Pulley League allows hoops players to keep skills fresh

by Brett Angel

It’s not where you’d expect to find some of the most talented basketball players of the Twin Cities.

But rather than spending the offseason in state-of-the-art weight rooms or shooting buckets on freshly painted courts, many of the area’s hottest hoops prospects put their skills on display four nights a week in the St. Paul Salvation Army gym.

The atmosphere couldn’t be any more low-profile. The retractable bleachers don’t hold more than a couple hundred spectators in the dimly lit court, but it all adds to the allure of the Howard Pulley Nike Pro City League.

Since it began in 1985, the summer pro-am league has become a popular alternative for college players looking to add something different to their standard offseason routine.

“This is a fun thing to do,” said Jeff Hagen, projected to be the starting center for the Gophers next season. “We like to play as much as we can and it’s the only chance we get to play with refs during the offseason,”

Hagen is one of eight athletes competing in the league who will be listed on Minnesota’s men’s basketball roster this fall.

That list also includes 2002 players Moe Hargrow, Michael Bauer and Ben Johnson, and projected 2003 starter Adam Boone.

“It’s nice just being able to put the things I work on by myself into actual game situations,” said Bauer, who is playing in the league for the fourth year.

University recruits Wesley Washington and Kris Humphries are also planning to compete in the league this summer, although neither has suited up so far.

Former Gophers Rick Rickert, Jerry Holman and Steve Esselink are all listed on one of the league’s eight team rosters, alongside professional athletes such as Troy Hudson and Khalid El-Amin.

Many of the remaining spots are filled by players from smaller Minnesota colleges.

“Macalester, Hamline, St. Thomas – it doesn’t matter where you are from as long as you can play,” said Tony Yazbeck, who, along with Rene Pulley, helps run the league.

Minnesota men’s basketball coach Dan Monson is used to his players taking part in Howard Pulley games, even though he never sees it for himself.

“We’re not allowed to go,” Monson said, referring to NCAA regulations that restrict coaches from being present at offseason workouts.

“But the Pulley league has been a great benefit to some of our players,” Monson said. “It’s certainly better than guys sitting on the couch playing Nintendo all summer.”

Because the league includes pro players, all games are played according to NBA rules.

The Salvation Army gym has been outfitted with scoreboards, breakaway rims, NBA three-point lines and 24-second shot clocks. The officiating crew even wears NBA referee shirts.

Besides taking part in game situations, players also get the opportunity to play against high-caliber competition they don’t normally see.

“You kind of get sick of playing against your teammates all the time,” Bauer said. “It’s nice to get down here a couple times a week and play against some fresh faces.”

With its deep talent pool and free admission, fans at the games always seem to enjoy the show.

“Fans love it,” Yazbeck said. “They can come here for nothing and watch some great basketball.”

Brett Angel welcomes comments at [email protected]