Cary Invasion thriving as fourth season begins

mblake@newsobserver.comJanuary 13, 2014 

The Cary Invasion’s Paul Wright goes up for a breakaway layup in a 2013 win against the Greensboro Cobras.

CHRIS BAIRD

  • Cary Invasion home schedule

    Jan. 18: 6 p.m. vs. Wilmington Sea Dawgs

    Feb. 1: 7 p.m. vs. Cary Police Department (exhibition)*

    Feb. 15: 6 p.m. vs. Bull City Legacy

    March 8: 6 p.m. vs. Fayetteville Crossover

    April 12: 6 p.m. vs. (Jacksonville, N.C.) Big Texas

    April 26: 6 p.m. vs. (Smithfield, N.C.) Neuse River Basketball Club

    May 17: 6 p.m. vs. East Carolina Stealth

    *no kids’ camp before game

— Doc Thorne’s mission is to help downtown Cary become a lively destination, and he wants the Cary Invasion minor-league basketball team to be part of the transformation.

Thorne became owner of the team Jan. 1. His goal for the Invasion’s fourth season at the Herb Young Community Center, which kicks off this week, is to create more awareness about the team.

While speaking to Cary-area businesses and citizens last year, Thorne said he “found that probably about 70 percent of the population didn’t even know we had a professional basketball team.”

Awareness is only one challenge for a team like the Invasion, which draws many players who play professionally in Europe. Money is often a concern, and many minor-league basketball teams fold each year around the country.

No Triangle-area predecessor to the Invasion kept it going this long.

But the Invasion has sustained continuity and success, partly due to the investment and organization of previous owner Mark Janas, who will still assist the team in an advisory capacity.

The team has remained at the same venue and has maintained mostly the same players. And it’s won plenty of games.

The Invasion’s record is 35-6 in three seasons. They played for a league title in all three years, winning the 2011 championship.

Home games have drawn crowds as big as about 500. Even if last year’s crowds were down from the previous season, the team has found a way to thrive, not just survive.

“Watching the team is the best time you can have for $10 of any sporting event in the Cary area,” Thorne said. “The community is getting ... behind (us). I want us to have that longevity and be known as Cary’s team.”

Not just about money

Fans who have gone to see the Invasion in action usually experience games in the triple digits.

The players often use the Tobacco Road Basketball League as a way to stay in shape in the off-season of an overseas league. Many of them spent their college years in the CIAA conference on scholarship or in the ACC as walk-ons.

There are no big-time salary negotiations at this level. Players make about $50 a game.

“Who doesn’t want to do something they love and get paid for it? I don’t care if it’s a dollar or a thousand dollars,” said Charles Ward, a 33-year-old 6-foot-7 forward who has been with Cary since the Invasion’s start. “You’re not going to get rich playing for the Invasion. You might just have some money to eat and some gas money. It’s for your exposure, No. 1, and for guys playing (overseas) it’s a tune-up.

“For everyone involved ... it’s a platform that you can put on any résumé. And the most important part is you’re doing something for the city of Cary and the Triangle area to give them another outlet.”

Ward said he and the other players have taken a liking to the cozy confines of the Herb Young Community Center downtown.

“You’d rather have a small place that’s full than a big place that’s empty. The fans can’t really get the feel of the game,” said Ward, who has played in at least 16 different foreign and domestic leagues, including an NBA training camp. “You get that place filled up and you get everybody in there, the place gets to rocking.”

But Thorne wants to help the players make more money year-round. They can earn more for community appearances as well as ticket sales and sponsorships that they help bring in.

Erasto Hatchett, a former basketball assistant at St. Augustine’s College and head coach at Word of God Christian Academy in Raleigh, will be the team’s new coach and third in four seasons. But the players have great chemistry, with 12 of the 14 having played at least one season in Cary. Two others will be playing overseas when the season kicks off.

“We’re a close-knit group,” Ward said. “We spend a lot of time together.”

Finding a niche

The lowest-attended games last season were on Sundays. This year, all of the Invasion’s home games will be on Saturdays.

It’s part of the process to figure out how best to fit in the western Wake County sports landscape.

In the heart of college basketball country, the Invasion won’t have scheduling conflicts with the Triangle’s “big three” ACC programs this year, and the season extends beyond March Madness.

The attendance target is 500, and fire code limits the number of people allowed in the community center to 700.

To help connect with the community, the Invasion team offers skills camps for kids. Before every home game this year, the team will host a one-hour camp for ages 5-8.

More camps are planned year-round, which also means the players will be representing the team well after the season’s final whistle.

“He’s trying to build a brand rather than it being all basketball,” Ward said of Thorne. “He’s trying to get it so guys can make some money off being an Invasion player instead of just being an Invasion player.

“This can be your job. It’s a good thing.”

By partnering with the town of Cary for some of those camps, the team no longer has to pay the $55-per-hour fee to use the community center. The money saved will be spent on more programs to enhance the customer experience.

Kids can even have birthday parties at Invasion games, complete with a DJ and a public-announcement system.

All along, the team has wanted to be professional but family-friendly. At halftime, basketballs come rolling out onto the court so kids can take some practice shots.

“I want to grow our following by including more youngsters,” Thorne said.

With at least two weeks between each home game, Ward is excited about the potential for more marketing to increase the crowds for the next game.

“They key word is ‘professional,’ ” Ward said. “If you take that out, you’re just playing pick-up.”

Thorne can’t help but be excited about a change to the team’s uniforms. The word “Cary” will be front and center on the jerseys.

He hopes that whether it’s on the court or in the community, more people will see the name and come out to discover the hometown minor-league championship franchise.

“We’ll be out, not only with our new look, but as ambassadors for our new town,” Thorne said.

Blake: 919-460-2606; Twitter: @JMBpreps

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