I AM SOMEONE WHO GREW UP in a city without an NBA team. A city with a rich basketball history propelled by local legends. People who starred in high school, and maybe played for a college team that you could watch on ESPN from time to time. Guys who came home in the summer and played in summer leagues and tournaments that captivated young, aspiring players who hoped to one day do the same.
In July and August this year, I went to Seattle for Jamal Crawford‘s CrawsOver Pro-Am, to the Drew League in Los Angeles, and to the Kingdom Summer League in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio. I went to witness the magic that takes place on long days in hot gyms, to be in the company of that hope, and to return to a place that felt childlike, almost.
Columbus, Ohio — July
AT THE START OF THE 2016 DOCUMENTARY “Who is Estaban,” there is a moment when Columbus basketball legend Estaban Weaver offers up a rapturous monologue on what propels his love of the game, down to the most granular details. The way you can hear the echo of shoes squeaking, ricocheting off the walls, or rattling the metal of some lockers in a hallway, well before you even walk through a gym’s doors. And it’s the smell, too. The smell of a gym. Sweat, but not only sweat. There are other faint undertones: sometimes rubber, sometimes stale butter, heaving a thick cloud from the opening of a largely neglected popcorn machine. It sounds weird, Weaver says in the film. But I’d bottle that smell. I’d use it as cologne.
Ohio Dominican University is the site of the Kingdom Summer league, kicking off its eighth year, helmed by Tihon Johnson, 40, who started his high school career at Centennial High before transferring to East High, just down the street from Ohio Dominican. He was all-state, went on to play at Idaho, and then overseas. He started the Kingdom Summer League in 2014, running games out of a local rec center, and then East High’s gym, and then, when it grew, Ohio Dominican.
In the middle of the summer, the campus is sleepy, and the gym is tucked just beyond the main road. You wouldn’t be aware that anything would be unfolding anywhere, but for the chorus of shouts and squeaking shoes that, even from the outside, act as a kind of map for those who know the game and love the game and don’t get to see it up close that often.
Columbus is not without its own pro (or…at least semi-pro) basketball history, even just in my lifetime. From 1989 to 1994, the city had the Columbus Horizon, a team that played in the CBA. From 1996-1998, we had the Columbus Quest, who played in the pre-WNBA American Basketball League. The Quest won both championships in the league’s small history, and you could get into games at the convention center for pretty much no money, which people did sometimes, if for no other reason than to watch Ohio legend Katie Smith.
But it’s impossible to detach Columbus, Ohio’s basketball history from its high school legends. City league ball, specifically. If you were from the city, and you played in the city league, you had a legacy to uphold. It also didn’t always matter if you made it “out,” whatever that may mean. Playing in the coliseum, at the fairgrounds in the state tournament, sometimes that was the biggest moment. That was making it. Of course, there are better stories. Our guy Drew Lavender was on the cover of Sports Illustrated once. If you are around the right crowd on the Eastside of the city, you will still hear stories about East High School’s 1951 state championship, the 1963 championship, the 1968 and 1969, back-to-back, and the 1979 title. On my block, there’s a man who swore he saw all of them, and I believe him, even though he doesn’t look old enough to have lived through it all.
Because the Columbus basketball economy is so reliant on local legends, there is a specific flair to what can happen here in the summer, and it has always been that way. When I was growing up, it was the Worthington Summer League, or it was the infamous Gus Macker three-on-three tournament, which spilled from Franklin Park out into Broad Street. Or it was simply the courts of your own neighborhood, where, depending on the time and place you grew up, the city’s best players would converge, guys who fought through their first or second years of college coming back home to get tested the way they never could in a college gym, playing against the players who have known them and their game for years.
The Kingdom Summer League is at the intersection of all of those impulses. It is fiercely competitive, but also celebratory. It is a homecoming, of sorts, even for the players who live here. The court is home. It transcends the places you live, or have lived. If you were made in this city, you can come back and play in this city, and there will be people who remember you when you first made a name for yourself. In a city like Columbus, if you were great once on these courts, you can always exist in a space beyond fading memories.
Los Angeles — July
THE KING DREW MAGNET HIGH SCHOOL GYM welcomes another King, as LeBron James makes his way through the corridors, a black and white pinstripe jersey tucked into matching shorts. The last time he was here was in 2011, a pivotal year for the Drew, which by that point, was struggling to keep people engaged and coming through at a consistently high level. But, in the summer of 2011, with the NBA in the middle of a lockout, its stars were looking for anywhere to compete, and the Drew provided space and opportunity. Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant made their first appearances in the pro-am that summer, playing with peers like James Harden and DeMar DeRozan (infamously, Bryant hit a game-winner over Harden in the dying moments of a heated contest, giving his team a two-point win.)
