By Kevin Noonan
The main objective of the Delaware Blue Coats is to develop players for the big-league club. After that, the priorities are to win basketball games and win over the fans, although not necessarily in that order.
And that’s where Joe Richmond — aka “Uncle Joe” — comes in.
The Blue Coats are a G League team that’s affiliated with the Philadelphia 76ers of the NBA. If you’re just a casual fan, there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of any of the Blue Coats players, with one notable exception — guard Mac McClung, who electrified the basketball world when he recently won the NBA Slam Dunk contest with a combination of athleticism and showmanship that had the greatest players in the world singing (and tweeting) his praises.
But, for the most part, the Blue Coats have to work hard to get attention from the local community, and that’s just what they’re doing. Several years ago, the team started an offseason program called the Neighborhood Hoops Tour to improve their image and visibility in Delaware. And they picked Richmond — and gave him the official title of Ambassador of Basketball — to lead that effort, with able support from the rest of the Blue Coats management team.
“It’s really the enthusiasm and hard work by a lot of people that has made this a success,” Richmond says. “For all of us, it’s a labor of love, and the positive feedback we get from the people in Delaware is our real reward.”
How much of a success? Well, in the last year alone, the Neighborhood Hoops Tour has taken part in 147 different events in Delaware, mostly in Wilmington’s inner city, and since its inception the program has reached more than 10,000 kids with its message of fellowship — along with, of course, a plug for the Blue Coats.
The Tour has also partnered with Nemours Children’s Health to donate more than 73,000 books for its reading program, and just so people don’t forget what the Blue Coats do for a living, the team’s community ticket assistance program has given more than 12,000 kids free tickets to their games.
And the Neighborhood Hoops Tour will tour in any neighborhood. Over the years they’ve visited schools and Boys & Girls Clubs and YMCAs and Police Athletic League facilities, not to mention various basketball camps and workshops — pretty much any place where Delawareans gather.
It starts at the top. Recently, Blue Coats coach Coby Karl visited Eastside Charter School and read to students and spoke to them about the importance of literacy and education, and he even brought along the Blue Coats’ mascot to entertain the younger students. Everyone, from team president Larry Meli on down, has taken part in the program at one time or another.
“I think the focus the Blue Coats have on literacy is great,” says Aaron Bass, CEO of Eastside Charter. “The more the community can support literacy and education for young people, the better we are for the future.”
And Bass appreciates the fact that the Blue Coats don’t use their fame and fortune to influence kids to become professional athletes like them.
“What Larry Meli and the Blue Coats understand is that their inspiration isn’t to make them basketball players — the inspiration is, how do we have an impact and build better connections with the community? Their visionary leadership and understanding of the community stand out.”
The Man in the Middle
Richmond is the perfect person for his job as liaison between the team and the people. He bubbles over with enthusiasm when talking about the Blue Coats and their community programs, and his bounce-off-the-walls energy is infectious.
“We couldn’t do it without Coach Joe,” says Alex Yoh, the director of marketing for the G League team. “He has the ability that I’ve never seen before to just connect with people. He can walk into a room full of strangers and enlighten them and really make their day, if not their week.”
Says Bass: “Joe is a gem. It’s been amazing, because Joe gets it. He makes sure the Blue Coats are engaging with the community and that they’re part of the fabric and the landscape of the community.”
Richmond has a wealth of experience in combining basketball and entertainment. From 2007-2012 he traveled with the Harlem Globetrotters as an official, and he also coached the Globetrotters’ nightly opposition, the Washington Generals, the lovable losers who never, ever beat the Globetrotters. Richmond visited all 50 states and more than 35 countries with the Globetrotters, and he got an up-close-and-personal look at the way the famous group brought smiles to millions of faces, especially young ones.
“When you bring kids into it, when Coach Joe walks into the auditorium of a school, it’s a show,” Yoh says. “He has a natural ability to do that. Joe loves the Blue Coats and he believes in what we are doing and his sincerity comes across. He’s been a champion of this program since Day 1.”
The program got started because the Blue Coats, then known as the Delaware 87s of the D League, wanted to engage their fans outside of the basketball season, and the G League off-season is a lot longer than its on-season. And since players don’t hang around in the G League for long — they either move up or get moved out — the team couldn’t promote its players like an NBA team can.
So, even though the team has been successful on the court, going to the G League championship series the last two years, and attendance has been decent — they average about 1,500 fans per home game — that wasn’t enough.
“We only have 24 home games a year to get in front of people with the basketball,” Yoh says. “So, to establish ourselves in front of Delaware over a greater period of time, we came up with this program. We wanted to visit as many venues as we can with this tour, with the idea of connecting with the youth in the community. And we knew it had to be a year-round effort and not be limited to just the games we play at Chase Fieldhouse.”
The program started slowly as the Blue Coats got acquainted with their Wilmington neighbors, and vice-versa.
“At first, we had to kind of track down our community partners,” Yoh says. “And now we’ve transitioned to a period when, fortunately, they’re calling us.”
Cut to the Chase
One of the main attractions of the Blue Coats’ outreach is Chase Fieldhouse, which has been the anchor for the Neighborhood Hoops Tour since it opened in 2019. The facility, on the eastern side of the Christina River, is also the centerpiece for a planned renaissance in that often-neglected area of Wilmington, just as Frawley Stadium was for the west side of the river.
“I love it when people, especially kids, walk into Chase Fieldhouse and I see that initial look on their faces,” Richmond says. “It’s a beautiful facility and a real boost for the community. It’s not like it’s a fortress that’s inaccessible to people. It’s used all the time and it’s a wonderful feeling to know that’s it’s a safe haven for kids. We make sure they know that it’s their place and not just a place where the Blue Coats play.
“That’s really at the heart of [Neighborhood Hoops Tour]. It’s about connecting with the people in the community, especially the kids, and letting them know that we’re not strangers who just walked into town. We’re a part of the community, too, and everything that affects them also affects us. And the Chase Fieldhouse is really the anchor of it all.”
So, the Blue Coats have the place (Chase Fieldhouse) and they have the personality (Joe Richmond), and together they’ve made an impact on the city and the state that goes far beyond watching a bouncing ball.
“When you walk into Chase Fieldhouse for a game, Coach Joe is the first face you see. He greets all the fans,” Yoh says. “And when you leave, he’s the last person you’ll say goodnight to.
“No other team has a Coach Joe, and we’re fortunate to have him because he’s the ultimate Blue Coat and the ultimate advocate for youth basketball in this area.”