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Inside the Brunson League, the summer basketball circuit ‘where you get your name known in Baltimore’

Navigate the crowded entryway into the Under Armour House at Fayette each summer Sunday and you find the gym morphing into a living, breathing Baltimore hoops museum.

Games tip off at 11 a.m., only to later ignore sunset and run well into the night. Fans pack in, hovering over the court’s out-of-bounds lines. Smiles radiate in this sacred space, known locally as the Melo Center, when fans confidently name players past and present.

“Watch out for him in this next game,” they’ll advise, like you’re being ushered into the next exhibition.

It’s an environment unique to summer basketball. It’s the Brunson League.

“This atmosphere is like no other,” said Quinn Cook, a DeMatha Catholic High School graduate and two-time NBA champion. “No disrespect to any other league, but you can’t get this nowhere else. You got pros, you got local legends and All-Americans coming up. [Fans] are on the floor, they can talk trash and yell at you. They hug you; they scream at you. I love it. This is my favorite part of the summer.”

This is the 10th gathering of the Brunson League, Baltimore’s summer Pro-Am basketball circuit where the love for basketball cultivates a free annual community reunion.

The league was founded by commissioner Sean Brunson, a Forest Park High and Morgan State graduate. He can still see the moment summer basketball stole his heart, still hear the relentless trash talk, still smell the humid, musty air of Washington’s Dunbar High gym, where for decades crowds filled in for a glimpse of the action.

Brunson was 7 years old on this particular day in 1995, there with his dad to check out the Urban Coalition Summer League. He remembers longtime Orlando Magic guard Nick Anderson eliciting a buzz throughout the gym. “Not too much,” he clarified.

While that game continued, in walked Curt and Charles Smith, two legendary D.C. players whose mere presence pulled the audience’s attention off the hardwood. Behind the brothers, in strutted their scheduled opponents: “Baltimore’s Finest,” headlined by Sam Cassell, Kurk Lee, Donta Bright and Keith Booth. The cheers climbed another octave.

Lee has been the UA House athletic director for 18 years and still gets goose bumps recalling the Urban Coalition’s intoxicating nature. He remembers walking through those doors hearing bellows of “The Baltimore team is here!”

“So it’s not even about NBA guys. It’s about those homegrown folks,” Brunson said. “That stuck with me ever since.”

‘Knew it was gonna be special’

Brunson never played college or pro ball. His own career was largely spent on Forest Park’s bench. But he set out to bring the feeling of the Urban Coalition to a new generation in a city that has long been bereft of national basketball prominence.

Teams initially formed with Brunson’s co-workers while he served as a Nike sales associate. Friends who played at junior colleges joined next. They recruited Division I connections who persuaded one or two overseas pros to come play.

Baltimore Junior Academy housed the first few tournaments. Then there were stints at Carver High School, Baltimore City Community College, St. Frances Academy and Digital Harbor High before the event landed at the UA House — a ceremonial passing of the torch from Lee after the Carmelo Anthony Pro-Am turned Kurk Lee Pro-Am was discontinued in 2020.

Establishing a professional feel was the surefire recipe for Brunson to separate from other organized runs around the city.

He was a five-tool player those early years: managing the website, organizing the schedule, handling the custom jerseys, tracking stats and even suiting up for Team Swoosh. One game, he’d sit at the scorer’s table manning the book; the next he’d check in to play. Then it was right back to the table, still sweating through a jersey with his name inscribed across the front.

The summer Pro-Am, which now fields 18 teams from 30-plus applications, struck its true ascension with the inclusion of NBA veteran Will Barton, an East Baltimore native who led Lake Clifton to a 28-0 record and 2009 state championship.

Barton inquired about the Brunson League schedule in the comments section of a 2016 Instagram post. “Who you coming to see?” Brunson asked. “See?” Barton scoffed, “I’m coming to play!” Brunson wasn’t confident he’d ever actually show. Shortly thereafter, Brunson unassumingly stopped by St. Frances. He noticed campers everywhere wearing “WB5″ shirts. “Oh, that’s Will Barton’s camp,” he realized. This was his shot. Even when the NBA player doubled down on his intention to play, Brunson remained skeptical.

“A couple months later, he sends me a DM,” Brunson said. “He was like, ‘Yo, just so you know, I’m not just gonna play, I’m putting a team together.’ It took off from there. That was 2017 he put his team in for the first time.”

Any lingering doubt Brunson had about Barton’s commitment to uplifting his hometown Pro-Am washed away in March 2019. Barton, then with the Denver Nuggets, walked basketball’s red carpet, the pregame tunnel, repping his black-with-white-trim Brunson League jersey, elevating the league to a national stage.

“Knew it was gonna be special,” Barton commented on Brunson’s Instagram. “We shared the same vision of putting bmore basketball on the map and having a top pro am in the country in bmore.”

Homegrown folks

This isn’t the glam of Los Angeles’ Drew League, running for 50 summers. Nor is it the long-standing concrete jungle reputation of Dyckman in New York. But what Brunson has created in Baltimore is meaningful, with familiar faces packing the UA House each week as if their calendars have a recurring reservation for hoops.

“My whole thing is just giving the guys a safe haven and competitive place to play,” Lee said. “Baltimore loves basketball. That’s why the Brunson League is so crowded every Sunday. And it’s not just local Baltimore teams, but D.C. teams, a Virginia team and surrounding county teams.”

In an opening night matchup that featured Baltimoreans versus a D.C.-filled roster, one fan heckled, “Y’all come up [Interstate] 295, you got to show us something!” Another chimed in, “You from Baltimore, you don’t shake hands during the game!”

From the players to the coaches, fans and even videographers, these proving grounds present the best kind of hostile environment. One East Baltimore native who hasn’t missed a summer of the Brunson League noted the stakes: “This is where you get your name known in Baltimore.”

Kam Taylor offered a reminder in the early afternoon slot, having his way as a three-level scorer for Team Game Results (aka the Kamaliers, a tribute to Taylor’s dominance). The DeMatha Catholic and Seton Hill graduate who spends 10 months of the year overseas craves the Brunson League’s grittiness, where “people are ready to go at your neck.”

The league’s most distinguished throat striker is Team District Sports’ Jimmie Jenkins. He’s the reigning Most Valuable Player, and they say nobody scores and talks trash as well as he does. Terry Hosley is a close second with Circle of My Brothers, elevating his game from former Parkville star to one-on-one artist.

Opening night’s prime-time matchup had a familiar feel for Brunson.

Cook settled into the coach’s chair while New Orleans Pelicans forward Naji Marshall commandeered the reins for Team Levels. He evoked an Anderson at Urban Coalition-esque buzz, but the packed gym rode with the Baltimore team. This time, replace Cassell and Lee with Davon Usher and Aquille Carr — there was certainly chatter when those two entered the gym.

Usher, from South Baltimore, is one of the top players to come out of Digital Harbor, later playing overseas. Here, his picturesque lefty jumper is the main attraction.

Alongside Usher is Carr, the 5-foot-6 phenom dubbed “The Crime Stopper” via Patterson High. Legend has it Carr’s high school games, which were frequently moved to Morgan State’s gym, drew such large crowds that his on-court mastery single-handedly reduced Baltimore’s crime rates. Fans still beg for Carr highlights.

As Brunson said, it’s about the homegrown folks.

“I’m not a former NBA or overseas guy,” Brunson said. “I’m just a guy that had an idea and these guys bought into it. And it gets bigger and bigger every year. … [Baltimore basketball] feels forgotten at times. It feels good to bring it back to the forefront.”


Source: Berkshire mont

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