On Sunday, the Entertainer's Basketball Classic hit the road and brought its act to Barclays Center for a Celebrity Challenge. The tournament started so late, I thought the listed start time was on West Coast time. The celebrities turned out, but the elite ballers were MIA.
There were three chaotic, unorganized exhibitions featuring Wale’s Team DMV, Fabolous’ Team NYC A, French Montana’s Team NYC B and Kendrick Lamar’s Drew League Team.
Team Wale won the single elimination tournament 42-37, but there were only vignettes of any semblance of memorable hoops play.
The EBC accounted for the void of NBA talent, with performances from Big Sean, Fab, JadaKiss, Elle Varner's national anthem (before the game and for the media from the podium) and the players buckling down in the final five minutes of each game made for compelling finishes.
Eight hours after I'd arrived at Barclays, I oozed into the 2-train heading uptown to Harlem, the original home of the EBC Invitational. Once home, I plopped onto the couch and detached by catching up on my viewing habits. HBO’s The Leftovers was naturally the first show that came to mind.
It was appropriate because, HBO’s serial fictional drama chronicling a volatile small town in upstate New York in the aftermath of the disappearance of 2 percent of the world’s population, served as an unintentional allegory for the EBC Celebrity Challenge's missing element.
Much of The Leftover's drama derives from the billions left behind believing that they’ve been abandoned to toil on Earth by their respective deities after The Rapture.
Barclays packed enough fans into its intimate setting to populate a hamlet and like The Leftovers, the real story should have revolved around who wasn’t there.
For days, the EBC website touted a slew of NBA stars who were advertised to show up. The list included John Wall, Kemba Walker, Tobias Harris, David Lee, Landry Fields, Russ Smith (no relation to JR), Nick Young and Lance Stephenson.
The thousands in attendance likely didn’t notice, but it resonated if you're aware of the declining participation of elite ballers in playground hoop tourneys.
Instead, former Tennessee star Bobby Maze, Scotty Hopson, Jarrett Jack, ex-Florida guard Erving Walker, Pistons reserve Austin Daye and a diminutive penetrating guard whose resemblance to Kevin Hart earned him the nickname, “Think/Stink Like a Man Too”, depending on what type of rhythm he was in, were the EBC’s contemporary Leftovers.
Barclays packed enough fans into its intimate setting to populate a hamlet and the atmosphere was live, but that was the red herring. Like The Leftovers, the real story should have revolved around who wasn’t present.
The EBC website touted a slew of NBA stars who were advertised to show up. The list included John Wall, Kemba Walker, Tobias Harris, David Lee, Landry Fields, Russ Smith (no relation to JR), Nick Young and Lance Stephenson. Not one suited up, or even showed up.
What I witnessed was the stillness of a post-NBA EBC world. Had it not been cancelled due to a 12-hour blackout across the city, 2003’s EBC Championship Game pitting Jay-Z’s Team Sean Carter roster Lamar Odom, Sebastian Telfair, Jamal Crawford, Eddy Curry) against Fat Joe’s Terror Squad consisting of Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire, Zach Randolph, Stephon Marbury, Rafer Alston and Al Harrington) would have been the height of 21st century playground stargazing.
Every summer, NBA players such as Nick Young still make the occasional trek out of curiosity, but not in packs. Prior to the start of the second game on Sunday, announcer Hannibal Da Electrifying One called for for a moment of silence in honor of James Stixx Williams, who passed away on July 23 after suffering a heart attack during Nike Pro City at Baruch College.
Playground hoops has been devastated by the premature deaths of a litany of its legends in the past five years.
At the same time, the EBC Invitational at Rucker has ditched the asphalt and transitioned to using a wooden outdoor floor. This year, a floor was installed featuring stylized images of recently deceased EBC legends such as Malik Sealy, John “Big Strick” Strickland, Troy “Escalade” Jackson and most notably Tyrone “Alimoe” Evans.
It’s not quite AAU and despite all the crossover moves putting defenders in blenders, the star wattage on the hardwood just isn’t what it used to be.
In 1997, Joe “The Destroyer” Hammond told Sports Illustrated’s hoops scribe Rick Telander that the tournament changed, “when pros quit playing on concrete.”The entertainers came out, took center stage and milled around on the sidelines as figureheads, while the real game involved the male thots trying to spit game at the corresponding reality show female thots behind the benches, on the sidelines and sometimes at halfcourt.
If Kanye West had been in attendance, he would have leaned into the camera, pulled the mic closer, deadpanned "The NBA doesn't care about blacktop basketball" and garnered nodding heads from gawking onlookers.
A few fans near courtside brought the intensity, audibly barking at players during breaks in the action and sometimes getting a response.
However, they were an outlier. This wasn’t a hoops crowd and besides a few instances where French Montana’s Team NYC A completed a furious comeback on Kendrick Lamar’s Team LA and Fab’s Team NYC B found their spark in the final minutes against Team DC, the crowd was mostly subdued during the actual games.
Last summer, in this space, I published a piece on the departure of NBA and college stars from the gritty streetball blacktops. There were a plethora of variables behind this vanishing act, including AAU, the boogeyman for purists everywhere, the NCAA’s increasing demands of its amateurs and the comfort of indoor hoops.
The battles between Pee Wee Kirkland and Tiny Archibald or Joe "The Destroyer" Hammond's back and forth with Dr. J. are a thing of the past.
Sunday’s hoops headliner wasn’t even a known commodity to his new team’s fans.
Towards the end of Team DMV’s win over Montana’s Team NYC, I overheard a few hecklers in Flatbush Zombie’s entourage wonder aloud who Team DMV’s lone NBA star, Jack will play for next season.
Once they learned the former Cav would be suiting up for Brooklyn next season and likely showed up to get a few runs on the Nets home court, their conflict of interest left them in a hushed state of confusion.
Sunday night was the debut of Harlem’s EBC at Brooklyn’s pristine Barclays Center. More importantly, the East Coast’s preeminent playground hoops tournament travelled to the NBA, but the NBA’s stars didn’t follow.