‘You ain’t Baltimore if you don’t play in the Brunson’
Summer pro-am league is a meeting and competing place for players representing Charm City
BALTIMORE – It’s still 60 minutes to showtime, so it’s clear the steady stream of people flocking to the campus of Baltimore City Community College fully understand the benefits of being punctual.
The early arrival at school – where Stringer Bell took a macroeconomics class in The Wire – assures the fans a chance to witness a few hours of Baltimore basketball royalty.
This is the Brunson League, which has grown from a neighborhood adult league when it launched five years ago with six teams to a meeting and competing place for the players who represent a city that’s long been known as a hotbed for basketball. Every Sunday during the summer — and on this rare Thursday night doubleheader— the overflow crowds cram the seven rows of bleachers to see Charm City’s best basketball talent in one place.
In Baltimore’s the Brunson League, the top talent from Charm City competes for bragging rights.
“All the legends, the high school and college superstars, the NBA players, they all come here,” said a guy who identified himself as Coach Vinnie, who said he coaches AAU teams in Baltimore. “Here, you have to show and prove yourself every day. You ain’t Baltimore if you don’t play in the Brunson.”
Step inside the school’s packed Physical Education Center, which is just down the street from the Mondawmin Mall that was launching point of the 2015 riots that shook Baltimore, and you immediately get a sense of what Vinnie’s talking about.
Look left, and there’s Denver Nuggets forward Will Barton (Lake Clifton High School/Conference USA Player of the Year in 2012 while at Memphis) in the layup line alongside his PTF (Protect The Family) teammates Roscoe Smith (Walbrook High School/2012 NCAA champion at UConn) and Cleveland Melvin (Lake Clifton/2011 Big East Rookie of the Year at DePaul).
Look to the layup line on the right you’ll find Jack McClinton (Calvert Hall/two-time All-ACC first team player at Miami) repping team FOE (Family Over Everything) with Kevin Palmer (Parkville High School/2009 Southland Conference Newcomer of the year at Texas A&M, Corpus Christi).
While those players represent a great deal of highly rewarded collegiate players who have gone on to solid professional careers, one of the most widely known viral basketball stars sits on the bench lacing up his shoes.
That’s Aquille Carr, who just might be the most dynamic player to come out of Baltimore over the past decade. While he was leading Patterson High School to a state championship in 2012, the 5-foot-6-inch guard emerged as a YouTube sensation, with videos featuring him earning tens of millions of views.
Baltimore Ravens star Ray Lewis claimed last week that “When I played, crime went lower in Baltimore.”
Around here, those words are blasphemous as Carr’s nickname in high school was “Crimestopper,” based on the mythical accounts that crime in Baltimore decreased each time he played because everyone was checking out his games (some of which were moved to Morgan State University).
Carr’s now 24 and should be in his basketball prime. But he never played college basketball, and has had a limited professional career.
He’s still a draw. And he still has the ability to move a crowd.
The people have arrived at the Brunson League on this Thursday night, eager to see Carr and the other Baltimore ballers deliver their magic.
The Brunson League is the brainchild of Sean Brunson, a 30-year-old Baltimore resident and Morgan State graduate. The desire of Brunson: to re-create the environment where the Baltimore basketball elite would gather in one spot.
Back in the day it was the Baltimore Neighborhood Basketball League, which was launched in 1969 and over the years featured talented players such as Muggsy Bogues, David Wingate, Reggie Lewis, Reggie Williams and Sam Cassell (all NBA products from Dunbar High School) playing at various venues around the city.
Later the big basketball event in Baltimore was Midnight Basketball, with crowds crammed inside and outside The Dome, an outdoor venue in East Baltimore. The Dome featured a new generation of Baltimore stars including Kevin “Stink” Norris (Lake Clifton High School/Big East all-rookie team at Miami), Shawnta Rogers (Lake Clifton/Atlantic 10 Player of the Year at George Washington University), Mark Karcher (St. Frances Academy/Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year at Temple), Keith Booth (Dunbar High School/All-ACC First team at Maryland/NBA champion with the Chicago Bulls), and Kurk Lee (Dunbar High School/East Coast Conference Player of the Year at Towson/first Towson alumnus to reach the NBA).