Also making his Drew debut that summer was James, who scored 33 points and offered up a series of highlight dunks. Today, 11 years later, James still has the occasional highlight dunk in his bag, catching an alley-oop off the backboard and swinging on the rim before descending and staring skyward, for a moment, gathering on the break and pulling off a spin move that isn’t as quick as it once was, but is still just as effective, before finishing with a one-handed dunk. One thing about my experience watching LeBron James play basketball — which I have done since he was in high school — is that it is often hard to tell how challenging the work on the court is for him. Even when he is challenged to a high degree, he can make the impossible look effortless. But at the Drew, there are points where it does seem like he’s taking it easier than he might have in his younger days, and no one is going to fault him for that. The payoff for him launching one too many long jump shots is a spectacular fadeaway or breathtaking pass. It all works out.
He’s guarded by Black Pearl Elite’s Dion Wright who, truly, tries his best, attempting to corral James with both arms as he makes his way in for an easy layup. Wright is up for the challenge, fighting during post-ups and getting a hand in LeBron’s face with every jumper attempt. Wright is also doing enough work on the offensive end to keep his team in it, the less glamorous work, the kind that won’t make the highlight clips. Putbacks off of offensive rebounds, getting into space and firing mid-range jumpers. By the end, the game is close, which is surprising given that LeBron is also running today with Drew staple DeMar DeRozan. But Black Pearl Elite makes the game a fight, content to not just find themselves sacrificed at the altar of Drew League Mythology.
In the end, LeBron had 42 points, and his team battled out a two-point win. And that mattered, of course. The winning mattered, or at least it mattered when considering the narrative had he not won. But on the floor, in the building, even as he was shuttled off of the court by a halo of security guards, what mattered most was that, for a little while, he was there, close enough to touch for people who maybe could never see a Lakers game this close. Another miracle of the pro-am is how it undresses the eternally flawed concept of gods, and brings even the greatest among us a little closer to earth.
Seattle — August
EVERYONE IS EAGER TO TELL ME how the city is not equipped for the heatwave it is currently immersed in. I figure this is because I look both sweaty and shocked when walking into buildings, assuming there would be the waiting respite of air conditioning blowing in from some corner or another, but there isn’t. Seattle is one of America’s least air-conditioned cities, a statistic I’m hearing for the third time in an hour, as I make my way through the crowd at Seattle Pacific University in the late afternoon on a Saturday. By the time I arrive at the gym, the highlighted game of the day is already in full swing. Chet Holmgren and Paolo Banchero are on one team together, playing against a team headlined by Jaden McDaniels. Banchero and McDaniels are both Seattle guys, on the younger end of an expansive lineage of local talent. The game on the floor is a spectacle, before even touching on the accompanying atmospheric qualities: Holmgren is a defensive terror, blocking anything even remotely close to the basket. Banchero and McDaniels go on individual tears, trading long threes. There’s jawing, of course, but it’s of the mostly harmless, playful sort. As much as the game itself is compelling, there are people in the stands who occasionally draw attention away from the court. Clippers owner Steve Ballmer is in the building, casually munching away on popcorn and leaning closer to the floor whenever Holmgren or Banchero get the ball at the top of the key. At some point, Jalen Rose sort of quietly slips in through the back door of the gym, but his presence isn’t quiet for long, as Jamal Crawford bounds over to him and the two share an embrace while the arena announcer draws the crowd’s attention to the two ex-Michigan players, having a moment in a world all their own.
Early in the fourth quarter, Holmgren clears yet another block, but the ball finds itself in the hands of an opposing player, and Banchero finds himself half-paying attention under the rim, resulting in him being on the receiving end of a thunderous dunk, which sends the already eager crowd into an outright frenzy, people in the front row dancing along the baselines and pouring onto the edges of the court while refs frantically blow their whistles to no avail, smiling at their failure to corral overeager young fans. This moment, specifically, animates what can be special about the Pro-Am in this form. A gym that buzzes for minutes at a time, riding the wave of a tense artery of excitement, pushed to its limits until something ignites it, and then it opens. And there is a moment before that opening and a moment beyond it. In the moment beyond, nothing is the same, even if there are still minutes on the clock, even if the explosion of excitement happens in the first quarter.
There is also no real barrier between the court and the people packed into the bleachers or standing along the baseline. There isn’t an abundance of security present at the gym either, and so everything relies on people’s ability to respect the game and respect the players, which they do. Most of the people here are younger than I am, their eyes wide and mouths held open as if the weight of a permanent yawn affixed itself to their jaws. And still, post-dunk, there is a kind of uncontrollable movement in the space. Not just emotional, but also physical. I’d watched most of the game comfortably positioned on the baseline with Crawford and his small crew. But after the dunk, as the game started to come to an end, young folks slowly crowded the space, eager to gain some greater proximity to the players. The game wasn’t particularly close — despite a McDaniels fourth-quarter scoring flurry to keep things somewhat in reach (McDaniels ended the game with 52) his team floundered, losing by twenty as time ran out. And so the only suspense, then, was who could effectively crowd the space between the floor and the opening to the locker room where the players were heading after the buzzer for photos, maybe to sign a thing or two on their way out the door.
