The shock of COVID-19 sucked the air out of the sports world, with competitive events screeching to a halt in the middle of March 2020.
Athletes who become professionals in large part because of their work ethic saw gymnasiums all across Philly and the Delaware Valley area — a basketball hub for many pros to work out — shut down when the pandemic shutdown started. So how were the best athletes supposed to stay in playing shape?
The 76ers’ fieldhouse in Wilmington was the only open gym around and became a refuge for athletes. Basketball coach and trainer Tony Paris organizes the workouts and has been running summer hoops for Philly and South Jersey’s best players for more than 16 years.
The who’s who of local pros from the NBA and overseas showed up to the fieldhouse. They included Villanova alums Jalen Brunson and Omari Spellman, Philly natives Brad Wanamaker, Amile Jefferson, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, plus South Jersey players like Jason Thompson and Louis King, just to name a few. Most of the private sessions have about 15-20 players — enough to make up three teams and alternate without too much time on the sidelines.
“It’s so important to have that diversity of players with guys who have great seasons overseas or in the NBA, and then come here and get the same quality of work before the next training camp,” said Thompson, an eight-year NBA veteran who has also played three seasons overseas.
Paris and the pros run a tight ship
Pro basketball players don’t just hoop with just anyone — not even during a pandemic. Summer workout videos from private basketball sessions go viral every summer, and they usually include only top-level players.
If a pro is invited to a basketball workout, there’s a good chance he or she will ask who is at the gym before arriving. Some believe they get nothing out of playing with non-pros.
“Guys can be really good, but you have to play with guys that know how to actually play the game,” Thompson said. “Sometimes you play with guys, and they’re trying to outdo you and try to hurt guys because of their credibility.”
“We just want to come back, play and leave,” said Wanamaker, a North Philly native. “We want to come around where it’s people that want to improve their game and just play basketball.”
There’s also the prove-it factor. Some players are good enough to work out but didn’t make the pro level. They often play like they’re trying to prove a point.
Paris recalls one former Temple player who constantly went at Brunson on both ends every chance he could get the chance.
“Jalen is like, ‘What’s up with this dude? I’m just here to get some cardio and work on my game,’” Paris said. “Jalen hasn’t been back since.”
That prove-it mentality creates a lot of one-on-one basketball, which is unpopular in summer basketball games with pros. Players run sets unless they’re hot, open or have a noticeable mismatch. If people don’t adopt this brand of basketball at Paris’s open runs, they’re often not invited back.
Paris’ five-on-five workouts have been a little bit easier to navigate in 2021 with more information about vaccinations and COVID-19. The workouts alternated between the University of Pennsylvania’s John R. Rockwell Gymnasium and the 76ers’ fieldhouse this summer.
“[A parent] said to me, ‘I’ve been to a lot of open runs [games], but I’ve never seen any runs like this where they pass the ball to each other so much,’” Paris said.
Mentorship for college players
Paris’ open gym hoops have also been a good opportunity for the pros to mentor some of the best college players in Philly. Penn basketball players often come out to the workouts at their school. Even when the pros offer to mix up the teams, the Penn players oblige.
Gus Larson , a 6-foot-11 Penn freshman, is a regular at the workouts and has shown a lot of promise with his soft touch and smooth shooting stroke. One day he played with the pros and went undefeated against the likes of former Temple star Shizz Alston, St. Joe’s alum Chris Clover and a couple of Penn teammates.
Temple stars Damian Dunn and Khalif Battle have also played. The duo’s team lost three consecutive games but inched closer to a win each time. Battle eventually made some tough shots to lead the squad to back-to-back wins over a pro team led by Wanamaker and Thompson. Losses were rare for pros on that level, but the environment provided good lessons for younger players.
“You go at them, but you also teach them certain things and give them pointers,” Wanamaker said. “They’re challenging you as well. They want to make it to the NBA, so when they see an NBA guy coming home, they want to give him their best.”