UPPING THE GAME
By ANDREW MCGINN
The pyrotechnics and the Laker Girls are each sold separately.
But if Greene County High School ever wants to turn its new gym into the Staples Center of 2A basketball, it’s more than $44,000 on its way thanks to the AAI/Spalding factory next door.
Every team in the NBA already owns a piece of Jefferson — the local factory manufactures every backstop, backboard and goal used by the league.
So when Greene County High School moved in just to the west of them this fall, Spalding wheeled over a housewarming gift: two free Arena Renegade portable backstops, each with a list price come Jan. 1 of $22,055.
Welcome to the neighborhood.
“Same as used in the NBA,” noted general manager Steve Kohl.
With any luck, the imposing backstops will put the fear of LeBron into the Rams’ visiting opponents.
“That’s got to be a fear factor,” Kohl explained recently, describing their psychological value.
High school activities director Todd Gordon said that anyone who follows basketball knows precisely what they’re looking at when they enter the new gym.
“They’ve been wowed when they walk in,” said Gordon, who’s also in his first season as Greene County girls’ basketball coach.
Odds are, in Iowa, basketball fans have only ever seen them on TV.
“In Iowa, this is rare,” said Kohl, pointing out the multiple mounts on the 3,800-pound backstop — powder-coated red for the Rams, with black frame padding — to hang TV cameras.
“You don’t see schools of this size invest in something like this,” he said.
Spalding manufactures the backstops with one camera mount near the very bottom in order to capture the sickest of dunks looking up from the hardwood.
It remains to be seen if Greene County High School will take advantage of that feature — or if anyone in 2A basketball can even get the right amount of air.
Kohl also pointed out the distinctive slots on the frame — built to the NBA’s specifications — for internal wiring. Cables for shot clocks, cameras and pyrotechnics can be neatly hidden.
Unfortunately, unless there’s any bond money left, it’s highly unlikely that Greene County players will each be introduced before tipoff to a plume of flame erupting from behind the hoops.
Gordon said he knows of only one other high school in Iowa — Waukee — with portable backstops.
“They’re not the NBA hoops,” he clarified. “This is the model up.”
The way Tina Meister, who runs a saw on the production floor at AAI/Spalding, sees it, “It’s only fitting since they’re made here.”
Kohl, a local resident who took the helm at Jefferson-based American Athletic Inc. nine months ago following the retirement of Mark Lane, gives his predecessor credit for arranging the donation of elite backstops.
Officially, the backstops are a gift of the AAI/Spalding marketing and engineering departments.
“They probably didn’t see it come out of their budgets yet, but they will,” Kohl joked. “It’s substantial. We consider it a partnership with Todd and the school.”
This year has been a challenging one, Kohl said, but the Spalding product line has held steady. The company outfitted the NBA’s Bubble in Florida that enabled play during the pandemic.
From its humble beginnings in the basement of Seela Hardware in 1954, AAI grew to be synonymous with world-class gymnastics equipment, serving as the official equipment supplier of the 1984 and 1996 Olympics.
Fruit of the Loom’s Russell Brands eventually came calling, acquiring AAI for $13 million in 2004. Russell brought Spalding Equipment to town in hopes that the workforce in Jefferson could do for basketball equipment what it has done for pommel horses and balance beams.
The Jefferson plant is the only one that turns out Spalding’s institutional-grade basketball products.
“It doesn’t move. That’s the secret of American’s equipment,” company founder Bill Sorenson told the Herald in 2014 on occasion of AAI’s 60th anniversary.
Ditto for Spalding’s Arena Renegade.
The backstop has to stand strong against full-on assaults from the likes of LeBron James, the NBA’s 6-foot-9-inch, 250-pound, four-time MVP. For that, it’s got 1,500 pounds of counterweight, Kohl said. If all else fails, it’s also anchored to the floor.
That said, one person can take it down and set it up. With the NBA hoping to sell a few more seats, the Arena Renegade was recently redesigned to be slimmer.
Installation of portables typically runs $2,000 for a pair, Kohl said. AAI/Spalding donated the labor as well, with Neal Squibb — the Scranton resident who holds a dozen patents and came up with an improvement on the breakaway basketball rim during his tenure at AAI — volunteering his time.
“Sometimes,” Kohl said, “people in the community don’t realize what we do. Now they get a taste of it.”
It also gives local production workers the rare opportunity to see two assembled units in their intended environment. For them, the backstops are usually in assorted pieces until they see them on TV like everyone else.
“They’re a lot bigger when you get it set up and stretched out,” observed Juhl Carstens, who works in shipping at AAI/Spalding.
Typically, they’re destined for iconic arenas like Madison Square Garden. But for the first time ever, two home-built Arena Renegades didn’t leave home.
In fact, they didn’t even travel a mile.
As Carstens joked, “The delivery charge wasn’t as much.”