While the ‘burgh may be nationally known for its football, baseball and hockey teams, the city is also home to two semi-professional basketball teams—the Steel City Yellow Jackets and the Steel City Queens—which have a faithful and growing fan base of their own.
“While it’s true that this city loves football, baseball and hockey, I consider Pittsburgh to be a basketball town as well,” said owner and coach Ace Pippens. “Think about it—every junior high school and high school has a boys’ and girls’ basketball team. Every Friday during basketball season, those gyms fill up because there’s a love for the game.
“We’ve had thousands of fans at some of our games, and they keep coming,” he added. “People are looking for a professional team beyond high school and college play; they want to engage on that level.”
The Steel City Yellow Jackets, part of the American Basketball Association (ABA), formed in Pittsburgh in 2014 as the brainchild of national recording hip-hop artist Antjuan ‘Tjuan Benafactor’ Washington. The Steel City Queens formed three years ago as part of the Women’s American Basketball Association (WABA).
The ABA has been around since 1967, though it merged with the NBA in 1976 and lay dormant for a number of years. “About 17 years ago, it became active again, and the NBA agreed to let the league play as long as it didn’t compete with their organization,” said Pippens. “The ABA is not a farm system, though there are players, both men and women, who have made it to the NBA and WNBA.”
Pippens uses his experience as the former head coach of the Penn State McKeesport men’s basketball team to find and recruit the best players.
“We get players from all over; we scout all over the country and deal with agents from across the world,” he explained. “For example, this year’s men’s team has a mixture of young men from the Pennsylvania tri-state area, as well as out-of-state. This past season, eight players were from Pittsburgh, two were from New York, one was from Michigan and one was from Atlanta.
“A lot of our players were on college teams or played overseas, and they still want to compete,” he continued. “That’s one of the reasons why we have these leagues—so many young people finish college and professional careers and have nothing to do, and the ABA can help them continue on.”
Steel City Yellow Jackets’ co-captain, Gilmore Cummings, is one of these players. Cummings played on a team in Frankfurt, Germany, before returning to Pittsburgh to play for Pippens, who was his high school coach.
“I play because I’ve got a love for the game,” explained Cummings, who has been on the team for the past six years. “Plus I’m good. I love to shoot the three-ball, and I enjoy the excitement of the crowd. I love competing.”
Sabrina McLin joined the Steel City Queens after four years of playing basketball for La Roche University.
“It was always my plan to try to play professional basketball after college, whether overseas or on a semi-pro team,” she explained. “The summer that I graduated, the opportunity came up to play on the Steel City Queens, and it was a good way to continue my career.
“I’m originally from Cleveland, and we’re really big on basketball there,” she added. “When I got to Pittsburgh, it wasn’t such a big thing—especially the female side of it. The Steel City Queens brings something new to the city and gives female basketball players opportunities—it’s something different for the community to watch and something positive going on in the inner city.”
In addition to providing a place for people to come see professional-level teams play, both Steel City teams also play a large part in the community.
“Our goal, first and foremost, is community engagement,” said Pippens. “We help the community as a whole, starting with youth up to adults. Not only do these leagues provide opportunities for young players, but we also use our platform to better serve Pittsburgh.”
Team players participate in fundraising events and kids’ basketball leagues during the summer and also make it a point to serve as positive role models.
“We do a lot of mentoring, showing kids that they don’t need to be out in the streets—that they can get out by playing basketball,” said Cummings.
The teams play against other ABA teams at A Giving Heart Community Center in Southside’s Allentown neighborhood and hope to soon bring home a title.
“Unfortunately, this past year we lost in the Final Four to the Jacksonville Giants, who are the four-time defending champions,” said Pippens. “We got one step closer than last year.”
While the teams may not yet have a Steelers or Penguins-sized following, they plan to continue to play for their fans and for the sheer love of the game.
“We’re going to do great things this year; getting into the playoffs and then playing in the championship is one of our goals; it’s on our bucket list,” said McLin. “We’re excited for this year coming up.”
As for the Yellow Jackets’ upcoming season, “It’s championship or bust,” said Cummings.
To learn more about the Steel City Yellow Jackets and Steel City Queens, follow them on Facebook or visit www.scyjackets.com.