Somehow, after working with SLAM for six years, I made my first trip to Carnesecca Arena on Sunday evening. The 6,000-seat arena in Queens, NY, was built in 1961 and was home to some of New York’s greatest ball players like Chris Mullen and Mark Jackson.
If there was any doubt in my mind about being able to find the gym after I stepped off the Q31 bus, it was quickly vanquished when I caught sight of thousands of fans waiting to see the Ball Up All-Stars play Team New York. I was walking for several minutes as I passed the crowd and reached the gates to pick up my credential.
Fans had come out in force for the showdown. Some were waiting patiently for hours and still had to be turned down at the gate. Thousands were left outside as the gym quickly packed to capacity.
You’ve heard about the Ball Up Summer Tour before, but here’s the basics you need to know. The Ball Up All-Stars consist of streetball legends like the Professor, Air Up There, AO, Bone Collector and Baby Shaq, to name a few. They tour through 10 cities around the country between June and August, play against the best local streetballers on each stop and eventually chose one player to join the squad. This summer’s tour will be broadcast on the reality TV show, Ball Up: Search for the Next.
When I got into the gym, the level of excitement was already at a fever pitch. DJ Envy was blasting the summer’s hottest beats; kids were clamoring for a chance to see the celebrity coaches Nick Young and Gilbert Arenas; and gentlemen, you’d have to be walking with your eyes shut if you didn’t notice the plentiful eye candy in this gym.
Beneath the multiple Big East championship banners were huge posters of the Ball Up team members, including local high-flying native Special FX, who grew up playing in nearby St. Albans, Queens, and played collegiately at St. John’s. It was a big night for the squad’s New York native, so much so that Special FX’s nerves were palpable when the vet took the court with the All-Stars.
“I was so nervous before the game, I’m not going to lie. All day I was just all over the place. My mind was racing,” said Special FX, who played at Carnesecca between 2004-06.
But the nerves were quickly washed away early in the first quarter when FX threw down a powerful alley on a fast break that got the crowd to its feet. “After that first dunk, the nervousness was over. I was just like, I’m good,” FX said.
At 6-5, 230, Special FX plays a self-described “rugged and rough” style of basketball, that he cultivated first at St. Albans Park and later around the New York streetball circuit.
Of course, other than the hometown hero, the man everyone came out to see was the Professor, and dude didn’t disappoint. From the jump, Professor’s world-class handles were on full display, as Team New York defenders wouldn’t come close for fear of getting got. Since earning his nickname in 2003 on the AND 1 Tour, Professor has since become streetball’s standard bearer, and he’s stayed admirably atop his game for over a decade.
Of course, part of the fun of the tour is the “Search for the Next” element (the aforementioned reality series will air on Fox Sports Net in late August). Team New York, a collection of streetballers from the NYC area, had just one shot to make an impression against the best and they were obviously paralyzed by nerves in the first quarter.
They came around in the second quarter, bringing it as close as 41-44 with 7:45 remaining in the second stanza off the strength of superior outside shooting and excellent ball movement. One dude even caught the mercenary-strong Baby Shaq with a bounce off the dome, and followed with a celebratory twinkle-toes dance. In response, Baby mercilessly bullied his man in the post on the next possession for an easy two points and a mocking twinkle-toes taunt of his own.
But the game was just heating up.
“We’ve created a great family event around a fun, competitive sport,” said Demetrius Spencer, better known as Ball Up CEO, better known as Boss. “The NBA is like boxing. We’re like the UFC. And the Globetrotters are like the WWE.”
The comparison couldn’tve been more apt. The competition is real, the basketball is raw and pure. The showmanship, the taunts, the one-on-one battles. This is how basketball is played everywhere outside of the ultra competitive, business-dominated realms of the NBA and NCAA. It’s, in just a single word, beautiful.
“I think people love the showtime. They’re drawn to the highlights. That’s what makes people stand up at a basketball game, besides [the score] being close at the end,” Professor said. “So you’re always looking for that swag play or that crazy dunk, or that dude who just got shook crazy, and we just try to bring that out.”
Professor has consistently done it better than nearly everyone in the world for a long time. That’s why it was even more audacious when a New York baller called “Little Man” went back and forth with the streetball legend in the third quarter. For a good four-minute stretch, Little Man and Professor went for each other’s necks in a classic back-and-forth matchup.
Little Man displayed a zip-lock tight handle and a crazy quick first step. His moves were unrefined, but his heart and talent were immeasurable. He got the best of Professor on a few possessions, charming the raucous fans, and got got more than a handful of times by Professor on the other end.
When the third-quarter buzzer sounded, Little Man had risen as a new champion in New York.
MVPs of the game won’t be officially announced until the show airs this fall, but it’s a safe bet to say that man dubbed “Little Man” by the legendary MC (and birthday boy) Duke Tango, will be making an appearance in Las Vegas next month at the Ball Up Combine. From there, one player will be chosen to join the squad and earn a $100,000 pro contract with the team.
That’s the beauty of the Ball Up brand: You have fresh new talent constantly charging against some of the game’s most storied streetball legends.
Vets like Bone Collector and Air Up There are still putting in work and both stole the show many times on Sunday night, but it’s clear that their days of glory are on the horizon. That’s why in the past three years, Ball Up has added fresh legs in Mr. Afrika and G-Smith to catch oops, and the tight-handled Too Easy and Springs to throw them.
It’s an evolution that will be televised. The way it’s meant to be. Of course, the players aren’t thinking about that when they get on the court. It’s all about having fun and enjoying the moment. Something that’s even more special when playing on a hallowed court such as Carnesecca.
“(Former St. John’s PG) Mark Jackson is one of my really good friends. Escalade is his brother, and Escalade was my teammate for like eight years until he passed away,” Professor said. “I look up to [Jackson] a lot. I’m good friends with Jayson Williams, he played here. Chris Mullen, I love dude. I actually met him at Escalade’s funeral. So I always look up to him.
“This gym is epic. So much talent has played here. It’s awesome.”
When the final buzzer sounded, and the Ball Up All-Stars still reigned undefeated, and the crowd rushed the court for autographs and selfies with the players, that truly was it: awesome.
Photos courtesy of Adam Pantozzi