The NBA playoffs mercifully came to a conclusion last week, ending two months' worth of easily the most unimpressive display of basketball you can find. The plague has lifted, people. Go off and live your lives as you wish.
But despite this newfound freedom, I found myself hunkered down in a high school basketball gym last weekend to take in a level of hoops that is far less talent-laden and skillful than the big boys. By choice.
And yet I'm certain this experience was more entertaining than anything I could have watched from the nosebleed seats of an NBA arena.
The Tucson Summer Pro League is in its 10th season, an amazing feat in a town that more or less goes into activity hibernation from June through August. But like anything with a UA connection, the TSPL has managed to continue to draw fans.
About 100 onlookers partook of the air conditioning in the St. Gregory College Prep gym last Saturday to watch a quartet of basketball games pitting teams with rosters stocked with journeymen, junior college superstars (of the past) and what locals who frequent the city's many adult leagues call JCC heroes.
Didn't see a disinterested or dissatisfied face in the house. Not a one.
Sure, the overall quality of play in matchups like Truly Nolen versus defending TSPL champ Sol Casinos or Grupo Mexico Asarco against Clausen & Moore Law Firm wasn't top-notch, and mistakes were by all means aplenty. But none of that seemed to matter to those on hand, whether it be the players themselves or those who took time out of their weekend to watch games that are essentially meaningless.
"The level of competition is great for me because everyone is playing hard," said Chris Ayer, 29, a 2002 Flowing Wells High School grad who, after playing Division I ball at Loyola Marymount, cashed in on his size (6 feet 11 inches, 245 pounds) to play professionally in Japan for a few years.
Ayer has also played for or worked out with several NBA Development League teams the past few years, as well as for the Los Angeles Lightning of the minor-league International Basketball League. He considers himself a hoops lifer and will play in any league that will take him.
So after he decided to spend this summer back in Tucson instead of hitting the pickup game circuit in L.A., Ayer jumped at the chance to play in a local league.
"This is great because I can be around my family," he said. "My mom was just here. She never gets to see me play."
Ayer is one of a handful of pros who have had moderate success elsewhere, only to come back to Tucson in the summer to place in the TSPL. It's one of the main player pools that league founder Corey Williams draws each year, along with self-professed street ball legends and active college or high school players. It's the kind of league Williams played in prior to his tenure on the UA basketball team from 1993 to 1996, and he credits such leagues for enabling him to be prepared for Division I hoops.
"If you don't have good basketball in the summer, you're not going to get better," said Williams, who played professionally all over the world for about 10 years and now, along with the TSPL work, handles color analyst duties for college basketball games on various ESPN platforms. "When I was in college we used to always go back home in the summer to play in those kind of leagues, but they were hit and miss. We really didn't know what we were getting into here."
The first TSPL season, in 2004, included a handful of active UA players along with local ex-players as well as some from Phoenix. This season's rosters include only one current Wildcat, forward Matt Korcheck, but he's yet to participate because he's waiting for official approval from the UA athletic department.
Since the league is officially sanctioned by the NCAA, Williams said he has to make sure college and prep players are handled carefully. Those players cannot be made to try out for the league; they're allowed in first-come, first-served, while adult players can be handpicked from open runs.
Two up-and-coming prep players are in the league, including Tucson High junior Devonte Eason and Sahuaro sophomore Aaron Budd. Budd, who was not on Sahuaro's varsity last season, is holding his own with guys five to 15 years older than him with a balanced game of passing, rebounding and defense.
"This is really helping me," Budd said. "A lot of these guys don't know what I'm gonna do (on the court)."
That can't be said for Donte Williams, arguably the TSPL's most successful player all-time. A 10-year veteran of the league, Williams has been named MVP three times (including last year) and has been on the league champion team six times and the runner-up twice.
Not bad for a guy who never played beyond high school ball in Wichita, Kan., and who ended up in Tucson 11 years ago in an effort to escape bad influences in his hometown.
"This is my passion," said the 32-year-old Williams, a Kobe Bryant wannabe—all the way down to his purple-and-gold "Black Mamba" high-tops—in both his style and effort. "I play in leagues all year long, but this is what I get ready for, for the summer."
While the TSPL has never had a shortage of players to pick from, probably the most impressive thing about the league is its professionalism and overwhelming local corporate support. In addition to having all 10 teams backed by a sponsor, the league gives out door prizes and has even teamed up with Nimbus Brewing to turn the northeast side brew pub into a TSPL-themed nightclub on Saturday nights.
All of the credit for the sponsorships goes to Williams and his UA ties, said Stephanie Roberts, a former Santa Rita High School star who was the first woman to compete in the TSPL, back in 2004, and now helps handle in-game promotions.
"That's all Corey," she said. "It's not what you know, it's who you know."
The TSPL holds games every Friday night and Saturday afternoon through July 28, with the last weekend consisting of playoffs. The league has also added a youth element for the first time, with four teams of 10- to 13-year-olds playing each weekend.