It’s a showcase for competitive basketball, an educational opportunity for players and a chance for fans to see their favorite native sons.
It’s Howard Pulley Basketball.
Founded in 1989 by Rene Pulley and named after his late father, the summer pro-am league is designed to give top local talents a chance to raise the level of their game in the off-season.
Team rosters include players ranging from incoming college freshmen like Minnetonka’s Adam Boone (North Carolina) to NBA veterans like Chris Carr of the Chicago Bulls.
From late June through early August, games are held at the Salvation Army Gym in St. Paul, Tuesdays through Fridays and are free to the public.
Interestingly, the roots of the successful league are ones of profound disappointment for Pulley, now 53, a star at Minneapolis Central High School and later at North Hennepin Junior College.
“I was probably one of the first high-level players that never got to go anywhere or do anything,” Pulley said. “I made up my mind that what happened to me was not going to happen to other kids.”
No room for crybabies
The main reason for the league’s continued success is the players. Rosters of the league’s nine teams include a smattering of former Minnesota high school standouts, current and former Gophers and NBA players with local ties.
It’s this caliber of talent that gives the league its competitive lure, and recreational players need not apply.
“This is for strictly high-level players,” Pulley said.
Each of the nine teams in the league possess a strong contingent of players with extensive basketball resumes.
“You can mix up guys like Khalid El-Amin, Quincy Lewis, Bobby Jackson, myself, the Gophers players and spread all these guys out on teams,” Carr said. “That makes for some good, competitive basketball a couple nights a week in a controlled environment.”
Friday evening featured a pair of games filled with hard drives to the basket, physical play in the post and tough defense by players wrapped in sweat-drenched jerseys.
While the games were vertical, with never more than a few passes in the half court, they lacked an abundance of flashy passes and high-flying dunks.
Most often, such highlight reel filler takes a backseat to the desire of winning.
“Its not just playing around, dunking and things like that,” Gophers guard Kevin Burleson said. “The teams that do that, these young cats, they lose. We want to win; its all about winning.”
Summer school for hoopsters
Tough competition and the presence of experienced players provide a learning atmosphere second to none.
“You work on things during these games, and hopefully by the end of the summer, you’ll be better at them,” Burleson said. “Personally, I’m just trying to work on going to the hole more.”
During Friday’s first game, Burleson tentatively dribbled near the three point line, looking like he might pull up for a long jumper.
Carr began encouraging Burleson not to settle for a perimeter shot. A few seconds later, Burleson responded by taking the ball inside for a layup, in the process personifying the educational benefits of the league.
“From time to time, guys will ask questions about this or that, and you just always try to help them out,” Carr said. “All of us professionals couldn’t have got to the point where we are at without having someone help us out previously.”
Sometimes insight is given, and sometimes it is sought out. Either way, it should be absorbed.
“You can learn stuff from all these guys if you’re smart, if you’re open to learn,” Gophers forward Mike Bauer said.
Home sweet home
One sequence Friday saw Seton Hall’s Darius Lane (Totino Grace) pass to Duke’s Nick Horvath (Mounds View). Horvath then dribbled around Lane’s pick and fired a quick pass to a cutting Boone who laid the ball in for two.
Next fall, the only way to watch the trio will be separately on ESPN.
With a chance to watch all their local favorites up close, fans also benefit from the Howard Pulley league.
“It’s inspiring for little kids, and it’s great for fans,” Bauer said. “They get to see all these guys they watch on TV play in person.”
The players also enjoy the opportunity to catch up with one another.
“Guys talk about each others’ seasons, old times, good times…see how each other is doing — I haven’t seen some of these guys in a long time,” Lane said.
A founder’s vindication
So whether it’s former Tartan guard Jake Sullivan (Iowa State) going nose-to-nose on the perimeter with Boone, or Bauer trading dunks with Minneapolis Henry’s Johnnie Gilbert (Oklahoma) inside, the Howard Pulley league is living up to the vision of its founder.
That vision: That the league produce solid players who will come back and help the league continue to flourish.
“As long as we can keep the league competitive, it’s something good for the fans, and the players can continue to get something out of it,” Pulley said. “That’s basically all I want out of it.”
David La Vaque welcomes comments at [email protected]