Monarchs bring hoops and hope to Camden

Before the start of a November 10 game against the Jersey Express, Camden Monarch Lenny Cooke makes an entrance. (April Saul for WHYY)

Before the start of a November 10 game against the Jersey Express, Camden Monarch Lenny Cooke makes an entrance. (April Saul for WHYY)

In the heart of downtown Camden, the Philadelphia 76ers’ 125,000 square-foot practice facility looms large. But you can’t watch a game there.

Two miles away at the Kroc Center in Cramer Hill, the Camden Monarchs are bringing semi-pro basketball to appreciative fans.

For the players in the purple-and-gold Camden jerseys, being a Monarch is a second chance to keep playing a sport they love, and even be seen by scouts. Most are in their 20s and making ends meet working construction or cutting hair.

At a November 10 game against the Jersey Express, Camden Monarch Lenny Cooke goes up for a shot. (April Saul for WHYY)

At 39, Lenny Cooke of Atlantic City is the team’s wise man. He’s a legend for being ranked alongside LeBron James as a young player, but he tried to turn pro out of high school and went undrafted. He bounced around leagues and tore both his Achilles’ tendons (separately) before losing his shot at stardom.

He aims to inspire his teammates, he said, and “to give kids in this area hope.”

On Sunday, the Monarchs hosted their fifth home game against the Philly Cannons. Though the stands weren’t nearly full, the Monarchs sold out the 250-seat gym twice this season.

Terrence Hickman drove to the Kroc Center from his home in Moorestown and has paid $10 for each of the home games thus far. “I think it’ll catch on,” he said. Especially with the recent departure of the Camden Riversharks baseball team and demolition of that stadium, Hickman said the Monarchs “definitely fill that void. It brings unity to the city to have a local sports team right in Camden.”

At a November 10 game against the Jersey Express, Camden Monarch LaQuin Stewart goes up for a shot. (April Saul for WHYY)

It was only natural that Monarchs’ owner Giovanni Thompson would bring a basketball team to Camden.

Growing up, the 34-year old Thompson — a single mother of three with her own marketing firm — was immersed in the sport. Her father, Ronnie Thompson, was a Camden High basketball star who went on to play in a multitude of foreign countries. Her brother, Christian Thompson, excelled on the court until an accident landed him in a wheelchair at age 16.

When longtime friend Darrin “Slim” Akers came to Thompson with the idea of purchasing a franchise as partners, she embraced it — as long as the team would play in Camden.

“It was really important,” Giovanni says, “to put together something Camden can be proud of.” She chose the name Monarchs because she wanted to “speak something positive about Camden,” but “’Kings,’” she said, “seemed cheesy.”

The Kroc agreed to rent the Monarchs their gym for home contests in the 22-game season, and the team recruited 14 players.

The December 8 game — which doubled as “Camden High Night” for the Monarchs — felt like an homage to the Thompson family. Former CHS basketball greats like Ronnie Thompson and Councilman-elect Vic Carstarphen were honored at halftime, and Camden High cheerleaders performed alongside the Monarchs’ dancers.

Giovanni was surrounded by family: her brother Christian is one of the Monarch’s assistant coaches. “To us, it’s about the Thompson legacy,” he said, “and it’s really a beautiful thing for the city.”

Giovanni’s mom, Lavern Coffey, was on hand early to help set up the gym. Her dad sat courtside, urging the Monarchs to be wary of losing a 14-point lead with six minutes left to play. “Hey, the game ain’t over yet!” Ronnie Thompson yelled at the players. “They just put up a three-pointer!”

At a November 10 game against the Jersey Express, Camden Monarch Jason Hutzler goes up for a shot. (April Saul for WHYY)

The Monarchs appear poised to make the playoffs in the Northeast Conference that stretches from Boston to Virginia. The team has formed alliances with the Sixers and Mastery Schools in Camden that Thompson hopes will help rally support in the community. More special events are planned, including “A Merry Monarch Christmas” on December 23, when toys will be given out to children before the game starts.

Right now, Giovanni Thompson is too busy with the Monarchs to maintain her marketing business. She dreams of getting back to it some day, and of finding the Monarchs their own facility in the future.

Ronnie Thompson is not surprised. “I raised my kids,” he said, “to be believers.”

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