As the clock turned over from minutes to seconds, the referees who had been frantically attempting to hold young people back from stepping over the white border between the baseline and the court finally relented a bit. And with that, a flood began, that artery of excitement that had never quite calmed itself found a new opening to flow into. Pre-teens and teenagers rushed the floor, the way one does when the line between action and desire blurs. There was no real goal, it seemed, just to get close to the future and present NBA players before they walked through the fluorescent threshold of the seemingly glowing locker room opening. While Holmgren, gracious but ever-stone faced, stopped for a moment, standing still and high-fiving, a small child stood with a basketball under his small arm, the ball itself so large in comparison that it seemed to push his arm out to a point of near impossibility. He stood frozen, craning his neck, staring up at Holmgren who, at that moment, must have seemed like a monument unto himself. When Holmgren slowly started to walk away, the boy remained, for a moment, still looking up at the space Holmgren had just occupied. The boy squinted and shook his head a little bit like he was just staring into the sun.
Columbus — August
J.J. SULLINGER MEANDERS BASHFULLY to center court at Ohio Dominican. He’s wearing jeans and a T-shirt, a snapback tilted sideways on his head. A moment before this, Tihon Johnson held an award plaque in his hand and gave a joyful, reflective speech, a wide smile pushing his graying beard up higher on his face. “Me and this guy, back in high school, we were rivals. We used to have battles,” he says, waving the plaque enthusiastically at the end of each syllable.
This is all a part of the Kingdom Tradition, an overarching set of ideals that most certainly includes basketball, but expands well beyond it. The Kingdom League, under the guidance of Johnson, is also about faith, about family, about community. To the latter point, it’s about understanding that community is stitched together by both the past and the present. Greatness at the moment we’re in, but also greatness in the moments before this one that makes the now possible. One acknowledgment of this is through the Kingdom Awards, awards for community legends and community service, for people who have meant something to the city, and not always through basketball alone. At halftime of every game, even in a day with three games spread out over an afternoon, Johnson gives out an award, offers a speech of gratitude to someone and makes them come to center court, even if they’re a little shy about it.
J.J. Sullinger is a perfect manifestation of the usefulness of this kind of acknowledgment, especially today, as the Kingdom League semifinals are in full force. The thing about a place like Columbus, especially for those of us who spent any time in Columbus City Schools or even in schools geographically adjacent to Columbus City schools, is that you’re never too far removed from knowing someone as they were once. J.J. and I are the same age, and intersected at the same middle school for a while, before he went on to star at a high school in the northern suburbs of the city, and then went to play at Arkansas, coming home to finish his college career at Ohio State. The Sullingers, collectively, are one of Ohio’s most prominent basketball families. The patriarch, Satch Sullinger, was a national high school coach of the year in 2010 at Northland High School, where he coached his sons, Julian and Jared. Julian is now an assistant coach at Kent State University, where J.J.’s son Jalen plays, entering his sophomore year.
It can be a lot to keep up with upon immediate introduction, as I realize listening to a person behind me work through the family tree with the person they came to the game with, both of them seemingly becoming more confused as he tries to work it out. (“Julian is the youngest and he played at O-….no, wait, Jared is the youngest and Julian played at Kent State and he coaches at Kent State and Jar-….wait, no, J.J.’s son is there I think?”)
Today, at Ohio Dominican, Satch wanders back into the gym right as halftime comes to a close. He has a massive presence but is also literally towering. He walks with a slight limp, one that makes it look like he’s ducking his tall frame underneath some invisible barrier with each step. He commands the respect of the room, his eyes peeking out beneath a low hat and through dark glasses to scan the crowd. He nods and extends a wave to the people shouting Hey, Satch! or Alright now! as he makes his way to a seat.
Jared, the most decorated player in the Sullinger lineage, is currently on the floor, arms extended to the sky, a pained look on his face in the direction of a ref who, it seems, is choosing to not make eye contact. Jared won a state title in high school, was Ohio Mr. Basketball in 2009 and 2010, and Naismith Boys’ High School Player of the Year in the same year his pops won the award for coaching. He also was a two-time All-American at Ohio State. He had some moments in the league, particularly during his early seasons in Boston, but back injuries and concerns about conditioning pushed him out of the NBA by 2017. He’s found new life playing in China, putting together a string of dominant seasons in the Chinese Basketball Association. At the Kingdom, the word is that Jared wants to win, and not in the sense of the competitive platitudes about how everyone wants to win. He really wants to win. “He don’t want Trey to get all the shine this summer,” the Ohio Dominican security guard (also an avid Kingdom fan) tells me, referring to Trey Burke, Sullinger’s friend and former high school teammate, who currently plays for the Rockets, but made a massive splash at the Kingdom a couple of weeks before this, dropping 63 points, eclipsing the scoring record set by Tihon Johnson himself a couple of years prior.
