Hoop Heaven

Scenes from the Tucson Summer Pro League

It's a Saturday afternoon in late June and, because of the meteorological realities of the Sonoran Desert, it really is, like Stevie used to say, hotter than July.

Tucson is an athletic town, but at this time of day at this time of year, you'll just pretty much have to take somebody's word for that. There may be a handful of people out on the golf courses, hardy souls taking advantage of summer prices that are as ridiculously low as the fees gladly paid by the snowbirds in the winter are ridiculously high. Tennis and handball courts are empty, and the hundreds of baseball and softball fields around the valley bake in the sun, still several hours away from being descended upon by the cleated freaks who come out at night.

But on this day, hundreds have gathered in a small gymnasium on the near-northeast side of town to witness a spectacle so wonderfully incongruous, an event that is both priceless and free, one that reaffirms the curious identity of the Old Pueblo as one of America's great basketball towns.

It is the second weekend of the second season of the Tucson Pro Summer League, an entity that began as a lark and then quickly soared like an eagle, a league that brings together a cross section of practitioners of God's second-favorite sport in glorified pickup games that are played before a packed house of adoring fans.

In Los Angeles, these games might be played at the beach, and in New York, probably on the sweltering outdoor bent-rim courts of Harlem. But in Tucson, they're played at St. Gregory College Prep, a haughtily named institution that has all that is needed--two baskets, a roof and a cooling system that works.

Almost all adult-recreation basketball leagues feature two types of athletes--the Has-Beens and the Never-Weres. The former was the star of his high school team and maybe got a little run in college. He knows how to play the game, but is puzzled as to why his body doesn't respond with the quickness and fluidity that it did just four or five years ago. Many have reached that point where their mind has started to grasp the true nature of the game at the same time that their body is beginning to refuse to do its part. Still, they hang on grimly, playing ball as long as they can, hoping to forestall the inevitable slide into tennis and then golf and then death.

The latter was, at best, the king of third-period gym. Maybe he played another sport; maybe he didn't. Whatever the case, he never got the chance to be one of the Golden Dozen who put on the school colors on Tuesday nights and pretty much guaranteed their pick of cheerleaders, if such was their inclination. The Never-Weres just want to wear a jersey with a number on the back, even if it says "Fred's Liquor Store" on the front. They're willing to pay money to play a game or two a week that are at least sorta organized, with referees that are even worse than the ones on TV, with nothing to play for than a shot at a T-shirt, or a cheap trophy, or just maybe that indescribable feeling that one gets when a 3-on-2 break works to perfection.

To be sure, the Tucson Summer Pro League has its share of Has-Beens and may even have a couple Never-Weres. But, for the most part, it's full of Real-Deals and Gonna-Be's, Right-Nows and Forevers.

And to add the perfect touch of spice to things, like chili powder on a piece of Popeye's Chicken, there is a sprinkling of Shoulda-Beens and Just-Misseds.

St. Greg's, as it is often called, is a private school that sits just off Craycroft Road, just south of the Rillito. Some politician's kid must have gone there in the 1990s, because it now has its own stoplight, allowing exiters to turn left onto Craycroft and head up into the foothills. It's got a pretty decent reputation as an academic institution, and its sports teams do OK.

Back in 1993, during the big floods, the Rillito rose up and took a big chunk out of the St. Greg's baseball field. No one was playing at the time; that would have made for a more interesting story.

The gym is pretty-good-sized for a small school, with bleachers on one side of the gym during most of the year. For this occasion, however, an extra set of bleachers has been added behind one team's bench, and there's also a riser on which chairs have been placed for employees of the league's main sponsor, the investment company UBS, whose team is playing tonight.

I managed to grab a seat in the sponsors' section, probably because my Wal-Mart gym shorts and matching T-shirt made me look important to the teenage girls who are in charge of directing the overflow crowd to some kind of seating arrangement that will allow the games to be played. I sat a couple of seats down from the UA's associate head basketball coach, Jim Rosborough, who was there to watch his son, Jon, play. Ros dresses only slightly better than I, and I'm betting that he doesn't work for UBS, either.

The first game of the day features Kirk Walters, the large white male who will play a big role in the UA's plans next year. Walters had been redshirted by Coach Lute Olson last year, but the failure of Isaiah Fox to provide a solid backup to center Channing Frye forced Olson to yank Walters out of his redshirt status halfway through the season and throw him into the fire. Walters did OK, but it cost him a year of eligibility, and time is now of the essence.

Walters is playing for the Team Swoosh squad, a team that includes a couple of college kids, a guy who played football at Amphi High School last year, and a high-school basketball coach who's one of the best three-point shooters in town.

