COVID-19 may have cut the Delaware Blue Coats’ NBA G League season prematurely short – first by suspending it March and then canceling it June 4 – but it has not dampened the enthusiasm of Delaware team president Larry Meli concerning the now completed 2019-2020 season.
During a phone interview Friday, Meli talked about the progress that the team had made both on and off the court, and where it plans to go in a new season.
The season ended with seven games to go, he pointed out.
“It was disappointing, but the reality of the world at that time called for our league to stop,” he said. “At that point, we started focusing on next season and this really is our off-season.”
Although the pandemic cost the Blue Coats their final four home games in their 2,500-seat 76ers Fieldhouse, Meli was ecstatic about the fan turnout and his team’s performance to that point.
“It was going great. I think that was why there was some disappointment. Literally, everything from our side, from the business standpoint were all-time highs for us,” he said. “When you talk about those key metrics whether they were ticket sales, sponsorships, community engagement, everything was hitting on all cylinders.
“When you talk on the court, the team was in a playoff position which we had not enjoyed since our inception” in 2013-14,” Meli said. “It was really shaping up to being an exciting time. In fact, the four games remaining were due to be the biggest of the year.
“Obviously, we didn’t get to see that through or see the playoffs, but it is something that we can build on going into this season.”
The Blue Coats were 22-21, second in the Atlantic Division, and had notched a convincing 113-92 home win over the division-leading Maine Red Claws when the 2019-20 season was shuttered.
When the season-ending awards were announced on June 17, Delaware rookie center Christ Koumadje was named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year. Koumadje, a 7-foot, 4-inch standout from Florida State, led the G-League in blocks, with 4 per game and 133 overall. The Blue Coats, as a team, led the league in blocks with 7.3 per game.
“There were games where he had double-digit blocks,” Meli said. “Just defending the rim and making the opposition when they came down the lane to think twice about what they were doing, that’s the definition of a defensive disrupter.”
Meli says the Blue Coats’ 140,000 square foot, state-of-the-art complex, is a “a beacon” to the community.
“It’s not only for our games and youth development in this area, but it’s something this region has not seen. When you come to a game and it’s clean, and it’s bright, it’s fun to be there,” he said. “I think that’s where a lot of our excitement from our fans came from and they wanted to be part of something that they hadn’t been to before.”
That contributed to ticket sales and sellouts during the last couple of seasons.
The fieldhouse is not a basketball-only venue. It has hosted concerts, family shows and graduations. Its grounds were home to outdoor movies this spring. ESPN personality Stephen A. Smith, a Philadelphia native, hosted his popular show “First Take” for a week as part of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities series there.
Another thing that Meli is passionate about is the Blue Coats being a community-based organization, first and foremost.
“Obviously, we have this amazing product, these elite athletes and basketball is a such beautiful sport to watch, and I think that’s what helps galvanize the rest of our organization and our community,” he said. “Basketball has power. We do 150 community events a year. Each of our employees dedicates 76 hours to community service to Delaware along with our players giving their time and energy to this community as well.”
One focus has been literacy.
Over the past three seasons, the team has donated more than 50,000 books to kids in need with the help of team partners, civic leaders, and fans. The players go into the Wilmington-area schools which gets the students “excited” about reading.
For the upcoming season, the Blue Coats have “adopted” eight schools in the underserved areas of Wilmington.
“The bottom line is if kids are able to read on grade level by third grade their opportunity to graduate high school increases dramatically, so we saw literacy as such a key factor in the success for these kids that we decided to make this our community platform,” Meli said.
Another initiative for the 2020-21 season is working with the Delaware Transit Corp. (DART) to help draw more fans to 76ers Fieldhouse.
“One of the challenges we have realized since we’ve been in Delaware is getting people to our games,” he said. “So you’re going to see more bus routes that are going to run up and down (Route) 13 and to the fieldhouse, along with the improvements that they made to the connector with sidewalks. It’s going to be easier to walk to the fieldhouse along with using DART to get to the fieldhouse.
It’ about getting more people to the Fieldhouse’s side of the Christina River.”
When COVID hit, the Blue Coats teamed with their minor league baseball neighbors, the Wilmington Blue Rocks, to help.
The two teams each sold co-branded blue “Delaware Together” blue T-shirts to raise $6,500 for ChristianaCare and the Nemour’s Health System.
“Both organizations are very civic-minded,” Meli said. “Schools weren’t open and we couldn’t get out like we normally do and get boots on the ground. We were very proud of the effort, and the community rallied around it. And we were able to donate that money back to the frontline workers.”