BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Basketball brought Darren Fenn around the world. Back in his home city, Fenn believes there is a yearning for the sport to attain higher levels of consciousness and competition. Building sweat equity on local hardwood, Fenn is undeterred by the shots so many of his forerunners have missed chasing the same hoops dream.
Western New York’s player of the year at Canisius High School in 1997, and an all-conference big man for Canisius College, Fenn is enshrined in the athletics Hall of Fame for both schools. He played 14 professional seasons abroad before settling back in Orchard Park in 2015 to launch his basketball skill training business.
“Everyone said I couldn’t make it in that profession in Buffalo,” recalled Fenn, 43, who majored in biology at Canisius, with a psychology minor. “They said it’s a hockey town, a football town. Selfishly, for my daughters, I wanted to see the level of basketball in this area grow. And for the love of the game, I wanted to see it continue to expand.”
XGen Elite, the basketball program housed in a renovated floor hockey barn in West Seneca that Fenn and partner Glen Smith opened in 2019, has since sprouted into a favored training location for many, including NBA player Jordan Nwora. XGen runs youth clinics, tournaments, leagues and traveling AAU clubs, nurturing WNY’s hoops subculture with hundreds dribbling in each day.
“We feel that we are one of the biggest youth basketball brands in all of New York State,” Fenn said. “And we thought it was a natural evolution for us to build on that and bring professional basketball back.
“There is a thirst for basketball here.”
Back in the game
The Buffalo eXtreme tiped off their first season in the American Basketball Association with a 98-96 victory against the Rochester Kingz on Saturday night on the floor that Fenn built at XGen Elite Sports Complex.
Under Fenn’s ownership, the team is coached by Rich Jacob, a Niagara Falls native with four decades of experience working the local sidelines. On his full-court coaching resume, Jacob managed Buffalo’s first ABA franchise, the Rapids, from 2005-07.
The roster is stocked with local talent, notably University at Buffalo’s all-time leading scorer Javon McCrea, an All-America honorable mention in 2014 who spent five years playing overseas. Point guard Howard Washington is a former Canisius High standout who played for Syracuse University. The team also signed Jamaal Carter (City Honors), Lovell Smith (McKinley), Marcellus Cooper (Amherst), Jaceary Menes (Niagara Catholic), Marcus Feagin (Niagara Falls) and Quran Dubois (Niagara Falls), All-WNY alumni who had varying degrees of success at the college level.
“We want our XGen family, the players we have here, to be able to see high-level basketball in our own facility,” Fenn said. “And we want the community at large to be able to see a fast-paced, high-energy game. With the talent we have, we think we are going to be very competitive.”
“It’s going to be a fun, intimate environment,” Fenn elaborated. “Fans are going to be on top of the players. We hope they develop connections to the kids that come in our doors. We want to bring in a really loyal, rabid fan base.”
Trying not to repeat history
Buffalo has endured a slapdash series of semi-professional basketball burnouts this century.
It started promising for the Rapids, the first pro team since the NBA’s Buffalo Braves departed in 1978. The opening game in 2005 drew a capacity crowd to the Burt Flickinger Center downtown, and there was regional intrigue for an ABA renaissance that started up a few years prior.
Interest and attendance dwindled as the Rapids moved home games to area high schools after a financial dispute with Erie Community College, and there was an ownership change before season’s ended.
The Rapids became Silverbacks the next season, departed for the offshoot Premier Basketball League, morphed into Sharks, folded into a Stampede franchise that moved into the American Professional Basketball League, where the Buffalo Stampede finished the inglorious run before ceasing operations in 2012.
Later that year, the Buffalo 716ers bought back into the ABA, but played their inaugural season in the PBL, with home games at Tapestry Charter School. Some games were played at the Flickinger Center the next season, including a 2015 exhibition honoring Braves history attended by Ernie DiGregorio. The 716ers rejoined the ABA in 2016 before folding. Buffalo’s Blue Hawks and Blaze, along with the Niagara Thundersnow, existed for a time in the ABA and PBL, while playing in local obscurity.
