By the start of July, nearly a month after the conclusion of the NBA season, the only basketball most fans concern themselves with is the free agent market.
Local stars go on vacation and basketball enthusiasts patiently await NBA Opening Night in mid-autumn.
Still, on warm summer nights in San Francisco, the familiar din of sneakers, bouncing balls and stiff rims can be heard in Kezar Pavilion in Golden Gate Park, the home of the San Francisco Bay Area Pro-Am. League director Jon Greenberg founded the semi-pro summer basketball league 41 years ago, and in that time, it’s become a local staple, attracting the likes of Stephen Curry, Jason Kidd, Gilbert Arenas and Gary Payton, alongside local college stars and those just trying to hang on.
“He has really put his heart and soul into it and really made it a good league,” said Don Johnson, a former Pro-Am player and current coach of the Bay Raiders, one of eight teams in the league.
The league provides players with an arena in which to sharpen their skills against high-level competition during the low-tide of pro and college basketball action. It’s become a fixture in the recreational life of the community by enabling Bay Area families without the means to attend NBA games to watch quality basketball free of charge.
Greenberg grew up in Ingleside and graduated from George Washington High School, where he played tennis and basketball. He attended City College before transferring to San Francisco State, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts as well as a Master of Arts in Recreation, Parks and Tourism Administration. He was the director of the Potrero Hill Rec Center for 42 years, where he founded the Pro-Am in 1979.
“In the summertime when a lot of the local ballplayers in the Bay Area come back home from college, pro [or] semi-pro [play], there wasn’t a quality league available where they could hone their skills,” said Greenberg, who has a background in NBA officiating.
With the support of the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department, Greenberg established the league, and personally recruited players and coaches from across the Peninsula to put the league on the map.
With the help of publicity from big NBA names like Pat Riley, Jason Richardson and Aaron Gordon, the Pro-Am has developed into what it is today — one of the oldest and most accomplished semi-pro summer leagues in the nation.
Though the Pro-Am has received the majority of its press through the surprise appearance of NBA superstars like Curry and Payton, Greenberg prides himself most on the Pro-Am being an opportunity league.
“It’s an opportunity for the players because we do get scouts here and we will average four to five kids getting picked up and playing somewhere, usually in Europe,” Greenberg said. “It’s an opportunity for the officials because here it’s a much faster game and they have an opportunity to experience a quality league using pro rules. And it’s an opportunity for the fans to come out free of charge and see good quality basketball during the summer, bring the whole family, have a good time.”
The players, for their part, are grateful to Greenberg, 79, for his creation of the league and continue to come back on a yearly basis.
“[The Pro-Am] gives me an opportunity to work on my game and also develop a deeper understanding for how this game is played,” said Michael Wright, a player for the Bay Raiders and former collegiate player at City College of San Francisco.
Edward Allen, a three-time Pro-Am MVP and current coach of the Dream Team, expressed his appreciation for Greenberg more directly.
“Jon is like a father figure to me,” Allen said. “He did so much for me coming up. Jon wears many hats.”
The players’ commitment to the Pro-Am, in turn, creates a tight bond between the players themselves and all others involved, including the referees, scoreboard operators and especially the fans.
Albert Blackwell, who has frequented Pro-Am games for upwards of 20 years now, distilled the league’s appeal down to the personal relationships.
“[We] never give up on the guys that come and show their talents here,” Blackwell said. “They never give up on the fans.”
Others, like Ronald Bandar, a five-year supporter of the Pro-Am, simply enjoy the quality of the on-court product, with games every weeknight from mid-June to mid-August.
“You can stay at home and watch some boring TV show, but it’s fun to watch these guys,” Bandar said. “So, I think a lot of people can come out and do this, try and do something different.”
Perhaps what sets the Pro-Am apart most from other basketball competitions across the country is its emphasis on the game itself, free from concerns of profit or popularity.
“That’s one of our missions out here is to keep it pure and to keep it about the basketball,” said Erick Thome, a Division I college referee who has officiated the Pro-Am for 11 years.
Maybe this is why the Pro-Am continues to thrive and inject San Francisco with life every summer. It’s not just a competition for returning players. It’s not just a place for fans to gather on summer nights. It’s not even just the dream of one man to bring the sport he so cherished to his city.
It’s a love letter to basketball.