For the past nine years, the Urban Coalition Summer Basketball League has become a big summer hit. Roundball fans, up to 3,500 a game, bank on seeing such NBA stars as Julius (Doctor J) Erving, George (Icemen) Gervin, Moses Malone, Lloyd Free, Dennis Johnson, Leonard (Truck) Robinson, Gus (The Wizard) Williams, as well as some local hopefuls. To sweeten the deal, it's all free.
Offense is the name of the game in this league. Scores average somewhere around 140 points a game, per team. Fans are treated to slam dunks, finger rolls, long-range jumpers, alley oops and between-the-leg passes. d
Loyals show up every Friday evening and Saturday and Sunday afternoons to witness the feats.
Babies and their grandmothers, grad-school youngsters and their parents come out. Students, gir-friends, sports personalities, community leaders, scouts and coaches, all add to the festive atmosphere.
The dress is chic: the latest in Pierre Cardin warmups, Nike Addidas, Puma shoes and shirts, Calvin Klein and Bon Jour shorts.
They come on crutches, bicycles, in campers, vans, Jaguars, and even in wheelchairs. They come from New Jersey and Baltimore, all to see the latest airborne moves on the basketball court.
Often there's breathing room only in the 2,700-seat Dunbar High School gym, where the games are played. Fans crowd into every available space. At a recent game in which the Bullets played, close to 3,500 squeezed in; more than 300 were turned away.
The league, started in 1971, is divided into two divisions: the junior for high-schoolers and the senior for college, pro, semi-pro and anyone else who feels he can dribble a basketball.
The entrance fee, paid by sponsors, is $250 for the junior league and $1,000 for the seniors. Six teams are in the junior circuit and 10 in the senior.
The senior division has a blend of college, professional, semi-pro and former college and pro players.
Over the years the league has been somewhat of a vagabond. After holding the games at the hot and anti-quated Roosevelt gymnasium the first five years (1971-1976), the games have been played at three different locations in the last four years. The games are now played at the new Dunbar Gym located in the heart of the inner city.
Despite the transiency, the league has grown both in stature and attendance over the years. Its appeal is as varied as its players: It gives returning and new high school players a chance to blend their talents; allows incoming freshman the opportunity to adjust to a new style of play; permits returning college players to improve their skills, and offers pro draft picks and free agents the opportunity to show what they can do for NBA coaches and general managers. Players from the Italian leagues can hone their tools for a possible shot at the big times, and the referees can exhitib their skills and competency.
The fans love every minute.
"I get a chance to see the past, present and future," Louie Lewis, an avid fan, said at a recent game. "I can see young players on the horizon, the present college and pro stars in person up close, and some of the great ones of the past who can still do it."
Youngsters attend the games in droves to get close to Albert King or Adrian Dantley to see if they are larger than life.
For such players as high school All-American Earl Jones, who is headed for the University of the District of Columbia next month, playing against the likes of former Bullet Joe Pace, Georgetown's Mike Frazier (7-feet, 250 pounds) and Bullet second-round draft pick Ricky Mahorn (6-10) gives him a chance to prepare for the more physical style of play in college.
Other players, like King, Ernest Graham, Jo Jo Hunter (University of Colorado) and John (Ba Ba) Duren First-round pick of the Utah Jazz), use the league to get in shape for training camp.
Former Bullet draft picks Charley Ford, Dave Reavis and Pace, all of whom play in the pro league in Italy and Europe, play in hopes that they can get another shot at the big times.
Players such as Greg (Ducky) Vaughn, Victor Kelly and Enose Hill were overlooked by the pros because they considered too small. They use the league as a gauge to measure their abilities against the likes of Donald (Duck) Williams (Utah Jazz), Fats Eddie Jordon (New Jersey Nets) and Lloyd (Set Me) Free (San Diego Clippers).
Hill, a 5-8 guard and one of the leading scorers in the league, comes from Baltimore every weekend to play.
