Most people would agree that New Orleans isn’t much of a basketball city. The Saints are first, second, and third in the hearts of locals, while the Pelicans are often relegated to a distant afterthought.
That all may be changing soon. With the addition of some star power, including Zion Williamson, the most anticipated rookie since Lebron James was drafted in 2003, New Orleans basketball will hopefully soon feel less like “maybe I’ll catch a game or two” and more like “maybe I should buy season tickets.”
If you’ve been one of the fans following Elite Nola League, featuring some of the biggest names in basketball to come out of this city, you know the buzz around phenomenal basketball has already been building in New Orleans.
I’ll admit that I was late to take notice, but after consistently hearing the hype, I made it out to McMain High School’s gym to see these talented hoopers go head-to-head in the first round of the playoffs this past Wednesday. The league, which was organized this summer by four friends with deep roots in New Orleans basketball, is made up of 16 teams chock full of hometown heroes, local legends, NBA talent, and players who will soon go back to play professionally overseas in places like Croatia, Romania, Lebanon, and Germany.
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Players like Greg Monroe, who was a standout at Helen Cox, won Big East Rookie of the Year while playing for Georgetown, played in the NBA for 13 seasons, and just recently signed to go play overseas in Munich, Germany. Lester “Bo” McCalebb, who played for O. Perry Walker, holds the title of all-time leading scorer for University of New Orleans, and was named 2011 and 2012 Italian League Finals MVP. I could go on, but If I tried to name every player and all of their accolades, this article would quickly become an almanac. Besides, hearing about their accomplishments isn’t as fun as watching them play.
What makes this league so special comes from more than just the level of talent on the court. The love of the game, the camaraderie amongst opponents, the support emanating from the stands, and the pride in New Orleans are palpable when you enter the gym. When I spoke with the founders, Maurice Foster, Warren Davis, Rob Wallace, and Charles Hommork, they shared what motivated them to start the league and where they see it headed in the future.
“We wanted to help the city out, because for the three hours we’re all in the gym, it’s nothing but love and positivity,” said Wallace. “Everyone in the community can come together in one place to watch the homegrown talent.”
Although this summer has been a big success, they see it only getting bigger and better.
“We started with 8 teams, but that quickly grew to 16. Right now, there’s a long list of teams waiting to get in, including some from out of the state,” said Davis.
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The league also started as simple a solution to a problem that Foster, Wallace and Hommork kept having each summer when they returned to New Orleans after playing overseas. Even though there was no shortage of talent, the city lacked one unified league where all of the best players could showcase their skills. Elite Nola League is filling that void and filling the stands. During the games, a DJ plays music and an MC hypes up the matchups by adding commentary exclamation points on dazzling plays, emphatic dunks, and dagger three pointers. In the stands, family, friends, and fans who remember the players from their illustrious high school and college careers all come to enjoy the back and forth of the games and individual matchups. In the first round of the playoffs, the fans got what they paid for and more out of game of the week between the Jazz and Headshot. After trading leads all game, Headshot edged a 78-76 overtime victory in heroic fashion with a corner three pointer as time expired.
While opposing teams shook hands, I caught up with Javan Felix, a former St. Augustine star, who had been watching the games from the sidelines. After playing for the Purple Knights, Felix earned a scholarship to play at the University of Texas and then signed to play professional basketball in Croatia after going undrafted in the 2016 NBA draft. When I asked him about why he loves playing in Elite Nola League, he talked about the combination of talent and its contribution to the city.
“This is a positive thing for New Orleans,” Felix said. “When I was coming up, there wasn’t any league I could go watch. This is something you can bring your kids to, and maybe they’ll be inspired by watching great basketball players who come from the same neighborhood as them.” The competition also helps him tune-up as he gets ready to continue pursuing his dreams by playing in his second season in the G league, the NBA’s developmental league.
After I finished speaking with Felix, I headed back in the gym to watch the next matchup between Brotherhood and ReUp2. As both teams warmed up, Greg Monroe casually walked in and took a seat amongst the fans. On the court, Lamar Peters, who played for Mississippi State and recently signed with the New York Knicks, threw down athletic dunks and graceful finger rolls. Near him, in line and on the same team, Tyree Griffin, the all-time leader in assists for Southern Miss, loosened up for the start of the game. Once the game began, Peters continued to put on a show, crossing left and right, leaving ankles destroyed, and hitting three straight threes to close out the half. Griffin also wowed the crowd by nearly throwing down a monstrous, posterizing dunk that left his defender admitting to the crowd that he would have had to “run out the gym” if Griffin would have made it.
As players like Peters fine tune their skills before the start of the NBA season, other local players are using the league to refine their skills as they head back to their respective college programs. Damirree Burns, who played for Sophie B. Wright, and Malik LeGania, who played for Landry Walker, both enjoy coming out to showcase their talents as they play with and against some of their family members and childhood bestfriends. Burns, who now plays at Southern University, and LeGania, who plays for Coastal Carolina University, made it clear to me that all the love and “brotherhood” present in the gym doesn’t dilute the cut-throat competition between the lines. If anything, the familiarity only adds to each player’s competitive drive.
The combination of brotherly love, positivity, and all-out war on the court creates a special atmosphere in the gym. Kyndall Dykes, who played for Warren Easton and then at UNO with Bo McCalebb, shared his thoughts on the success of the league.
“This league took off because a lot of professional players all came out to play,” Dykes said. “My team, The OGs, all seven of us play professional ball.”
He also talked about the playful banter on Instagram and Twitter that continues to hype up each game and get the fans involved.
“Once we got on social media and started trash-talking, people started looking like ‘who’s playing this week and who’s going up against who?’”
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Dykes has been playing organized basketball since he was 14, and he described this league as “the most positive league with the most consistent fans he’s been apart of in New Orleans. After Elite Nola League wraps up in the next few weeks, Dykes, who has been playing professionally overseas for the past 10 years, will travel to play in Lebanon.
Elite Nola League is bringing the New Orleans basketball community together and creating a positive space to showcase the talent that has often remained under the radar. To stay up to date on the schedule and scores for the rest of the playoffs, check out the league’s Instagram (@elite_nola_league) or Twitter (@NolaEliteLeague). With so many reasons to check out the games, make sure to get your $5 together and go watch the best players back up their Twitter trash talk as they show out on the court.