Jared’s play during the Kingdom League this summer has been consistently good, though in this semifinal game, he’s turned it up a notch. His Buckeye Prep team was in control against Reitano Sports Center in the first half, but Reitano’s Scott Thomas — who played at Buckeye Valley High and then Bowling Green — has found himself in the midst of an impossible heater in the second half. Threes off of one leg, contested fadeaways, layups through a forest of limbs. Everything is falling, and the once comfortable lead has dissolved to single digits. This is, one would think, where Jared Sullinger, still the best player on the floor, would take over. But he’s frustrated, hampered by fouls and turnovers. Until, seemingly, a light flicks on halfway through the fourth quarter. A fadeaway falls, and then a three. He pulls down a rebound with one hand and secures it so loudly with his second hand that the sound of the aching echo radiates from the ball and dances along the gym’s walls.
Heroics, or stardom, or legend is sometimes simply math born out of proximity. None of us can consistently be who we were at our greatest, highest point of triumph. But we can become a vision of that person, even if it is a sort of funhouse mirror version. While Jared went to work in securing the victory for Buckeye Prep, scoring on a tough and-one, a person beside me mumbled, ‘Damn, s— look just like when he was back at Northland.’ And I think that is a part of the magic of this, too. There are people here, right now, who rooted for Jared Sullinger when he was in middle school, maybe earlier. People who watched J.J. and Julian, and who heard whispers that there was a younger, even more talented brother, waiting on the horizon. A legend before freshman year. There are people here who rooted for Jared Sullinger at Ohio State. Cavs fans who tolerated watching the Celtics for a few years, just because he was pulling on the green and white. And then he was gone. It’s a lot harder to watch the games in China from Columbus, Ohio. And so this is what we have. A legend comes back home and, for a stretch of time, his brilliance is as familiar now as it was then. It’s a part of the Kingdom tradition, after all. Greatness is a circle.
Seattle — August
JAMAL CRAWFORD CAN’T WAIT to show me a video on his phone. It’s day two of the biggest weekend at the CrawsOver to date. As if Holmgren, McDaniels and Banchero weren’t enough on Saturday, near the end of the second half of yesterday’s final game, it was announced that a trio of Atlanta Hawks would be descending on Seattle Pacific’s gym today: Trae Young, John Collins and Dejounte Murray. “I would recommend getting here early,” Crawford said on the mic, grinning slyly. It’s early in the day, and there’s a tightly contested game between local women’s high school players unfolding that Crawford and I watch from a secluded spot at the top of the bleachers. When there’s a break in the action, he eagerly goes to his phone. The video is of him, driving along the street a few hours earlier, a line of people winding around one block, and then another, and then another and then another. It isn’t so much a line as it gets towards the end, more of a congregation, clustered in massive, aimless chunks. And more people arrive, spreading out into the street itself. These are people who have to know they probably aren’t going to make it in the arena, with its capacity of less than 3,000 in a pinch. And yet, they still join the masses, running towards the crowd in Trae Young jerseys, reliant on hope, if nothing else.
For Crawford, today is another unbelievable step in the furthering of his mission, which began when he was a teenager. “I grew up here, and I was a sixteen-year-old kid playing in this summer league,” he tells me, stretching his legs out along the vacant bleacher seats in front of us. “I took such great honor getting to play in it. It was Doug Christie’s league, and he was like a big brother to me. I worked out with him, I was always on his pro-am team. And once he got later in his career, he told me he was stepping down, and he was going to give the pro-am to me. He knew no one would take care of it like I would because I grew up in it. It had a real impact on me.”
At the time, it was Doug Christie’s All Hoop, No Hype. Crawford took it over in 2005 and has been running with it ever since. He still plays — he just played a week before I arrived — and insists he’s never going to stop. “I’m always gonna play, because it’s me,” he replies, almost incredulously, when I ask. “I was playing when there was no one coming. When we had 10 people in the crowd, every week.”
