Posted May 8 2013 3:01PM
LOS ANGELES -- “Yo, NBA.com dude, check it out!”
Breckin Meyer, who I expect to see wearing jeans, a t-shirt and a zip-up hoody from watching Road Trip about 702 times, (just like you’d expect to only see Homer Simpson in blue pants, black shoes and a white polo), is resplendent in a fresh pair of adidas kicks, full New York Knicks official warm-ups and a bright orange NBA headband sagging around his neck.
What am I checking out exactly?
Oh, just your everyday, run-of-the-mill 360 lay-up by a Hollywood actor.
Yep, welcome to the NBA Entertainment League.
Quick History Lesson
The NBAE League is celebrating its 10th season and over the course of a decade has seen more celebrities pass through than the set of SNL.
The current stock is full of A-Listers like Jamie Foxx, Snoop Dogg, Josh Duhamel, Brandon Routh, Justin Timberlake and Ice Cube, but when NBAE Commissioner Shane Duffy recalls the former stars to suit up in the league, it’s like he is polishing trophies on his mantel.
Leo, of course, is Leonardo Di Caprio who used to suit up on the weekends with buddy Tobey Maguire.
Sort of like a child’s bedroom, the office contains artifacts from the league’s growth. There are the life-size stand-up cutouts of Michael Rapaport in a Warriors uniform, Don Cheadle wearing the orange and blue of the Knicks and Sugar Ray’s Mark McGrath, the OC’s Benjamin McKenzie and MTV’s Bill Bellamy in Hornets garb. An autographed Reebok from the Sean Carter collection sits on the shelf. Framed jerseys from Love and Basketball and Like Mike hang from the wall, tokens of appreciation for helping with product placement, props and access for filming the movies.
Duffy looks at his league as not only a great escape for all of his players to get out of the spotlight from their high-profile status and enjoy the time just being guys playing pick-up, but as a place for young stars to network with the directors, producers, writers and agents who also fill out the rosters.
“One of these guys is going to break out,” Duffy says matter-of-factly. The NBA’s other commissioner, though he’ll admit to not quite being David Stern, speaks from a wealth of experience.
He recalls the league’s infant stages when kick-boxing guru Billy Blanks and his brothers and a “few of Eddie Murphy’s cousins” were the biggest names running in the league. Back then, the focus was more on one-on-one play. There were great athletes, but not necessarily great teammates. As the years went on, Duffy found the right balance of competition, status and professions amongst his players.
Now he has a league that is so appealing that it caused R&B singer Brian McKnight to leave a New York Giants NFL playoff game at halftime (after belting out the National Anthem) to fly back to L.A. to make sure he made it back in time to score 28 points to win his own NBAE League playoff game.
Heck, Q. Parker of the R&B group 112 flies from Atlanta every weekend to play.
It’s a league so well received that all of the stars showed up for its opening night launch party this year. By contrast, Duffy points out, Ocean’s 12 threw an $80 thousand soirée for the cast and crew, and none of the big names made an appearance.
“They’ve made it their own fraternity,” Duffy beams. “They come here and they become Kobe for 10 minutes. There is nothing like it.”
Back to gym (an undisclosed location in L.A. for privacy’s sake, but a first-class facility, not surprising that two current NBA players went to high school there) where Meyer’s Knicks were ready to tip off against the Sixers featuring Arlen Escarpeta from We Are Marshall.
The Knicks sent out Donald Faison and Rob Maschio from Scrubs, James Lesure (Las Vegas), Rick Gonzales (Old School) and former NFL cornerback Jason Sehorn as their starting lineup.
As Sehorn bounded out, his football body bulging out of his basketball uniform, he was informed that he had to go back to the bench and change his socks. Just like the NBA wouldn’t allow Allen Iverson to rock Reebok socks, the NBAE isn’t letting Sehorn slide with Nike footings.
Wearing a No. 24 jersey (the same number he wore for the Giants), Sehorn gave a look to the official like he was doing his best John McEnroe and sauntered to the bench to change into NBA socks as Breckin Meyer snapped off his pants and bounced off his seat towards the center circle.
After the game though, Sehorn had no hard feelings.
“You get to come and get in a good workout every week and meet some new people and play basketball,” he said. “Everybody loves to play basketball, but one of the problems is officiating, getting a place, all that. This league has everything for you and you get to come and play in an organized manner. So, it’s fun.”
This is the dynamic of the league – the game comes first and nobody is given special treatment.
Rather, everybody treats the league like it is something special and respects it accordingly. There are rules that include everything from how many timeouts a team gets, to what style wristbands and undershirts can be worn.
