This past March, an FBA expansion franchise was awarded to David Smith, who placed the team in Gainesville and named it the Mighty Oaks. Since his arrival in the area, Smith has set the wheels in motion for success, including hiring AJ Stallworth to fill the roles of Head Coach and General Manager. During a recent Zoom call with Smith and Stallworth, we discussed a number of topics pertaining to their new team, as well as their vision for the future.
John Weis: Tell me about your backgrounds and what led you to where you are today.
David Smith: This is my first entrance into the world of basketball but I have decades of experience in professional sports. I grew up around horses and was a harness racing trainer at the highest level for 44 years. In 2013, my horse finished second in the $1.5 million Hambletonian Stakes. I also have an extensive background in minor-league hockey. For two seasons, I was part-owner of a team based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina called the Twin City Cyclones that played in the Southern Professional Hockey League. After that I was a scout for the Federal Hockey League for nine years.
AJ Stallworth: I was very fortunate to play my college ball at Life University in Marietta, Georgia, where we won the NAIA Championship in 2000. From there I played professionally in just about every minor league imaginable in the United States. In between, I was fortunate enough to play for the Harlem Ambassadors and the Harlem Globetrotters, which gave me the opportunity to tour much of the United States and be part of an iconic brand. At the very end of my playing career I also had a short stint playing in the top professional league in Korea. Once I retired as a player, I became a team owner, coach and general manager for a number of minor-league teams. When David reached out to me, it was quickly apparent that he and I had a similar mindset, so saying yes to him was an easy decision.
John: The FBA prides itself on providing career advancement opportunities for their players. Both of you seem eager to do this for your team. Why do you believe this is so important?
AJ: When you’re someone like me who played as long as I did, you learn important things over the years. I am happy to pass along the wisdom of my experience to others. There are a lot of talented players who don’t realize that just because you don’t make it to the NBA … it doesn’t mean your career is over. That’s not true at all; you can still do very well playing professional basketball. If you are willing to do whatever it takes to make it, there are lots of opportunities out there – and the game can provide a very good living for you. I made a lot of sacrifices but there is no question it was worth it. Hopefully, I can inspire and motivate our players to do the same; and if they do, good things will happen for them.
David: After I retired last year, I realized I still wanted to be involved in sports in some way because of my competitive nature. As a hockey executive, my goal was always to get players to the next level. To this day, I still receive calls from teams asking me for my opinion on players. Now that I am an FBA team owner, I am working hard to establish new connections in basketball to help our guys do the exact same thing – advance their careers. But for the most part, I am going to stay out of AJ’s way and let him run the team as he sees fit. Remember the old Bill Parcells quote where he says if he’s going to do the cooking he should also be allowed to buy the groceries? That’s how I feel … and it’s why I am going to let AJ do his thing. He’s a proven winner.
John: The Mighty Oaks is a unique team nickname. How did you decide upon it?
David: Once we were awarded our team, I began researching Gainesville to see if there was something about the city we could tie into the nickname. So when I Googled “Gainesville”, I discovered it’s known as “a tree city of the world” by the United Nations and the Arbor Day Foundation. And what tree better exemplifies strength than the Mighty Oak? To me, it’s the perfect name.
John: Discuss your philosophy on how you coach … and what kind of player you recruit for the Mighty Oaks.
AJ: I have the ability to reach players of all ages and skill levels. I understand players are motivated by different things. Some people need a pat on the back, some just need some instruction and others need a kick in the butt. As long as you are making your players better, they’ll respect you for what you’re doing for them. Of course, we want to put a winner on the floor for our fans. Winning is big but it’s not everything. We will not settle for players who are not good role models in our community, no matter how talented they are. We are going to do things the right way and keep pushing each other to be better players and people. We are also going to place a special emphasis on being very kid-friendly.
John: I know you are fairly new to the FBA but you have played a couple exhibition games already (winning both) … and I’m sure you’ve done some homework on the other teams. What are your initial thoughts about the talent that can be found across the league?
AJ: The talent level is high in the FBA and every player on every team is very capable – and of course, there are a small handful of players that can be called stars. But basketball is a five-man sport, so I preach togetherness and teamwork on and off the court. This is especially important for us as a first-year team, because we don’t have the advantage of playing together for a long time like most of the other FBA squads.
John: Any predictions on the upcoming season?
David: I am originally from Missouri – the Show-Me state. I don’t believe in doing a lot of trash talking about what’s going to happen on the track, on the ice or in this case, on the basketball court … and that’s because I know for certain that anything can happen. I’ve witnessed big-time horses get beat by ones with long odds … and I’ve seen highly skilled teams lose to opponents with far less talent. We have had some initial success including winning the recent Hard2Guard cash tournament in Clearwater, but rather than making any kind of prediction, I would say it’s best to let our performance do the talking for us.
The FBA is a Florida-based professional basketball league providing a development, branding and exposure platform for athletes, referees and other individuals seeking to further their professional basketball careers.