Reading Rebels basketball team to place heightened emphasis on local talent for 2024 season

Feb. 1—Entering their third season in The Basketball League, the Reading Rebels are continuing to give local athletes a chance to play professional basketball.

Heading into the 2024 season, the organization is placing a heightened emphasis on homegrown talent, according to Rebels CEO Jonathan Gross.

"We are looking to bring (in) more of a local roster this season," Gross said. "In season one we had a local roster, but season two we only had about one local guy (Berks Catholic and Alvernia graduate Marquis Marshall) and he's no longer with us.

"We are transitioning towards bringing some local guys this year — we think we're gonna have four to six local players. So that's really exciting for the fans in Berks County to come watch some players who played here.

"I know that was one of our better experiences from year one, even though we didn't finish with the record that we wanted. A lot of the positive experiences (included) having our local guys being able to have that connection with the fans."

Reading will open the 2024 season with three straight road games, starting with a matchup at the Newfoundland Rogues on Feb. 23. The Rebels' home opener will be at Alvernia University against the Albany Patroons on March 7.

In preparation for the upcoming season, Gross has been involved with the For the City League, an eight-team basketball league in Berks. The professional-amateur league, previously known as the Murray League, was established in 2020 and aims to provide opportunities that advance life skills, leadership and overall wellness through the sport of basketball.

With games held regularly at Alvernia, the league, which operates in conjunction with the Rebels, offers a more accessible alternative to the full-time commitment of professional basketball.

"Our thoughts behind (For The City League) were that we can only take 12 guys on our roster for the Rebels, but there's so many guys in the Berks County area that are not playing college (basketball) anymore," Gross said. "They're still actively in shape, but they can't make the commitment to play with the Rebels because we're a four-month season and we travel to Canada. So it's just not the right fit for everybody.

"What we wanted to do was roll out a league where we can bring these other players in, and actually, use it as a kind of a farm system. We wanted a place to look at other guys and whenever we host these men's leagues we always get guys coming from out of the area, so we'll see some new players.

"We really wanted to use this men's league to give back to the community, but also to provide a platform for these local guys to continue to pursue their dreams and play organized basketball in a professional environment."

The Rebels will once again compete in The Basketball League in 2024. Founded in 2018, the league now has 38 teams competing across the United States and Canada, and serves as a stepping stone for players hoping to make the jump to the NBA G-League and eventually the NBA.

"I think we're definitely gonna sign a couple players from the (For The City) League," Gross said. "So just using it as a stepping stone for us and the players is really good and it allows us to keep operations fresh.

"We have DJs playing music, the guys are in full uniforms (and) they get to play at Alvernia. We really tried to give them the best professional experience and it's been really good for our first season."

In 2022, the Rebels' roster featured some big names from the local area, including Reading High grads Trenity Burdine and Gil Benz, Central Catholic grad Marcus Dawkins, Berks Catholic grad Donovon Jack and Marshall, who is also the son of former NBA player and Reading High grad Donyell Marshall. Reading finished 12-12 and missed the playoffs.

Under the coaching leadership of Central Catholic grad Joe Linderman, the Rebels finished 17-7 last year and fell to the Patroons 111-96 in the first round of the playoffs.

Though their record may have improved significantly in 2023, interest in the Rebels fell due to a lack of local players, according to Gross.

Aside from Marshall, Kutztown University graduate Anthony Lee, who has been with the team since its inception, was the only other player from last year's squad with local ties.

"We definitely had a more talented roster year two," Gross said. "Of course, winning always brings more people to the games, but really, that's generated around a playoff run. Unless you're going 24-0 and really drawing some attention, from my experience, winning didn't bring as many fans as we wanted.

"That trade off wasn't enough for me. Most importantly, we want to remain in the community. This is a business and we're in year three and we want to be here in 2034, 10 years from now. And part of that is understanding what fits us best. I think last year we learned that bringing in talent wins games, but it doesn't necessarily bring the community out to games.

"That fan engagement and that community aspect is really, really important to us because we are a community asset. We want to help redevelop the city. We want to help be a part of the economic growth and we want to help shift the mindsets here in Berks County. I think basketball has a big chance to do that."

With Linderman returning as coach and Lee already committed to returning, according to Gross, the foundation for a more localized roster is in place.

Currently, Reading has 20 players slated for its training camp roster, with camp running from Feb. 8 through Feb 11. Following camp, the Rebels will narrow down their roster to 12 players, with an official announcement coming later in February.

Backed by a committed focus on bettering the community in and around Reading, the Rebels' core mission of improving lives both on and off the court remains intact ahead of another season.

"What's most important to us is becoming a fabric of the community," Gross said. "Another way that we are going to be doing that this year is through our motto, 'For the City.' As much as we host basketball games, we have 12 players that stay with us for the season. So that's four months out of the year, and that's a pretty decent amount of time to impact people and to share and learn from one another.

"We are taking a lot of steps to begin leading and mentoring these guys in a much different direction. Of course they need basketball leadership and all the things that happen on the court, but what's really interesting is learning how all these guys' minds operate and how unique everybody's situation is.

"The Reading Rebels are doing a really good job of providing more than just a basketball atmosphere and that's what's most important. Some of the best high school programs have really great mentors and great leaders and they mold players into adults. We have a lot of adults that still need molding and that's a part of the world we live in.

"We want them to look back at their Reading Rebels experience and say they learned something and not just that they got to play basketball or went overseas, but they learned the core values that are going to allow them to be successful in the world after basketball."