Fenn envisions more stability for Buffalo’s latest pro hoops foray, and steady growth following XGen’s path.
“We don’t want to be a flash in the pan,” Fenn said. “We didn’t start this just to do it for a year or two. Our goal is to one day expand out of our doors into a bigger venue. Coach Jacob has a vision of where he wants this to go. But we have to take it one step at a time. The ABA is on strong footing, and there are a good amount of teams in the area for us to play. When we put our XGen name on something, it’s really important for us to be successful.”
An experienced coach
Jacob, who played for the Niagara County Community College team that reached the national title game in 1979, has been a head coach at NCCC, Villa Maria, Daemen and Medaille, and an assistant at UB and Niagara. Most recently, he coached The Park School, winning a state championship in 2019. He also holds a PhD in philosophy, with a concentration in coaching behavior, and consults local colleges in sports management after chairing the department at Medaille for decades.
“The foundation has been built before we even start here,” Jacob said. “I really believe in XGen and their commitment to the community, first and foremost. I don’t think we can say enough about the youth programming, the thousands of players who come through these doors. And how they are approaching this professional team is a natural expansion of that business.”
Jacob notes that “the ABA has been standing since the year 2000,” and in the years since Jacob resigned from the Silverbacks, “the ABA has built the infrastructure and strength of commitment across the league and in this region.”
Fenn regards Jacob’s expertise as “the perfect fit for what we were looking for in a coach,” he said. “His experience, both on and off the court, in terms of organization, teaching, understanding the game, understanding his players, his networking ability to locate local talent, he’s been absolutely fundamental to what are doing in trying to get this off the ground.”
Fenn played professionally in Germany, Japan, Russia, Spain, France, Belgium, Italy, Bosnia and Greece. An established all-star overseas, it never made sense for him to come home to play in the ABA at a reduced salary.
“I did have teammates over the years that came from these leagues and then got their first overseas contract,” Fenn said. “My goal is to take some of our players and help facilitate that transition for them. Part of our mission here is to market our players, send out film. Their success in the game is our success.”
Players also have the opportunity to work within the XGen ecosystem. They will have all-hours access to the facility for individual shooting workouts, as well as strength training downtown at Body Blocks, owned by associate head coach Bob Bateson.
“We have the potential to be one of the best, most organized platforms for our players to reach the next level,” Fenn said. “And we think we can offer some incentives that are attractive to players who are looking to take their game to a higher level, or build a career in the training space.”
The Women’s ABA launched in 2017, with 16 teams playing this past summer. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are the closest franchises to Buffalo. If the league continues to grow, Fenn will consider expanding the eXtreme operation.
“We have a really strong women’s program at XGen, and that’s definitely on the table for the future,” Fenn said.
Back and forth
While increasing his investment in a Buffalo basketball revival, Fenn maintains a lifestyle he describes as “controlled chaos,” splitting his time between here and Arizona, where he relocated a couple years back with his wife, Kimberly, an OP native, and their three children.
Fenn’s oldest daughter Sydney, in her second year playing for Arizona Compass Prep, has verbally committed to play for Indiana University.
“It was a challenge moving out west right when we were trying to build up XGen up here,” Fenn said. “It was a move we felt was in the best interest for our family.”
“Wherever I am, I try to be as present as I can,” Fenn said. “In Buffalo, it’s 16-hour days running this business and managing all the things we have on a day-to-day basis. I have an awesome partner and great staff to help when I’m not here.
“At home, it’s trying to spend as much time as I can with my family without making my wife too angry by being on the phone too much. But we’re committed to this, and we’re going to make it work.
Jonah Bronstein joined the WIVB squad in 2022 as a digital sports reporter. The Buffalonian has covered the Bills, Sabres, Bandits, Bisons, colleges, high schools and other notable sporting events in Western New York since 2005, for publications including The Associated Press, The Buffalo News, and Niagara Gazette. Read more of his work here.