June 22, 2005 - Kirk Walters sat behind the bench at St. Gregory's High School, folding all of his 6-foot, 11-inch frame into the narrow passage separating the players from the fans, to take in Day 2 of Tucson's premier summer hoops league program.
A game later, it was Walter's teammate Isaiah Fox pouring his 6-foot, 9-inch build into the very same cramped seat.
The University of Arizona frontcourt men, accustomed to the posh surroundings of McKale Center, were just two of the hundreds of players and fans crammed into the quaint gym for the opening weekend of the Tucson Summer Pro League program.
In its second year, the recreational league, designed originally as a way for UA basketball alumni to keep in shape between seasons, has taken off in popularity among both players and fans.
"It's a good way to play organized pick-up games," said senior-to-be, Fox. "There's not a lot of pick-up games going on around here these days."
For Walters and Fox, the 10-team league and the 53 games it will play through the end of July may be the perfect platform to keep the legs fresh and fine-tune skills for the upcoming season. But the league isn't just a summer home for Wildcats players, both past and present, it's the newest stomping ground for some of the best local players looking to run with UA's finest.
Among the 110 players that fill out the rosters is a gamut of talent including everyone from recently graduated high school hopefuls to seasoned veterans of Tucson's many recreational leagues.
The league was formed two years ago when Wildcat hoops alumnus Corey Williams had the idea of organizing the pick-up games he and several players from his era would play during the off-season while in town. Players including Miles Simon, Joseph Blair and Kelvin Eafon would square off against one another when possible, but getting everyone together often proved difficult.
"We would get together and play pick-up games but it was always a little bit disorganized," said Williams, who played for Lute Olson from 1992 through 1996. "So I thought, for us guys that play professionally, it might be nice to put together a little league where we can all play in the summer and stay in shape and get ready to go back to the NBA, Europe or wherever it is in the fall that guys end up going."
After getting the proper sanctioning from the NCAA, the league was permitted to allow the current college players to compete in the six-week league. Couple them with the NBA stars and local players, and the league was an instant success among the Tucson faithful. The demand was so great that the league was able to expand from eight teams to 10. It moved its home from the Tucson Jewish Community Center, 3800 E. River Road, to St. Greg's.
Even in the days leading up to opening night, Williams said the phone calls from people wanting to play in the league were still flooding in at a rate of about 10 to 15 a day.
Rules of eligibility are tricky. While the pros are essentially guaranteed roster spots, the college and high school athletes cannot participate in any form of tryouts in accordance with NCAA policy. That same policy prohibits any forms of all-star games and doesn't allow the league to charge for tickets or even parking.
Stars amid this year's talented crop of pros include Mike Bibby, Richard Jefferson, Luke Walton, Jason Terry and Damon Stoudamire. Joining Fox and Walters from the college ranks are Hassan Adams, Juwan McClelland and just about every player from this year's incoming freshman class.
"There's a lot of talent here," said Walters, while wedged into his seat behind the bench, "a lot of great competition."
After the pros and NCAA-eligible players are "invited" to play, a tryout is held for the remainder of the players.
"Tucson is filled with great basketball players," said Williams. "A lot of players people don't know about."
Thanks to the league, a tightly packed crowd witnessed first hand what Tucson has to offer its basketball fans during the opening weekend.
"When I got here on Friday," said Green Fields Country Day School boys basketball coach Jon Brogan, "the people were lined up along the sides." Brogan, competing in his first year with the league, is a member of Team Swoosh, which features Walters and former Northwest and Foothills high school stars Jon Rosborough (Canyon Del Oro High School) and Matt Brase (Catalina Foothills High School).
With proper seating, Williams estimates
the gym can hold between 350 and 400 people, roughly the same amount of people that turned out for games last summer. That
was on nights when the pros didn't show
up. When the NBA players started play-
ing, the crowds swelled to more than 500 people.
To prevent games from being one-sided, each squad features a balanced attack of pros, college players and amateur players. Most teams feature a pairing of duos that electrified crowds during specific eras of Wildcat basketball, such as Gilbert Arenas and Jason Gardener (M3 Moore Law Firm), Damon Stoudamire and Khalid Reeves (Magpies Pizza), Adams and Andre Iguodala (UBS), and Rick Anderson and Eugene Edgerson (Team Jumpman).
Most NBA players, however, aren't expected to join the league until July. Not to leave anyone out, the league is also open to female players from UA and high schools.
Despite a successful first weekend, highlighted mostly by the incoming freshman class of J.P. Prince (cousin to the Detroit Piston's Tayshaun Prince), Marcus Williams and Fendi Onobun, the show belonged to the high-flying Adams. The senior, who turned 21 on June 20 and is expected to lead the Wildcats in the fall, dazzled the capacity crowd with myriad dunks en route to scoring 34 and 43 points in both his teams' wins.
Complementing the pros and college players are the amateurs and players looking to hone their skills and land a spot on a team in the fall. Such is the case with players like Brandon Sobczak. After multiple surgeries on his foot, the former Pusch Ridge Christian Academy player is attempting to parlay a successful summer into a walk-on role at the University of Oklahoma in the fall.
"The level and speed is so much faster than any league in Tucson," said Sobczak, who plays his pick-up games at Udall Park, 7200 E. Tanque Verde Road.
Ten games will be played every Friday through Sunday, through July 17. The league will conclude with its championship game July 23. All games are free and are first-come, first-serve. Reservations are not permitted. Games begin at 5 p.m. on Fridays and 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.