Crawford, like everyone I share any passing words with in the greater Seattle basketball community, has a lot of gratitude for the Storm. Mentioning the Storm to people here often elicits a smile, some outburst of joy, or relief. There’s a way, Crawford says, that the Storm holding it down for the city has saved Seattle from a sort of basketball purgatory that might have existed after the grief of the Sonics’ exit. Today, in the midst of Hawks jerseys, there are still young folks wandering into the arena in Sue Bird or Breanna Stewart jerseys, Storm T-shirts and hats. The team has kept the city afloat, giving them basketball to be excited about. And still, even with that in mind, Crawford knows that there are young people who, most years, only get to see NBA players on TV, who can’t make the trip to Portland or California to watch games. Crawford is intimately tapped in with the young people in the community. Yesterday, even in the midst of shouting instructions at Paolo from the baseline, when a young person (egged on by what seemed to be an older sibling) came up to Crawford with a marker and one of his Knicks jerseys, he stopped everything, turned his body away from the game and made eye contact, signed the jersey, asked the young person if they played, and if he’d see them out on the court in a few years. Today, when a young player who played in a youth game yesterday ambles up to us, mid-conversation, Crawford stops, gives them a couple of pointers on their handle, and tells them he’ll be watching when the next game comes around.
He’s endearing in this way. A cynic (which I certainly can be) may have a hard time coming to terms with any act being truly selfless, but Crawford puts so much of himself, his time, and his energy into making the Pro-Am a singularly touchable experience, specifically for young people. He asks them, every year, what NBA players they’d like to see, and then he gets to work bringing them in. He specifically doesn’t tell the public which game the NBA players will be playing in during the day (on Saturday, Chet, Jaden and Paolo played in the second to last game but earlier in the year, NBA players have played in the opening game) because he wants everyone playing throughout the day to get the same set of eyes. It is, partially, about lineage and legacy, Crawford tells me. If there’s a young person who plays basketball in this community, whether he coaches them or not, they’re in his community, and so he cares about them.
In the same way that Seattle is uniquely suited for the success of something like the CrawsOver, Crawford himself is uniquely suited to lead it. He is respected among his old NBA peers. He’s an OG through tenure, not necessarily through age. “I saw a video with Trae (Young), where he said he was watching my game growing up!” he tells me, shaking his head. “You never know, man. You never know what your game means to someone else.”
When I ask about Seattle’s high school basketball lineage, Crawford becomes a tour guide, of sorts, drawing out an imaginary map on the brown metal bleachers.
“It’s a really concentrated area. So look, Garfield High is like Brandon Roy, Tony Wroten, Will Conroy, Jaylen Nowell. Franklin is Jason Terry, Peyton Siva, Aaron Brooks. Rainer Beach is myself, Nate (Robinson,) Terrence Williams, Dejounte Murray, Doug Christie. OK, all those schools, you can get to in 15 minutes. And O’Dea is right there too, where Paolo came out of.”
He takes a small breath and reflects. “And that’s what makes it special. That’s what makes it different. We’ve grown up with each other our whole lives. We’ve never stopped supporting each other.” When he says this last part, he nods over towards the door, as Nate Robinson walks in, head bobbing. “And everywhere I go, and everything I ever did, I took Seattle with me. Even when I was gone, I never left.”
Crawford is still confused as to why and how he left the NBA. He insists, even now, that he still had some game left. The numbers would support that insistence, for what it’s worth. “It took me a year and a half to really fight with that and get over it,” he tells me, while watching the final moments of the game on the floor. “My wife got me into coaching. And that’s what saved me. Those kids need me, for sure. But I need them, too. My whole life is dedicated to them now. And that’s something.”
Columbus — August
MASSIVE GRAYING BEARD ASIDE, at 40 years of age, Tihon Johnson doesn’t look much different than he did when he played at East High School just down the road. He still has an abundantly expressive face, and he’s still quick to smile or crack a joke. Like Crawford in Seattle, Johnson also talks to everyone who shows up to the Kingdom like they’re one of his oldest friends. He’s inquisitive, makes eye contact and offers advice to young players. But on most days during the Kingdom League’s run throughout the summer, he simply looks happy to be there, running from the scorers’ table to the bleachers to the lobby of the gym. He’s not playing in the league this year. Last year, his team won the championship. He played well throughout the summer last year, too. But he had nothing left to prove on the court, and he had a dream to expand the pro-am beyond what it had been, and so here he is this summer: eager spectator, scorekeeper, mentor and coach.
Johnson was a mentee of the Bahamian minister Dr. Myles Munroe, who wrote a series of books revolving around the Kingdom, in a highly specific sense: people utilizing their skills and the things they are passionate about into impact. When tasked with an assignment to put this into action, Johnson decided it was time to get to work.
Johnson has used his connections and respect within the city to grow the pro-am gradually. He trained and mentored Trey Burke, he still works with young players and has ties to the NBA. There’s a CrawsOver connection, too, which he brings up when I mention my trips to Seattle. “I played at Idaho with Rashaad Powell, who is one of Jamal Crawford’s best friends,” he tells me. “And so when I wanted to start the Kingdom, he dropped gems on me, taught me how to run a successful pro-am. That’s like our family out there.”
