For every game there is a story. It starts with a spectacular dunk or a slick pass, grows first into a tall tale, then becomes part of the legend and lore of summer league basketball.
Summer league provides the sport in its purest form, a game free of sometimes overbearing, overthinking coaches. And the Urban Coalition League in Washington is the source of as many legends as any summer league in the world.
Urban Coalition isn't the highest-quality league in the country. More professional players and glamor names compete in the Los Angeles Pro League, the Chicago State League, New York's Rucker League and Philadelphia's Baker League.
But the Urban Coalition probably is the only place where NBA stars and neighborhood nobodies trade jump shots on equal terms. And it is perhaps the only place where the fans get so fashionably involved that watching the crowd becomes a cultural study in itself.
The Urban Coalition will reach its ultimate stage for the summer season this weekend as the playoffs commence. Anyone who plans to go must get there at least an hour early, or plan not to get there at all. Last Sunday afternoon, more than 2,000 people were turned away from Dunbar High School, which was unbearably hot. Georgetown players Patrick Ewing, Gene Smith and Mike Hancock waited in line with 300 others to see the second half of the second game.
Glenn Harris, a WHUR-FM sportscaster and native Washingtonian, said it was sacrilegious to miss a game in the 1970s.
"At one time I was afraid to miss a game," Harris said. "You'd say, 'I'm not going this weekend, there are other things in life to do in the summer.' But you'd always wind up there. Everybody would be there. And if was too crowded to get inside, they'd stand outside in the parking lot and wait. You just couldn't afford the possibility of missing something. If there was some legendary dunk, people would talk about it all summer long and you'd feel like a fool because you weren't there."
It's hard to sort legend from fact in the Urban Coalition, which was started in 1969 by James Wiggins, a local barber. It takes about three summers for something to transcend mere basketball and become legend. And not all the legends are related to competition on the court.
"The thing I'll never forget was the first time I saw Julius Erving, sometime back in the '70s," said Mike Jennifer, who grew up going to the games as a fan, worked for the Coalition for seven years and now works for the new Jabbo Kenner Summer League. "It was about 95 degrees, and the Doctor walks in wearing a leather coat, a white turtleneck and a gangster hat. I knew right then he had to be the coolest man in the world because there wasn't one bead of sweat anywhere near him."
Jennifer said he'll "never forget Doc scoring 38 points."
"It was 45 points, 11 dunks," said Harris.
Then there's the Legend of the Extra Seconds. Several summers back, the gymnasium clock malfunctioned and put 12 extra seconds on every minute. Nobody really noticed until one team was nearing 200 points.
And the Legend of Sudden Death. Two summers ago, a game went into overtime, then double overtime. Instead of playing out a third, five-minute overtime, league officials decided on playing a "sudden death" to determine the winner. Charles Bradley, now of the Boston Celtics, scored after a few seconds to end the game.
And the Legend of Transcontinental Gus. NBA star Gus Williams flew in from Seattle one Sunday afternoon, went straight to Dunbar and scored 52 points, then hopped into a taxi to catch a flight back to Seattle.
And the Legend of the Neighborhood Heroes. Guys like Ducky Vaughn and 5-foot-6 Victor Kelly, who have outplayed veteran NBA stars for several years.
And lately, there is the Legend of Michael Britt, the University of the District of Columbia forward who can do things with a basketball that previously seemed impossible. It's difficult to exaggerate Britt's feats. Describe a dunk, no matter how outrageously overstated, and chances are he's done it at Dunbar the last two years.
"Not only was he discovered (by the fans) in summer league," says Marty Aronoff, a longtime summer league observer, "but it's been his opportunity to show he can compete with the great players. At the Division II level, he's not playing nearly the level of competition in college that he plays against in the Coalition."
Some, like Adrian Dantley, play to work on specific aspects of their games. For the unknowns, it's a chance to say, "I scored 22 on Kevin Grevey."
"And for others, it's the court of last resort," Aronoff says. "Guys like Greg Sanders (formerly of St. Bonaventure), Joe Pace (ex-Bullet) and Garcia Hopkins (formerly of Morgan State) still hold that dream (of playing in the NBA). They're all still capable of putting on a show. It's different, more serious for them."
Summer basketball leagues exist primarily for players to stay in shape during the summer months. In the senior divisions, almost anybody is eligible. The average team in the Coalition consists of at least one college freshman-to-be, several college players, several former college players and one or two guys who played professional basketball once, or are still playing. Local businesses sponsor teams and a schedule is coordinated. The only important rule is set by the NCAA: no two college teammates can play together on a summer league team.
The endless possibilities of dream teams and unimaginable matchups come to life. Ray and Gus Williams, brothers and NBA all-star guards, combined for 107 points once last year. For the same team.
One guarantee is that everybody, especially the fans, will have a good time. In the rare case of a dull game, there's enough going on in the stands to keep people entertained for hours.
"Even when you're playing, you tend to be aware of things going on in the stands," said Steve Martin, a former Georgetown player who has played and coached in the Coalition. "You hear your friends screaming ridiculous things or you try some Doctor J move to impress some girl.
"It's like basketball as a kid. You're joking, relaxed. It feels almost like the playground. It's a social atmosphere, the way to get your weekend kicks."
The real basketball junkies get their biggest kicks from arguments over who's the best player. A sure way to start an argument at Dunbar is to say, for example, "I think Ralph Sampson is better than Patrick Ewing, anyway."
Of course, summer league is unstructured. Walk in (admission is free), mingle with the players for a while, find a seat and watch some wild basketball. "Keep moving, finding a seat is just like playing the game. Pick and roll, give and go, you gotta keep going until you find one," Arnold George, the league's sergeant-at-arms, is fond of saying. There are few rules, and those are mainly unspoken.
Rule No. 1 of coming to summer league games: Don't arrive on time. Always get there fashionably late (the playoffs, of course, are a different story). If the first game begins at 2 p.m., show up at about 3:30 for maximum visibility.
Rule No. 2: Don't wear topsiders. Only tennis or basketball shoes costing more than $40 are acceptable. The most important thing in summer league, besides the basketball, is what kind of shoes you wear to watch the games.
"Shoes are the biggest status symbol of the summer," said Jennifer. "Kids who can't even afford clothes show up at summer league wearing $60 Nikes."
Shoes are one of the biggest topics in the stands this summer. You know you're accepted when somebody turns and says simply, "Nice shoes."
"It's part of the whole social scene," said Aronoff, "just like showing up appropriately late, making the rounds with high fives, and making grand entrances and exits. They are in things."
And summer league is a very in place.