The games feature two 20-minute running-time halves, with the officiating being handled by local guys who do high school, college and city-league games. This day, one of the refs is Ken Urdahl, who became a mini-celeb for a time as he became engaged and then married to radio personality Shannon Black.

Oddly enough, it was in this very gym that Urdahl had earned his nickname of "E-Dog." He was playing dominoes with some guys when the scorekeeper asked his last name and mistakenly thought it started with an "E." During the game, Urdahl (who, at the time, was one of those hip-hop white guys) tried to impress the other players with his encyclopedic knowledge of rap music. Finally, I had said, "OK, fine, we'll just call you 'E-Dog' and be done with it."

I was told that within a couple weeks, he walked into a nightclub and people yelled out "E-Dog!" like he was Norm walking into Cheers. For a time, he had an E-Dog license plate, but before he could completely degenerate into the Vince Vaughn character in Be Cool, he met Shannon and was pulled back from the brink.

The team Swoosh team gets off to a decent start against UBS, which is missing its star, UA player Hassan Adams. Walters already looks better than he had the previous week. In his first TSPL game, he'd catch the ball with his back to the basket, and you could actually see the wheels turning in his head, like Nerd Boy at the prom trying to remember the dance steps. This day, he looks smoother and more assured. He still has the tendency to drift away from the hoop on his shot, and he needs a bigger butt to keep opponents from pushing him off the block, but he's coming along nicely.

By halftime of the first game, the gym is packed. Every seat on the peasant (non-sponsor) side of the gym is occupied, and people are standing along the walls under both baskets. There are retirees wearing their Wildcat finest and young kids sporting overpriced jerseys with the names of NBA players who score a lot of points but will never come within a stretch limo of an actual championship. More than a few teenage girls and young women--some overdressed, others decidedly underdressed for the setting--parade back and forth in a largely futile attempt at catching one of the players' eyes.

Somebody is playing bass-heavy music during the timeouts and then decides to let it continue as play starts back up. Most of the fans and more than a few players are annoyed by the music blasting through the gym as the game goes on, but Master P-Brain apparently feels the need to bump.

A young woman walks in with a dog. Not a seeing-eye dog; not one of those miserable little things that Paris Hilton holds up next to her face in hopes that people will think she's the better-looking one. It's just a dog. The poor creature has a weird vest on with pockets in it. The woman manages to find a chair next to the bleachers and sits down imperially with the dog at her side.

I just have to investigate. The woman explains that the vest is for a service dog. But isn't every dog supposed to serve us?, I ask. Indignant, she repeats the service-dog thing, being careful to talk about the vest and not the dog. I later found out that the dog was just a dog, and the woman had ordered the vest online, because some airlines will allow a real service dog to fly in the cabin with the paying customers and not down in the hold with the rest of the dogs!

So it turns out that this woman is using a fake-ass vest that she bought at dogsarebetterthanpeople.com to take her mangy companion to a basketball game. It was so pathetic, I withheld my usual assortment of Vietnamese restaurant jokes.

Walters heats up in the second half. He throws down a couple of dunks and blocks a shot into the bleachers. His team eases out to an eight-point lead and looks good. Sohaib Fellah, the Amphi football player, hits a couple jumpers and adds a sweet drive that ends with a dish to Walters for a thunderous slam. The crowd, which drifts in and out of attentiveness, roars its approval.

It turns out that Hassan Adams, who scored 77 points in his first two games, has not only skipped out on the league this day; he was also supposed to be the guest speaker at the 14th Annual Sean Elliott Steak and Burger Dinner later that night. The Boys and Girls Club event had programs printed up with a testimonial to Adams, but they had to scramble to line up new UA assistant coach Reggie Geary to fill in. Adams had reportedly left town to do something with his girlfriend.

On the way to the games, I had driven by the Jewish Community Center, where the league was held in its first year. The JCC is closed on the Jewish Sabbath, which is just one of the reasons the league was moved. Despite a number of factors that could have alienated fans--from the autocrat who ran things to chairs placed on the floor in rows 10 deep, effectively giving only those in the front row any kind of decent view of the proceedings--the league thrived. The numbers and interest stayed high throughout the season and built even higher during the season-ending playoffs.

The league was the brainchild of Corey Williams. Like many of Lute Olson's UA players, Williams had grown attached to Tucson during his college years. After leaving the UA, Williams went overseas to play basketball professionally. He'd return during the summers and try to stay in shape by playing in pickup games at McKale Center.

"It was really frustrating," recalls Williams. "You'd have to call people and try to set things up for a game. One day, six guys would show up, and the next time, 25 people would be there. You'd either end up not playing at all or waiting an hour to get back on the court. It just seemed logical to organize things so everybody could get a run. And the way it turns out, the fans get to be a part of it, too."

