By Ryan Butler
Riverview Hurricanes director and coach, Fred Spencer, has traveled the world. He once made the highlight reels on ESPN for shattering a backboard during a college basketball game. He has learned from Shaquille O’Neal and NBA hall-of-famer Charles Barkley. He has helped hundreds of children with lessons in sports and life. He has coached at the college level and gets offers to come back. But for now, he’s doing something much bigger than all of that.
For nearly four years, the former Division I basketball player has lead the Hurricanes, a top-flight American Athletics Union (AAU) basketball program made up of ninth, tenth and eleventh-grade teams to national respect. But, the Hurricane’s training off the court has made them unique among every other team.
Spencer, an Alabama native, created the program as a way to help young men become better people, not just players. After a college career at Troy University after transferring from Chipola College, he played professionally in Spain for four years and a stint playing Pro-Am in Orlando. He got an opportunity try out with the NBA’s Orlando Magic in 2000 but blew his knee out and subsequently retired.
He went on to become Senior Program Manager at the YMCA in Orlando and later a girls’s basketball coach at Riverview High School and later Newsome High. From there he coached junior college basketball in Coby Kansas before relocating to the Riverview area to be closer to family and to start his career as a director with the Riverview Boys and Girls Club.
“When I came home I wanted to run a program that wasn’t all about basketball,” he said.
The team, an extracurricular activity Spencer started in addition to his duties with the Boys and Girls club, started out in 2009 as way to develop players. Spencer said he didn’t get the best players but players “with heart”. From humble beginnings, the team has emerged as one of the better AAU squads in the nation. Two years ago, the Hurricanes finished third in the nation at a USSSA tournament in North Carolina. Shorthanded, they finished 21 out 100 teams at the Disney tournament last year. At the high-school level, the Hurricanes are playing for Newsome, Tampa Bay Tech, Strawberry Crest and East Bay.
“It’s amazing to see where they are now from where they started,” Spencer said.
What the players do on top of games is more impressive. Spencer makes his players sign a contract, which requires them to maintain a 2.75 GPA in school and 25 hours of community college during the season. They have hosted community fundraisers and car washes and have also volunteered with the Gasparilla festival, Metropolitan Ministries, the YMCA and the March of Dimes.
In addition, Spencer has also promoted an anti-bulling initiative which equips the Hurricanes’ players with skills to identify bullied students and use them to help connect class mates between different social groups at school.
“I use my athletes because they’re popular on their campus,” Spencer said. “They help bridge that gap.”
All this stands in contrast to the intense, competitive nature of AAU basketball which usually leads most teams in programs to focus solely on improvement on the court. Spencer’s team sees that as just one part of itself.
With the sacrifice has come reward on and off the court. This season they will attend a tournament in Las Vegas loaded with college scouts. Along with the showcase potential of these national tournaments, Hurricane players are also benefited from Spencer’s rich network of connections from his time playing college and professional basketball. Spencer has also invested in programs like the Hudl software program, a way to share highlights with coaches and scouts at the next level.
The players’ families also are a part of the program. Tournament travel includes families and, along with friends, they are highly encouraged to come out and support the program. Spencer even goes so far as to let parents in on team huddles during practice.
“Coaches have more influence on your kids than you know,” Spencer said. Even with all the success the team is still facing difficulties. Spencer and assistant coach, Rodney King, have supported the program, a 501c nonprofit financially themselves. They have looked for sponsorships to offset the costs but Spencer said most people are hesitant to support what they see as just a basketball team.
Regardless of fundraising returns, the future looks even brighter for the Hurricanes. Although Spencer has received offers to coach at the college level again, he still plans to stay managing the Hurricanes program. Currently featuring a ninth, tenth and eleventh grade basketball squad, Spencer said they might expand to include more basketball teams or potentially a track and field squad.
In the meantime, Spencer and his players are preparing for another AAU season. They will also prepare for important lessons in life once their time playing basketball is done.
For more information, visit riverviewhurricanes.org.