Mark Lane leans back in his office chair. On the cabinet behind him, a portable heater flickers a faux fireplace as early-morning fog coats the snowy land outside his window.
Behind the heater, there’s a poster of LeBron James from the 2012 NBA Finals. The hoop is slightly blurry in the background. The focus is, naturally, on the star player.
“I didn’t buy it for LeBron,” Lane quips, glancing over his shoulder. “I bought it for the backstop. It’s the only one I could find.”
A backstop is the hoop and everything surrounding it — the rim, the backboard, the stanchion and the weights keeping the whole apparatus in place.
And it makes sense why Lane is a fan.
He’s the vice president of operations at American Athletic Inc., whose factory is in Jefferson, Iowa. AAI is the official backstop supplier for the NBA, WNBA, NBA G-League and the men’s and women’s NCAA Tournaments.
Every hoop you see during March Madness, every rim slammed on during an NBA game — it all comes from one factory in a town of 4,150 people in rural Iowa, the Des Moines Register reported.
“We think that’s very cool,” said Lane, who was born and raised in Jefferson.
AAI has been around since 1954, although it began under a different name.
After graduating from the University of Iowa, Big Ten gymnastics champion Bill Sorensen moved back home to Jefferson and started working at his wife’s parent’s hardware store, Seela Hardware and Appliance, in the town square.
Sorensen and his brother-in-law began making trampolines out of the store’s basement, and they eventually founded a company: American Trampoline.
By the 1960s, American Trampoline made other gymnastics and volleyball equipment, too, and it became the official supplier for USA Gymnastics (then called the U.S. Gymnastics Federation) in 1963. (So, yes, all the gymnastics equipment from the 1984 and 1996 Olympics in Los Angeles and Atlanta came from Jefferson.)
The company eventually became AAI in 1986. In 1996, it merged with a basketball manufacturing company. And in 2004, it was acquired by Russell Brands, LLC, which also owns Spalding — the No. 1 brand in basketball.
With Spalding as a partner, AAI soon landed its deals with the NBA, WNBA and NCAA Tournament.
“We’re proud to be part of (Spalding), but I think we’ve earned it, too,” Lane said. “When people come in to see, they’re surprised. We have an experienced workforce. We’ve been here for 65 years now, and our people know what they’re doing.”
Lane said they’ve never thought of moving from Jefferson, even though most competitors operate out of big cities.
Instead, the sports manufacturing giant takes pride in its small-town feel. AAI currently employs 94 people. Most come from Jefferson.
Lane and product marketing manager Lisa Ebersole knew workers by name as they took the Register on a factory tour. There’s a family charm here. The only division falls on Cy-Hawk lines.
During the tour, Ebersole pointed to a feather taped to a pillar by where backboards get assembled. A worker named Jim Fields probably put it there, she said. Then she laughed, recalling one week when Jim, who loves hunting, was perfecting his turkey call and would randomly blurt it out amid the bangs and clangs of the factory.
“What leads into that is the camaraderie that you have by being a small town,” said Ebersole, who was born just outside Jefferson. “You already knew half the people you work with. You have friendships. It’s a fun environment. You don’t have to go to a corporate office somewhere else, or drive a half an hour.”
Lane said AAI values its Jefferson community, and it tries to promote from its hometown work base whenever it can. He began with AAI as a drafter. Ebersole began as a receptionist at the main office.
So it’s not uncommon for folks to stay with the company their entire careers.
AAI just had an employee work his 50th year, for instance. The entire factory stopped operations for his party, and everyone piled into the display gymnasium to celebrate.
As Lane walked out of the factory after the Register’s tour, he smiled and waved to a car that was just pulling into the parking lot.
“That was Dick!” Lane said. “That was our 50-year guy.”
Dick was headed to the warehouse. That’s where everything gets put together. Not far from the warehouse’s entrance, the final five NCAA Tournament backstops sat wrapped in plastic, ready to be shipped out across the country.
Ready to fuel the Madness.