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During the road trip, in the middle of the desert, the team van stopped for snacks at a remote 7-Eleven. An assistant coach riding shotgun, a recently reformed gang member, leaned toward Alauddeen and whispered, "Yo, I got a nine on me. We just could rob this place." Alauddeen said, "No, we're not gonna do that."
Soon after the team arrived at the motel, Andrews called Alauddeen. Two of Andrews' bosses, impressed by the Soldiers' purpose, had each just written them $500 checks.
That purpose was to give East Bay kids a safe place to play basketball in the spring and summer, away from the gang-infested parks. It was also intended to help the most talented ones get college scholarships. For years the pair had seen quality players shine through high school, only to end up on the streets after graduation. College coaches didn't consider Northern California a recruiting hot spot, and didn't spend much time scouring the region for prospects.
The two men modeled their nonprofit program off Los Angeles Slam 'N Jam, a spring and summer league featuring 400-plus Southern California high school players. The 12 best would form Slam 'N Jam's travel team, and they would compete in tournaments in front of college coaches. Izzy Washington, the founder of L.A. Slam 'N Jam, helped Alauddeen and Andrews build their league, sending them extra shoes from Slam 'N Jam's LA Gear sponsorship, as well as a few thousand dollars.
Alauddeen, now a doctoral candidate at Cal's School of Education, wanted to use the basketball program to teach kids about black empowerment and the Black Panthers. He thought the best way to interest kids in the history would be to shape the team's identity around a Black Panthers theme. Admittedly militant, he named the team the Soldiers. The Soldiers' first logo was a silhouette of Huey Newton holding a rifle. Lessons on George Jackson and Bobby Seale would seep into pre-game speeches.
From the start, the team drew eyes: The Soldiers would march onto the court single-file, wearing Malcolm X T-shirts and those LA Gears with the light-up heels, saluting each other, as Alauddeen trailed them holding a boombox bumping Public Enemy. He would wear a dashiki or military camouflage. And people from all around a tournament venue would wander over.
Through his connections as Cal's Black Student Union president, Alauddeen befriended the local rap group Digital Underground. He hung out with them in the studio and hooked them up with LA Gear sneakers. He even popped up in the background of music videos. One member of the music group, a notably political up-and-comer, especially dug what Alauddeen was doing with the Soldiers. So, Alauddeen recalls, Tupac Shakur wrote "Soulja's Story" for the team, recording it for his debut album, 2pacalypse. The song narrates from the perspective of George Jackson, the Black Panther leader killed by San Quentin prison guards during an escape attempt.
"Is it my fault, just 'cause I'm a young black male?/ Cops sweat me as if my destiny is makin' crack sales/ Only 15 and got problems/ Cops on my tail, so I bail till I dodge 'em./ All you wanted to be, a soulja, a soulja./ All you wanted to be, a soulja, like me."
The Soldiers' reputation grew throughout the Bay Area, which brought more players to the program, which led to more wins, which led to more attention from college recruiters. But to really get their kids scholarship opportunities, the founders needed deeper connections in the college basketball world.
So Andrews and Alauddeen flew out to Indianapolis for the 1991 NCAA Final Four to network with coaches. The next year, in a Minneapolis hotel lobby, USC's coach, George Raveling, introduced them to Sonny Vaccaro, Nike's longtime liaison to the travel team basketball scene.
Vaccaro had just been fired by Nike, for reasons that never became clear. But he kept the rights to his ABCD Camp, an invitation-only showcase for the country's elite prospects and a must-see event for every major college coach. He asked Andrews and Alauddeen to serve as camp counselors, and told them they could bring their two best players, Jaha Wilson and Raymond King. The relationship between Vaccaro and the Soldiers' founders quickly solidified.
"That changed everything," says Andrews. "Because that gave our program the muscle. It gave us the platform. It gave us access. It gave us ties to stuff that no one had. We had the political clout now."
When Vaccaro joined Adidas a few months later, he got the Soldiers a sponsorship deal. That brought invitations to the elite camps and elite tournaments, as well as attention from Division I scouts.
"This all happened during the explosion of AAU basketball," says Andrews. "What happened was, the shoe companies started getting involved, and all the money started coming in through the shoe companies. That's what blew AAU up."
The Soldiers took off. In 1994, future NBA Finals MVP Chauncey Billups, then a highly recruited Colorado guard who had gotten to know King, Andrews, and Alauddeen at ABCD, joined the Soldiers. The Billups-King backcourt drew packed arenas.
And so began the classic travel team positive-feedback loop: Talent leads to exposure leads to scholarship offers leads to more talent. In 2001 the Soldiers fielded Leon Powe, DeMarcus Nelson, Kendrick Perkins, and LeBron James, who would all end up in the NBA. That summer established the Soldiers as a national travel-team powerhouse.