On a hot summer day, a half dozen kids were sweating it out at the Raleigh Personal Training gym as they ran basketball drills and rocked perfect layups.
The hard work and endless repetition didn’t bother Charly Dozier at all. Those drills were a labor of love for a 13-year-old girl with big dreams.
“This is my first basketball camp, and I love it,” she said during a quick water break.
Dozier cannot remember a time when she didn’t love basketball. An eighth grader at Zebulon GT Magnet Middle School, she is determined to play in high school and college.
Dozier attended the camp with her brother, Jody. Along with the other kids, she soaked up instructions from Firebirds owner Wade Harris and a handful of professional players who consider the campers a permanent part of the Firebirds family.
Harris has two passions: basketball and people. The two-day camp for kids was a small part of his grand plan to not only bring professional basketball to Raleigh, but to fold a team into Wake County and make a difference.
At 60, Harris is trim, athletic, tough, and kind.
Growing up in Wilson, NC, he played basketball for the University of Florida Gators under the late coach Norm Sloan. He transferred to California State University at Hayward and graduated with a degree in kinesiology and physical education, then started his career in the San Francisco Bay area. In 1989, family needs called him back home to North Carolina, where he cared for his ailing mother while working for the former Spa Health Club chain and looking for opportunities to give back.
“After my mother passed away, I played basketball in an adult summer league, and I started a mentoring program in Raleigh for at-risk boys,” he said. “It kept me close to the game and close to the people that love the game, and it was fun.”
Along the way, he met young men who had finished college and were still chasing their dreams to play professionally.
“If they didn’t play at NC State, Duke, Carolina, or another ACC school, that platform was not available, so I started taking some of them up to Canada to try out for the professional leagues there,” Harris said.
For Harris, these visits to Canada were a game changer. They led him to David Magley, who was commissioner of the National Basketball League of Canada, and whose wife, Evelyn, started The Basketball League (TBL) in 2018 in Indianapolis and serves as the league’s CEO.
After launching with eight teams, including the Firebirds, TBL has now grown to almost 50 teams, divided into four conferences. North Carolina, part of the Southeast Conference, has three teams: the Charlotte Purple Jackets, the Fayetteville Stingers, and the Raleigh Firebirds. Last year, the Firebirds finished second in the conference.
The teams are self-sustaining licensed franchises, deriving their income from ticket sales, concessions, sponsors, and merchandise sales, Harris said. In a typical 12-week playing season from March through May, teams play 24 games under veteran collegiate and professional basketball coach Bob McKinnon.
Fall signals the start of recruiting season for the Firebirds. The roster starts with 35 prospective players in November, cut to around 18 before training camp in February. From that group, Harris and coaches pull a 12-man squad and two alternates.
The Firebirds’ home court is at Word of God Christian Academy in southeast Raleigh, with an all-time high attendance to date of 1,400 fans before the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, attendance hovers around 500, and Harris is working to rebuild Firebirds nation to its pre-pandemic glory.
For a team growing in popularity, the game is only a fraction of the Firebirds’ mission to be a vibrant part of Wake County.
Players, fans, and team sponsors line up to volunteer at organizations like the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina and Raleigh Soup Kitchen.
Many kids from all corners of Wake County are reaping benefits from having the Firebirds here too — whether that is attending youth basketball camps, learning about STEM education, or picking out a new pair of shoes at the team’s annual shoe giveaway and pizza party.
“We know there’s hardly anything better for kids than to get a new pair of shoes to start school,” Harris said. “We feel this is one way our team could make a real impact on children’s lives.”
In 2022, the Firebirds gave away 143 pairs of shoes.
“We’re creating a community around Firebird nation, made up of incredible people that love helping others,” Harris said.
There are also opportunities for kids to work in the team’s back office.
Online, Tex Greene presents himself with the authority of a veteran marketing pro when he pitches the reasons why basketball fans should love the Firebirds.
But in a phone conversation, he revealed he is a 15-year-old student at Ravenscroft School in Raleigh and doesn’t have his driver’s license yet. He is starting his career early and sees his role as a marketing intern with the Firebirds as a pathway to his dream job.
“I’m super passionate about basketball, and I would love to be the general manager of an NBA team someday,” he said.
Greene is already making his mark, and fans can find his byline on the Firebirds’ blog. For Harris, giving Greene this opportunity is just another way of supporting young people pursuing their dreams.
At the kids’ clinic, he alternately cheered on great plays and corrected mistakes while marveling at the young players’ perseverance. He pointed to the small group as they worked on their ball-handling skills.
“It is our goal to nurture that talent now, and they will only get better,” he said. “This is the future of basketball right here.”
- Out & About in Wake County: November / December 2023
- Iconic Holiday Experiences in The Triangle
- Deck the Porch
- Santa’s Workshop
- Small Business Spotlight: Decree Company
- Erica Chats: Holidays in The Triangle
- On Trend: Spin Art
- On Fire!
- The 2023 Gift Guide
- Pay it Forward: Oak City Cares
- Warm up Wake
- Sleighing the Christmas Spread: Sassool Style
- Celebrated Spirits: Cranberry Cobbler Mocktail
- Celebrated Spirits: Paddle Daze IPA
- Garden Adventurer: Hellebores: Winter Wonders