The goal, now, is to gradually get bigger NBA names in the pro-am, and more frequently. Getting former Ohio State players like Malaki Branham to return in the summer, and pull some of their teammates along with them. It’s tricky, of course. Columbus not only doesn’t have an NBA team, but it also doesn’t have the history or legacy of an NBA team that once was. Also, because all sports in Columbus must compete with the behemoth of Ohio State football, it’s easy to have the rich, always ongoing (and growing) basketball lineage of the city reduced to a whisper. “It’s not only about the NBA guys,” Johnson says. “This city has had a lot of guys who were remarkable players, who went on to do great things all over the world. It’s a slept-on hotbed of talent. We’re not in the same breath as Chicago, or LA, or New York. But per capita, we put ’em out as well as anybody.”
Johnson knows what the city can be, how it can make a name for itself nationally, elbow itself into the conversations as an elite basketball destination, and he knows it begins with the generations beyond his own. It begins with care, with the approach of simplicity. If you are young, and you come through the Kingdom, you’re not only coming to watch and maybe play some ball. You’re getting bookbags, free sneakers, free meals.
“What it comes down to, mainly, is that I’m a family man,” Johnson says. “We’re working on our fifth, in October. And so I’m a father of five. And I got married the same year we started the Kingdom League. My wife has been alongside me the whole way. We’ve been married to the Kingdom League as well. My wife, my mother-in-law, my sister-in-law, my brother, they do concessions, they watch the front. Everything we do, we do it with family in mind.”
Seattle — August
TRAE YOUNG, JOHN COLLINS, AND DEJOUNTE MURRAY cannot physically take the floor until the floor is cleared. The mantra has been repeated on the microphone for a few minutes now, with little to no movement on the actual floor. Announcers plead with folks to take their seats while young kids press against the sidelines and onto the floor itself. My once-comfortable spot on the baseline is now infiltrated with a crowd of photographers, elbowing for space, some giving up and spreading themselves out on the floor, resting on their stomachs and kicking their feet up in the air. In some ways, it is a miracle that anyone is excited at all. It has been hours now since the doors first opened for the day, and the heat has only grown more ferocious as a greater number of bodies have been shoehorned into the gym, which was already at capacity by noon, and it is now nearly 5 p.m. When moving back against the wall, I rest my hand along the brick, only to be met with a faint, unsettling dampness. The walls themselves, exhausted, weighed down by condensation.
When the three Hawks eventually hit the floor, it was Trae Young who led the trio out, making a real meal of the process, walking slowly to center court and then walking along the sidelines while nodding. Every kid in the front row, leaping out of their seats and curling around the sideline, creating a crescent at Young’s back while he settled into a layup line.
It was here where I found myself, too, almost unknowingly, with my phone out, grinning widely. Archiving not for the sake of reporting, or documenting the moment for a later and greater purpose. But doing it, at the moment, like everyone else in the building, like the kids pushing their way beyond the sideline. Documenting, merely to say, Isn’t this something? And nothing else. It was almost reflexive, happening without me noticing, really. Right underneath the basket, I was as close to the action as possible, and I found myself swept away in the kind of childlike wonder and exuberance that permeated the arena by that point. There was nothing like this, before the game even tipped off. Collins, Young and Murray went through the simple motions of the layup line while the space acclimated to the newly present awe. I believe this to be a part of the magic of these moments, where the barrier between the professional superstar and the people becomes flimsy, a bit more grounded. Even for elders, there’s a reversion back to a younger self, a self who was more easily susceptible to miracles.
As I migrated closer to a safe corner of the wall, I brushed shoulders, once again, with the security guard who was tasked with keeping people away from the roped-off baseline. Sweat was making fresh designs on his dark shirt, and he had a towel slung over his shoulder. In between telling kids to get back and checking the credentials of photographers trying to get beyond the ropes, he shook his head and half-laughed. “Isn’t this something?” he said, making room for a momentary smile.
In the end, there was no drama to be had except for what might make the highlight reel. The game was a blowout in favor of the NBA stars, but not without its small sparks. At the start of the game, there was a tone of feistiness from the opposing team. Sometimes-NBA player Mike James put up a heroic effort to keep the game close. Shadeed Shabazz, a guard from Rainer Beach High who just finished a career starring at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, drew exuberant shouts from the crowd, picking Trae Young’s pocket on attempted crossovers two times in one quarter (After the game, when I catch up with Shabazz, all smiles despite the loss, he tells me, “Ah man, I got to have a few words with Trae! But it was all good, he made me work!”)
