It’s a championship birthday for the Yellow Jackets’ owner Pippens

by Thomas Leturgey

Ace Pippens plans on fishing for at least some of his 47th birthday, May 3. That’s what the owner of the American Basketball Association (ABA) Champion Steel City Yellow Jackets should be doing, right? He’ll probably bring his championship trophy along for the adventure. “It’s been a great birthday gift,” he said in a phone interview on Monday.
A Homewood native and Churchill resident, Averill D. Pippens, who has been an owner since 2014, is in rarified air when it comes to championships in Pittsburgh. The Steel City Yellow Jackets won their first National Championship on April 23 and now there’s talk of a Grant Street parade later in May.
The Yellow Jackets have always been competitive, but many of the players had looked at this as their “David vs. Goliath” year.
Jacksonville’s 15-1 Giants, despite ranking third in the tournament that was just completed in Baltimore, was the team to beat. They came into the Final 8 as defending champions–five times straight and seven overall–and they were seated just behind the Yellow Jackets (15-2). Stockton, California’s Team Trouble were positioned in the top spot. 
Before the Giants dominated, the ABA favorite was the club from Shreveport, Louisiana. With this season’s victory, the Steel City Yellow Jackets are the first team not from Louisiana or California to win the National Championship in a decade.
It’s personally been a gratifying trip for Pippens. The Oliver High School native wanted to play baseball. “It was my best sport,” he added. He played centerfield and left field at CCAC, but his life took an unsuspected turn 28 years ago when he was shot five times “over a woman”. As a result of the incident, he experienced a 107-degree fever and his right lung collapsed. He was packed in ice until he stabilized. 
On his birthday that year, doctors took him off of oxygen and told him that he would be paralyzed. Therapy was supposed to last four months but early depression set in. Then Pippens’ father Cleaphais Cammack encouraged him to not be depressed. “He reminded me that someone always has it worse.” That was the motivation he needed to restart a promising life. “I was tired of being in there,” he said. He was released from the hospital two months early.
Pippens got his Associates Degree from CCAC and started coaching basketball at Oliver, at the urging of his former coach, Tim Keefer. He worked at Alcoa and went back to the newly-minted Robert Morris University in 2002. He studied Finance and Economics, but transferred to Sports Management when that was offered. He later coached at Penn State McKeesport and helped lead them to a championship in 2006.
Nearly a decade ago, local hip-hop artist Antjuan “Tjuan Benafactor” Washington was asked to perform at an ABA basketball game in California. He learned of the expanding Women’s ABA league and contacted Pippens about coaching a new squad. Pippens, who was groggy from a surgery, agreed. “I heard ABA,” he jokes. Later he was told that it was the Women’s team. Pippens wasn’t comfortable with that, and declined. “I hadn’t coached women before,” he explained. When the Men’s team became an option, Pippens was eager to start. He took on the duties of General Manager and Head Coach, and became sole owner of the team along the way.
The upstart team played before some packed houses at the CCAC Allegheny campus, but “bounced around” a bit in those early years. Two years were spent at the Greentree Sports Complex and three more seasons at the Neighborhood Academy in the city’s Stanton Heights neighborhood. Then, the Catholic Diocese’s Bishop Leonard gymnasium became available. It was transformed into A Giving Heart Community Center and Pippens is its Executive Director. 
Youth programs take place downstairs and food is served. Upstairs, wood in the gymnasium was warped. It took a few years for Pippen’s father, and an army of “volunteer parties” to salvage the space. “This is our fourth season here,” Pippens said.
All this time, the Yellow Jackets were building for their on-court future. Last year’s installment was plagued with injuries, and this year’s team was designed to leap the “obstacle” that was the imposing Jacksonville Giants.
Each game of the season became increasingly important and Forward Jason Arrington, Sr. took great pride and passion in leading the squad in a pre-game prayer. The playoff sessions were extremely compassionate for the playoffs and team of leaders.
Co-Captains Antonio Reddic, Sr. and Gilmore Cummings led the team with purpose. “Tone is the type of player that lays it all out there,” said Pippens. “He was playing for it all. He gave us everything he had. He was driven. A catalyst.”
Gilmore, the team’s three-point specialist anywhere but Baltimore, didn’t fare well with the rims. “Gil is a leader,” Pippens continued. “He is goal driven and was healthy in the playoffs.”
Then there was Tournament Most Valuable Player Kenny Holmes. “He is Agent Zero,” he said. “It was a blessing to have him back.” Holmes had been playing for a team in Canada when COVID-19 shut down sports there. Once allowed to return to the states, Holmes came back to Pittsburgh. Normally a starter, Holmes played off the bench for the Yellow Jackets…at least at first. “It was a different role, one that was better for us. He accepted and embraced the change.”
Holmes came off the bench and scored 40 points in his first game back. And then 34 points. And then 40 again. He started in the playoffs. “He helped us lead the team,” Pippens continued. He stressed that every player on the Yellow Jackets team contributed to the history-making win. “We had unfinished business.”
Now back and settling in with congratulations, accolades and a championship dinner at a Japanese Steak House, Pippens reflected on what the Yellow Jackets and this championship means to Pittsburgh. “We represent this city,” he said. “It is a friendly home town.” He emphasized that the Yellow Jackets are a “part of the community”. Several members of the team and Pippens volunteered their time to play in a celebrity fundraiser for Pittsburgh’s Hispanic Chamber of Commerce shortly before the Final 8 in Charm City. “We lock arms with the community.”
“In coaching, I deal with all the guys,” he stressed. “[This team] starts and ends with me.” He called this season’s journey a “goal and mission obtained.”
Pippens is hopeful that sports and basketball fans in particular continue to discover and support the Yellow Jackets. “This city can support a professional basketball team,” he said.

But before that, he plans on casting a line in an area waterway and enjoying a Happy Birthday



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