By Michael Murillo
The home team takes the court to cheers in the stands as fans celebrate the pro league’s best basketball team. Crisp passing, aggressive defense and accurate shooting leads to a title-clinching victory, and the crowd leaves happy after watching their team earn the league championship.
In previous years, that scene has played out in big-market cities like Chicago and Los Angeles, with NBA teams celebrating titles that identify them as elite franchises. But it also occurred on July 28 right here in New Tampa, where the minor league Tampa Bay Rebels claimed their first Florida Basketball Association (FBA) championship at Freedom High in Tampa Palms, the site of the Rebels’ regular season games. Tampa Bay finished the season with a 12-1 record after besting the Lake Wales area’s Heartland Prowl (8-5) in the league’s title game, 131-106.
“Everybody worked very hard to get to this point,” said the Rebels general manager and head coach Fernando Rojas. “I am glad we won the championship.”
With just four teams in the FBA, the clubs played each other several times, but Tampa Bay and Heartland proved to be the class of the league. Neither the Florida Flight (2-10) nor the Palm Beach Titans (2-10) were able to challenge the front-runners for a berth in the championship game, and it was the Prowl that handed Tampa Bay a 102-99 road defeat in week 2. That would turn out to be the team’s only loss, and the Rebels would go on to defeat Heartland three times throughout the regular season before besting them a fourth time to claim the league championship.
The Rebels’ players might not be national sports celebrities like their NBA counterparts, but they take their job seriously. According to Rojas, who founded the Rebels in 2011, the club’s focus is on playing quality basketball with experienced, talented players who are focused on winning.
“We have a great group of guys who execute our defensive and offensive sets on the court,” Rojas said. “The quality of play is higher than any college in the area.”
The Rebels reached the FBA’s pinnacle by fielding a team with local ties, including players from the University of Tampa (point guard Jonathan Brown) and St. Leo College (center Matt Kendrick, who also attended Chamberlain High). Rojas said that 60 percent of the team lives in Tampa, with the majority of those players living in North Tampa. The rest are from Jacksonville and Georgia.
For the Rebels, part of being a hometown team also means participating in area charitable events. The team has partnered with groups such as Habitat For Humanity, the Boys & Girls Club and the Hillsborough County Parks & Recreation Dept.
“I think it’s important we give back to the community not only because it’s the moral thing to do, but also because we are members of the same community,” Rojas explained. “We can all help to create a better environment for families.”
Rojas has a personal history with the area himself, once serving as an assistant coach at Freedom. He says he is thankful to be able to bring a successful team back to the court where he once coached, and credited Freedom’s athletic director Eli Thomas and boys varsity coach Cedric Smith for their support and assistance throughout the year.
Successful seasons don’t happen by accident, and Rojas says the team’s path to success started before any FBA games were played. He scouted talent in Georgia, Jacksonville and Tampa, and even had the team face a Latin American squad in Cancun, Mexico, as part of preseason preparations.
In the end, the season-long efforts of the players on the court created a winning attitude, a winning record, an 11-game winning streak and the 2012 FBA title.
“It has to do with chemistry and discipline,” Rojas says. “We prepared to compete at a high level and I think our conditioning and game preparation caught some teams off guard.”
For more information about the Tampa Bay Rebels, visit TampaBayRebels.com.