GULFPORT, Miss. (WLOX) - When former Gulfport star Leonard Bennett saw how tough it became for some of South Mississippi’s finest basketball stars to play accessible AAU basketball, he took matters into his own hands - and helped put a team right in our backyard.
“I think it’s hard on the parents to drive to Louisiana every weekend, to drive to Jackson every weekend, drive to Alabama every weekend. We got together and said let’s do it on the Coast, because we have enough talent on the Coast to do it,” Bennett said. “If you want to come out and play, you don’t have to go to those venues to play.”
And what better person to help start a team with, than former Admiral and LSU standout turned pro, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf? Formerly known as Chris Jackson, whenever Rauf can find time, he comes back to his roots as a part-time assistant, to help the community that helped him years ago.
“The goal in life is to find your gift, and the purpose in life is to give it away,” Abdul-Rauf said. “A lot has been given to me throughout the years - by people from this area, and people not in this area. Giving back is a priority.”
The team’s season begins in March, just weeks after the high school season concludes. For the players, it’s a chance to play as one as Mississippians, just days removed from being school opponents on the court.
“In the end, we come together, to play against other people in other states who say they’re better than us. And we beat them, so we say we’re better than them,” Harrison Central senior and South Carolina commit Carlous Williams said. “They say we’re ‘little old Mississippi’. So it feels good.”
For the coaches, helping develop elite basketball players is only part of the grand vision. And the game itself is more than just a game.
“We try to mold young men first, and get these kids to play Division I basketball, Division II basketball, or NAIA basketball, and go to school for free,” Bennett said. “That’s our ultimate goal - to mold young men and get them in school.’
“Having them understand that basketball is a tool. There’s carry-over to everything,” Abdul-Rauf said. “Whether it’s sacrifice, networking, teamwork - those are things you’ll need in everything you do in life. When they get it, that’s what’s most rewarding.”