A Chosen League playoff game had just begun, outdoors at 10th and Olney — some of the top area high school hoops talent on that playground court — when public-address announcer Donald "Reds" Kenner proclaimed it "Sneaker Check Time."
Sneaker check? Everyone seemed to be wearing them.
The Chosen League has a little shoe company sponsorship deal. Anybody wearing another shoe is "going to get a technical," Kenner said over the PA.
And that guy wearing sneakers from one company and socks from another? Kenner zeroed in on him. "We're going to start doing a sock check," Kenner told the crowd.
The whole Chosen League vibe is about being on top of you. You might or might not get a call. The PA announcer might or might not razz you. The crowd is right there, with 10th Street row homes as a backdrop as the sun sets. The Chosen League is the closest you can get to pure playground hoops, for 16 years now.
"When these kids go away to college," said league head Rahim Thompson, "when they play in front of a crowd that's against them, they'll remember this. Every game is like Game 7. That concrete mentality comes into play. 'Yo, I played outside.' "
The PA announcer doesn't sit at the scorer's table. Kenner often is in front of it, practically part of the play.
"You can't make layups and jump shots, maybe you can make foul shots," Kenner told one player who had just drawn a foul with a nice move.
The other night, the whole vibe briefly seemed off. Not the hoops, which was legit. Sixers coach Brett Brown, forward Robert Covington, and CEO Scott O'Neil had shown up to watch. Maybe that was it. It was the first night of the playoffs. Maybe that was it. Everything seemed formal. Kenner sounded subdued. He just called out occasional scores and times.
Turned out it was a wiring problem.
Some fiddling and all of a sudden there was music playing and Reds himself came to life.
"I was like a little kid — I didn't have my toy," Kenner announced to the crowd packing around the playground court. He started doing his thing, noticing a substitution by one of the teams.
"The only highlight you're going to see is from the bench," Kenner told the exiting ballplayer passing by him.
"Leave my kids alone," his coach jibed back to Kenner.
The Sixers are a sponsor these days, so they usually make an appearance. Last season, Ben Simmons stopped by. This was Covington's first visit. Anything like it in his hometown of Chicago?
"Nah," Covington said. "Can't think of anything."
Last time he himself played outdoors?
"A long time," Covington said.
Even the officiating is a bit different. Calls get made but play is physical. Players tend to adjust.
"The refs turn to that style," said Hunting Park coach Robert Guillen, a league honcho. "You've got to be tough or you're not going to get it."
Kenner doesn't worry about knowing all the names of the players. To him, smaller point guards with a willingness to drive inside always go by "Lion Heart." The refs are part of the show. ("He's got a purple whistle. He thinks he's Prince now?") When Kenner got on Vernon Boyer, Boyer reached under the scorer's table, grabbed another striped officials' jersey, started fitting it on Kenner.
Fearlessness isn't enough on the court. Kenner does like to see some skill.
"Yo No. 10 … you ain't showed me nothing all game."
When No. 10 responded with a move past his man to the hoop: "You forgot something," Kenner said. "You forgot to score — again." (Another Kenner version of that kind of play: "All peanut butter, no jelly.")
And the wrong shoes? "I'm going to get on them," Kenner said before a game. "I'm going to grind 'em up."
DJ Black Star is part of the show, too, playing Meek Mill and Lil Wayne during warm-ups, Jada Kiss and Jay Z joining as play started. The crowd filled in, a man letting two little boys sit in the corner for the first game and most of the second. When the sound system wasn't working early Tuesday night, Black Star said, "Oh, I was sweating. It's a big moment."
That was his time to catch it from Kenner. "The DJ needs some new equipment," Kenner told the crowd. "We're taking donations. He can come to your home and pull your trash for you."
