Near the home-side bench after their semifinal loss, a few players on Team Prime Time are slow to put on their shoes and leave the court they just played on.
The Ultimate Basketball Association’s second semifinal game of the 2019 summer season — and the last competition of the night — is close to being underway at the J.D. Lewis Multipurpose Center in Raleigh. Music blares over the gym’s speakers as two other teams go through layup lines, preparing to play for a spot in Sunday’s tournament championship.
But still, a few Team Prime Time players whose season had just ended still linger. They stay through the next game’s tip-off, pleading their case for how T.J. Warren — the Indiana Pacers and former N.C. State forward who just led his team to a second straight summer championship appearance — was only able to score at will because he wasn’t called for traveling whenever he drove to the basket.
Different players vent to the tournament organizer, Wayne Wooten, their hands flailing: “There’s no way to guard him, then!”
At the end of the postgame scrum, though, Wooten can’t help but smile. After starting this as an adult recreation league 10 years ago, the participation of players like Warren and others are part of what Wooten hopes the league will soon become — the next premier professional-amateur summer league in North Carolina.
“I want to show what North Carolina has to offer, and also give some of these guys a second chance ...” Wooten told The News & Observer last Sunday. “I originally wanted to do this as a feeder league, for overseas talent and hopefully the NBA and G-league. So yeah, we try to get the best of the best in the area and bring them all out here.”
‘It’s turning into a Pro-Am’
In many ways, the UBA league has the feel of pickup basketball. Games have two 20-minute halves with a running clock. Scores run high, ranging from the low-80s to the high-90s. Players live in Raleigh or Durham, and many already know each other, either through college or AAU leagues.
“The biggest thing you have to think about is a lot of these guys either played in college together, or in the area together before they got to the college level,” Timothy Bowser, UBA’s director of operations, told The News & Observer last Sunday.
But in other ways, the league is more than pickup ball. Each team plays for “hardware” in the form of a silver-plated ring. Two referees man each court. And there’s a level of talent present that you can’t find anywhere else for a $3 ticket.
Shawan Robinson, 35, who lives in Raleigh and was a guard at Clemson from 2002-06 before a brief pro career overseas, said that this league has “supplanted Chavis” as the best summer basketball league in the area.
Players like Warren, Robinson and former N.C. State center BeeJay Anya were a few of the players on hand last Sunday, during the tournament’s semifinal round. Wooten said other prominent members from North Carolina have played before too, like Darius Johnson-Odom, who played at Wakefield High and Marquette and is now with the Minnesota Timberwolves’s G-league affiliate; David West, who played at Garner High, recently retired from basketball after a 15-year NBA career and helps run Garner Road’s AAU program; and even Fayetteville resident and hip-hop artist, J. Cole.
“It’s turning into a Pro-Am,” Wooten said. “There is no NC Pro-Am … but we’re trying to bring it back.”
Summer league downfalls
North Carolina has a rich history with summer league basketball, but it’s also seen a few of the leagues fall due to their entanglement with NCAA rules.
Until about seven years ago, the best basketball in the state could be found at the Greater NC Pro-Am in McDougald-McLendon Arena on N.C. Central’s campus in Durham. There, college basketball recruits would face off with college players and NBA stars. Some nights, hundreds of visitors would be turned away because the building was at its capacity.
The NC Pro-Am’s golden era was short-lived, though. Come 2013, it would be moved off N.C. Central’s campus and into the Durham School of the Arts due to an NCAA rule change that prevented summer leagues from taking place on college campuses. Around the same time, the NCAA also ruled that recruits couldn’t participate. Both rules were preemptive moves to prevent schools from exploiting potential recruiting advantages. The league’s last game was more than five years ago.
Before that, the Chavis League — a Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources Department league at St. Aug’s that’s going on its 40th year— claimed the title as the best summer league in the area. It turned into a rite of passage of sorts for the state’s great talents: UNC’s Jerry Stackhouse and Vince Carter, Duke’s Elton Brand and Raleigh native John Wall were among those who strode Emery Gym’s hardwood.
In 2004, however, UNC starting point guard Raymond Felton was suspended for the Tar Heels’ first game of the 2004-05 season after playing in one Chavis League game. The league did not meet a deadline to submit paperwork to the NCAA, according to a 2004 News & Observer story.
“None of my players will ever play in that league again,” UNC coach Roy Williams said at the time.
The Chavis League is still around, but its rite-of-passage status has waned a bit. It still boasts a few recognizable names — like P.J. Tucker, who is in his 13th year in the NBA and played at Enloe High School, and C.J. Leslie, a former standout forward at N.C. State.
Although his league has been around for 10 years, Wooten said it didn’t start attracting the kind of talent it does now — former ACC players, a few NBA players — until these last three years.
Wooten’s UBA league is made up of players ages 25 and older, with the exception of allowing two players as young as 21 on each team. Wooten said, though, that he plans to include college players in the league’s future.
“Next year, we’re actually looking to go younger with the league,” Wooten said. “We want to get a lot of DI players here from the area: N.C. State, Duke, Carolina. We’re trying to make it an official Pro-Am.”
As the last game got underway last Sunday, the lingering players from the first semifinal game left their bench and found seats in the stands with the rest of the spectators.
Wooten then fell back into his role as PA announcer and tournament organizer, doing his part to build a kind of summer league that has long been missed.
UBA summer league championship game
Where: J.D. Lewis Multipurpose Center, Raleigh
When: Sunday, 7:30 p.m. (Other games start at 5:30 p.m.)
Tickets: $3 at the door