All that was left, as the second half dwindled down, was a signature highlight, which the game was, surprisingly, fairly low on. Dejounte Murray gained both cheers and groans in equal measure when he bounced the ball off of an opposing player’s head (for no real reason, it seemed, though Murray would later state that he felt he was being “guarded too closely.”) Collins had a hard time getting anything easy in the lane, and was sent a couple of times crashing to the floor after being on the receiving end of some overzealous challenges. One thing that the CrawsOver made clear was that from the moment every player crosses onto the floor, there is no hierarchy. For one thing, no one wants to be embarrassed. But for another thing, these courts are mostly occupied by players who have something to prove, sometimes playing against NBA stars who, by comparison, have little to prove.
And still, with that in mind, sometime late in the third quarter, Trae Young slipped the ball through the legs of an opponent and threw a no-look alley-oop to Murray, who caught the ball, and in mid-air, threw another alley-oop to Collins, who threw down a thunderous dunk. In the immediate aftermath of it, what stood out even more than the instant, ear-piercing wave of crowd noise was Young himself, who, briefly, put his hands on his head and looked at the rim in a moment of disbelief, mouthing something that looked like oh my god. It occurred to me then, as bodies rushed to the sidelines, past scant security, as heat and sound and light collapsed even more aggressively atop us all, that even the miracle-makers sometimes get to be in awe of their own miracles. In the midst of the chaos, I scanned the gym for Jamal Crawford. Along the opposite baseline, he was calmly leaning against the wall, his arms crossed, wearing a smile that could be seen from an entire length of a court away.
Columbus — August
JARED SULLINGER TENTATIVELY HOLDS UP the Kingdom League MVP trophy at center court before the tipoff of the championship game. Buckeye Prep is taking on Committed To My Craft, a team organized by Dayton’s Xander Smart, a respected player development coach. Committed To My Craft started the Kingdom League season with some inconsistency, but then went on a six-game tear to make their way to the championship. They’re balanced, led by former Michigan player Zavier Simpson (who is referred to as Captain Hook at the Kingdom, due to his affinity for the hook shot, despite his diminutive size), former Dayton star Ibi Watson and Sullinger’s former high school teammate, J.D. Weatherspoon. Beyond the roster, the team is simply unbearably hot at the moment, running through any opponent placed in front of them. Sullinger, unquestionably, has earned his pre-game MVP moment, but there’s still work beyond.
The gym at Ohio Dominican is full and growing more full by the minute. Gary Trent Jr. is on the way, and so is Trey Burke, both of them playing in a post-championship game, mostly for fun. A Columbus vs. Cleveland battle.
In the first half, Buckeye Prep seems stunned by the relentless nature of the CTMC attack, the defensive pressure and the speed at which they play in transition seem to both exhaust and frustrate the Buckeye Prep players, Sullinger included, who can’t get going, who can’t get a call to go his way, even when he’s weighed down in the post by hands grabbing at his forearms. By halftime, Committed To My Craft is comfortably up by 18, seemingly cruising to victory. The crowd has grown somewhat restless, expecting a slightly more entertaining battle than the one they’ve gotten. This restlessness is evidenced at halftime, when Tihon Johnson gives an award to local basketball legend Lawrence Funderburke, who then tries to give a speech about community uplift, but can barely be heard over the crowd’s eager rambling, despite Johnson pleading for focus. Even in a thrilling atmosphere, a packed gym with familiar faces in a big moment for the city’s basketball history, it feels like people just want the game to get to its conclusion.
Anyone who knows the game or has played it long enough knows that basketball can be a game of runs. Though it is harder, at times, to pinpoint what happens in the inciting moments that make a run possible and then sustain it. Even halfway through the third quarter, Buckeye Prep still looked flustered, as the lead hovered around 20, sometimes reaching 22, sometimes dwindling to 16 or so before ballooning again. And then, with time winding down, Jared Sullinger seemed to decide that he’d had enough. It was a glorious stretch of basketball, one that first slowly, and then rapidly won over a crowd, thirsty for excitement. A fadeaway, and then a putback, and then a spin move in the post for a layup, and one. And then, to highlight it all, a long three to cut the lead to two. As the ball went through the net, there was Sullinger, crouched low, arms extended, admiring the damage. As a whistle blew signaling a timeout, a young boy ran onto the court and slapped Sullinger’s extended hand before gleefully running back to his seat.
It almost doesn’t matter that it wasn’t enough. In the end, a tense final three minutes was undone by Buckeye Prep’s failure to make free throws. Ibi Watson was the championship MVP after a stellar performance, specifically in the clutch. During the championship ceremony, Sullinger waved towards the stands while meandering off of the court, smiling. He’d still done at least most of what he came home to do. It’s good enough, for now.