Trash talking by talking about trash. A Chosen League moment. The one thing about the staff, Thompson said, they've all been into hoops their whole lives. Not necessarily as stars. Thompson, 40, figures he's typical enough. The highest level he played, he said, was "human victory cigar" one year for a very good Olney High team featuring Jason Lawson. Thompson had a skill, though. He was good, he said, at getting a garbage-time bucket to get his name in the Daily News.
His inspiration for the Chosen League? Going from the Sonny Hill League games at Temple's McGonigle Hall to the famed outdoor league around the corner at 16th and Susquehanna, Thompson said, "it was like two different worlds." Most high school players these days don't play much outdoors, he said, so that was the goal here. Combine those two experiences, from the Hill League and 16th Street. It began modestly and picked up steam.
"That atmosphere," 2008 league MVP Maalik Wayns said of what he remembers of the Chosen League, where he played every summer, he said, when he was at Roman Catholic High. "You could be a top 20 player in the country — when I played out there, nobody cared, they just went at me."
Jamil Riggins from Imhotep, a 6-foot-6 junior with a Division I future, said this is his first year in the league. He had a strong and busy summer playing with the Philadelphia Pride travel team, but this was worth being part of for him. "This is my neighborhood," Riggins said.
The Chosen League concludes with quarterfinals Monday and Tuesday, semifinals Wednesday, games starting at 7, and the final Thursday, starting at 8 p.m.
Tuesday night, Arcadia coach Justin Scott stood past the baseline, watching a big-time incoming player, Da'Kquan Davis from Roman, and also some potential recruits. Good recruiting stop for Scott?
"Very good," the Division III coach said.
For Thompson, the biggest headache is the weather. It's not the same indoors, he said, but sometimes he has no choice and always has an alternative site ready. He's had weeks in the past where they had to go indoors two or three times. One time he had a playoff game indoors but the lights went out, during overtime. So they went back over to 10th and Olney to finish up, the storm already moved through.
Memories? Too many to count. The Morris twins taking care of a visiting star from Baltimore. This young guy going against Arizona-bound Mustafa Shakur the first year? Who is that? That's Kyle Lowry.
The list of Chosen League MVPs hanging on a banner at the south end of the court goes from Shakur in year one, 2002, to Dionte Christmas through Shane Clark and Markieff Morris and Wayns and Tony Chennault and Markus Kennedy and Rysheed Jordan. Last summer, Chareef Knox from Imhotep was a co-MVP, so Kenner alternates between calling him "MVP" and "Mr. Imhotep."
"I've watched him grow from being a kid," Kenner said later of Knox. "He's going to be good."
Kenner doesn't worry about knowing the whole summer scene. Shipley star Sam Sessoms, from West Philadelphia, showed up and Kenner didn't recognize him, but immediately started hyping "No. 17" as a handful, a game-changer the other guys needed to deal with. Kenner went over to Sessoms afterward, found out he had gotten a recent Division I offer from Binghamton.
Kenner, 55, himself grew up in Washington, played there in the era of Sherman Douglas and Anthony Jones, he said. Been here for 20 years. He thinks he could have maybe made it to Division I, but he tore his knee up in high school.
"I've been with Rahim ever since I came to Philly," Kenner said. "We met at a basketball game. I moved up around here. We used to have Chosen League unlimited [for older guys) and I played."
Kenner, who now lives in Upper Darby, is a chef, working for a company for 22 years, cooking at Vanguard these days.
"You always have to be yourself," Kenner said of working the microphone. "This is my second life right here. Basketball will always be my second life. Cooking is my first."
"He was always a comical guy, but everything he said was the truth," Thompson said of Kenner's taking the microphone. "To keep the street basketball feel, you need an MC."
"It's, like, a little intense, but it's fun," Jahmir Williams of Constitution High said after a regular-season game when Kenner had been on him a bit and he had responded. "I like the hype."
Another evening, it begins anew …
"Your feet too big …" Keller told a big man who had just turned the ball over dribbling at midcourt. The man with the microphone and keen eyesight added, as an aside to the crowd, time for a sneaker check.