The countdown to football season officially has begun. But when it comes to live sports, Las Vegas during summertime is a basketball town, at least when the Mountain Ridge kids aren’t playing baseball in Pennsylvania.
And the live basketball season around here does not go quietly.
It goes out at volume level “11” with various versions of the opening riff from the old “Car Wash” theme by Rose Royce.
It goes out with “Professor,” “Air Up There,” “Violator,” “Sik Wit It,” “Springs” and “AO” doin’ what they do. And with “Baby Shaq,” “Special FX,” “Bone Collector,” “Mr. Afrika” and “G Smith” doin’ what they do.
Those are the nicknames of the Ball Up all-stars, who concluded their season at Cox Pavilion on Saturday night. What they do is play street ball — what some of us old-timers once called playground basketball. A lot of these guys can really hoop it up.
Playground basketball has its origins back east, on cracked and pockmarked slabs of asphalt where the backboards often were made of tin and the rims seldom had nets.
Places like Rucker Park, across from the old Polo Grounds in Harlem in New York. Rucker Park is where playground legends such as Earl “The Goat” Manigault and Connie Hawkins — “The Hawk” — took flight with outrageous dunks and finger rolls. Dr. J played at Rucker Park; so did Wilt Chamberlain.
In his book about the night Wilt scored 100 points in an NBA game in 1962, author Gary Pomerantz wrote “... the players in the Rucker Tournament featured slam dunks, crossover dribbles and bravado that excited the crowd, a playing style then foreign to the National Basketball Association.”
It’s the bravado part that great teachers of basketball such as John Wooden and Bob Knight probably would have had trouble adjusting to.
Both rims at Cox Pavilion had nets, but that 50-year-old description of playground basketball still pretty much applies to the Ball Up style. Slam dunks, crossover dribbles, bravado. Lots of bravado. And lots of dance moves, too, during pregame introductions. “The Wizard of Westwood” and “The General” would have frowned on those.
The capacity crowd at Cox Pavilion — the line to get in was longer than Connie Hawkins’ wing span, with many street ball fans clutching vouchers that could be exchanged for wristbands and a seat, provided one arrived early — loved the dance moves.
The Ball Up “season” consists of “games” in major metropolitan areas that go straight to video or to Fox Sports. In Saturday’s “championship,” a team called The Finalists provided the opposition for the undefeated Ball Up all-stars.
The Finalists, one of which is to receive a “contract” with Ball Up said to be worth $100,000, were selected in tryouts in each city on the Ball Up tour.
My money is on “Mosquito,” a 5-foot-6-inch dervish whose real name is DeAndre Bray, who played point guard at Jacksonville State.
There’s a video of Mosquito dunking over a 6-8 guy at the Andrew and Walter Young YMCA in Atlanta, aka “The Dominique Wilkins Gym.” (Even the gyms have nicknames on the street ball circuit). This is why if I were Professor, I might be worrying about my playing time.
Professor’s real name is Grayson Boucher, from Keizer, Ore., a city of around 36,000 in the Willamette Valley — which may not be as far away as one can get from Rucker Park in Harlem, but it’s close. Professor scored the game’s first basket Saturday on a professorial little 5-footer.
“Don’t treat (street ball) as a separate genre; it’s all basketball,” the Professor says, and just like that it was 7-0, Ball Up.
The Finalists were coached by Gilbert Arenas, most recently of the Shanghai Sharks of the Chinese Basketball Association, but before that a three-time NBA all-star. Ball Up had Tracy Murray calling plays, or at least applauding them; he was the only guy in the arena wearing a suit.
Whenever The Finalists made a little run to get back into the game, either Violator (real name: Renaldo Johnson) or Mr. Afrika (Anthony Pimble) would block a shot and start a fast break that usually featured a crossover dribble and a slam dunk. Followed by spurts of bravado.
The capacity crowd, which included boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. and his entourage, smacked thunder stix together.
At one point, Gilbert Arenas was spotted trying to direct two Finalists to administer a half-court trap on Baby Shaq (Hugh Jones of Washington, D.C.), but Baby Shaq was having none of it.
There wasn’t a whole lot of defense being played for the John Wooden and Bob Knight disciples, but this wasn’t about them or defense; this was about the street ball players, and fans of the culture. There was gobs of high-flying offense, and it was fun, which I think should be the idea until football season starts.
At halftime, a lot of people clutching ticket vouchers still were milling about hoping to get in.
I was approached by three youngsters with big eyes who wanted to know if there were a lot of dunks.
“Yup, “ I said. “Crossover dribbles and bravado, too.” But these particular kids didn’t seem to care that much about the crossover dribbles and bravado, only the dunks.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.