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San Francisco Pro-Am league opens 2018 slate with a special guest and a local talent hoping to hone his skills

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The SF City team of the San Francisco Pro-Am huddles up during a game on the league’s 2018 opening night. (Daniel Bernstein / S.F. Examiner)

KEZAR PAVILION — There was something distinctly San Francisco about Monday night at Kezar Pavilion, the site of the annual SF Bay Area Pro-Am basketball tournament.

It wasn’t just the historic value of the 4,000-seat gym — a living, breathing sports museum where memories endure in the decades-old banners hanging from the ceiling and the conversations of bearded old-timers perched on uncomfortable wooden slabs. It wasn’t just the 150 or so locals who enjoyed the event’s free admission, or the surprise presence of Golden State Warriors center Damian Jones — the latest in a long line of pro players to show up unannounced.

It was the entire amalgamation that, on the Pro-Am’s 2018 opening night, made an immediate impression on University of San Francisco men’s basketball forward Matt McCarthy, who came to the United States from Melbourne, Australia, to begin his collegiate career in 2015. McCarthy said the Bay Area’s love for basketball and diverse roots convinced him to move here over other potential destinations.

“San Francisco reminds me of home,” McCarthy said. “It’s a little more liberal, multi-cultured [than other places]. I remember I visited North Carolina and I was like, ‘Wow, this is a lot different from home.’”

While McCarthy was forced to the bench due to a mix-up with his clearance forms, his SF City team defeated shorthanded South Bay, 99-86. With almost two months until the playoffs and teams not yet fielding their full rosters, however, the final score seemed secondary to the game’s general environment.

About 20 minutes before tipoff, several fans snuck onto the court to shoot warm-up shots alongside the players. A ponytailed man wearing a green Novato Hornets jersey and jeans airballed 3-point attempts as members of the South Bay team tried to maintain straight faces.

In the third quarter, fans applauded a South Bay player for tracking down a mop and cleaning a sweat spot on the court.

Jon Greenberg, founder of the Pro Am and current men’s league director, said these up-close interactions between the crowd and the players are central to the eight-team league’s success. After all, he founded the free event to attract people who might not be able to otherwise afford going to basketball games.

It helps when players like Jones stop by. After playing in the Pro-Am last year, Jones watched from the crowd on Monday to support his hometown friend Tyrian Jones. In the past, the likes of Jason Kidd, Gilbert Arenas, Jason Richardson and Stephen Curry have suited up. Four-time NBA champion Kurt Rambis was discovered by a Los Angeles Lakers scout here.

“Most of those kids in attendance when the league was created were low-income, they had very little chance of getting to an NBA or college game,” Greenberg said. “The idea was to establish a quality league here in San Francisco that took advantage of some of the high quality basketball players that are around during the summer.”

Even though he didn’t feature on Monday, McCarthy seemed to enjoy the evening, laughing from the bench during several moments of banter between his coaching staff and referees. McCarthy also appreciated the fans at the game and said he’s been impressed with the Bay Area’s passion for basketball, which is far more intense than the casual support he saw for the sport in Australia.

This summer, McCarthy will focus on developing his 3-point shot and ball handing against the mix of high school players, college athletes and pros at the Pro-Am. If all goes well, he’ll be on track to fulfill his goal of returning to Australia to join the National Basketball League after finishing up at USF.

While McCarthy doesn’t plan on sticking around the region long-term, he looks up to permanent Australian fixtures in the American NBA game, such as Dante Exum of the Utah Jazz and Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers. Those stars helped legitimize the Australian game and paved the way for players like McCarthy to get a taste of the U.S.

“It’s pretty cool to witness the culture here,” McCarthy said. “There are a lot of other sports in Australia. Basketball, although a lot of people play it, it’s not the most serious sport. I feel like it’s growing in Australia, but it’s not really that serious.”

Now, given his experience with the Pro-Am in addition to his rotation role with USF, McCarthy won’t have to rely on Exum or Simmons to relay what it’s like to hoop in San Francisco.

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