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Street Ball Has Its Showcase

'Battlegrounds' event in New York matches one-on-one basketball champions from cities including Los Angeles.

August 08, 2003|Eric Stephens | Times Staff Writer

The scene is played out daily on the blacktop courts of playgrounds across the country. Street legends are created at the famous basketball hangouts, whether it's Venice Beach or Rucker Park in New York City.

There is always one goal: proving who's got game.

Shoe giant Nike, which tirelessly promotes its product, is trying to tap further into the urban phenomenon by sponsoring a national one-on-one competition. Saturday on the streets of New York, the "Battlegrounds" tournament will crown a champion from eight hopefuls.

"We're trying to identify the top street-ball players in the country," said Jason Cohn, brand manager for Nike Basketball. "There are guys that are playing across the country, across the world, that are battling every day. These guys don't get the same respect as NBA or college guys and we're trying to elevate those guys and put them on their own stage."

It is the second year that Nike has run this competition, which will be broadcast on MTV Sept. 6. Champions from six cities -- Los Angeles, Atlanta, Toronto, Chicago, New York and Philadelphia -- and two winners from last year will meet in single-elimination rounds in an outdoor playground setting at the Chelsea Piers sports complex along the Hudson River.

Each of the six regional champions won $10,000, received a one-year Nike apparel contract, and will have a billboard with their likeness above their neighborhood court. Saturday's champion will take home $25,000 and the honorary title "King of Kings."

Maurice Spillars is one of those "kings," having defeated former Cal State Northridge point guard Markus Carr to win the L.A. title June 29 in Venice. Growing up in south Los Angeles and Compton, Spillars would see the billboards that featured the latest basketball shoes. Not surprisingly, many of them featured Michael Jordan.

And in his private moments, Spillars allowed himself to dream that one day his face would peer down on similarly impressionable youngsters.

"I've always imagined that," the 30-year-old former Locke High player said. "It's just like a dream come true. And I earned that and battled for that. I didn't pick a winning number and I didn't throw a ball over my head into a basket."

Erron Maxey, the winner of last year's local tournament, will also compete Saturday. A former player at Providence University, the onetime Elsinore High standout keeps his dream of playing in the NBA alive by finding a game or a league to get in anytime, anywhere.

"For me, I'm trying to get recognition and, at the same time, make a little extra cash," said Maxey, 24, who has played professionally in Argentina and Finland. "You never know who shows up. Sometimes, it's just a matter of being in the right place at the right time."

Cohn said organizers are expecting a crowd of up to 10,000. Thousands were in Chicago's Seward Park last week to see former DePaul player Paul McPherson win that local competition.

"We all grew up ... wanting to know who was best until the next day when the next battle was waged," Cohn said. "I think everybody can relate to that."

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