DURHAM — The summer before C.J. Leslie arrived at N.C. State he played in the Greater N.C. Pro-Am at N.C. Central, and the line of people waiting to see Leslie play sometimes stretched around the outside of the McLendon-McDougald Gymnasium.
Erroll Reese, who helps run the pro-am, was there on some of those nights, and he remembers some of those crowds. Reese on Monday promised more of the same kind of interest will surround the summer league when it begins later this month, once again at Central.
“It’s going to be off the chain,” Reese said of a league that features local college stars present and past, some of whom have gone onto successful careers in the NBA. “I’m giving you a heads-up – get there early.”
Entering its fifth season, the N.C. Pro-Am, which is a descendant of the old Chavis League at St. Augustine’s College, will begin on June 28. The league has attracted top talent since its inception, with most notable area ACC players participating.
Jerry Stackhouse, who serves as the league’s celebrity host, is one of many former local college standouts who returns to play year after year. The former North Carolina All-American said on Monday that he’ll use the pro-am to help gauge whether he wants to continue playing in the NBA.
Stackhouse spent last season, his 17th in the NBA, with the Atlanta Hawks. Stackhouse is coaching his 15-year-old son’s summer basketball team, and so his participation in the N.C. Pro-Am will be limited, he said. Not that the league will lack for recognizable names on those nights he’s absent.
Former UNC players who have played – and are expected to play this summer – in the league include Rasheed Wallace, Raymond Felton and Sean May. Kyrie Irving, the former Duke point guard, has played, as has Raleigh native and former Kentucky standout John Wall.
Irving and Wall were the top two overall selections in the past two NBA drafts. The N.C. Pro-Am is expected to release team rosters on Friday. The league is going from 10 to eight teams, which means that game nights – Tuesdays and Thursdays –– will end earlier than they have in the past.
“Everybody knows that’s the place to be,” Stackhouse said of the pro-am. “So it’s not like you have to go and drag them by the neck to come out here and participate.
“If you’re really a competitor and want to get out and play with the best incoming players in the area, players that are already established, you know that [this] where you can come and get it.”
Current high school players are ineligible from competing in the summer league, but those between college and high school can participate. N.C. State’s three-man recruiting class – comprised entirely of McDonald’s All-Americans – is expected to play, according to Chuck Jones, who handles the summer league’s NCAA compliance.
Stackhouse said he believed that UNC’s four incoming recruits would also participate. With its large crowds and pure basketball culture – admission is free and the games feature few of the frills found in cushy, more modern NBA and college arenas – the summer league has drawn comparisons to New York City’s Rucker Park.
The famed playground in Harlem is known for its fiercely competitive pick-up games, and for players whose ability earned them nicknames and a place in the city’s basketball lore. The N.C. Pro-Am, meanwhile, is newer, and still creating its own tradition.