“This city has long been a hot spot for talented players, but it goes under the radar,” Brunson said. “Places like New York, D.C. and Los Angeles get a lot of publicity because of their pro-ams. I wanted a showcase for the players who are from here.”
Brunson also wanted to flip the narrative that equates Baltimore with negativity due to the riots that shook the city following the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, a police force that’s been rocked by corruption, and a surging murder rate that in 2015 was the highest per capita in Baltimore’s history.
“The national media never shows the other side of Baltimore,” Brunson said. “I just wanted to show that we could all come together and be together as a family. And I wanted to use sports as a passageway to do that.”
So Brunson studied what was being accomplished at the Dyckman League in New York and The Drew League in Los Angeles, and looked to re-create that in Baltimore. His vision has grown from a league of six teams that played on a tile floor at the Baltimore Junior Academy in 2014 and 2015 to the current 20 teams (30 teams applied for spots) that is completing its first year playing at BCCC.
“The fans show out and show their love and support and it’s great,” said Melvin, the Lake Clifton High School product who now plays overseas after his successful career at DePaul. “A lot of our players are underrated. But we come here to show we have heart, we compete.”
Three weeks after Barton agreed to a new four-year, $54 million deal with the Denver Nuggets, he was eager to suit up for his PTF team in the Brunson League.
“The atmosphere, the crowd, everybody’s going crazy and they want to see you put on a show,” said Barton, who averaged an NBA career-best 15.7 points last season. “It’s not glitz, it’s not glamour. It’s the neighborhood.”
Barton, a second-round pick by the Memphis Grizzlies in 2012, is the latest Baltimore player to strike it rich in the NBA.
The question in Baltimore — a city long on talent but short on recent players who have had the combination of skill and mindset to reach the NBA — is who’s next?
Walking into a gym filled with people who overflow with attitude and swagger, Stanton Kidd appears — in this place — a walking contradiction.
As he’s greeted by fans watching the night’s first game, he comes across as being quiet and unassuming.
Yet as Kidd grabs a rebound and pushes the ball up court, that “I got game” strut emerges. Just before he hits half court, he spots his teammate, Kayvon Pyatt, and passes the ball to him on the right wing.
Pyatt, without dribbling, tosses the ball straight up toward the center of the lane. Kidd races to catch the pass just beyond the restricted area marking and soars in for the two-handed slam.
Fresh off a strong performance in the NBA summer league, Stanton Kidd, just might have a NBA career on the horizon.
Who’s next from Baltimore? It just might be Kidd who, in three years since leaving college, has put together an impressive professional career overseas. Playing his first year in Turkey last season, Kidd helped Darüşşafaka win the EuroCup title.
While his numbers in three seasons have been modest (8.4 points per game in 2015-16 in Belgium, 12.8 points per game in 2016-17 in Germany and 7.3 points per game last season in Turkey), his talent is so immense that he caught the eye of several NBA teams that scouted the EuroCup.
A versatile 6-foot-7-inch wing who can do it all — shoot with range, attack the rim, defend and rebound— Kidd signed to play with the Utah Jazz summer league team and played so well that he was offered a two-way contract for this upcoming season.
He turned it down.
“They offered a two-way deal, and I have a guaranteed deal this season in Turkey,” Kidd said. “Right now, it’s just a matter of timing. Hopefully the timing will be right next year.”
And why wouldn’t it be, considering Kidd, at 27, is currently in his basketball prime. An unheralded player out of Edmondson High School in Baltimore, Kidd spent two years in junior college and a year at historically black North Carolina Central before finishing his college career at Colorado State.
His first year of playing basketball at a Texas juco, South Plains College, was purely accidental. The coaches were actually visiting Baltimore to look at another kid.
