Yalla: Ryan Pannone ready to move the Squadron forward

Ryan Pannone holds the Israel State Cup in 2019

If you are at a Birmingham Squadron game in the coming months and happen to hear Coach Ryan Pannone finish up a huddle with “Yalla” — you haven’t been transported to Israel, but a little of Israel has been transported back with the coach.

Pannone, who will lead Birmingham’s new National Basketball Association G League team, spent two years as an assistant coach for Hapoel Jerusalem, winning the league in 2017 and the Israel State Cup in 2019.

The Squadron is the G League affiliate of the New Orleans Pelicans and will begin play toward the end of the year at the newly-renovated Legacy Arena.

Yalla is an Arabic term in common use in Israel, meaning “let’s go!”

The G League is the National Basketball Association’s official minor league organization. Previously known as the Development League, or D-League, it became the G League in a partnership with Gatorade in 2017.

After the Pelicans announced in 2017 that they intended to operate a G League team in the region, six communities applied, but Birmingham was not one of them. After Shreveport and Pensacola became finalists, Shreveport voted against building a new arena for the team, so the Pelicans, who were also dealing with the death of owner Tom Benson at that time, put plans on hold.

In October 2018, the Pelicans announced they would put their team in Birmingham after Legacy Arena finished a planned renovation, playing in the interim in Erie, Pa., whose team had just relocated to Georgia.

The Squadron refers to a group of pelicans, and also is a tribute to Alabama’s military history, especially the Tuskegee Airmen of the 99th Pursuit Squadron, the first all-Black flying squadron of the Air Force.

David Lane, Squadron general manager of business operations, said the name “is just one of the many ways our organization is aligned with the brand and vision in New Orleans, as the team will play such a vital role in training and developing NBA talent for the Pelicans.”

Pelicans Governor Gayle Benson said “bringing our G League team closer to home and to such a deserving city like Birmingham was of the utmost importance in deciding where to launch our new G League franchise. Our organization’s vision is to grow the game of basketball in the Gulf South and we couldn’t be more excited to bring the NBA to the amazing people of Birmingham.”

Though Birmingham is known as a football town and does not have an NBA team, it has consistently been a high-rated market in televised NBA games.

Gayle Benson has already demonstrated an intention to be involved in Birmingham beyond basketball, especially when it comes to expanding business relationships between Birmingham and New Orleans. She plans to invest in Birmingham, and started out with Benson Capital Partners investing in Birmingham startups Prepaid2Cash and Wyndy.

Pannone said “to be in a city like Birmingham, where there is passion behind the team, is really exciting.”

A recent luncheon at Samford University unveiled the team to the community, and while they were figuring on a couple dozen people in attendance, there were a couple hundred. They were “totally blown away at how excited people were for the G league team in Birmingham,” Pannone said.

A native of Clearwater, Fla., after graduating from Oldsmar Christian School, Pannone became an assistant coach there, then became head coach. He reached out to David Thorpe, a local player development coach, and worked with him preparing players for the NBA draft.

He was an assistant coach at Wallace State Community College in Hanceville, about an hour north of Birmingham, then became an assistant coach with the Foshan Long Lions in the Chinese Basketball Association, and later coached in Germany and South Korea.

Returning to the U.S., he was an assistant with the Memphis Grizzlies’ summer team in Las Vegas, then worked with Thorpe at the Erie BayHawks in the D-League.

In 2016, he became an assistant coach at Hapoel Jerusalem. He explained that the general manager used to be Israeli NBA player Omri Casspi’s agent, and Pannone had been working with Casspi. “They were looking for an assistant coach with a player development mindset,” and the Pelicans’ international scout recommended him.

Living in Jerusalem was “a very unique experience,” he said. “Jerusalem is one of the most special places in the whole world.”

“It was amazing to be able to go to the Holy Land, to see some of the different sites you read about in the Bible, then to experience it with my wife and the second year with my son,” he said.

There were some adjustments, such as not being able to walk into most restaurants in Jerusalem and order a cheeseburger. A fan of bacon and eggs, he wondered, “where do you find the bacon?”

Another initial challenge was getting used to the concept of Shabbat. He marveled at the “commitment to the lifestyle there” after a difficult start. He said one weekend, they were driving in Jerusalem on Shabbat and the GPS took them through an Orthodox neighborhood. “Kids were screaming at us and we didn’t know what was going on.”

But in retrospect, one of his favorite memories of life in Israel is Shabbat dinner. “I loved Shabbat dinner, I loved that kids and family members are driving from hours away to be together and spend time together.” Now that he is a father, he hopes that when his kids are older and in college that they would want to come back for dinner.

“The life lessons we were able to experience living there were amazing,” he said, explaining “often in America we feel the way we do everything is the best way,” but living in several different countries, he found each country has different cultural aspects that would be beneficial in America.

“While I’m not Jewish, the commitment to the lifestyle there in Jerusalem is amazing to see,” he said.

He also saw commitment to basketball. Basketball in Israel “is amazing,” he said, and “the passion from the fans is unbelievable.” He said the fans have a series of songs they do in the stands before the game, and “when it gets to the national anthem… the passion with which they sing the national anthem would bring goosebumps.”

The Jerusalem fans also would have a particular song for when the team was behind and they needed to create energy and momentum in the arena. Then, after the team won the championship, on the way back from Tel Aviv fans had blocked the highway on both sides, storming the bus in celebration.

He said Israel is a great place for Americans to play, because of the high level of basketball, how most everyone speaks English and they can find echoes of home.

With retired NBA player Amare Stoudemire on the team and a co-owner, Hapoel Jerusalem won the 2016-17 championship. Pannone then went to become the head coach of the BC Prievidza in Slovakia, then returned to Jerusalem for the 2018-19 season, while also serving as a scout for the Angola national team. In 2019, Hapoel Jerusalem won the Israel Cup.

In early 2019, David Griffin became the general manager of the Pelicans, and Pannone heard that they were looking for an American coach with international experience to coach their G League team. Thorpe recommended Pannone to him, as did Stoudemire, who had been with the Phoenix Suns when Griffin was there.

Pannone was on the staff of the Pelicans’ summer team in Las Vegas in 2019, after which he was named coach of the BayHawks, and has followed the BayHawks in relocating to Birmingham.

While he loved being in Erie, “moving to Birmingham to be closer to our Pelicans organization is huge,” as well as the difference in weather.

And furthering the connection with Israel, former University of Connecticut player Jalen Adams, who played for Pannone in Erie last year, signed with Hapoel Jerusalem in August.

Schedule information for the coming season has not been finalized.

Lane said “We’re looking forward to (Legacy Arena) being the best in the G League and even rivaling some NBA arenas. We couldn’t ask for a better venue for our fans, and we can’t wait to bring the experience of live professional basketball to the people of Birmingham like they’ve never seen before.”