Innovation makes Prater’s an industry leading in flooring

It’s slow day at Praters Athletic Flooring Company, but the place is still jumping with activity.

In the company’s facility on 8th Avenue in Chattanooga, two technicians are preparing to paint lines and logos on a maple basketball floor that, two weeks later, will be shipped off to Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville, Fla., where it will be placed on an aircraft carrier for a game between Florida and Georgetown.

In another, considerably larger facility a few miles away in Rossville, Ga., four other courts are in varying stages of completion. One is bound for Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where it will be used for the Hoops for Hope Classic. Another is headed for the Bahamas, where the Battle 4 Atlantis will be played later this month. Duke, Louisville, Missouri, Memphis and Stanford are among the teams in the tournament this year. In 2013, Tennessee is set to play there, on the same floor that is sitting in Prater’s warehouse.

Impressive stuff for a company that president John Prater still describes as small, but not nearly the most significant work it has turned out in recent years. Praters has provided courts for numerous NCAA Tournaments, including the Final Four; the 2004 Olympics; the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets; the 2006 movie Glory Road that told the true story of Texas Western (now UTEP), the first school with an all black starting lineup to win the NCAA championship; the NBA All-Star Jam session; the Southeastern Conference, Atlantic Coast Conference, Big 12 and Big Ten men’s basketball tournaments; a LeBron James Nike commercial; the World Basketball Festival; and more than 60 Division I schools, including UTC—which just began playing on its beautiful new floor that includes graphics of iconic Chattanooga sites—Cincinnati, Florida and South Carolina.

Florida bought the floor Praters provided for the 2006 Final Four, which the Gators won. Northern Iowa must have thought the floor in the Ford Center in Oklahoma City, Okla. had some good mojo. After the Panthers ousted No. 1 overall seed Kansas in the 2010 NCAA tournament regional played there, the school bought the floor.

Humble beginnings

How did a company Prater literally started in his garage become the country’s foremost provider of basketball courts? It’s a story of hard work, perseverance, innovation and customer service.

Prater was born in Chattanooga and educated at the University of Tennessee before heading to Dallas to start his career.

“We went to Texas because it was booming,” Prater said. “Then we got out there, and it went bust. We really didn’t like living in Dallas, and my wife and I wanted to raise a family in Chattanooga. So we moved back and started doing basketball courts.”

Prater knew a little bit about floor coatings, and armed with that knowledge, he started knocking on doors. His first customer, in 1990, was Hamilton County, which hired the fledgling company to recoat the floors of all its schools. The logical progression was installing floors, and Murray County High School in Chatsworth, Ga. and Monterey (Tenn.) High School were the first schools to hire Prater and his rapidly expanding company.

Next came colleges. Maryville (Tenn.) College was the first, followed by Carson-Newman. A cluster of schools in Florida—Tampa, Eckerd, St. Leo, Florida Southern—followed, and word of mouth quickly took over.

Praters eventually partnered with Connor, a manufacturer of wooden floors that’s been in the maple flooring business for 120 years. Connor is the exclusive supplier of courts for the NCAA. The company began shipping its courts to Praters, which assembled, sanded and painted them before adding lines and logos and two coats of finish to protect the work.

In the late ‘90s, Praters began branching off into court graphics, and by 2004, portable floors had become popular. Again, working with Connor, Praters began installing floors around the country. That led to the 2004 Olympics in Greece and later the movie industry.

Praters to the rescue

The Olympics job came on the heels of one of the only real disasters Prater can recall since launching his company. After installing a floor for Boise State, Praters had to go back in and rebuild after it shrunk.

“Boise State is in the high desert—low humidity,” Prater said. “The court was built in high humidity. That cost us a lot of money to get right, and after that, I said I was done (with constructing portable floors on site).”

That changed in a hurry after Prater received a call from the organizers of the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

“Their construction schedule was backed up,” Prater said. “They had built a big arena which was supposed to have a permanent floor. But it was going to take six- to eight weeks to install. They got behind and started looking for options. They went to Connor, which suggested a portable floor. They needed somebody to do all the graphics and painting and finishing, so they sent it to us.”

The producers of Glory Road were in similar dire straits when they reached out to Praters.

“I got a phone call one night,” Prater said. “It was Wednesday, and it was late: I was the only one in here. It was someone from the Louisiana Film Commission who said, ‘you’re my last hope. I’m looking for two portable basketball floors.’ ”

Prater was only too happy to oblige. Praters had been doing work for the Disney company for several years, providing the floor for the Wide World of Sports Complex where the annual Old Spice Classic Tournament is played, and that connection led to the Glory Road job.

Praters latest masterpiece is on display at UTC. The school wanted a unique look, so in keeping with Praters innovative spirit, the company went for it.

“It’s a white staining of maple, which is very light to begin with,” Prater said. “When you finish over the top of it, it has a tendency to yellow. We wanted to keep it light and bright. It’s clean. It changes the whole look of the arena.”

Prater admits his company often takes jobs from customers with unusual requests without a definitive idea of how to fill the order.

“A lot of what we do is trial and error,” he said. “A couple of years ago, the NCAA wanted the women’s Final Floor in Indianapolis to look like old, barn-style basketball, with old school lanes. The paint actually had to be blistered.

“They asked us if we could do that, and we said, ‘sure, no problem.’ But we had no idea how we were going to do it.

“We’re kind of living on the edge, but we always get the job done.”

Prater’s Athletic Flooring is a sponsor of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook.