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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

As the NBA lockout dragged on, players kept fit in Durham

Posted by and on Tue, Aug 23, 2011 at 8:32 PM

Indy intern Philip Hoover spent several nights this summer attending the S.J.G. Greater N.C. Pro-Am, a loosely organized series of basketball games in McLendon-McDougald Gym on the N.C. Central campus in Durham. He filed the report, and he assisted producer Brooke Darrah Shuman in the making of this video.

One night last month, the air was hot and thick as my friends and I strolled up to the back of a line that extended several hundred yards from the entrance.

A ripple of anticipation ran through the line as Jerry Stackhouse rode by in his Cadillac Escalade and pulled into the nearby parking lot. Minutes later, another large SUV pulled in behind him. After double-parking in front of three other cars, John Henson stepped out and smiled at his parking job (but it was no match for the parking of erstwhile UNC football player Greg Little).

Harrison Barnes, P.J. Hairston and Kendall Marshall emerged from Henson’s car as well. The foursome dapped up Stackhouse and waved at some of the fans before entering through the back of the stadium.

Division I college basketball teams are not allowed to hold practices for most of the summer. Not with their coaches present, anyway. While the coaches can still advise their players on how to improve during the off-season, it’s ultimately up to the players themselves to decide just how to try and do so.

Under the “about” bar on the website of the S.J.G Greater NC Pro-Am, which recently concluded in Durham, a reference is made to ”grassroots mentoring… professional athletes who have a connection to the community come back to mentor local college players.” It sounds like boilerplate lip service, but there was nothing phony about the experience gained by the local college players who played in the Pro-Am on this summer, in the classroom known as North Carolina Central’s McLendon-McDougald Gymnasium.

The rosters were dotted with college and professional players. As usual, many current Duke and UNC players participated. Players from other schools stood out as well. Most notable were Dominique Sutton, a NCCU transfer formerly of Kansas State and Marquette star Darius Johnson-Odom. Several NBA performers—in need of competitive workouts due to the ongoing lockout—joined the teams, as did former college players trying to get their careers back on track. Former Tar Heel Sean May and flamboyant N.C. State star Julius Hodge came in and balled hard, clearly raring for another shot at an NBA contract once the lockout runs its course.

The stage was set, the players were ready and the fans came out, often stoked by rumors of NBA superstar guest appearances. The league even featured an “And-1”-style public address announcer whose catch phrases were almost as catchy as they were cheesy.

Stackhouse’s Triangle G team, perhaps not coincidentally, had the most star power. In addition to the UNC players, the team also featured John Wall. Wall only showed up a couple of times during the competition, but the team also featured former NC A&T point guard J.J. Miller. Miller now plays professionally in France and made up for his small stature with savvy passing and lightning quickness.

On this night Triangle G rolled easily to victory, often eschewing defense but scoring at will. The second game was a different story entirely.

Team Hendrick featured several current and future Blue Devils, including Ryan Kelly, Seth Curry, top recruit Austin Rivers and former All-American Nolan Smith. Sheraton Imperial also featured Duke’s Andre Dawkins and Josh Hairston, who appeared to have donned the Zoubek-inspired beard of confidence. The Tar Heels were represented on Sheraton Imperial by Dexter Strickland, Leslie McDonald and UNC legend Rasheed Wallace.

Competitively, the game was a crowd-pleaser. One ridiculously entertaining three—or four—minute sequence in the first half had the atmosphere almost as electric as a regular season Duke—UNC donnybrook. Rivers flashed a stunning array of jab steps and crossovers, draining long threes and at one point throwing down a 360 dunk on the baseline. McDonald unleashed an ankle-breaking cross over that had his defender on the floor. Strickland and Rivers squared off several times, once Rivers crossed over and went hard to the basket, tried a reverse lay-in, but Strickland came swooping in from behind to block it.

The public address announcer seemed to be having just as much fun as the fans. No one who attended a pro-am game this summer will ever forget, “The competition is gettin’ hot and heavy here at the S.J.G. Greater North Carolina Pro-Am, the Mecca of summer league basketball,” or “Oh my goodness [player x] with the [great play].” Three-pointers, dunks, alley-oops and crossovers became the norm, albeit with defense clearly considered optional.

But more impressive than Rivers’ quickness, McDonald’s 30 points or Curry’s five three-pointers was the players’ respect for each other. Whether it was Wallace getting in Hairston’s ear telling him where to be in the post or Smith patting Strickland on the back after beating him to the bucket, the camaraderie crossed UNC-Duke boundaries.

The league concluded play last week with a tournament. Stackhouse’s Team Jamison met undefeated Sheraton Imperial in the finals. Despite some roster changes, most notably McDonald’s torn ACL and the rest of the UNC players’ return home for break, Stackhouse helped will his team to victory. His game was old-school, as he relied on his strength and jump-shot to assert himself.

At the two-minute mark of the game, the PA announcer exclaimed, “Two minutes remaining, this is winning time!” As if on cue, Stackhouse drained a corner three to seal the game for Team Jamison. While his former counterparts drag out the billion-dollar impasse with the owners, Stackhouse can take solace in the fact that the league he helped create brought basketball back to its roots this summer.

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