"I'm from Baltimore and the competition there is not like it is here in the D.C. area," the former Delaware Tech star said. "I love to play the game and besides that I get a chance to see how I shape up against some of the best players in the country."
Bullet all-star guard Kevin Porter is playing in his fourth summer league. He says the league was instrumental in building his confidence early in his career.
"In 1975, I was selected most valuable player in the league," Porter explained. "That instilled a lot of confidence in me. In fact, we went on to the NBA finals that season and I had one of my best seasons as a pro.
"The talent is very good in this league. Right now I'm using this opportunity to work on my jump shot."
The action is fast and furious. A quick turn of the head might result in missing a spectacular dunk. Sorry, no instant replay here. Momentarily blocking someone else's view can mean real trouble.
Each year there are one or two players who are the fans' darlings. In years past, there were the Doctor or Gervin or Nate (The Skate) Archibld who "freaked" the crowd. People are still talking about the time last year that Gus Williams got off a plane from Seattle, pumped in 40 points and got right back on the plane and headed west.
This year's most talked about player is Wes Matthews. Matthews is a 6-foot-1 will-o'-the-wisp guard from the University of Wisconsin whom the Bullets picked on their first-round draft choice. As one summer league fan put it, "He is the TRUTH." Whether it's an over-the-shoulder, look-the-other-way pass, a double jump reverse move underneath the basket or a gravity-defying 360-degree two-handed dunk, Matthews freaks them (turns them on spectacularly).
He has brought so much excitement to the league that he has probably broken the league record for standing ovations. Needless to say, Matthews is appreciative.
"These are some great crowds for a summer league," he said. "I have played in summer legues in New York in summer leagues in New York before. But I'm surprised I've been received the way I have. They really get me pumped up."
Other fan favorites are: UDC freshman Michael Britt (the league's leading scorer), Jones, Hill, Jordan, Kelly and Graham. Fans seem to have an affinity for the smaller players because they come across like underdogs.
Most of the fans know the game well. They get on players when they dog it and applaud hustle. But quite often the biggest ovation is when a shapely beauty struts across the floor during timeouts. That seems as enjoyable to male fans as a three-point play. Urban Coalition League since its inception. Like officials everywhere, he sometimes suffers much verbal abuse from fans, players and coaches. And for only $22 a game.
"I love doing what I'm doing," Harris, intramural Coodinator at Howard University, said. "In the nine years I have officiated in this league, I can honestly say I have benefited from it. It's a way of paying your dues.
"I even fantasize sometime that I'm in the Capital Centre officiating. That's how I psyche myself up. I love this. I'm not intimidated by the things that go on. I get satisfaction in knowing that I'm doing the best job possible."
Jess Thompson, an NBA official and former referee in the Urban Coalition, also has watched the league grow.
"Because of administrative commitment, the league has greatly improved over the years," he said. "It is now on par with the famed Rucker League (New York) and the Baker League (Philadelphia). In fact, it may have surpassed them.
"The impressive thing is that the level of competency of the officials has greatly improved. The pro players like to know that they are going to be protected from some college player who may be out to earn a reputation at their expense. I salute the league in that regard."
Thompson added that his training in the Urban Coalition League prepared him for the pros by serving as a workshop.
League jack-of-all-trades Mike Jenifer is chief of public relations for the league. He also officiates, keeps stats and does anything else that helps keep the league running smoothly. He is paid for his referee stints, but all other duties are done on a volunteer basis. In fact, he says, everyone who works for the league does it on a volunteer basis.
"Since we are prohibited from charging admission (because of the league's affiliation with the National Collegiate Athletic Association), we can't afford to pay statisticians and officials who work the clock and the table," Jenifer said. "But it's a golden opportunity for them. Many of them are managers for their schools and it gives them a chance to get experience in that area."
According to Jenifer, whatever funds are left over are used to take an all-star team of high-schoolers on trips to such places as Las Vegas and Provo, Utah.
Said Jenifer: "Our main thing is to benefit as many people as we can in a positive way."
Folks who have been enjoyed the rough and tumble of league play say simply, "That's the TRUTH."