The San Francisco Bay Area Pro-Am League has featured college players, former high school stars, and even some pros for 40 years, giving fans a chance to see high-quality, competitive basketball for free all summer long.
Before basketball games at Kezar Pavilion in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, there are no slick video presentations on jumbotrons. No fireworks shooting out of scoreboards before player introductions. No Jay-Z and Beyonce in floor-level seats. There is basketball stripped down to its essence.
About 50 fans hear East Bay coach Sly Hunter give instructions to his team.
“Let’s put pressure and chase them around the floor,” he says. “Everybody help on the backside. Hey, offensively, we're good. Just make solid passes.”
East Bay is one of eight men’s teams playing in the San Francisco Bay Area Pro-Am League this season. Tonight, they’re taking on the South Bay Spartans. East Bay’s down six near the end of the 2nd quarter. South Bay Coach Mike Baldwin clues his players into a pattern in East Bay’s offensive set.
“Hey, the defense is picking up right now,” he says. “If you see, they keep doing the same play over and over.”
The Pro-Am League is run by the San Francisco Parks and Recreation Department. There’s a roster limit of 15 players. But in tonight’s contest, the Spartans have only six players. The East Bay has 12.
South Bay tightens up its defense and scores a couple more baskets before the half to take the lead 53-43. Spectators on flat, brown benches sit close enough to hear coaches and players talk strategy. Clayton Smith is a regular.
“I'd say about 25 years I’ve been coming to games here at Kezar,” he says. “And I used to come to all 49er games back in the day when the 49ers played at the stadium, which is adjacent to Kezar Pavilion.”
This year, he’s watching his nephew, Kendall Smith, play. The younger Smith grew up in Antioch. He just finished his college basketball career at Oklahoma State, and he’s just the type of player league director Jon Greenberg had in mind when he first started putting on these city games back in 1979. He had been asked by his bosses in Parks and Rec to come up with a type of family entertainment. That gave him an idea. He wanted to give local basketball talent a venue, and an audience.
Greenberg says that when these homegrown players leave, “we've lost track of them. We haven't been able to see them. Kids can’t go to a college game, because the transportation isn’t there. They can’t go to an NBA game, because of finances or transportation. So the idea was maybe we can bring them back here.”
Those early games were played at the Potrero Hill Rec Center, but the league quickly outgrew it. Now they play at Kezar, near the center of the city.
“We start late enough where you could go home, shower, have dinner with the family, or whatever, and come down here and enjoy it,” he says. “And if you look up in the stands, you'll see a good composite of families, which this is all about — summertime is family time. So this is just another activity that those families can take advantage of and not worry about paying something at the door.”
In between quarters and during time outs, music that the scoreboard and announcer volunteers have on hand plays over the loudspeakers. Tonight, it’s Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” Kids run onto the floor to shoot around. When the teams are ready to start up again, the kids scamper off, and the music fades out.
The SF Bay Area Pro-Am is one of many such leagues around the country, including the Crawsover Pro-Am in Seattle and the Rucker League in Harlem. Sometimes stars come out to join the fun. NBA Hall-of-famers including Gary Payton and Jason Kidd have played at Kezar. Steph Curry scored 43 in a dazzling game in 2014.
But it’s not just men. There’s a women’s Pro-Am, too.
They play on Saturdays, and the scene is a little different from the men’s weeknight games. For openers, games start as early as 10 a.m. There is no announcer. There’s no music piped in between quarters, either. These teams are playing before a smaller crowd — about 20 people. But the intensity and the talent running up and down the floor are at a very high level.
We’ll pick this game up near the end of the fourth quarter. Bay City is up 73 to 72 against San Francisco. Bay City coach Bryan Gardere sets up a play.
“You’re going to duck in and take the middle girl,” he says. “You’re going to run right past the forward and you’re going to pass it in to Morgan for a layup.”
The players take the floor. As the seconds tick down, the teams battle. A Bay City guard is fouled as she makes a layup. She makes a free throw, Bay City takes the lead and hangs on.
Final score: 82-78. The teams walk toward each other on the sideline to shake hands and high five. San Francisco coach and interim league director Monica Wiley joins me after the game. I ask what drives her to dedicate herself to the Pro-Am.
“Well, I’ll need to think about that having lost by four points just now. I need to think about that for a minute,” she says. “No, I enjoy the game of basketball. I really like working, with, younger players who are still really enthusiastic about the game, who enjoy playing, who, you know, play on a daily basis and are really interested in getting better.”
The women’s league’s been going on for 23 years. That’s longer, actually, than the WNBA has been in existence. And, as a matter of fact, scouts from U.S. and international teams often drop by to watch the players. Jon Greenberg’s hoping to build buzz for locals, too. Wiley, Gardere, and others are taking on promoting and adding new energy to the women’s league.
That could draw more fans to watch free, competitive, quality basketball, here in the middle of San Francisco.
This story was originally published in August of 2018.