Brian Collins and The Akron Aviators have revived semi-pro basketball in Akron

by Jillian Holness

The sound of shoes squeaking against the hardwood floor and basketballs bouncing almost to the beat of hip-hop music fills the Helen Arnold Community Learning Center’s gymnasium. 

Local basketball fans congregate in the hallway and grab snacks from the concession table before the game. The popcorn machine spits out freshly popped kernels as young volunteers fill movie theater-style bags with popcorn and line them up on the table. The snack table also has a lineup of pizza, bottles of pop and water and boxes of candy. A jar labeled ‘donations’ sits at the head of the line. 

Back inside the gym, the Shizuoka Gymrats from Japan practice layups on one side of the court.

On the other side of the court are the Akron Aviators. Some of the players take 3-point shots and watch the ball swoosh into the net before passing it to another teammate. Others practice free throws and layups.

Brian Collins is wearing a pink button-up shirt, a black hat that leaves his curly dark hair sticking out, and a pair of red and black sneakers. As he talks to one of the referees, the 33-year-old’s eyes dart from the referee to his players to the growing crowd in the bleachers. 

Finally, the buzzer rings and the teams step off the court and huddle together.

The American Basketball Association was started in 1967 as a competing league with the National Basketball Association. The New Jersey Nets, San Antonio Spurs, Indiana Pacers and the Denver Nuggets were a part of the ABA until the ABA merged with the NBA in 1976. The ABA is now a kind of minor league. 

Quite a few celebrities have been involved in the ABA, including Kobe Bryant’s father, Joe Bryant; rapper and actor Percy Robert Miller aka Master P aka Lil Romeo’s father; and retired player Julius Erving aka Dr. J, who was known for his acrobatic dunks 

Collins started working for the ABA after he graduated from Webster University in Missouri with a bachelor’s degree in audio engineering. He formed the Akron Aviators in May 2017 while he was hosting after-parties and concerts for other ABA teams.

As a student, Collins studied abroad in Thailand and played basketball while there. Collins’ friend Chris told him about a cash basketball tournament, and they put together a team. Collins coached the team, designed the uniforms, got the school in Thailand to sponsor the team and bus students to and from the games. He also promoted the team online. 

Collins says the experience of playing overseas unintentionally groomed him to become the owner of a basketball team.

“It was like a mini course on what I ended up doing with the Aviators,” Collins says. “It was an amazing experience.”

Collins’ experience in promotion helped him land a job with the ABA. He runs a marketing company called Royal Heir Entertainment that specializes in music marketing and distribution.

“I have a platinum plaque from Drake’s 2016 album Views,” Collins says. “Platinum level certifies one million sales.”

Collins also says that one of the perks of working in the music industry is meeting celebrities.

“I was on stage with Beyonce. That was fun,” Collins says nonchalantly. 

Collins also remembers meeting Jay-Z, Chance the Rapper and Big Sean. He’s even run into a famous actress.

“I met Jessica Alba on the stairs on the way to meet my lawyer in L.A.,” Collins laughs.

Collins started working for the ABA in 2016, as the director of marketing. 

After working as the director of marketing for one year, the ABA offered Collins his own basketball team. He still had to come up with the money to run and operate the team, but he was given first dibs. 

“They had some other people interested in these markets,” Collins says. “They offered me the chance to do one here before they opened it up to the general public.” 

Collins says at the time, there were no semi pro-basketball teams in Ohio. Now, the Aviators have sparked a renaissance in Ohio for semi-pro basketball and have inspired others to start their own teams, including the Ohio Kings, the Dayton Sharks and the Columbus Condors. 

Collins, a native of Stow, decided to headquarter the team in Akron because he saw talent everywhere — from committed athletes training in the gym to everyday guys playing at the rec center.

He also wanted to base the team in a city that was accessible to players from neighboring towns but was also away from the Cleveland Cavaliers’ turf. 

“I wanted to keep it away from the Cavs. I didn’t want to be in their market,” Collins says. “I also wanted to be closer to places like Canton and Youngstown, you know, give [other people] opportunities as well.”

Before the Aviators and the Gymrats tip off, the announcer introduces the starters. One of them is 27-year-old Malik Billingsley, a point guard and the captain of the Akron Aviators. Billingsley joined the Aviators three years ago after learning about the team on social media.

“I decided to join the Aviators because I was fresh out of college and wanted to still play basketball and keep pursuing my dream,” Billingsley says. 

During the day, Billingsley works as a security guard at Nordonia High School. He is also a father to an eight-month-year-old baby boy named Zari. 

“On an average day, I wake up at 5:15 am and get myself and my son [ready], and then I head out to the school,” Billingsley says. 

After work, Billingsley coaches freshman basketball at Nordonia. At the end of the day, he tries to make time to go to the gym and stay fit not only for the Aviators but also the American Basketball Association as a whole. 

Billingsley describes his experience in the ABA as awesome.

 “The level of competition is so broad. You run into a lot of solid colleges or even some G league [the NBA’s official minor league] guys,” Billingsley says.

“This league isn’t about the money. It’s about the experience and the travel and the networking,” Billingsley says.

Last year, Billingsley was selected as an ABA all star and averaged 29 points per game.

In the future, he plans to continue playing in the ABA and see where it takes him.

“I want to raise my son and have him see me play,” Billingsley says. “So, if I get anything overseas it’ll be tough for me to take it, but I don’t mind playing in the States.“

Billingsley says the best part about being an Akron Aviator is the love and dedication from the staff.

“They put so much time and effort into this organization,” Billingsley says. “Also, being able to travel and see new places for free is amazing, can’t even lie.”

The buzzer sounds and the Gymrats and the Aviators circle together at the mid court line and prepare for the jump ball.

The Gymrats get the ball first and develop a steady lead in the beginning of the first quarter. Collins watches as the Aviators start to pick up momentum.

He says what makes the Aviators different from other teams is their vision to find community in Akron but also move onto bigger opportunities. 

“We’ve had seven players who’ve been able to move on to different leagues,” Collins says. “I structured this to be a stepping stone for people who want to move forward in their career, but I also want this to be a home for people.”

Collins’ vision for the Aviators also includes having the Akron Aviators be an option for international players. 

“I get a lot of emails from players in other countries who want to come here,” Collins says. “I had a dad from Germany email me and ask me to draft his son to play for our team and get the American experience.”

The fourth-quarter buzzer blares and a few fans start to clap. The Aviators end up flying to victory with a final score of 126-116.

The Aviators and the Gymrats conclude the game with a group picture. The Gymrats hold a banner with their team’s logo, which is reminiscent of a temple shrine and a small cartoon rat dribbling a basketball.

All of the players worked cohesively with each other and a few impressed the audience with their slam dunks.

Billingsley wants spectators to take semi-pro basketball just as seriously as pro-basketball. 

“People should know that this is just as much as a pro-league as any other league, and should treat it as such,” Billingsley says. 

Photo: used with permission from the Akron Aviators