San Francisco Bay Area Pro-Am still special for players who battled NBA stars — Andscape

SAN FRANCISCO — It’s game day, and Jon Greenberg is in the midst of the same routine he’s done every summer for 42 years: readying the facility for the night’s San Francisco Bay Area Pro-Am basketball league contest.

In the middle of the night’s prep at Kezar Pavilion, Greenberg recalls the memorable night eight years ago when a collective gasp from the assembled crowd directed his gaze to the top of the arena’s west ramp.

There stood Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry.

Gear in hand. 


Curry walked down and cellphones went up.

Some fans took photos, others sent out text messages to their friends.

“I didn’t know he was coming,” Greenberg said. “I looked up from the press box, saw him and said, ‘we’re going to have fun tonight.’ ”

And that’s the beauty of summer pro-am basketball throughout the country: You never know on any given night who’s going to show up to play.

This year it was Juan Toscano-Anderson, who recently signed with the Los Angeles Lakers after winning a title last season with the Warriors.

In the past it’s been an endless list of NBA and college players (including Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Gilbert Arenas, Matt Barnes, Tim Hardaway, Steve Nash and Aaron Gordon) who have filled the rosters of this longtime competitive league.

“We’ve had many great years here, but the 1990s were exceptional because of guys like Jason Kidd, Brian Shaw and Gary Payton — local guys who came here to play regularly,” Greenberg said. “They enjoyed it because it gave them a quality game over the summer, which allowed them to hone their skills.”

The league was launched in 1979 with Greenberg’s desire to see quality basketball in the Bay Area during the summer.

“We have so much talent here,” Greenberg said. “And I felt like if I could bring them all together to play under pro rules, we’d be able to attract upscale players and big crowds.”

Once Greenberg received approval from the NCAA and NBA to allow their players to participate, he reached out to the local colleges. Soon, schools including the University of San Francisco, University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford, were sending their players to participate in the league, which also featured players from the Warriors.

“[Then-Warriors coach] Don Nelson sent over a group of guys and we played them six times here at Kezar, and actually beat them one time,” Greenberg said. “He was pretty mad about that. But having those players come here helped establish us as a league.

“We were able to present quite a show.”

Gary Payton played in the San Francisco Bay Area Pro-Am in the mid-1990s.

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

It’s the mid-1990s and Edward Allen was on the floor at Kezar giving, for a half, a team featuring Gary Payton, that work.

Allen, as his team reached its locker room at the half, was fired up.

Payton, whose team’s locker room was nearby, was furious.

“Who got Top, who’s checking him?” Payton said, referring to Allen by his nickname. “We can’t let him keep scoring like that.”

The solution: Payton slipped the glove on Top, slowing him down in the second half. “We hung in there for a while, but they eventually beat us,” Allen said.

But that proved to be a magical season for Allen at the San Francisco Bay Area Summer Pro-Am, as he went on to win the MVP award in a league that featured many NBA stars.

“I won the MVP playing against Jason Kidd, Brian Shaw and Gary Payton, to name a few,” Allen said. “I felt like if I got MVP against those guys in the league, then I should be in the league.”

In almost every city there are talented players who couldn’t quite crack that NBA: Franklin Session in the Drew League, Rashaad Powell in the Crawsover, and Stanton Kidd from the Brunson League (who played four games with the Utah Jazz in 2019).

There are many of those guys here in the Bay Area, including Allen, a San Francisco native who played at the City College of San Francisco before concluding his college career as a starting guard at Pepperdine.

It’s been 20 years since Allen’s retirement from the pro-am (he’s won a couple of titles as a coach), but the two-time league MVP has a tremendous recall of some of those big moments, including that half of basketball against Payton’s team, the 44-point outing in the middle game of the best-of-three championship series against former University of Utah guard Johnnie Bryant (now an assistant coach with the New York Knicks), and the 1995 contest when he torched Kidd’s team for 36 points in a championship game.

“I remember this vividly: I made a shot, came down court pointing at him and he [Kidd] shoved me with two hands,” Allen said. “It was a friendly shove, and he did it because I was feeling myself.”

Allen kept playing the game he loved in the pro-am until he couldn’t. In 2002, when it became difficult to chase the kids eager to take down a local legend, Allen played in his last league game after putting in 12 productive years.

“I miss this tremendously,” Allen said, still looking fit as he stood center court following a game won by the league team he now coaches, the Dream Team. “But I had to retire. Guys were starting to blow by me and I can’t chase these guys. Father Time caught up to me.”

Allen, now 56, still gets his game on. He just played on a team that won a championship in Oakland in a 40-and-over league.

“I’m not running like I used to,” Allen said. “These days I have to pick my spots.”

These days he’s the coach of the Dream Team, the reigning league champion until the crowning of the new champion this week.

“It’s great to still come here, even if I’m not playing,” Allen said. “This will always be a special place for me.”

Eric Crookshank (right) tries to keep the ball from going out of bounds during the first half of the second game of best-of-three championship series in the San Francisco Bay Area Pro-Am Basketball League at Kezar Pavilion in 2008.

Lea Suzuki/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

The place, Kezar (built in 1924 with seating capacity of 4,000), is special to many people for many reasons.

