Wiedmer: Rail Runners a chance to prolong hoop dreams

Wiedmer: Rail Runners a chance to prolong hoop dreams

May 19th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Around 9 o'clock tonight, Fred Sturdivant will position himself in front of the television for the start of the NBA Western Conference finals between San Antonio and Oklahoma City, intent on studying the OKC player he hopes to become - Kevin Durant.

"We're both long and thin, though he's a couple of inches taller," said the 6-7 Sturdivant late Saturday night, just after his 18 points weren't quite enough to help save the Chattanooga Rail Runners from a season-ending 123-118 loss to St. Louis in the Central Basketball Association playoffs.

"But I do try to model my game after him. My main goal is still to one day get to the NBA."

Sturdivant shouldn't be criticized for aiming high. The former Brainerd High School and Texas Southern star spent much of this past season in Canada and his agent is attempting to negotiate a deal for next season in Australia or the NBA's Developmental League. So even as Sturdivant reaches for the stars, his feet remain solidly on the ground (Thanks, Casey Kasem).

But everybody who's ever made a single jump shot in an organized basketball game has that NBA goal for at least a year or two. That hoop dream is tougher to extinguish for most of the semi-pro Rail Runners, however. All these guys have played college ball, some at the highest level, such as former East Ridge High School star Philip Jurick, who later played meaningful minutes at Oklahoma State, after first signing with Tennessee, then transferring to Chattanooga State.

"I'm just 24," said the 6-11, 260-pound Jurick, who'd been playing professionally in Mexico before joining the Rail Runners for the final four games of the season. "I've got time. I'll just try to work on my game and my conditioning this summer and see what happens. Maybe Europe. Maybe the [NBA] D-League. We'll see."

Rail Runners coach Rodney English once played professionally in Europe and China after a standout career at East Tennessee State. Formerly a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga assistant under John Shulman, his full-time job these days is running the boys varsity program at East Hamilton High School.

"We've got several guys on this team who should be able to play at a higher level," English said. "Sturdivant, Jurick, E'jay Ward, maybe Jonathan Adams [another former UTC assistant] and Alex Wells."

The problem, according to English, often hinges on recognizing how hard they must work to reach that next level, whatever that level is.

"Just because they want it, they think it's supposed to happen," he said. "It's the little things that often hold guys back. Like tonight, they didn't follow instructions against the press, they didn't run the play we drew up at the end. They didn't listen. You can't do that at the next level, whatever that is."

Rail Runners owner Paul Gaffney reached one of basketball's highest pro levels, performing for 15 years with the Harlem Globetrotters. He founded the Rail Runners as a way to provide local players yet one more opportunity to realize their professional dreams.

Though the former Tennessee Wesleyan great won't discuss salaries, he will say, "It's more than what they'd make playing summer ball. They just can't quit their day jobs. But this league gives them a chance to be seen by scouts all over the world. This game [the St. Louis loss] was seen all over the world on the Internet, and you can bet a lot of scouts were watching."

Not every player expects to be discovered. Some -- such as former Tennessee player Rob Murphy or former UTC Moc Dontay Hampton -- are probably content to return to the Rail Runners next year, playing before 400 or more appreciative fans at the Rossville Athletic Center, which was once the home court of Rossville High School

"It's just been great to have a chance to play again," said Murphy, who's now the athletic director at Knoxville's Concord Christian School. "I'd kind of assumed my playing career was over."

So did former Brainerd star E'jay Ward, who graduated from Tennessee Wesleyan last year.

"I went through a little down period after college," he said. "You think that four years will last forever."

But then he heard about the Rail Runners.

"I knew Rodney English was a good coach," Ward said. "I would love to be a coach at the college level one day, so I thought learning from him would be really fun."

It has been such a fun experience that Ward is receiving interest from higher level professional teams looking for a gnat-quick point guard.

"I'm comfortable with playing overseas or in another league like this," he said. "I know I'm 5-8. That's [NBA] big boy basketball. You have to have a reasonable goal."

And if nothing bigger comes along, Ward's also content to keep teaching at East Lake Middle, where he's the full-time sub and hopes to one day run the P.E. department.

"I had 15 or 20 family members here tonight," he said. "It was just like my old high school days."

And wouldn't every athlete love one last chance to relive his glory days? Especially if there was a check attached at the end of each game.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com