SLAM dome favorite Mark Jackson has a saying that I love. “If the ball is round and has air in it, throw it up and let’s play.” The words come to mind when I think about the hungry ballers of the Los Angeles Summer Pro League. The prolific summer hoop League is home to cats that continue to chase their dream of playing basketball professionally, in addition to top-notch players that simply compete for the love of the game.

This year, the SPL will be kicking off its 41st season of play onJuly 23-26 at Marquez High School in Huntington Park, CA and they are expecting another competitive run. During its prestigious history, the SPL has helped hundreds of basketball players land professional jobs all across the globe through the exposure they provide. The League expects 14 teams this season and will hold tryouts on July 20th & 21st at Marquez High from 9am-4pm. League play begins on July 23rd and runs through the 26th with games being played all day from 9am-9pm.

Sneaker company Brand Black plans to put together a squad—there has been some buzz about NBA players making appearances for the brand (Metta World Peace and Jamal Crawford, perhaps?). Some of the other participants include former University of Miami standout Darius Rice—he’s done stints with 6 different NBA teams and played last season for the Texas Legends in the NBDL, Jamal Rodgers—a popular streetball player known as “Baby LeBron” attempting to make the transition into mainstream basketball, and former Michigan State Point Guard Korie Lucious is hoping to revitalize his career through the SPL platform as well, following a season in Poland. In addition to new faces, the League will also feature some familiar names from last summer: sharp shooting former Chico State swingman Mike Martin and 2013 SPL scoring champ Robbie Robinson (27.5 PPG).  

The following feature story appeared in KICKS 16, when Rob Purvy, then of AND 1, was very involved in the SPL. Purvy is no longer with AND 1, but he’s still working with Walt Thompson on making the Summer Pro League the best place for NBA hopefuls to ball. 

The SPL will close out on July 26th at 6pm with their championship game held on the main court at Venice Beach. If you’re in the SoCal area, be sure to come out and support. For more information on the SPL, visit summerproleague.com.

Photos by Atiba Jefferson

During the ’80s, the Los Angeles Summer Pro League served as the off-season home to numerous NBA stars. Walt Thompson Jr, VP of the SPL, recalls attending as a spectator when the battles were held at Loyola Marymount University. “I saw Magic Johnson work on his baby hook shot in the SPL,” Thompson says, proudly. “He worked on it during game situations against good competition. By the time the NBA season started, he was better at it.”

When the mid-’90s hit, the SPL moved to the Long Beach Pyramid and continued to attract NBA stars such as Kobe Bryant, Gilbert Arenas and Andre Miller, and fully fledged teams from the L through ’07. That year, 22 NBA teams sent their squads to the newly formed Vegas Summer League, leaving the SPL without its usual cache of NBA players participating in the SPL. That led to a five-year hiatus that ended last year, thanks to a partnership with AND 1 and the vision of Thompson, who worked with the SPL in the ’90s before focusing on his career at Warner Brothers Television.

A few years ago, he approached SPL owner John D. Younesi about bringing the once-proud league back to form. “John believed in me and that means a lot,” Thompson says. “I don’t want to let him down. I’ll say this: There would not be an NBA Summer League without the Summer Pro League. Our history speaks for itself: Over 800 NBA players, over 1,000 free-agent players all over the world. We give people an opportunity. You don’t even need to have an agent to play in our league. That’s what makes us the ground roots of real basketball, and that’s why I’m so proud of it.”

Says Rob Purvy, long-time sneaker executive and former Executive Director of AND 1, “This is dirt roots right here because we didn’t grow up with grass around our courts. There is a synergy between AND 1 and the SPL that you don’t get to participate in too often. We’re super proud that we’ve been able to help resurrect a league that over 800 NBA players have played in. I think there is reciprocity in that. AND 1 is a basketball company; the SPL is pure basketball.”

Immediately after resurfacing, the SPL attracted basketball talent from across the globe, including team entries from Japan and NYC. The players in the league have played ball overseas, in the NBA D-League, various other US pro leagues and include ballers fresh out of collegiate programs across the country. The exposure and film accumulated from last year’s SPL helped garner 18 players jobs across the globe. One of those players was Franklin Session, a 6-2 combo guard who grew up in Watts and played in the same backcourt with Damian Lillard at Weber State. “We won the conference championship together,” Session says. “We had some incredible practices back in the day. I had to guard him and he had to guard me. That helped me out a lot.”

