NC Coyotes bring semi-pro ball back to Warren County

Feb. 19—WARRENTON — On Saturday, the Queen City Tribe traveled from Charlotte to play the NC Coyotes at the John Graham Rec Center.

The modest gymnasium, nestled within Warrenton's historic district, housed a hodgepodge of former Division-1 ball players and current FIBA league hoopers for Saturday's exhibition.

The two did battle for 48 minutes, with the Tribe just eking out a 123-117 victory over the home team, with a final dunk at the buzzer for good measure.

The Coyotes are officially in their off-season, but agreed to the exhibition as a favor to the Tribe, and to stay in playing form by sharpening their skills against a formidable opponent. According to international basketball player Robert Espinosa, the 117 points the Coyotes scored were far below their usual average, and the loss they suffered was their first in six months, after going 15-0.

Scoring was in abundance, with five Tribe players finishing with at least 20 points including — Jalen Vince. Kevin Williams was the high-scorer for the Coyotes with 32 points.

"You need a loss sometimes to keep it fresh," said Espinosa. "Most people here either played college or pro. When you get to that level, the basketball IQ and scoring continues over. There's not really too much you can do — they work on their craft."

According to Espinosa, who is the son of Second Chance Basketball Foundation founder, Ronaldo Espinosa, the Coyotes have sent 11 players back to school on scholarship to play college ball.

"This was a vision of my husband's," said his mother, Barbara Espinosa.

The roster consists of guys from as young as 20-years-old, all the way up to basketball veterans, like Espinosa, who is 37.

According to Espinosa and his brother, Eladio Espinosa, the commonly shared goal for most of the players is to create film to increase their chances of playing professionally overseas. With a basketball career on the line, games consisting of "elite players" become highly competitive.

The old, dirty backboards and faded rims of the John Graham gym were a stark contrast from the bright lights and big stages of the world's game, but the rec center accommodated some of the best local hoopers in the area.

"These players were averaging 20 points in college," said Espinosa.

Founded in 2015, the Coyotes started as a team in the American Basketball Association (ABA) with notables like Ernest Bynum, father of the former Los Angeles Laker, and Curtis Withers, a 6-foot-8 forward who averaged double-digits in the NBA G-League from 2009-2012. According the Barbara Espinosa, the wife of the founder, they used to pack John Graham and other gymnasiums in the area in their heyday, with fans of all ages coming out to support the semi-pro team.

"You would think these kids thought they were NBA players," said Barbara.

"We were though," said Eladio Espinosa, Robert's brother. "Even though we weren't NBA stars, we were stars."

Since their departure from the ABA, the Coyotes have played home games at Voyager Academy in Durham. With players coming from all over the state and beyond, Durham serves as a geological epicenter for passionate hoopers hoping to earn a living through the game they love.

According to Espinosa, the basketball world is one of networking. Once you run in enough circles in the basketball community, the Earth begins to seem a lot smaller. After his most recent stint in Thailand, Espinosa reconnected with one player that he met overseas while back Warren County.

Both brothers, Eladio and Robert, played basketball professionally in the Dominican Republic. According to the family, Ronaldo started the league to create more opportunities for more players to find their path to professional basketball.

"It's called Second Chance Basketball Foundation because our kids were blessed to play in college, but a lot of people didn't know how to break into the higher level," said Barbara Espinosa. "This basketball team is going to help kids take it to the next level — back in college on scholarships. It's been some very interesting years in Coyote basketball."

On Sunday, the Coyotes entered a tournament in the Bull City Basketball League, before their official season ramps up at the end of May. The exhibition in Warren County was more of a one-time thing, but Robert Espinosa says they hope to bring more basketball back to the area in the near future.