“Basketball is a game born from the streets. Anyone can play – all you need is a basketball and a hoop.”
A recent study noted that there are over 500,000 high school basketball players; 1 in 17 make it to a Division I, II, or III college basketball team, 1 in 8,926 are drafted from high school to the NBA (bypassing college either overseas or waiting a year), and 1 in 525 are drafted from college to the NBA. The odds don’t bode well for countless talented players across the country. Many join rosters overseas in countries like China, Russia and Israel but even those positions are limited. What’s left? What’s the alternative? Many take it back to the streets. There’s numerous streetball leagues across the country giving players a chance to showcase their talent. It may not have the glitz, glamor or money of the professionals but it gives the players a chance to play in organized leagues, stay in shape and sometimes eventually move on to bigger things.
Ball Up offers all that and more. It’s taken things to another level and given chances to players who had nowhere else to turn. It was started by Demetrius Spencer who wanted “an opportunity to create an avenue for all the major ball players around the world to then become professional athletes”. Spencer who has a deep and established background in the music industry compares the program to American Idol. “When I was in the music industry, those people who were really talented could never just walk to the office and get a record deal,” said Spencer. “American Idol opened this door and said, ‘here’s an audition in front of the best’. If you’re heard and you’re talented, we’ll make you a star, we’ll give you an opportunity, we can create a career for you. It’s like I’m doing the same thing in the world of basketball”.
So what exactly is Ball Up? The leading streetball brand created a super team of Ball Up All-Stars also containing former AND 1 players such as The Professor, Air Up There, AO, Bone Collector, Sik Wit It and more. With their “Search For the Next” contest, the team travels across the country and soon the world taking on the top local players in each stop. Ball Up hosts an open try out where players get a chance to join the local team. Two MVPs from each city will be invited to participate in a two-day combine camp in which 10 finalists will be selected to play against the Ball Up All-Stars in a championship game in Las Vegas. They will then compete for a spot on the Ball Up team as well as a $100,000 contract. Gilbert Arenas coaches each team on the tour and has been joined by guest judges such as James Harden, Kyle Lowry, Nick Young and more.
I got a chance to witness it all as the tour came to New York City.
As I entered St. John’s parking lot I saw a line and figured I was in the right place but after a while I noticed I was walking for quite some time as I tried to find the gym. Along that entire walk was people waiting to enter the Carnesecca Arena, thousands of spectators hoping to watch the game that captured the attention of the city while thousands more took their seats inside.
It was just one stop on the Ball Up Summer Tour and according to reports each city presented a similar scene. Inside the gym itself was electric as spectators danced to the music and cheered. The game itself was like a never-ending highlight reel as The Professor showed off his sick handle and upcoming phenom G Smith rivaled Air Up There with his hops.
The game in New York was a homecoming for Ball Up All-Star Afrika. The road wasn’t easy for Anthony Pimble aka Mr. Afrika who’s played in several different schools and took some time before he even had the opportunity to play overseas. He soon built his streetball career and even reminisces on making the Ball Up team and how he had to prove himself. Now he’s playing in front of thousands including his adoring friends and family. “A lot of people just proud that I’m still continuing basketball and it’s the excitement and the professional basketball together,” says Pimble.
Then there’s more established stars like Aaron Owens aka “AO” who made a name for himself as an AND 1 superstar. With a long and established career, AO looks to the future and his life off the court. Owens wants to parlay the knowledge he’s learned from the game and join Spencer on the corporate end. He describes the vastly different personalities on the team as to what makes them special. In addition to the players themselves Owens describes the dynamic and openness of the league that sets them apart. “We’re able to be touched by the kids, we ain’t running out the arena, we’re shaking their hands. That’s what makes it special, the closeness we can have with the fans,” he says.
As someone who’s covered both Knicks and Nets games, I must admit the Ball Up game was unlike anything I’d witnessed before and it’s something I’ll truly remember. It’s also just the beginning. Spencer plans to expand the number of stops as well as go international. He also plans to launch apparel, shoes, video games and products that will be apart of their Ball Up brand. He’s not only provided an opportunity for numerous players across the country, he’s also given them a way to provide for themselves and family. While some may feel streetball is dying, I’m going to continue to reiterate that it’s alive and well.
You can catch the Ball Up series on Fox Sports this fall.
– Shaina Auxilly (@Shay_Marie)