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New league gives basketball amateurs a shot at glory

The People's Games pits an L.A. team against one from New York on Sunday in Venice Beach.

May 09, 2011|By Ari Bloomekatz, Los Angeles Times
  • L.A.'s Tim McGrath gets a slam-dunk in the second half of Sunday's People's Games against New York at Venice Beach.
L.A.'s Tim McGrath gets a slam-dunk in the second half of Sunday's… (Jay L. Clendenin, Los Angeles…)

The Lakers' season is over, but a basketball team from Los Angeles may still be able to bring home a championship.

While Kobe Bryant battled Dallas star Dirk Nowitzki on Sunday, the People's Games, a new league designed for nonprofessional athletes, held its inaugural match with teams from L.A. and New York City, hashing it out in Venice Beach.

The athletes, who must be at least 18 and pass tryouts to get on a team, don't get paid, but some of the expected proceeds from the league will go to city parks coffers.

Former NBA stars Earl "The Pearl" Monroe and Lucius Allen coached New York and L.A., respectively, giving amateurs a chance to be guided by some of the best.

"This is a great concept because you get some guys who have had all types of reasons that they didn't make it to the next level. Here's an opportunity for these guys to represent something that's meaningful, something that they can really build on and make a name for themselves," Allen said.

There are teachers, baristas, deejays and attorneys on each squad. Most started playing basketball when they were small and some were high school standouts and played in college or semi-pro leagues.

Julius English, 39, on Team L.A., was playing basketball at Balboa Park in Encino when he read about the league and decided to try out. When English was young and living in Bakersfield, it was basketball that helped him deal with anger issues and work through the frustrations of a learning disability.

"Basketball was a way for me to be free," English said. "Whenever I play basketball, I don't think about all the other issues — the learning disability, the things I have to go through. Basketball became my outlet for whatever issue I had going on."

Beacon Pictures Chairman Armyan Bernstein, who developed the games with producer Terry Jastrow, said he spent millions on the prototype and hopes to expand the games to at least 14 other cities.

Bernstein donated at least $30,000 to the parks department in Los Angeles and agreed to pay for all of the staffing at each event. Vicki Israel, assistant general manager, said the department was happy to participate, particularly because the department's motto is "everybody plays."

"This is something for the common person, the common man," she said. "They tell a story about living in L.A. and being part of L.A."

Several video cameras were at the game Sunday, including two on spider cam platforms and one person who ran up and down the court with the players while taping. Bernstein has aspirations that the league will become the subject of a reality TV show. And he also hopes to sell merchandise and gain sponsorships.

Sunday's contest was the first in a three-game series.

Before the game, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa tweeted some with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, saying his team was "about to finish 2nd in a two-city event". Bloomberg replied by saying "I'll take talent from Rucker Park or West 4th Street Cage over L.A. any day of the week."

The score was close until L.A. pulled away. In the fourth quarter, New York went on a small run and came to within four. But Team L.A. was able to do something the Lakers couldn't: win.

ari.bloomekatz@latimes.com

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