Ring City aims to be a player in N.J.

The New York/New Jersey area's club basketball scene was already loaded with programs, but that didn't faze those behind Ring City basketball.

"We're all really passionate about the game and the kids," said Maria Harper. "There's no trying to influence anybody, we're just trying to be good for the kids."

Harper is a former basketball player, who played at the University of New Orleans in the mid '90s under her maiden name, Pizarro. She is the wife of five-time NBA champion Ron Harper. After time spent working for non-profit companies in different cities, including a group in Chicago where she and Ron first met, the Harpers ended up in Upper Saddle River, N.J.

With two young boys at home, Harper returned to the gym with the girls during the winter, becoming an assistant at Paterson Catholic (Paterson, N.J.). This winter, she will take over at the helm of her first high school, De Paul (Wayne, N.J.), but not without a focus on Ring City and her current non-profit, Give & Go, on the schedule.

"One of our goals for the first year was to play at Nike Nationals," Harper said. "Once we proved we could compete at that level, they allowed us a spot, with the understanding that it didn't make us a Nike team."

In mid-October, Harper got the word that Ring City was being added to the roster of Nike-sponsored teams, which a representative of Nike confirmed.

"We are very excited to represent the brand and the excellence it stands for," Harper said. "I foresee a future that is beneficial for all the girls in our program with our new relationship with Nike."

Before the Nike sponsorship was even on the horizon, the Harpers needed to find a coach. With the idea for Ring City bouncing around between Ron and Maria Harper, a parent helped them make a connection.

Enter Walter Welsh, who was coaching with the NYC Gauchos program. An intended one-hour meeting turned into five hours and, at the end, Welsh was in. He became the coach for Ring City's elite team and was part of an organization focused solely on girls' basketball.

"The Gauchos were a great organization with the boys and girls, but I wanted the focus to just be on girls' basketball," Welsh said. "With Maria, I felt she was doing something really special."

So did the kids, who started talking to Welsh and the Harpers about the program. In the spring of 2009, four teams took to the club circuit, a team of 13-year-olds, a 14-year-olds squad and two 16-year-olds teams, including the elite squad. After barely any time to get acquainted, Welsh led the elite team into the fire of April's Boo Williams Invitational.

"I told Maria from day one, if we're going to do this, we have to do it on the highest level," Welsh said. "If you want to be champions, you've got to fight everybody."

The tournament was somewhat of a success -- the team got off the ground with a middle-of-the-road debut and Ring City got its name out. As the summer grew closer, the team had plenty of time to learn from each other, Welsh and the Harpers. They traveled to one of the biggest Memorial Day tournaments and filled July's schedule with tough brackets, including wrapping up at Nike Nationals. The team progressed every week, eventually making it to the Silver Bracket semifinals in North Augusta, S.C.

But Harper isn't just focused on the girls' on-court success. With her foundation, Give & Go, she has also turned her attention to academics, starting with the current Ring City players. The foundation works with kids to find tutors, help with SAT and ACT preparation and is exploring scholarships. It's something that appeals to more players than Harper expected.

"A lot of AAU coaches don't really care about school," said Seton Hall-bound Ka-Deidre Simmons, ranked No. 53 in the 2010 class by ESPN HoopGurlz, and part of Ring City's inaugural elite team. "But Maria has always said that if we need help, just to let her know."

For Simmons, the 5-foot-8 point guard at Shabazz (Newark, N.J.) and a student in the New Jersey system where students must pass a state test to graduate, that was going to mean a summer math class to prepare her for the fall's re-test. She missed passing the math portion by five points on her first try.

Instead, Harper talked to Simmons' school. She packed up a math book and spent time tutoring Simmons, and her twin sister Desiree Simmons, who had already passed the test, during long car trips to and from tournaments. No. 42 Daisha Simmons has pledged to Rutgers.

"She's just a great person," Ka-Deidre Simmons said of Harper. "A very well-rounded person. ... When we were around Ron, he was always telling us about the work he had to put in before he could play. They were great examples for us."

"We're trying to offer an answer for a need we saw in the community," Maria Harper said. "For the first year, I think we had a great showing. We're building a great program and we have a strong nucleus of younger kids."

As for the program's debut on the national stage, it didn't come just from Ron Harper's star power, or on the income from the family of four. The girls participate in fundraisers for travel expenses and they put in the work at other tournaments to show they could compete. But nothing, from the size of the program to the tournaments they'll travel to in future summers, is set in stone.

"I think great things are going to happen in the future for Ring City," Welsh said. "There's still some growing to do, but it was a great first year."

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Mindi Rice is an ESPN HoopGurlz staff writer. She previously was an award-winning sportswriter at the Tacoma News Tribune and a barista at Starbucks, and grew up in Seattle, where she attended Roosevelt High School before graduating from the University of Oregon with a degree in journalism. She can be reached at mindi@hoopgurlz.com.