“This is Our Year” is shared mantra of Yellow Jackets’ champions

by Thomas Leturgey 

Throughout the Steel City Yellow Jackets’ 2021-2022 season, if you’d talk with Owner/CEO and Head Coach Averill “Ace” Pippens, or Co-Captains Antonio Reddic, Sr. or Gilmore Cummings and they would all individually elicit the same exact mantra, “This is our year.”

 
The Yellow Jackets have been perilously close to an American Basketball Association championship for many of the past few years. Last year the club lost in the semi-finals and vowed to be back this season.
 
Throughout most of the ABA’s calendar, the Yellow Jackets were near the top of the rankings. For some of the season, they only had the team from Chula Vista, California above them because that organization was also undefeated, but won two more games.
 
It was through Reddic and Cummings’ on-court leadership, and Pippens’ grounded advice from the sidelines, that guided the Yellow Jackets. Pippens, who was paralyzed in a shooting 28 years ago, continues to have health issues. There were several weekends this year in which Pippens had been hospitalized earlier in the week. Sometimes he said he shouldn’t be at some games; however, his perseverance kept him moving forward.
 
The Yellow Jackets’ formula for success was generally formulaic. They would win the tip off, run up the score–frequently by 20 or more in the opening moments–and then play defense when scoring wasn’t automatic. When Cummings hit three three-pointers in the opening moments of one contest, the team was able to cruise the rest of the way.
 
Usually, the team would have one hiccup during the four quarters in which the opposition would get back into the contest. The commanding lead was important sometimes as the team would regularly be outscored in at least one quarter.
 
When the undefeated Yellow Jackets went to Baltimore in the regular season, starting center Justin Hamilton had suddenly stepped away from the team. He was in the throes of starting a new business and just couldn’t dedicate the time needed. Reddic and fellow forward Claude Scott, Jr. stepped up. Hamilton’s presence under the basket was missed in that crucial game against Baltimore (however, he was able to saddle up for the finals).
 
Hamilton’s absence allowed for Brandon Burnett, another center with a successful pedigree, to join the club. A small revolving door of other hoop talent like Billy Dee Williams and Cam Wiley came and went throughout the volatile season.
 
As the regular season progressed, the team received a boost with the returning Kenny Holmes. Holmes, a regular on the team in previous years, had played hoops in Canada and had issues getting back. Once he did, and returned to the Yellow Jackets, he was oftentimes leading the team in scoring.
 
Jason Arrington, Sr., Brandon Franklin and Brandon Johnson frequently came up big for the team throughout the season. Twins Tim and Jimmy Jackson also produced for the team. In spot duty from the bench, LeAndre Evans and Etholion Vennie helped out from the guard position, and the fervent Yellow Jackets faithful appreciated when Stephen Vorum was in for the final moments in some games, as he generally added a last-minute basket or two.
 
Toward the end of the year, the Yellow Jackets were on the losing end of two games (including Baltimore), but they never fell out of the Top 10. The dominating Chula Vista gang, meanwhile, got hung up in their Divisional Title Game and didn’t travel to Baltimore.
 
The Final 8 was set, with the new Number One Ranked Team Trouble out of Stockton, California, with the Yellow Jackets perched at #2. The defending 5-time Champion Jacksonville Giants were ranked #3 and the Austin Bats (who were not able to travel to Charm City and forfeited) was ranked #4. The Baltimore Hawks, who had never won in Pittsburgh, but also never fell to the Yellow Jackets in their home court, were #5. Music City came in at #6, Las Vegas Royals were #7 and Cleveland’s Burning City Buckets, who upset some teams down the stretch, qualified for the last spot in the Final 8.
 
The Yellow Jackets were expected to best the Las Vegas Royals and they did, 139-133. The game; however, did not go as planned as some sloppy play and officiating stretched to an intense 2.5 hours.
 
Friday’s game against the Jacksonville Giants was the emotional final for the Yellow Jackets. The two teams had a rivalry the year prior, and the team for Florida went on to win the ABA Championship for the 5th year in a row.
 
When Ace Pippens and his squad arrived Friday, they were not laid back. Some of the players and staff who were generally jovial were dead silent and serious. This was their finale’.
 
Reddic led the team with 43 points. Tone, who became a father for the second time a few weeks before the playoffs, played in a Charity basketball game leading up to the Final 8. While no official scorebook was kept, Reddic was on fire.
 
Estimates say he scored at least 64 points in that fun-filled shoot-out. Reddic was ready.
 
Holmes, who had played from off the bench in previous games, got the nod from Pippens for the playoffs. He punched in an additional 28 points. This was also a game in which Tim and Jimmy Jackson were vintage Wonder Twins. The two kept Jacksonville on their collective toes.
 
When that game ended with the Yellow Jackets advancing by a tally of 127-122, there was some thought perhaps the team had put all of their emotional chips on the table.
 
But that was not the case.
 
The Yellow Jackets, relaxed from their own obstacles, faced Team Trouble, the ABA’s top-ranked team. That team arrived later than Pittsburgh’s crew. Team Trouble had their own issues with problematic calls from officials the night before.
 
It was easily the Yellow Jacket’s game in the early going. But Team Trouble was only preparing for a second-half comeback. Team Trouble chipped away at a 20-pound Yellow Jackets lead and briefly took the lead.
 
The final game was a tour de force for Tone Reddic, Sr. Fouled and floored without official interference, Reddic ate more hardwood than termites in the Championship game. But he answered with incredible resolve. Each time he slammed hard with a resounded thud, Reddic would check and count his teeth, and for blood from any of his extremities. Each game in the tournament, there was a stoppage for band aids and scratch repair. Even after the game, Reddic tended to his wounds.
 
Holmes lead the scoring in the final with 28 points. Brandon Johnson, who quietly had a spectacular tournament, added 23. Claude Scott, Jr., who rebounded with the best players, had 20. Tim Jackson scored a strong 19 and Reddic, who was always around the ball and under both hoops, provided 15 more. Fellow Co-Captain Cummings did not get into his three-point groove, provided leadership and 8 points in the final.
 
Holmes was named MVP for a stellar tournament, and the celebration was particularly sweet for longtime friends and teammates Reddic, Gilmore and Head Coach Pippens. The Coach was doused with thermos filled with ice water and cigars were handed out to the team.
 
Integral staffers and Team Managers Jason Pippens and Arianna Rosemond enjoyed the win with players, coaches and close insiders like Claude Scott, Sr. Holmes’ mother traveled from Atlanta to watch her son perform. Plenty of family and friends were on hand to help make the win festive.
 
Once back in Pittsburgh the next day, the team posed with trophies and plaques from the victory. Soon, a team victory dinner was planned on the first Friday back at a Japanese restaurant in Monroeville.
 
Kudos and congratulations rained down on the team. New Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey had his office step up and quickly arrange a championship parade for Saturday, May 21.
 
It’s been quite a year for Reddic, Cummings, Pippens and the ABA Champion Steel City Yellow Jackets.

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