Those who have had a chance to check out the Chi Hoops mini mag have already gotten plenty of reminders about the quality and depth of basketball in The Land. Anyone lacking could find an abrupt reminder Saturday at Chicago St. University’s Jones Convocation Center. Despite pulling away at the end with a 109-96 victory, the Ball Up All-Stars faced some tough competition for Chicago locals.
The Chicago team fully embodied the city’s basketball reputation, as well as their celebrity guest coach Joakim Noah (along with Gilbert Arenas, who has tagged along to most of the cities thus far).
“Just remember who you are [and] keep your identity,” Noah told his players before the game. “Chicago has an identity when it comes to basketball. Guys go hard as hell and I respect that. Every time I step on the court, I try to represent that when I’m on the court. Any pick-up in Chicago, guys go hard as hell and I love that. That’s what I told them: play hard and play smart, too, because if we’re on the fastbreak, [don’t] try to do too much, just get the easy points.”
In line with their coach’s orders, Chicago jumped out to a 10-4 lead, including two tough defensive sequences when players met Special FX and Springs at the rim, rejecting potential highlight opportunities. Defense also spurred a 20-4 Chicago run at the beginning of the third quarter.
“The game was competitive, man, big ups to Chicago,” Baby Shaq said. “They give us a tough game every time. I can’t do anything but respect that.”
“They definitely came out hard, they weren’t backing down or anything,” The Professor said after the game. “We knew coming in that Chicago is one of the tougher cities so they’re not gonna [be pushovers]. I think some of them had played some college ball, so they came out real physical. It’s what we expected. The midwest, especially Chicago, is known for being real hard-nosed and physical, and they were skilled.
“It can be tough because we fly in and fly out every weekend,” he continued. “You just gotta try your best to get your rest, eat right. This was game seven of the tour, so we’re coming down the home stretch; a lot of us were tired, but I like the way we responded.”
One week earlier, the response didn’t come in time. Ball Up’s perfect record fell to “4 Years-and-1,” in the words of game MC Duke Tango, as Birmingham, AL (coached by Eric Bledsoe) gave the main attractions their first loss ever on the tour. With their backs against the wall in Chicago, Bone Collector and especially Baby Shaq made sure Ball Up left with the W.
“I consider myself the anchor,” said Baby Shaq. “I make sure we don’t sink. Everybody else keeps the boat afloat and I make sure we don’t sink. I don’t [do] anything special, it’s just that my toughness stands out.”
“I approach the game as the underdog, because they don’t expect us to lose, but they want us to lose. It’s like going to see Floyd fight. Everybody knows that at the end he’s gonna win, but they want to see what’s going to happen between the 1st round and the 12th round. We just stand tall until the clock runs out.”
Ball Up’s event organization was smooth and professional, and the city reciprocated the love. Chicago St.’s gym was filled to capacity, more packed than it gets for rivalry games between the city’s top high school teams.
“In Ball Up, we pick up where And1 left off,” said The Professor. “If you look at the style of play, you get the same uptempo style, but it’s more commercialized. And1 never tapped into the Hollywood media. We had ESPN, but they didn’t brand us and it wasn’t as organized. [Ball Up] is more of a fun family event, where as And1 it was kind of, ‘give you the jerseys and sneakers and go do your thing.”
In addition to a number of fan-friendly contests throughout the game, one of the night’s highlights came midway through the third quarter as Ball Up invited every kid in the gym onto the court for a mass Cupid Shuffle.
While the NBA is everyone’s initial hoop dream, Ball Up—and streetball in general—has provided invaluable experience for some and life-changing opportunities for others.
“I was just happy to be out there,” The Professor said reflecting on his 2003 And1 debut. “I thought that since I played and they took me on tour that it was just a few games. And that was enough, I had a blast that they even took me. So, for it to turn into a career that lasts this long, still going strong, I never could have envisioned it. It’s been everything. It’s been the only opportunity that’s been able to give me a full-time living playing basketball. I’ve had offers, but they don’t come close to what I get with this.”
Playground hoops helped mold Noah, too: “Streetball gave me a lot. I feel like it made me a better player, it made me tougher. I started playing streetball when I moved to New York when I was 13 years old. New York has a culture for streetball. I think it gives people a big opportunity, there’s a market for it, a lot of people come to watch.”
Noah, one of the most hands-on and accessible players in the League just hosted his own summer game, the third annual “One City” tournament (formerly known as the “Peace Tournament”), last week.
“Chicago has given me so much, it’s given me an opportunity as a basketball player to play in the NBA. It’s given me so much, I feel like it’s important for me to do my part and try to give back. Chicago is a great place, but it’s also a place that’s plagued with violence.”
Ball Up will continue its tour next week in Baltimore, before wrapping up with St. Louis and las Vegas after that.