The guests, which NBAE Assistant Talent Coordinator, Marissa (Mea) Avila estimates to be anywhere from 200-300 people per game day, are assigned to the stands and nobody besides the players are allowed on the VIP side of the court where the bench is.
That includes girlfriends, children, body guards, agents, parents, etc. It’s in the rules and if it’s in the rules, the players abide by it.
The crowd is nothing if not eclectic. On the Sunday I spent at the gym I spotted famous faces like Robin Givens, current L.A. Laker Jordan Farmar and former NBA great Mitch Richmond, but there were also families coming from church dressed in their Sunday best, as well as girlfriends and friends in far less “holy” attire.
Other notable regulars include baseball veteran Kenny Lofton and a few famous girlfriends including Jessica Alba, Stacy Keibler and Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas.
Today Avila, who is responsible from everything from reading Hollywood scripts to determine product placement to calling a player to make sure he is showing up to his game, is handing out the new official adidas warm-ups to the teams, and the players, many of whom rolled up to the gym in Mercedes, Hummers and BMWs and don’t see money as an issue, flock to the free gear like moths to a light bulb.
Brian Robbins, executive producer of One Tree Hill, who has seen teammates turn into stars on his shows (Antwon Tanner), explained why all these guys would be excited about something as trivial as snap pants.
“It all starts with guys who love playing basketball, or just love basketball,” Robbins said. “Clearly that’s the defining thing.”
Growth of the League
The amount of players that show up wearing NBAE gear is truly remarkable. It’s a status symbol if you show up wearing the official NBAE T-shirt from six seasons ago. It proves that you belong in the gym.
The old swag is great, but the new bling is even better. Marcus Paulk of Take the Lead fame shows up wearing his 2006 Spurs NBAE championship ring. The ring really is something to be proud of as it’s big, shiny and diamond encrusted.
Two-time league MVP and one of the original E-League members, James Lesure of NBC’s Las Vegas, said that the rings aren’t the only things that have upgraded.
“Now we look super fly, but back in the day there was definitely some Target reversible jerseys,” Lesure joked. “But the commissioner has stepped it up. Also, the clientele has gotten a lot more recognizable. The guys in the league you see every day on television and in the movies, so that’s kind of cool. The visibility of the players has heightened.”
Athletes or Entertainers?
Just as there have always been athletes that get the acting bug (See: Shaquille O’Neal, Rick Fox, Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson) there is a fair amount of entertainers that think they can cut it as professional athletes (Master P and The Rock off the top of my head).
Sal Masakela has worked with both as a sideline reporter covering the NBA for ESPN and as a host of a celebrity news show on E! and has seen both sides.
“You have athletes and entertainers in general who want to live vicariously as one another,” Masakela said. “Athletes want to be entertainers. Entertainers want to be athletes. It’s just sort of how it goes. It’s standard.
“You’re dealing with a lot of driven people who pretty much feel they’re the best at what they do,” he continued. “You put them out on the court together and it can get real interesting sometimes.
“While we do joke around that the NBAE stands for ‘ego,’ at the end of the day everybody is approachable.”
A few pro athletes have made friends with their entertainer counterparts by joining the league. Asides from Sehorn, fellow ex-NFLer Terry Crews and former heavyweight boxer Sugar Shane Mosely hoop it up every weekend.
The Business Side
Duffy will tell you that having the access to all of the Hollywood connections associated with the league definitely helps market the NBA. It’s a “you-scratch-our-back-we’ll-scratch-yours” situation that leaves everybody satisfied.
A movie star shows up for a charity basketball game? Duffy will track down tickets for the big Lakers game when the actor needs them. A rapper performs at an NBAE event? Duffy will invite him to come to a shoot around on the STAPLES Center floor.
Most of the time, no favors are even necessary. The entertainers appreciate the release and the opportunity to duck the rigors of their everyday life, and will gladly reciprocate by lending their celebrity status to help the league.
And that’s just the business between the players and NBA Entertainment.
There is also the networking done between players.
“You do a lot of business in the league just by default,” Masakela said. “There are so many producers who play in the league and people that come to the league … I’ve gotten two jobs just from like, ‘Hey, I was thinking about you for this project,’ that never would have happened just through the devices of agents. On the undercurrent, yeah, I think there’s a lot of business that gets done.”
Other celebrity basketball leagues, such as “Hollywood Nights,” have popped up around L.A., but none has been able to sustain itself and flourish the way the NBAE League has.
“I went to everybody that I had to and let them know, ‘Yo, I’m playing, G. I’m playing.’
“It’s cool to still live out a dream in a way,” Cube continued. “Playing in the NBA uni’s with the refs … It’s a real league.”
Have a question or comment about the NBAE League? Drop me a line.