PHILADELPHIA -- When LeBron James thundered home a 40-foot alley-oop pass from Chris Paul as the halftime horn sounded at Sunday's charity showcase at the Palestra, the labor dispute that's threatened to deep-six the NBA season was the furthest thing from anyone's mind.
As was the score, though the record will reflect Team Philly prevailed 131-122 over Team Melo in a star-studded exhibition that saw lots of ups and downs in action -- and enough casual defense to make John Chaney swear off retirement.
A sellout crowd of 8,722 packed the corners of the gym on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania -- with dozens more lining the doorways and plunking down in the aisles -- for an exhibition dubbed "The Battle for I-95" that pitted the best of Philadelphia against the best of Baltimore. Battling the sweltering heat at courtside were local sports luminaries like DeSean Jackson (whose late arrival prompted an
Kyle Lowry led the way for Team Philly with a team-high 34 points, with Lou Williams (31), Hakim Warrick (19) and Tyreke Evans (18) chipping in. James, booed lustily whenever he touched the ball, overcame a slow start to finish with a game-high 43 points for a Team Melo squad featuring Paul (a game-high eight assists), Carmelo Anthony (31 points) and recent draftee Josh Selby.
Kevin Durant had initially committed to playing for Anthony's team, but was forced to back out due to a previous commitment on a movie project in Louisiana. Local products Markieff and Marcus Morris both were no-shows due to a commitment Saturday night at Kansas. Swirling rumors of an appearance by Allen Iverson proved to be just that.
Amid oppressive heat, the day was a celebration of Philadelphia basketball, putting a welcome spotlight on players whose local legends far outshine their national profiles -- like former Strawberry Mansion standout Ronald "Flip" Murray and ex-Temple stars Mardy Collins, Mark Tyndale and Dionte Christmas.
The game itself was the latest in an informal series of exhibitions featuring NBA players, though it was the first since the league canceled training camps and 43 preseason games last week.
On Aug. 20 in a game tagged "Capital Punishment," a Washington, D.C.-based Goodman League team with Durant defeated Brandon Jennings and others from the Los Angeles-based Drew League, 135-134, at Washington's Trinity University. Ten days later, a team with Anthony, James and Paul topped another Goodman League team led by Durant, 149-141, in Baltimore.
When organizer Rahim Thompson had the idea to bring an exhibition to Philadelphia, the choice of venue was never a question. "There were no ifs, ands or maybes about it," Thompson said. "No disrespect to none of the other Big 5 schools, but everybody knows the Palestra is the cathedral of college basketball."
Indeed, few venues in the United States have seen as much history as the antiquated, high-ceilinged building on 33rd and Spruce, an old-school gym that's played host to more high school and college basketball games than any other -- and every notable local player from Wilt to Dr. J to Kobe. The nerve center of Philadelphia's rich basketball tradition, the Palestra is Wrigley Field meets the Blue Horizon -- an acoustic powder keg bleeding with palpable history.
The 35-year-old Thompson, who played at Philadelphia's Olney High alongside former Villanova star Jason Lawson, founded a summer basketball program back in 2002 as something to do in his community after his playing days were past. "It wasn't so much the violence," he says. "There was just nothing to do, and when there's nothing to do, kids get themselves in trouble." Over the next few years, The Chosen League became one of the city's most competitive summer leagues. The roll of decorated alumni speaks for itself: Thompson says they've sent 82 kids to Division I programs, with nine (including Lowry) getting chosen in the NBA Draft.
His success on the grassroots level rapidly earned the attention of sneaker giants. Thompson worked alongside Sonny Vaccaro and Chris Rivers at the ABCD Camp in 2006 and was instrumental in its move from Teaneck, N.J., to Philadelphia the following year. "Whenever any basketball companies wanted to do anything in the city they would just contact me and I would put the game together." One well-placed source within the Philly basketball scene rates Thompson's ability at getting sponsors involved with community events as second to none.
Three days after the Capital Punishment game, Thompson exhausted his resources (and himself) pulling everything together. He called longtime Chosen League sponsor Nike for uniforms, sneakers and basketballs. He tabbed local retailer Sneaker Villa for promotional duties from banners to radio drops. And he left the most important favor to Hakim Warrick, a West Philly native who grew up in the shadows of the Palestra, who was instrumental in getting all the locked-out players on board. Two days later, Thompson met with the University of Pennsylvania (through Quakers head coach Jerome Allen), and got the keys to the Palestra.
"These are people who I have relationships with, so when I call them it's like a no-brainer to them. It's just like, 'Alright, Rahim. How much do you need, what do you need and we'll send it out to you,'" he says. "So it's good to have a good rapport with people. That's why I always tell people the only thing you got is your name and your credibility."
The dream came to fruition Sunday, with Thompson raising $25,000 for "Building a Better Basketball Camp" court refurbishment charity in the Philadelphia and Baltimore areas. "It was a success on every level," Thompson said.
Fans of the free-flowing style won't need to wait for long. The next NBA-juiced exhibition is scheduled for Oct. 1 when a Goodman League team visits New York City's Rucker Park.