Tampa Bay Rebels extend the dream for basketball players

The Tampa Bay Rebels get a shot at minor league championship.
Tampa Bay Rebels head coach Fernando Rojas talks to players during a time out in last week's game. ANDY WARRENER   |   Special to the Times
Tampa Bay Rebels head coach Fernando Rojas talks to players during a time out in last week's game.ANDY WARRENER | Special to the Times
Published July 31 2013
Updated July 31 2013

With only a tiny fraction of high school and college basketball players reaching the NBA, many former hoopsters find themselves caught between their love for the game and the need to make a living.

The Tampa Bay Rebels provide these players the perfect outlet.

As part of the Florida Basketball Association, the Rebels not only allow players to continue their careers, but they do so with success. The Rebels (11-2) will square off against the Heartland Prowl (10-3) Saturday night at Freedom High for the league championship.

For players such as former Wesley Chapel High guard Robert Fuchs, the games are a chance to extend his passion.

"I'd thought I'd lived out my dream," Fuchs said. "I didn't realize there was this whole other dream available."

Fuchs graduated from Wesley Chapel in 2007, after making the regional finals and leading the conference and district in three-pointers his junior year. He went on to play for Sage College in New York for two years before a devastating ankle injury sidelined him and his career.

"It was like night and day," Fuchs said. "From technically living the dream, to it all being over, to almost exactly one year later, I get a call from Fernando (Rojas)."

Rojas is an assistant coach for the Freedom High School boys basketball team but has experience and reach into the international basketball community. He grew up playing in Guadalajara, Mexico, and also coached in a Mexican league.

In 2007, he formed what was basically a club travel team and called it the Tampa Bay Sharks. Without a league and with Rojas still coaching in Mexico, the Sharks played exhibitions in Mexico and Argentina.

In 2010 the FBA was formed, the Sharks became the Rebels and a four-team league was born.

"This (league) isn't for kids or weekend warriors," Rojas said. "(The FBA) is the highest level of basketball in the city."

It's a heady statement but it's not too far of a reach. The Magic plays in Orlando, the Heat in Miami. Sure, the University of South Florida Bulls play here in town but according to Rojas, "these guys (FBA players) have a lot more experience especially in the physical game.

"Most of these guys have already finished college, some have international basketball experience, some guys are really talented," Rojas said. "This is a place for them."

Not everyone's journey is the same.

Fuchs landed with the Rebels after two years of college ball. Former Wharton High School and Butler star Shawn Vanzant played one game for the Rebels this season before finding opportunities elsewhere. Then there are players such as Jonathan Brown. At 34, Brown isn't still trying to get to that proverbial next level.

"I'm just doing it for the love, right now," Brown said. "It's a step above the college level."

Brown would know, he played for the UT Spartans from 1998 to 2002. Like many other athletes on the Rebels squad, Brown was scouted at a local recreational league game by Rojas.

Brown is the veteran leader on the team and if you think he's just a figurehead, consider that he has the best shooting percentage, three-point shooting percentage and the fourth-highest point total on the team this year.

Playing in a packed gym at UT is a far cry from playing a sparsely populated gym of a local high school but Brown still has no problem getting up for a game.

"When the gym is packed it gives you that extra boost, when it's not, you have to dig deeper," Brown said. "Once (you're) playing the game, when you're in competition mode, it's just you and the opponent and you want to come out on top."

And the FBA is no fly-by-night recreational league. It has already survived the two-year curse that hangs over minor league sports groups. Minor league basketball organizations have typically struggled in Florida.

"Some of these leagues are too ambitious," Rojas said. "There's a long history of leagues promising something that they cannot deliver."

What sets the FBA apart?

According to Rojas, three things make the FBA a sustainable business model: the FBA doesn't charge teams an entry fee, the league plays all its games regionally and it's close-knit with strong leadership.

"We have developed a level of comfort with each other (team owners and league officials)," Rojas said. "We took the time to get to know each other, the teams, the owners and made sure the teams had websites, kept stats and were all headed in the same direction."

It certainly helps that the FBA commissioner is two-time NBA champion Greg Kite who played with Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics.

"He (Kite) brings good input and leadership, plus Greg gets everyone's respect," Rojas said.

Now in their third full season, the FBA and the Rebels are starting to take on the look of a franchise.

The Rebels complement games with fan enticements: pregame music, player introductions and even a dance team, courtesy of Largo's Dance Central.

The team also sports an E-newsletter, a website, two assistant coaches, a team marketing director and sponsors.

"It's not just a hobby anymore, we're a corporation with a tax ID number that does basketball," Rojas said.

The impact beyond just the league is starting to be realized, as well. Rojas and the Rebels are helping some of the league's top players sign international contracts.

Andy Warrener can be reached at [email protected]