Los Angeles –August
At the Drew League, they play for jewelry, real rings, designed in-house and delivered to the championship-winning team in the locker room after the game. The Drew, if nothing else, prides itself on history, and on ceremony, as the extensive awards presentation before the championship game would suggest. The championship is taking place at El Camino College. A place, like Ohio Dominican, which is almost entirely nondescript — perhaps even more than the Columbus hub. When I arrive, no one seems to know where to go. There is nothing to suggest that a basketball game is happening here, and so, people wander the somewhat monolithic tendrils of the campus, searching for more people, who search for sound, or anything that looks like it might be a gym.
Inside, awards are being handed out, and each award has a story, a name behind the prize. The Baxter Brothers Community Award, in honor of Chris and Jonathan Baxter, mainstays at the Drew who died in a 2017 car crash. Another Drew legend who died in a car crash in 1989, Clarence “Clank” Worship, has the MVP trophy named after him. The latter was awarded to both Chris Allen and Montrezl Harrell. The awards process is both tedious and tender, recentering the gathering on a place beyond basketball, focusing on history, loss, grief, survival and triumph.
The Most Inspirational Player award went to Dion Wright, who gained viral notoriety earlier in the summer for defending LeBron James, and then for defending himself when the internet got hold of the clips. Wright, who played at St. Bonaventure and who has been a fixture at the Drew for years, took the floor for the championship matchup, his Black Pearl Elite team playing against Hometown Favorites, a team that boasted NBA players De’Anthony Melton and Delon Wright.
It could be the promise of championship rings or, more likely, the fatigue of a long summer season for players who had been grinding it out every week, not flying in for a cameo appearance and then flying out, but the championship game is a slog. Not necessarily a prolific defensive battle as it is riddled with turnovers and inexplicable misses. By the end of the first quarter, the score is 8-11, in favor of Hometown Favorites. In the second quarter, BPE doesn’t score for nearly four straight minutes, before going on a small burst of a run.
By the beginning of the third quarter, Dion Wright is struggling mightily. Jump shots, layups, even free throws aren’t falling. After one wide-open midrange miss, he stares momentarily at the rim, wide-eyed, like the machinery itself had betrayed him. The game gets tense. Wright snaps at a teammate, who snaps back. When buckets won’t fall for either team, physicality takes the place of finesse, and both squads have to be separated a couple of times. The game picks up in both quality and intensity in the fourth quarter, but it is only close in terms of the numbers on the scoreboard, and not in what is actually unfolding on the court. Hometown Favorites, even as their lead dwindled to single digits, always felt in control of the outcome, Melton controlling the pace of the game, squeezing seconds off of the clock in search of the best possible shot to keep his team ahead by just enough points to remain out of reach.
Though the game was without the ceremony and circumstance of the games that the Drew hosted throughout the summer, it was in some ways refreshing to encounter a final that went this way: two teams, at the end of it all. Mostly players with a history in the league, who came up here, who played in it for years. All of them, fighting for a small window of permanence. Something beyond the hype. A little decoration to show off as summer’s light makes an exit.
Columbus — June
If you live close enough to any park here that still has decent rims up, and maybe puts up a clean net at the start of the season, summer is still signaled by the echo of a bouncing ball, by the shouts of kids, fresh out of school, passing the time on a day that isn’t yet too hot, navigating the cracks on a court’s concrete. On the east side of Columbus, you don’t ever have to go too far to hear the symphony of summer’s arrival. You don’t have to seek it out, it finds you. The same way as it did, perhaps, when you were young, with time on your hands, and a ball that still had enough grip to make it through a few good months. At Blackburn Park in my neighborhood, I go out in the morning to get some shots up. I love the routine of it. I love anything that allows me to get into a groove. When I arrive at the court, a kid is there. He’s going into seventh grade, he says, and wants to make the team at his middle school. We shoot around a bit in silence punctuated by bursts of information, the kind of thing that happens when unexpectedly sharing a space with someone. His brother played at East, so he wants to play at East. He doesn’t know if he wants to go to the NBA, he says. But he could. The dream is small now. To play in the city, to play on the east side, at a place where a hero of his own small city played. There is the dream beyond here, and then there is the dream that is the here. Someone else has lived it already. It’s waiting.
Columbus — August
It’s the end of the Kingdom League, for all intents and purposes. A champion has been named, and all that’s left is a joyful competition between old and new friends. A caveat for Gary Trent Jr. making his way to the city was that if he played, Tihon Johnson had to play. So here is Johnson, in a grey Kingdom League jersey a year after he swore he’d never play in the league again, jogging back down the court after making a layup and nudging Trey Burke, throwing his head back and laughing. A child’s laugh, loud and twirling at the edge of near-disbelief. A laugh that rattles through a gym at the end of summer, bringing the architecture back to life.
Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. His most recent book, “A Little Devil in America,” was a National Book Award finalist. In 2021, he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship.