CHATHAM — There was an edginess to the crowd at Chicago State University on Sunday, waiting to explode at the sight of the next earth-shattering dunk.
The Chi-League pro-am, a storied tournament featuring the best of Chicago’s professional and amateur players, was back after a four-year hiatus. Sunday’s opening round was Chicago-style basketball to its core: gritty, hard-nosed, athletic — with a little extra room for style and flash.
The three-weekend tournament, free to the public, is sponsored by Wilson, the new official basketball of NBA, and Dreamville, the record label of rapper J. Cole. Opening day was a who’s who of famous hoopers. It was a chance for all of Chicago’s top players — from college, European professional and NBA ranks — to unite together, dap each other up and compete for bragging rights to a city often claimed as the Mecca of basketball.
Jabari Parker was one of eight current and former NBA players, all from Chicago, who served as team captains in Sunday’s win-or-go-home bracket. Parker hoped to put on a show for the kids, and enjoy a Sunday in Summertime Chi with all his friends in the basketball community.
“This is for the city,” Parker said. “In the NBA, it’s a business. But when you’re out here, you’re just having fun. We do it for each other, we do it for the kids. And we’re trying to keep the culture alive.”
J. Cole’s songs rocked the gym as players traded friendly bumps and plenty of trash talk. Each trip down the court was another opportunity to get everyone on their feet. Bold step-back threes and ambitious dunks took precedence over making the extra pass. But when it came to crunchtime, serious basketball talk was the topic of every huddle.
“This is just super authentic Chicago basketball. We come out here and we just go at it,” said point guard Chase Adams. “Always trying to please the crowd, but at the end of the day, you want to win. It’s nothing but bragging rights.”
Chi-League will continue Sunday with its first-ever women’s pro-am. On Aug. 22, organizers will crown the champions of Chicago in both the men’s and women’s divisions. Jobba Maxey, lead organizer of the event, says bringing back Chi-League is a dream of his two years in the making, made possible by Dreamville.
“Chicago basketball has a different type of energy,” Maxey said. “Michael Jordan brought a different type of oomph. For the city to win six championships, our egos are a little different.”
Maxey hustled around the gym at Chi-League, fresh off his destination wedding in Cancun. He fell in love with the pro-am long before his wife, Val, came along. Maxey remembers when former NBA all-star Antoine Walker stopped mid-game at the old Chicago State gym — so his friend, Hall of Famer Allen Iverson, had time to throw on a jersey and hop in.
At a pro-am, the excitement is the unexpected. A highlight reel play can happen at any moment. Any famous hooper could walk through those doors, paying their respects to the city.
“It’s always about the culture of Chicago basketball,” Maxey said. “This brings our youth together, combining them with NBA players and professional players. It’s for underprivileged kids that don’t have the opportunity to go to NBA games.”
The young dynamic duo of Mikey McGee and Cortez Sims were happy to be on mop duties: A courtside view of the pro players they planned to replicate when they got home. Team Sterling Brown took care of business against Team E’twaun Moore. Team Bobby Simmons beat Team Jabari Parker.
Team Kendrick Nunn ran Team Tim Hardaway out of the gym, 87-54. Jaleni Neely was asked to coach by Nunn, his former teammate at Simeon. Each team is selected by the NBA captain, through their personal connections around the city basketball scene. Neely repped the Simeon contingency with silver Air Jordan 1s and plenty of energy. He hopes the tournament is an opportunity to prove himself as a coach.
“Let’s get them off the court. We don’t feel sorry for them. If we can win by 50, win by 50,” Neely said. “We’re from Chicago. We don’t care if it’s five old ladies out there on the other team. We’re gonna let them have it too.”
Team Nunn’s Deshawndre Washington, a top-ranked junior college player in the nation, couldn’t stop smiling. The 19-year-old was the youngest member of the squad, and the only player not an overseas professional.
“It’s kind of a learning experience, really, to learn from pros. Because they’re already at where I want to be,” Washington said. “It’s just the Chicago basketball love, and it brings everybody together and it makes me happy.”
Deandre “Comedian Face” Barnes narrated the action with a handheld microphone and his Air Jordan 4s firmly on the court. Barnes heckled a cold player with a “Who is he? Where did he come from?!” After a highlight dunk, Barnes announced, “SportsCenter right after this!” The hype man keeps the crowd involved.
“I bring my own style, because I’m always in tune with the game,” Barnes said. “You might see me on the floor. If somebody gets dunked on, I might run to the floor, you might hear me yelling.”
Action heated up in the final game of the day as Adams of Team Antoine Walker and his close friend, DaJuan Gordon of Team Alfonzo McKinnie, went back-and-forth with big buckets. What Adams lacks in height at 5-foot-7, he makes up for in swiftness. The quick guard with the killer handle is a YouTube sensation, with his middle school highlights collecting more than 16 million views. Now a 21-year-old point guard at Salt Lake Community College, Adams considers pro-ams to be competition second only to the NBA. The Chi-League fits his flashy style. He’s allowed to play with his diamond studs in.
“At the end of day, you want people to say you were just so fun to watch,” Adams said. “This is where you get your confidence at, in the summertime.”
All 6-feet-9-inches of Antoine Walker huddled next to the much shorter Adams with the game still in balance. Walker dapped up his point guard and gave him a message: “Winning time!”
But it was Gordon, a rising junior at Missouri, who got the best of Adams on Sunday. With NBA player Alfonzo McKinnie engaged and active on the sideline, Gordon soared in for a put-back dunk. Team McKinnie ran away with three breakaway dunks, electrifying the crowd and taking the energy out of their opponent. Game over.
“My goal in this game was to show who I am. Just to get that respect,” Gordon said. “It’s all fun. It’s all energy. We turn the city up.”
Walker said he had the itch to coach again, and after playing in the golden era of the Chi-League, was excited to see the event coming back in a big way.
“This should go on for another 100 years. There should never be another four-year drought,” Walker said. “Some of these little kids, we see running around out there, are some of your future pros. So you got to put it all in perspective.”
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