“We went to see Derrell Edwards [Dunbar High School/High Point University], who had signed with Texas A&M, and my interest turned to Stanton,” South Plains coach Steve Green said. “We get Edwards, but I really liked Stanton. When we get back to Texas my assistant says, ‘I think that other kid wants to come.’
“I said, ‘I think we should take him.’ ”
So Kidd went to Texas and helped South Plains win the 2012 national championship while playing alongside Marshall Henderson (Ole Miss). Green remembers a team meeting early in the season where coaches were trying to figure out a way to run an offense where the players could effectively spread the floor.
Everyone turned to look at Kidd.
“I told him, ‘you know we can’t spread the floor because you can’t shoot the 3,’ ” Green said. “He immediately began working on his shot and became an incredible shooter from the 3-point line.
“He’s a solid individual who works extremely hard. Just a tremendous person, and player.”
Kidd played his junior year at North Carolina Central, where he averaged 14.5 points a game while making the All-Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference first team.
Despite the huge expectations for his senior season, Kidd transferred.
“It wasn’t a great exit, and we haven’t spoken since he left but I have the utmost respect for him,” said North Carolina Central coach LeVelle Moton. “I fell in love with his game the first time I saw him play.
“For some kids, it takes a while for that light bulb to come on, and when it comes on for them, it’s special to see,” Moton added. “He’s playing with a lot of confidence right now.”
Growing up, Kidd looked up to Baltimore players such as Bogues and Wingate. He’d watch tape of Reggie Lewis, and would try to emulate his style on the court.
“There’s a long list of Baltimore players who inspired me,” Kidd said. “From Will [Barton] to the other guys who are making money overseas, I try to pick their brains and learn about the game and the business from them.”
The NBA is Kidd’s ultimate goal, but he’s smart enough not to walk away from this contract in Turkey. “Darüşşafaka was nice enough to let me play with the Jazz in the summer league, and I want to play in the NBA,” Kidd said. “I’m confident in my ability and I know I can play in the NBA. But it wouldn’t be wise to walk away from a guaranteed deal right now.
“The time just isn’t right,” he added. “I’m hoping the teams that showed interest this summer will give me a chance next year.”
Carr is in attack mode, attacking the basket with little fear. The people in the crowd, who often jump on the court when he does something spectacular, are eager to see him get going.
Most days in the Brunson League he’s successful in leading his FOE team. But on this night — with the intensity elevated with playoff seedings on the line — the size and bump-and-grind mentality of the bigger, stronger PTF team is making the production of viral video material difficult.
Crossing half court Carr gets past Antonio Barton (Will Barton’s younger brother, and former guard at Memphis and Tennessee) and gets to rim to score – despite the contact — over the 6-foot-8-inch Melvin.
Minutes later after a PTF made a basket, Carr blows by the defense again and gets to the rim, but his shot is pounded against the backboard by the 6-foot-8-inch Roscoe Smith.
It’s called goaltending and Carr puts two on the board. But he’s not happy with the challenge, and lets Smith know about it.
And then this happens.
Baltimore basketball legend Aquille Carr gets ejected after a scuffle at the Brunson League.
Punches are thrown, but none connect. There’s a lot of pushing and shoving. The officials want no part of the melee, and walk away.
After a few chaotic minutes, both players are tossed. Carr’s free from basketball the rest of the evening.
Within minutes, it’s back to the game and the skirmish is quickly forgotten.
“There are a lot of friendships out here, legit and longtime friendships,” Brunson said. “But when they’re on the court, that goes out the window fast. These guys want to show they’re the best in Baltimore. These games mean so much them.”
By 8 p.m. the doubleheader is over, and the fans leave the games completely satisfied.
There’s no time to rest for Brunson: It’s playoff time, and a full schedule of games are set for Saturday and Sunday.
Which means another stream of punctual fans, eager to see the basketball players who blessed the city with their greatness.
“There’s positivity in this city, and I’m glad to be a part of bringing it,” Brunson said. “We bring a peaceful family environment to the community, and we offer a showcase to our players. If everybody is able to have a good time with what we do, I’m happy.”