The first Black coach in the NBA, Bill Russell, an All-American at the University of San Francisco, played his home college games at Kezar. The Academy of Art, a Division II school, uses the facility as its home arena.

Perhaps the most famous team to use the building is the San Francisco Bay City Bombers, the legendary roller derby team that skated here between 1961 and 1973. The Bombers were the roller derby’s version of “America’s Team,” skating to sold-out arenas across the country in games that were telecast nationally.

The San Francisco Bay Area Pro-Am has done its part to help maintain excitement in the building, including such special moments as:

  • Curry’s appearance in 2014 when he scored 43 points.
  • Jeremy Lin’s 45-point game in 2013, which attracted a large contingent of Asian fans.
  • And the numerous games featuring Kidd and Payton.

The games have always been free to the public, a major reason the arena could always boast about big crowds.

“Many of these kids that come here don’t the opportunity to go to a college game or to go to an an NBA game,” Greenberg said. “Coming here, you’ve always had the chance to see some of the best players.”

This summer the crowds for regular-season games have not been as strong. Blame it on the coronavirus pandemic, which forced the cancellation of the 2020 and 2021 seasons.

The players have been eager to return to the league’s long tradition. Greenberg hopes that the crowds, in time, will follow.

“We haven’t had as many fans as we’ve liked,” Greenberg said. “But we’re regrouping and word is getting out that we’re back. It’s our plan to get this back to being what it once was.”

Jovan Harris (right) plays for East Bay against Dream Team in 2008. He first played in the San Francisco Bay Area Pro-Am at age 15.

Lea Suzuki/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Jovan Harris is the reigning MVP of the San Francisco Bay Area Pro-Am, and listening to the Richmond native’s story about his debut in the league brings back memories of an old skit by comedian Robin Harris, who explained why he had love for the LA Clippers.

“I love going to a Clipper game, you sit anywhere you want to,” Harris said on his classic 1990 album Be-Be’s Kids. “I wore my tennis shoes one night and sat down with the team … scored 18 points.”

Like the comedian, Harris (no relation) was wearing his tennis shoes when he came to Kezar to watch a league game in 1996. One of the teams, Bay Pride, was a player short and was on the verge of forfeit when they started scanning the crowd for a possible fill-in.

“You want to play?” one of the guys asked.

“ ‘Let’s go. Let’s do it,’ ” Harris replied. “I came out of the stands and played on a team with Ed House and Mike Bibby [both NBA veterans], and I was the fifth.

“I was 15.”

Harris, at game’s start, was like a deer in the headlights, which was not a surprise: He was a high school freshman playing on a team featuring established college stars while playing against Hook Mitchell, one of the Bay Area’s most legendary hoopers.

He was forced to wake up after the game’s first play, when he allowed the player he was defending to go baseline, resulting in his big man getting posterized.

“Other than that,” Harris said. “I did pretty well.”

Harris would grow into a 6-foot-3 guard who starred at El Cerrito High School in the East Bay, where he was a three-time all-league selection. That earned him a scholarship to Saint Mary’s where, as sophomore, he was the fifth-leading scorer in the West Coast Conference, averaging 15.2 points.

He eventually finished his collegiate career playing two seasons at the University of San Francisco, and has played professionally in the CBA, G League, Mexico and Puerto Rico and represented Mexico on its national team.

Harris is 41 now, not as fast and strong as he once was. He can’t take the youngsters quickly off the dribble, and can’t attack the basket with as much force as he once did.

But he’s a two-time league MVP (2008 and 2019), which guaranteed that when his East Bay team took on the Dream Team, the defending league champions, on a recent Wednesday night his opponents — some of them nearly half his age — took it right to him.

“I’ve played against a lot: Matt Barnes, Jason Kapono, Gilbert Arenas — I’ve seen Gary Payton trash-talk a guy so much that he didn’t want to bring the ball up. It’s all part of the game.”

— Jovan Harris

“It’s all part of the game, because that’s what I did against the guys I played against,” Harris said. “And I’ve played against a lot: Matt Barnes, Jason Kapono, Gilbert Arenas — I’ve seen Gary Payton trash-talk a guy so much that he didn’t want to bring the ball up. It’s all part of the game.”

As Harris spent the summer negotiating a new professional contract in Mexico, he was chasing his fourth team title.

“I want this here,” he said. “I want this championship.”

His team fell short in that Wednesday night regular-season game against the Dream Team, and in its pursuit of another chip. While his title hopes were dashed, his love for the league remains intact.

“I always enjoy playing in this league,” Harris said. “You come here and you never know who you’ll see.”

Like Curry. Harris was in the East Bay — his team wasn’t scheduled to play that night — when he got the call that Curry was in the building.

Harris had to be there.

“It’s usually a 45-minute drive,” Harris said. “I think I did it in 10.”

The electricity Harris felt as he entered the building that night, which went from an expected crowd of 1,500 to being filled to capacity, was as exciting as the MVP seasons and the league championships he experienced in the building.

“I walked in and Steph hit nine straight shots,” Harris said. “Along with playing my first game at 15 and going against Matt Barnes for a championship and playing against Jeremy Lin, that was a moment here I’ll never forget.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.

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