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Celebrities, community turn out for Ratliff charity game

A capacity crowd turned out Saturday afternoon at the Demopolis High School gymnasium to see one of Demopolis’s most famous native sons return home–and to give him a hand in making his hometown a better place for kids to live.

The first annual Theo Ratliff Celebrity Basketball Game was held at 3 p.m Saturday, with all proceeds from ticket and concession sales going to benefit the Theo Ratliff Activity Center, due to open to the public later this summer. In addition to Ratliff, who served as celebrity coach for the red-clad “home” team, the game featured appearances by a number of celebrities, including Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas of legendary R&B group TLC, TV stars Chico Benymon and Ken Lawson, Nana Gbewonyo of the film “Coach Carter” fame, and NBA star Eric Snow as the coach of the navy-clad celebrity team, among others.

“I just want to thank everyone for coming out today,” Ratliff told the crowd, “and I hope everyone has a good time.”

Ratliff also thanked his celebrity guests, who said as they prepared for the game that they were delighted to be in Demopolis to help a good cause.

“I love it, man,” said Benymon, star of the television series “Half and Half.” “It’s always great to give something back, always great to come back to your roots, wherever you’re from. Mike [Harris, Ratliff’s representation] asked me and I said, ‘No problem.'”

The energetic Lawson, from the popular UPN series “The Parkers,” said he loved being able to offer his younger fans a positive role model.

“It’s a total pleasure to be out here and interacting with the fans, the people, the kids…I just want to help show them that they can experience life on a higher level,” he said, “to share with them and encourage them that it’s a big world out there and you can always come back and make things bigger and better for your community. I just want to bring the energy and help everyone have a great time out there.”

Despite the popularity of Benymon and Lawson, it was “Chilli” Thomas, famous for years of TLC number-one hits and music videos, who drew the largest crowd during a halftime autograph session. Thomas said her visit to Demopolis was her first to Alabama without the hassle of touring, a welcome plus.

“It’s my first time since we came through on a tour and I’m having a great time,” she said. “The kids are great.”

Thomas became involved with the game when she joined Ratliff in promoting the nutrition-energy supplement Rebound, but said she was happier not suiting up and enjoyed the game from the celebrity-team bench.

“I told them I can’t play a lick of basketball,” she said with a laugh, “so I’ll just sit off to the side.”

Although the game itself was in many ways secondary to giving Demopolis a chance to see the stars shine and the Activity Center helped, the game also proved to be an entertaining back-and-forth affair not decided until the final minute. The star of the game was the celebrity team’s Frank Iguodala, a former NBA player with the Cleveland Cavaliers and brother of Philadelphia 76ers star Andre Iguodala. Iguodala rattled the DHS rims with several crowd-pleasing dunks that brought many in the crowd to their feet.

Andre had been present to help with out the Ratliff Basketball Camp and Frank said both brothers were more than happy to lend a hand with the event.

“Any time we can help out the kids,” he said, “we’re happy to do it.”

Led by the explosiveness of Iguodala and “Nana G” Gbewonyo, the celebrity team held the advantage for much of the game. But behind the three-point sharpshooting of local fan favorites like DHS Girls’ team coach Tony Pittman, John Essex hoops coach Al Shipman, and U.S. Jones principal Dr. Tony Speegle, the home team hung tough. The team even drew coach Ratliff to his feet early in the fourth quarter, when his former DHS coach, Marengo County Superintendent Luke Hallmark, drained a three to put the red team on top 62-60.

But there was too much Iguodala and Gbewonyo as the celebrity team eventually claimed a 87-85 victory. Of course, on a day like Saturday everybody left a winner, including Ratliff’s mother Camilla Ratliff, whose birthday was honored at halftime with an impromptu rendition of “Happy Birthday” by the celebrity team.

“This,” she told the crowd, “is a great day.”