BENNINGTON — The newest American Basketball Association (ABA) team aims to bring high level basketball, entertainment and a sense of community to town.
The Bennington Martens are the latest addition to the historic ABA, a semi-professional basketball league that, at its height in the 1970s, saw the likes of basketball royalty Julius “Dr. J” Erving competing in the league.
Chris Kidd and Shawn Pratt, who are co-owners of the Martens and share an affinity for basketball and helping others, are responsible for bringing semi-professional basketball to Southern Vermont.
“It really started for us on the dream of mentoring guys, helping them come along and get better,” Pratt said. “Mainly, it was about bringing that together, along with what’s going on in the world in terms of social justice, helping our youth and helping our young men.”
Kidd played for Sage College’s men’s basketball team in 2019 at the age of 34. Now, he has shifted his focus to try and help others reach the professional ranks.
“This is a dream come true. We’re living a dream every day, the desire to just be around this game as long as possible,” Kidd said. “To help these young men get to a place that I wasn’t able to get to, that in itself is the biggest thing.”
Kidd said there are not many opportunities for players coming out of college who hope to play professionally.
“It’s very difficult to enter the professional level, especially in basketball,” he said. “We just want to be that opportunity, we want to be that chance for guys. That’s what the Bennington Martens are here to do.”
Kidd and Pratt’s goal for the Martens is to give each player a contract at the next level, whether that is overseas, the NBA G (minor) League or The Basketball League (TBL). ABA players do not get paid.
The Martens roster offers a wide range of experience.
One name that Bennington basketball fans will recognize is former Southern Vermont College player Casey Hall. The 6-foot 6-inch forward is the program’s all-time leader in blocked shots and was a key piece to SVC’s success during the 2014 and 2015 seasons.
Hall now calls Albany, N.Y. home, but is excited to once again play in Bennington.
“Playing semi-pro ball here, it means a lot to me,” Hall said. “Especially since I played college (ball) out here. It’s nice to get back to the community. I know the community lost a couple colleges and stuff. It’s good to bring something back to the community.”
Hall remembers his playing days at SVC, and how basketball-hungry Bennington was.
“Standing room only. The bleachers filled up quick, and then you had to stand for the games,” he recalled. “We had good crowds, good energy in Bennington.”
The Martens also have players like team captain Garrick Averett, who has previous experience in the ABA. Averett played for the Atlantic Coast Cardinals in Orange County, N.Y., during the 2020 season.
He knows what to expect in an ABA season, and believes the Martens will be a highly entertaining watch in their inaugural season.
“We’re a little undersized, but we got a bunch of athletes on our team; a lot of guys who can dunk it,” Averett said. “Look for us to be like the (Los Angeles) Lakers.”
Originally from Long Island, the Martens captain has a unique tie to the ABA.
“I actually lived next door to the house Dr. J grew up in,” he said.
Then there are players who have already reached the professional level, and are looking to get back, like CJ McLaughlin.
McLaughlin played professionally in Puerto Rico until he was injured. Now he hopes to get back to that level and has entrusted Pratt and Kidd to help him get there.
The Martens have held scrimmages and have been practicing for weeks. How does the level of basketball compare to his time in Puerto Rico?
“This is a lot (more) fast paced, as far as overseas, it’s a lot more slowed down, system basketball,” McLaughlin said. “It’s just a humbling experience to come and play with guys that are at a high level as well. It’s definitely a great experience (that) definitely helped me to get my game back to that level where I need to be.”
The Martens offer their fair share of experience on the court, but their roster also boasts one player who had never played organized basketball in his life.
The Bennington Martens are the first basketball team Shaquille Mayo has ever been a part of. The Albany native has only played pick-up games in the past.
Mayo is grateful for the opportunity to show his talents.
“It’s just kind of cool because it’s like that stepping stone for us,” Mayo said. “We’re all hoping to get overseas, so this is kind of like the entry level and everything. It’s kind of cool that we got this opportunity because there’s not that many opportunities like that out there.”
Pratt is a community leader promoting and advocating for social justice, educational equity, and opportunities for youth leadership, and was appointed to the Criminal Justice Council of Vermont by Gov. Phil Scott.
Kidd is a Pastor in Troy, N.Y., with the Move of God Deliverance Ministry, and owner, trainer and coach of Hoops4Christ LLC.
The Martens aim to bring social justice to the forefront, while also providing entertainment on the basketball court.
The NAACP is one organization that has donated to the Martens. Mia Schultz, president of the Rutland Area Branch of the NAACP, believes the team is a great example of the value that people of color bring to the community.
“We bring value to your community, and that we bring economic value because when this catches on, we’re gonna see people from all over the state want to come and be part of this love of basketball and be part of a change,” she said.
“This is layered, this is not just about basketball,” Schultz said. “It’s about community and how we bridge the gap that we have been missing for years.”
Pratt and Kidd are also mentoring their current players off the basketball court with things like college, financial and religion advisement.
“Shawn and I have a desire to lead these young men in the way they should go,” Kidd said. “We want them to be successful, and we want them to live their dreams. And so Shawn and I are just trying to present a viable outlet for them to do something.”
The Martens will also be offering basketball camps to the youth at its home gym, located inside the old Bennington High School at 650 Main St., once it has been completed. Pratt was told the gym “should” be ready for the 2022 season.
For now, the Martens will split their home games between the North Adams, Mass. YMCA and the Rutland Recreational Community Center.
The Martens play their first game Saturday, traveling to Pennsylvania to face off against the NEPA Stars and Stripes.
Kidd said that the Martens bring something that is missing in the community.
“Bennington doesn’t have this right, they don’t have professional basketball, they don’t have training camps, summer leagues, clinics,” he said. “The Bennington Martens are going to bring a world of basketball to Bennington.”