Senior High.

When Bellamy was head coach at Manatee High, he had successful teams that turned out Division I players. Two of them, Marcus Washington and Bryan Borstelman, shunned Division I schools and had a successful career at the Division II level. The last successful Division I player from the county is Bradenton Christian's D.J. Magley, and Palmetto's Shed Haynes plays professionally in Europe.

Whether he is aware of it or not, Cardinal Mooney's Antonio Blakeney is setting an example in Manatee and Sarasota counties for young basketball players who want get a college scholarship via their hardwood skills.

He is an extremely gifted athlete who is sticking with basketball and, perhaps more importantly, not giving it up to play football as others have done.

The state has three teams in the Sweet 16 with Florida and Miami, but FGCU is Cinderella. The best part is that FGCU is easy to sell if you are telling kids around here that basketball can be the pathway to their dreams.

The Eagles' Sherwood Brown averaged 11.5 points per game his senior year at Orlando Olympia. He walked on at FGCU and was the Atlantic Sun player of the year this season.

FGCU point guard Brad Comer, who led the A-Sun in assists this season, played in the shadow of the heralded Austin Rivers when they were teammates at Winter Park.

Some of the FGCU stories have taken on a Paul Bunyan life of their own, particularly with Chase Fieler. Dubbed the mayor of Dunk City, contrary to his rags-to-riches story, the West Virginia schoolboy was pretty good in high school, averaging 25.3 points and 12.7 rebounds per game. However, what we most hear is that he only scored 11 points his entire freshman year.

Bellamy likes to point out there are similar stories in Manatee County. Southeast head coach Elliot Washington played at Manatee Community College for two years and then was the starting point guard on an Alabama team that had five future NBA players.

The State College of Florida basketball team took off this season under new coach Brock Erickson and gives local players a vehicle to reach their hoop dreams.

Brett Mekley, who coached the last MCC women's basketball team before the program was shut down in 1998, said FGCU can pay dividends if it is handled right.

"It's a Cinderella story, and anytime you have three teams from the state in the Sweet 16 it brings awareness. But it's real important to take that awareness and enthusiasm and channel it to the youth level and provide opportunities for the young people," Mekley said.

Alan Dell, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 941-745-7080, ext. 2112. Follow him on Twitter at @ADellSports.

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