City News

It's a high-level game at Grady Cole. And free.

With referees chasing kids off the court and a stage sitting just behind one of the baskets, the gymnasium with quite possibly the most talent-filled basketball games in Charlotte this summer would suit a middle-school team just fine.

Then you see plays like 6-foot-tall Larry Blair swooping in for a dunk on the first play of a game or K.C. Rivers swishing a 23-footer, and it's clear that the Mecklenburg County Park and Rec-sponsored pro-am league is for serious players only.

At the Grady Cole Center next to Central Piedmont Community College, basketball fans – free of charge – can get an up-close view of some of the top players in the area. Clemson, Davidson, UNC Charlotte and Johnson C. Smith all have players participating. Not to mention current and former Charlotte Bobcats, such as guard Jeff McInnis.

“It gets really competitive,” said Rivers, a former Independence star and leading scorer for Clemson the last two seasons. “You get guys trying to make a name out there.”

Consider the following from a four-game set last Wednesday for a gauge of the competition:

Blair, a Charlotte native and the Big South Conference's all-time leading scorer, and Rivers represented the starting backcourt for their team in the first game. They lost.

McInnis hit a barrage of three-pointers and a spinning, over-the-head layup in the second half of the second game. His team lost.

And all of the games take place in a quaint gymnasium where fans can and do talk to players during games.

“It's not like there's security and bars between you and the court,” said Mike Moraglia, the center's facility manager. “You're sitting right there courtside … (Davidson College star) Stephen Curry is hitting a three and fading away right into your lap.”

Yes, Curry plays occasionally. NBAers Raymond Felton and Brendan Haywood have also played.

“College experience is almost a prerequisite to play in this league,” said Clarence Johnson, who runs the league.

But it's not the typical no-defense summer league, such as an Atlanta league where NBA guard Jarrett Jack was recently rumored to have scored 97 points in a game. The 40-minute games typically start cordially, but quickly morph into competitive battles. Foul calls are met with incredulous faces, and players make sure their opponent knows when they are the victim of a nice move.

Name players such as Felton or Blair especially bring out the competition, with opponents wanting the bragging rights that come from beating someone of that stature.

“Everybody wants to show their best stuff against them,” Johnson said.

For fans, it's a chance to watch elite athletes from a closer vantage point than many would ever get. You can hear players communicating on defense or jokingly talking trash.

Last week, McInnis spent nearly every dead ball talking to the referee.

“What do I gotta do to get a foul?” he said repeatedly, before giving the ref a playful tap.

Kevin Dasent and his 12-year-old son, Austin, watched it all from the front row of the rollout bleachers.

The two frequent the pro-am games, with the elder Dasent hoping his basketball-playing son can pick up some tips.

“The closer he gets, maybe the more that will rub off on him,” Kevin Dasent said.