on February 11, 2013
For the 13 players, it requires a sacrifice of time and money to gain the exposure necessary to extend their basketball careers at a higher level. Coach Ray Ortiz must sacrifice some practice time to allow his players to work other jobs so they can support themselves financially.
Even team owner Marsha Blount has sacrificed her time promoting her players to scouts and agents.
Through it all, the Jersey Express has turned out a high-quality basketball team that boasts a 7-1 record and has scored at least 100 points in every game.
"I have two jobs, so it's tough," said Express 6-foot-9 center Billy McDonough (http://www.jerseyexpress.net/
That goal of a better future keeps the players going. Some have played in pro leagues overseas and want to get back there. Others are right out of college and looking for more exposure to sign in a higher level league.
But there is at least one member of the Express who has his sights set on something other than international basketball.
Jason Smith (http://www.jerseyexpress.net/
"I played a basketball player about four times in different features, so (playing with the Express) helps separate yourself," said the 6-1 guard. "Some guys have high school, college experience but when I submit my reel online, it's professional. It's a big difference."
For the other players, it is the possibility a scout could be at a game or see highlights online that motivate them to constantly strive to play at a high level.
"You have to play hard every play; you never know who is watching," said McDonough, who played at Richard Stockton College. "You never know where the next opportunity is going to be."
In certain circumstances, that could be a negative for team cohesion as some players could try to do too much or boost their stats instead of playing solid basketball. That hasn't been an issue with the Express, though, center Almin Hodzic (http://basketball.realgm.com/
"You would think it would be more selfish because we all are playing for stats and good video to show people," said Hodzic, a native of Bosnia. "But it's not that bad. It's actually pretty fun playing with these guys because we all like each other for a change."
Hodzic played in leagues in Bosnia and Germany the past two years after graduating from Dominican College.
The team's camaraderie was on display throughout the Express' 143-91 victory over the New Jersey Bullets on Saturday night at Centenary. On the court, the team communicated like a professional team should. By the fourth quarter, there was plenty of chatter and good-natured ribbing on the Express bench about the latest shot attempt or whoever should have gone for a dunk.
The responsibility of keeping the team together falls to Ortiz. It is his first season as head coach after spending last year as an assistant.
He previously coached at the Newark campus of Rutgers University. Ortiz said an understanding of what the players' goals are has helped him unite the team.
"I basically try to have them identify their role to the team," Ortiz said. "Everybody has to be a team player. We have to have one guy who can give us rebounding, one guy who can give us scoring. If everybody knows their limit, we have a lot of talent so a lot of these guys can go play in Europe and overseas."
Since Ortiz has joined the Express, the team has not sent a player to a different league. But since Blount founded the team in 2005, she estimated that 14 have gone on to play elsewhere. Both Blount, who has coached and played professionally, and Ortiz said they could have as many as five to seven players from this year's team sign with different leagues.
"I know we have a handful that if everything falls into place -- because, of course, everything has to align -- they could absolutely play overseas," Blount said.
Securing funding for the team has been Blount's biggest challenge. This is the team's first season at Centenary following stops in Newark and Jersey City. She said with the Nets now playing in Brooklyn, she was hoping attendance would increase, though that has not been the case this year.
Despite it being a struggle to get sponsorships and attracting fans, Blount said seeing her players advance in their basketball careers has made the endeavor worthwhile.
"I love it," she said. "I know what the game did for me. It put me through school, I made contacts. I wouldn't be here owning this team without basketball. So for them, when it happens when a connection is made and an opportunity is given, that keeps me going. This is a dream for them."