Like other such leagues around the country, the only way that pros, college students and others can co-mingle on the court is for the teams to have no affiliations with NBA or college teams, and for the proceedings to be open to the public and completely free of cost. There are expenses, but those are covered by team sponsorships and merchandise sales. League players are urged to sign only official T-shirts and balls, but that rule is enforced about as well as the 65 mph speed limit.

During timeouts, the Nogales High School cheer squad runs out on the court with that practiced cheerleader enthusiasm and does a variety of lifts and tumbles. The squad appears to consist of several dozen girls who are all about 4-foot-10 and 94 pounds. For some reason, it reminds me of veal. We should have Amnesty International look into charges of cheerleader miniaturization cages.

Sitting a few seats down from me is a 10-year-old kid wearing a maroon shirt that reads "Nogales Cheer Proud Brother." It's the saddest thing I've ever seen.

Team Swoosh is still up by five with 1:32 left in the game, but UBS mounts a comeback. They tie the score and then get the ball back for the last shot. With four seconds left, somebody throws up a wild shot. Standing under the basket is Will Wilkins, who played at Sierra Vista Buena High and then Pima Community College. Wilkins grabs the errant shot out of midair, twists his body and then casually tosses in the winning basket at the buzzer. A couple of kids ask for his autograph.

The next game pits El Charro Café against Saguaro Ranch. The El Charro team is stacked with league co-founder Kelvin Eafon, former UA center Joseph Blair and 6-foot-9 George Banks, who starred at Marana High before moving on to UTEP and then a pro career overseas. But the key to El Charro's success will be Carl Graham, a local playground legend who allowed an immature decision to shape his entire adult life.

Graham was a star at Santa Rita High School back in the late '80s. He had the complete game--great ball-handling skills, a variety of inside moves and long outside shots. He was court savvy beyond his years. But he also had the chip, the arrogance that made him something of a caricature. (When he was a prep, I reffed one of his summer-league games. Every time he'd shoot a jump shot, he would yell "ice cream!" Finally, after he missed one, I sneered, "sh*t, frozen yogurt.")

When he got out of high school, he got the smell of money and went to Italy to play for Brindisi. "I thought I was hot stuff," he recalls. "I had a chance to go to West Virginia University, where Jerry West played. I should've gone, but I didn't. I thought I'd play in Italy for a couple years and then come back to the States and earn a spot on an NBA team. What can I say? I was young and dumb."

Graham bounced around Europe and then caught on with a team in Durango, Mexico. He played all over Mexico--in Hermosillo and other cities--before heading back to Europe to play in France. "Some people might think it's glamorous, but it's not. It's completely cutthroat."

In between his travels, he came back and enrolled at Pima. He was set to start a college career, but found that his play in Europe had stripped him of his amateur status, so after one semester at Pima, he dropped out and was back on the road.

He's now 35 but is still the consummate player. He plays with an ease and confidence that makes him a player always in demand in pickup games and men's leagues. He's the kind of player who makes everybody else better, and his unwillingness to allow a game to degenerate into an everybody-for-himself affair means that his teams not only win a lot; they do so in an old-school fashion that stands apart in today's world, where looking cool is often more important than winning.

When told of that, he smiles easily. "Basketball is not that hard of a game. You move the ball around until somebody has an open shot. You rebound; you play defense; you play smart. All that fancy stuff is fun to watch, but it doesn't help you win."

Corey Williams and the other league directors appear to share the same philosophy. During open tryouts, players were asked to perform very basic basketball functions. Many were unable to do so. Recalls Graham, "They wanted people to take one dribble and then shoot a jump shot. Guys would dribble three or four times, go between their legs and behind their backs and then shoot. Corey would say, 'No, just one dribble and then a shot.' Guys couldn't do it. They have all that hip-hop nonsense and no real game."

Not surprisingly, Graham hopes to get into coaching full-time when his basketball sojourn finally comes to an end.

The league will continue through July 17 with games on Fridays at 5, 6 and 7 p.m.; Saturdays at 2, 3, 4 and 5 p.m.; and Sundays at 2, 3 and 4 p.m.. Things will conclude on Championship Saturday, July 23, with semifinal games, followed by a dunk contest and then the championship game. Williams says that several big-name players will be drifting in and out of town in July and will probably stop in and play a game or two. Luke Walton and Richard Jefferson will be holding a joint basketball camp and will both likely play a few games, as will Andre Iguodala, Mike Bibby and Jason Terry.

There's no real way of knowing who will show up and when. But it doesn't really matter. It's basketball; it's free and it's indoors. During a Tucson summer, that's heaven.