Atlanta's Grant Park: The NBA Summer League Before The NBA's Summer League

Back in the 1970s and 1980s the famous Atlanta outdoor court, which was renovated by the Hawks Tuesday, was home to some of Atlanta's biggest basketball stars in the offseason.
CBA Sports

Grant Park has long been a home to some of the best basketball in the city of Atlanta.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Atlanta became a top destination for pros looking for offseason action, and the Grant Park asphalt was one of the hottest courts in the city. Hawks players like Lou Hudson, John Drew, Dominique Wilkins, Kevin Willis and Moses Malone kept their skills sharp running pickup games against amateurs and local icons.

For the pros, the games were a chance to stay in shape in an era when summer leagues were scarce and some players had summer jobs. For the college kids and playground maestros, the contests provided a chance to test themselves against the best players back when rules didn't exist to thwart it.

The games meant perhaps the most to the guys somewhere in between – players who lingered at the doorstep of sustained pro careers – players like Pete Smith.

"It was just an awesome time," Smith added.

In the late 1960s, Smith led his Albany, Ga. high school team to the state tournament before moving onto the University of Cincinnati. A self-described bout of homesickness brought him back to Valdosta State, where he became the first black athlete at the school in any sport. Smith still holds the school's single-season rebounding record (13.7 per game), and the Buffalo Braves selected him in the late rounds of the 1971 NBA Draft.

In other words, Smith knew how to play. Summer scrimmages against NBA players weren't going to phase him.  

The summer tradition began in 1971 when Hawks forward Bill Bridges, team president Bob Cousins and the city's department of recreation put together a summer league. Among the Hawks, Bridges, Walt Bellamy, Pete Maravich, and Hudson committed to playing in the league, as did head coach Richie Guerin, himself only a year removed from an All-Star playing career. 

With about 20 pros and a dozen teams, the remaining roster spots were filled with talented local players. The Atlanta Pro-Collegiate League started a tradition of mixed games that spilled over to the blacktop, with pros and amateurs mingling for pickup games in Grant Park and a few other spots around the city. 

"Atlanta was growing at the time, and if you were an athlete, there were about three or four places in the city where all the players would congregate," Wayne Stokes, who played collegiately at DeKalb Junior College and Kentucky State, said. "Grant Park was one of the major ones. On Saturdays or Sundays, that was when a lot of the major players would come out to play. We'd get out there and we'd run."

"Pro players would come through here occasionally and work out, and some had homes here in Atlanta," Stokes continued. "It was a real good opportunity to be exposed and to play with some of the best players."

According to Smith, there was an element of showmanship to the game, contests that included top players from other cities like Charlie Scott and Garfield Heard. Julius Erving came one summer too. In fact, Dr. J, then basketball's most spectacular player, spent part of the summer of 1972 working out in Atlanta before playing in the preseason for the Hawks.

"We had a lot of those moments where everybody would go, 'Ooohhhh,'" Smith said. "Guys could handle the ball. Some of the stuff that you see the kids do now, we were doing it a long time ago," Smith said. "We had so many guys who were just good."

Smith used his summers playing in Atlanta to try to prep himself for a professional career. He spent five games in 1972 playing for the San Diego Conquistadors of the American Basketball Association (ABA), the high-flying league with the red-white-and-blue ball that pioneered the three-point shot. Smith also nearly made the roster of Erving's New York Nets, a team that won the ABA title in two of the final three years of the league's existence, a fact attested to by former NBA President of Basketball Operations Rod Thorn

"Smith was a tough guy who played hard. He had some talent. He was the last guy cut," Thorn, who at the time in 1973 was an assistant coach for the Nets, said.

Even as Smith gave up his pro dreams and settled into life as a father and truck driver in Atlanta, he used the games in places like Grant Park to fulfill his undying love of the game. He continued to play for decades as multiple eras of Hawks – from Hudson and Bellamy to Drew and Dan Roundfield to Wilkins and Willis – applied their summer craft on Atlanta's courts.

"Dominique used to come out when he was playing," Smith said. "He was fresh out of high school. I played with him in a league over at Kennedy (Community Center)."

According to Smith, that team also included Anthony Flanagan, the first black quarterback to play for the University of Georgia.

Willis recalled playing at Grant Park in the mid 1980s when the Pac-Man era Hawks were centered around a young, promising core. Willis, Wilkins, Cliff Levingston, John Battle and Spud Webb participated in numerous summer games. 

"All we did in the summer was go and play basketball all over Atlanta," Willis said, "and Grant Park was one of the parks where we would step in. Then we would leave and go to the next park."

"The best thing was going out and having fun with the kids in the neighborhood," Willis added.

Smith remember the games being a family affair. He routinely teamed up with his two brothers – and they weren't the only family playing together. The local legends of the time also included the Scott brothers and the Lippitt brothers. 

Kids added to the family atmosphere. Through quick word of mouth, youngsters got to see their favorite players with having to buy a ticket. Smith brought his own kids too, including one who grew up to be a very famous Hawk.

"I had all my kids there,” Smith said, noting that they were often with him from the youngest of ages. "When a timeout would come, I would go feed them their bottle."

Smith fondly remembers letting his kids play around while he was doing his thing on the court.

"They would sit down for a few seconds – you know it is with kids when they have wide-open space – and then they were all running around everywhere. I would give them sandwiches until they were tired of playing and then we came home."

"Josh and my oldest daughter, they were the ones used to be the ringleaders getting the other two to go. They'd go everywhere. We had a wonderful time, and I know they did too."

That would be Josh Smith, who in his nine seasons with the hometown NBA team became the franchise's second-leading shot blocker.

Smith is glad to see his son's former team refurbishing Grant Park. He knows the city isn't perfect, but he is ready for bright lights shined on good deeds. 

"There are a lot of good things that are in the community that need to be spoken on: people caring about one another, and people trying to make it happen, but you don't ever hear about that," Smith said. "You hear about the bad."

Smith went on.

"(At) all times we should be concerned about another human being because that's what we've been called to do. It's an awesome thing that the Hawks are doing, and I'm proud of that organization. I always have been."

Story by KL Chouinard
Twitter: @KLChouinard