Queens stars light it up in Nike league

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The snug environs and wood paneling that shadow the court at Hunter College are typical of what you might see in the gym of a Division III basketball program. The collection of talent that congregates on the purple-rimmed playing floor for the Nike Pro City Summer League Tuesday and Thursday nights, however, is not.

On any given day you can see Milwaukee Bucks’ Rafer Alston skitters through a gauntlet of defenders, Queensbridge native and former St. John’s star Ron Artest of the Chicago Bulls loft a hook shot over a stunned defender or long-time NBA veteran and Queens native Mark Jackson flick a pass over his shoulder on the break for a teammate’s resounding dunk.

Because while the accommodations at this hub of hoops on 68th St. and Lexington Ave. are modest — players dress in classrooms down the hall — the caliber of competition certainly is not.

“It’s a competitive run and it keeps me in shape,” said Milwaukee’s back-up point man and former Cardozo High School start Alston after wowing the crowd with his dazzling dribble drives en route to a 28-point, four assist performance. “You can’t beat New York City basketball in the summer.”

The league not only attracts a sprinkling of professionals looking for quality competition on their summer break, but has also become a favorite haunt of local college players looking to hone their skills against some of the area’s best.

“It’s very good competition and you never know who’s going to show up next,” said St. John’s sophomore-to-be Abe Keita. “I wish there were more games.”

While this summer’s cast of notables has included Jackson, Artest, Alston, as well as fellow NBAer’s John Wallace and Shawnelle Scott, you never quite know who might duck into the gym for an evening run.

“In the past, we’ve had Anthony Mason and Allan Houston,” said Pro City manager Ray Diaz, entering his fourth year as the league’s coordinator. “And Stephon Marbury participated in the league last season.”

While the league has become a draw for crowds looking to catch a glimpse of their favorite professional stars, it is the casual atmosphere and the chance to rub elbows with elite athletes in an informal setting that fill the fold-out rows of seats.

“A lot of people who come out to the league don’t get a chance to go to a Knick game, or don’t get a chance to see a professional game, because it’s too expensive,” said Jackson, a Cambria Heights native and Bishop Loughlin alum. “It’s great for guys like myself, and great for the fans.”

Diaz cites this kind of intimacy as something he strives for in running the league.

“Nowadays, people can’t even afford tickets to see a game,” said Diaz. “This is a situation where people can see the players up close and as individuals, not as far away stars they see on TV.”

Which is part of the reason why players like the San Antonio Spurs’ Scott will continue to make the trip uptown.

“I’ve been coming here since I got out of college in 1995,” said the former St. John’s star. “It’s competitive and if you’re from the NBA, everybody comes at you hard. It’s great for New York City.”

Reach Contributing Writer Brian Towey by e-mail at TimesLedgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 130.

Posted 7:15 pm, October 10, 2011
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