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Miller and friends lead a basketball revival in Norwich

Norwich — It turns out that most everything we ever needed to know about our evolution came from the Muppets. No, really. We've become a nation versed in critiques from the cheap seats, much like Statler and Waldorf, the two old cranks who amused themselves by heckling everyone else.

Except now life has imitated art to alarming spheres, perhaps because the cheap seats are safer than actually, you know, actually doing something.

Happily, Leonard Miller and his friends, despite some recent obstacles, care about their community too much to merely complain. They're doing something. They've revived their childhood with the rebirth of the Night Flight Basketball League, an attempt to make their place ... a better place.

Night Flight used to be a summer thing two decades ago, when the kids would play on Friday nights at NFA. Families would come to watch. It gave Norwich some identity, all while giving kids something to look forward to.

"The whole vision is putting a positive spin on the men in our community, particularly young black men being seen in a positive light," Miller, a former NFA great, said earlier this week. "There's not a lot of outlets in a small town where the kids can see men playing, competing and respecting the game and each other. All that stuff is what I saw as a little kid. Those were the people I looked up to. So, we want to give back and have people see something positive."

Miller has joined with Paul Palazzo, Cara Turner, Eugene Gibson and Matt Lewellen in remaining positive even when all the news around the league hasn't been. Earlier this week, former league president James Maloney, a Board of Education member until his recent resignation, was charged with second-degree forgery, after city police said he forged an insurance document sent to the city recreation department for the league and its application to use the Jenkins Park court.

What transpires in court isn't nearly as significant as the willingness of the league's leadership to not allow negativity to derail a good idea. The outdoor summer league at Jenkins Park followed a successful nine-team indoor winter league. The summer league has added a women's division,  too.

"People are pretty excited," said Palazzo, who also played at NFA. "Leonard has women asking about it. I don't know, as an almost 40-year old now, when there's been a competitive women's  league around here ever — or an outdoor summer league. It's pretty cool."

Miller, who plays on a team with Palazzo, Brian Cagle, Malik Champlain and — gasp — even a New London guy (former Whaler great Isaiah Curtis) got tired of playing in a Willimantic league and driving elsewhere to play the sport he loves. Again: It's one thing to complain about it. It's another to find the energy, time and patience to run something with a million little details nobody ever sees coming.

"I kept driving to Willimantic and was thinking, 'why not Norwich?'" Miller said. "We should be able to play here in our own community."

The winter league, which begins again in November at either Kelly Middle or Teachers' Memorial, will move to Thursdays to not interfere with the normal Tuesday-Friday high school schedule. And this is how communities — and the sense of community — develop. One good decision at a time. One piece of effort at a time.

Sometimes, this is what city and town officials in all outposts don't understand. Residents don't need the grandiose. They don't need home runs. Bunt singles are fine. Giving families and kids a fun place to go is a good start.

"The goal is bringing people out," Miller said. "Bring the kids, make it a family league. As the league goes on, I picture like the old Conn College summer league. We want to build this thing."

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro


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