Here comes the Rain. • Tampa Bay's latest push for professional basketball comes in the form of a team composed of players with mostly small or community college experience, coached by a former NBA standout with a cool name, that competes in a league known for its fast-paced, entertaining brand of basketball. • The Tampa Bay Rain tipped off its inaugural season in the American Basketball Association Friday against the visiting Gainesville (Ga.) Heat. Though its first home games are being played at the MAC Center in Odessa, the team is expected to move later this season to the larger Expo Hall at the Florida State Fairgrounds, which seats 9,500 and served as the original home of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The ABA is a semiprofessional league that includes 81 teams playing in 12 conferences stretching from Alaska to Connecticut. The Rain is competing in the Atlantic South Conference with teams from Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.
Head coach and former NBA player Tree Rollins leads the Rain in its debut season.
"One of our main goals this season is to create some kind of foundation in Tampa Bay. Create a following," said Rollins, a 7-foot-1 center who spent 18 seasons in the NBA, most of them with Atlanta. "We need to have a good product out there. Nothing is going to create a real following other than winning."
Before joining the Rain, Rollins coached the now-defunct Greenville Groove of the NBA Development League and was an assistant for the Washington Mystics of the WNBA.
"I don't change the way I coach, even though I have experience as an NBA player and coach," Rollins said. "We tried to find the best guys that had the best job to play as a team, not necessarily the most talented. We just want them to gel quickly as a team. We have limited practice time."
Part of the reason for the limited practice time is that most players have other jobs or are in school. Because of this, the bulk of games are played on weekends.
But Rollins said that doesn't mean his players are any less talented than NBA ballers.
"Some (players), at this point in their career, are just as talented … I can tell some previously had great coaching experience," he said.
Russell Brown, a 6-foot-7, 200-pound forward for the Rain, said it's not easy to juggle life and basketball.
"For me, the hardest part was finding time to actually work out and get my body in game shape," said Brown, who played at Southeastern University in Lakeland.
Before joining the Rain, Brown had played in basketball leagues in Safety Harbor, St. Petersburg, Temple Terrace, Town 'N Country and New Port Richey.
"I love to play, but I was just never in the right situation to continue my professional career," he said.
Since joining the Rain, Brown has been hitting the gym most mornings at 5 a.m., working out with best friend and Rain teammate Otis White.
Brown and White are among a 13-man roster stocked mostly with players who have played college ball at local schools, including the University of South Florida, University of Tampa, Saint Leo, Pasco-Hernando Community College and University of Central Florida.
Rollins said Brown, White and Kyle Ohman could play key roles with the team this season.
"White reminds me of Isiah Thomas. He has the ability to give you 25 or 30 points," Rollins said. "Brown can play, but I remind him to play his game, don't wait. If he does this, he'll be one of our standouts.
"And Ohman is a game-changer on both ends. He has the ability to score. I call him 'Captain Chaos' and remind him to be a controlled chaos."
White, a 6-3, 185-pound point guard out of Barry University in Miami, said his goal this season is to be a leader, both on and off the court, and do whatever is needed to help his team win every night.
"I am blessed and thankful for the opportunity God has given me, but being able to do this in front of my friends and family, words can't express how that makes me feel," White said.
Brown shared in his teammate's sentiment. "There were plenty of guys who could be in my position to represent the city of Tampa, so it definitely means a lot and I take it serious to go hard and leave it on the floor," he said.
Though some might dismiss the ABA as a minor league full of players that aren't ready to give up their NBA dreams, or ones that don't quite have the talent, Rollins doesn't share that view.
"I've worked in the ABA, WNBA and NBA. I've got a couple of guys that could have made the NBA," he said. "They're pretty talented basketball players."
The ABA has several rules that make it different from the NBA. Teams have only seven seconds to advance the ball from the backcourt, compared to the eight seconds that NBA teams have. Overtime periods last three minutes instead of the NBA's five. The ABA also awards four points to baskets made from the backcourt.
The rules are designed to create a fast-paced, fan-friendly game, according to the league.
Ohman expects the team to be both entertaining and successful this season.
"After being a part of the team and seeing the talent that the Rain has from Player 1 through 13, the goal is to win our region and then try to see how far we can take it after that," he said.