Pulley League gives players free reign to showcase and hone skills

by Chris Lempesis

There are no cheerleaders, the lighting is fairly dim and the bleachers would not be able to hold a crowd anywhere near 14,625 people.

The St. Paul Salvation Army building is a far cry from Williams Arena. But, if you’re looking for current and former members of Minnesota’s men’s basketball team this summer, it’s perhaps the best place to look.

That’s because many of them are playing in the 2006 Howard Pulley Pro/Am Summer League.

This year’s version of the Pulley League has been running since mid-June and features eight teams, all but one of which has either a current or former Minnesota player on it. In fact, 10 of the 13 members of the 2006-2007 Gophers roster are listed as playing in the league.

“It’s fun,” redshirt freshman guard Kevin Payton, a first-year Pulley League player, said. “It’s a good preparation for the season – kind of get into a groove, work on some stuff.”

Payton seems to sum up the main reason current and former players say they enjoy the league: It gives them a chance to work on specific aspects of their individual game they might not work on as much during the college season.

Some, like Payton, said they were just hoping to improve their overall game by playing in the league. Others, like sophomore guard Jamal Abu-Shamala, had more specific parts of their game in mind.

“I’m trying to work on penetrating more,” Abu-Shamala, in his second year in the league, said. “Getting to the hoop and sort of just making my game a little more broad so I’m not just known as a shooter.”

The players said they get more of a chance to do this in the Pulley League because there is less coaching and thus the reins – and the pressure – are loosened a little bit.

According to Payton and recently graduated forward J’son Stamper, this

gives the games more of a streetball feel. That makes sense because the Pulley League games can get as competitive as streetball.

The fact that Gophers team members are involved in this highly competitive atmosphere – and that other players

know who the Minnesota players are – is Director of Basketball Operations James Ware’s favorite thing about the Pulley League.

“With our guys, people really want to challenge them because they’re Gophers,” Ware said. “People are specifically coming after them, so to speak, challenging them because they want to prove they’re as good or they’re on the same level.

“So it’s good for our guys just to handle the adversity of the competition of the whole thing.”

The league also can be challenging because a lot of the players don’t really know each other’s games and, as Abu-Shamala said, there is a lot of one-pass-and-then-shoot that occurs.

But there are some positives to that drawback, in that the players are getting an opportunity to play against, in many cases, new competition. And new faces bring new challenges.

“The one thing about basketball is everybody plays it just a little bit differently,” Ware said. “So the more exposure you get to how other people play and how other people are successful playing basketball – there’s a lot you can actually learn.”

The players indeed can learn a lot about the game of basketball, and how they play it individually, in the Pulley League.

But it could be almost as important that the current Minnesota players learn about how their teammates play the game in the Pulley League for the next time they are in the familiar confines of Williams Arena.

And Abu-Shamala said improving chemistry with teammates through the Pulley League is possible.

It can be improved because there are usually one or two Gophers on your Pulley League team, he said.