2 July 2022
A middle school gym on a hot summer night is the center of North Carolina women’s basketball.
“This looks so perfect right here,” Arne Morris said to his eleventh grade team. “If we can get to this position in games I’m telling you people will not score on us.”
Morris is the director of the Carolina Flames. The AAU program is sponsored by Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul and competes nationally in the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League (EYBL). On this particular night, Morris and his fellow coaches are preparing the Flames for the Nike Nationals in Chicago.
“You look at my shirt and it says Flames for life,” Morris said. “It truly means Flames for life.”
The program was founded in the early 90’s and has teams running from fourth grade to eleventh grade.
“It helps me build lifelong connections, lifelong friendships,” Reychel Douglas said. “It’s like one big family.”
The Millbrook High School rising senior and Raleigh native has been a part of the Flames since fourth grade. She’s currently being recruited by schools like Georgia, Georgetown, and Alabama.
“Being able to play against some of the top players in the country at the tournaments we go to it’s definitely really competitive,” Douglas said.
The tournaments are competitive, but so is the practice. This North Raleigh Christian gym is filled with players being recruited D-1, D-2, and D-3 schools. Some may even make the WNBA. Flames alumni include Azura Stevens, who played high school basketball at Cary High School, college at UCONN and Duke, and is currently on the Chicago Sky.
“I stay in touch with a lot of the kids,” Morris said. “When they come back and they talk to these kids and they talk to them about being a lawyer, a doctor, or continuing their college career, it means a lot.”
“I’m just going to tell ya’ll something I wish somebody told me,” Saniya Rivers said as she addressed the team during a water break at practice. “I don’t think I was as prepared to go into my freshman year. So if you think you’re playing defense hard enough you’re not. If you think you’re shooting the ball good enough you’re not. If you think you’re boxing out, you’re not boxing out hard enough. Just go ten times harder than you think you’re going.”
Rivers is from Wilmington, NC, she’s a Flames alumni. Last season she won a national championship at the University of South Carolina and transferred to NC State for her sophomore year. She stopped in at practice to provide some words of encouragement before the Flames leave for nationals.
“It’s definitely a family feel,” Rivers said. “I remember being young and the older girls coming to see us play, practice with us, coach us, help us out a little bit. I’m sure it makes them feel good, because it made me feel good when I was coming up.”
“It’s really inspiring and helpful, because we know they are at the level that we are trying to get to,” Douglas said on alumni like Rivers coming back to visit. “We are able to ask them questions and pick their brain about what are some of the things to look for [when we get to college], what are some of the struggles that she went through to maybe help us and guide us through it.”
The Flames made the final four of last year’s nationals. The tournament runs July 10-12 with seeding games before that. This year they believe they can win.
“If we play together and how we know how to play definitely,” Douglas said. “I believe in us.”