A scoring guard most of his life, Session is using the SPL to show pro teams that he can be a prolific point guard. His play last season helped net him an agent and he ended up playing two games with the L.A. Defenders of the D-League.

“AND 1’s involvement has been great. The jerseys are nice and they’ve helped me a lot,” Session says. “Now I just want to start somewhere, I will take anything I can get professionally and continue to work on my game.”

In addition to serving as a platform for opportunity, the SPL also prides itself on educating players. They have brought in nutritionists to speak to players about diet and fitness and are also advising young ballers about how to conduct themselves off the court in an environment filled with agents and scouts.

“A lot of these young men don’t have fathers,” Thompson explains, getting emotional while thinking about the impact his father Walter Thompson made while coaching and mentoring countless kids while he was growing up. “We want to help them land opportunities through this. With basketball, we want to be the conduit to all the agents and scouts out there that may exist in Russia or France and are looking for players. You don’t have to travel all over the world and spend your money to find the players. You can come here and find your players. I’m telling you right now, there is a lot of incredible talent in this league.”

One of the most talented is 6-7 Mike Martin, a former standout from Chico State who has played professionally in the Middle East the past three years. “Playing in the SPL is a great opening for my career to keep going and get to the highest point possible,” says Martin, who recalls getting excited last year when he noticed AND 1 product for sale at a mall during his stint in Saudi Arabia. “I was one of those guys who started from the bottom. I played in the ABA for a couple months and then got another look in Australia. I played there for a year and then I moved to the Middle East for three years. I’ve been blessed. This is my second year in the SPL and you can definitely feel the energy in here that AND 1 brings. The posters everywhere let it be known that AND 1 is in here and this is their league that they’re taking over. It’s wonderful.”

Purvy and Thompson have bonded over their love for the game and the financial opportunity the game can provide for many of the young ballers in the SPL. “The NBA is no longer the only ticket in town,” Thompson says.

The SPL has numerous players who may have transferred schools during their college career, blossomed late or even fell off for various hardships that derailed their academic pursuits. Everyone plays hard and there is great respect for referees and officials of the SPL—the conduct is nothing short of professional. And the games are intense, filled with plenty of highlights.

While interviewing Purvy during a game, there were a few freakouts over incredible moves from the talent at hand, especially from one of his favorite ballers in the SPL, 6-5 guard Robbie Robinson—in this instance a nasty up and under layup during the opening days of the 2013 season. A SoCal native, Robinson represents the quintessential SPL player. He began his career at Riverside Junior College and went on to Cal State Fullerton before finishing out at Cal State San Bernardino. He bounced around, but he earned his degree and is still motivated to chase his dream of playing basketball professionally. His performance in the SPL last year earned him a job in China on a basketball tour for a month, putting a little money in his pocket and providing fresh hope.

“I want to prove people wrong,” he says. “I have people that tell me I should do something else, whether it’s family or friends, trying to almost get me to settle with the things that I’ve done in junior college and making it to a DI school and finishing my basketball career. I just don’t like to settle, and I’m really competitive. The fact that I’m young and have the opportunity to prove people wrong, that drives me every day.”

This year’s SPL run has been filled with more talent and is on track to deliver even more professional players worldwide. One participant with high aspirations is Tennessee native TyShwan Edmondson, who played in the SPL for the second straight year, putting up about 23 points per game.

“The talent level has improved from last year,” Edmondson says. “Everybody here played either overseas or NBA D-League, or are just getting out of college and trying to get to that level like myself. I’m just happy I’m able to come out and show my talent and play against some of the better people out there, and see what I can do and where I’m at. When everything is over with, I’m hoping I can have at least three deals on the table and be able to make a good decision for me and my family.”

Purvy believes significant growth will continue at the SPL. But similar to several of the players in the league, he’s not one for settling. “I’ll be satisfied when from a perception aspect, this league has returned to the prominence it was at when it was in its first 35 years of its existence. But as a brand, we take a lot of satisfaction in being able to contribute to this game that we all love.”