The playground is where most basketball players are introduced to the game of basketball.
It’s where people earn their stripes and make a name for themselves. Playground games are tough anywhere, but especially in Philly. The rough playing style gives toughness and grit that can only be gained on the concrete.
As players get older and better, they tend to move on, shifting their attention from the concrete to the hardwood, to organized games in gyms that often offer better practice and more competition.
The Chosen League was an exception. Started in 2002 by Rahim Thompson, the league invites top high school players around the region to play where it all started — in the park. For the past 15 years, games were played at 10th and Olney at Cherashore Playground.
For many, the league represented a rare chance to play highly competitive organized basketball on concrete.
Well, at least it used to. This summer, the Chosen League went indoors.
All games have now been moved to the FiDonce gym on G Street. They run in the far end of FiDonce on the second court, simultaneously with a pro-am league that plays on the first court — a league that’s packed with Chosen alumni, as well as NBA players like 2018 MVP James Harden.
Thompson believes having to share the space is actually a positive. “Three quarters of the guys that play in [the pro-am] league played in my league,” he told Billy Penn.
“So it brings back history and memories. It’s the perfect marriage, and it’s perfect for Philadelphia.”
Many players now in the NBA have graced the blue and orange concrete at 10th and Olney. The list of Thompson’s alums includes:
- Kyle Lowry (Toronto Raptors)
- Marcus Morris (Boston Celtics)
- Markieff Morris (Washington Wizards)
- Wayne Ellington (Miami Heat)
- Dion Waiters (Miami Heat)
- Kyle Kuzma (Los Angeles Lakers)
- Tony Carr (selected in the 2018 NBA draft by the New Orleans Pelicans)
Its reputation means the Chosen League has multiple big name sponsors — it’s the only high school league in the country to have any.
Nike, Mitchell & Ness, Sneaker Villa, Kicks USA and Red Bull are of few of the league’s partners. The Sixers are also a partner; Ben Simmons, Robert Covington and Brett Brown stopped by last summer.
In 2014, ESPN featured the Chosen League as one of the best outdoor leagues in the country, and it was also featured in NBA LIve ‘18 — because of the way it connected to the culture of basketball, and not just the professional aspect.
Thompson has even said the games at 10th and Olney were like a “family barbecue” with basketball as the focus.
So why move the extremely successful “barbecue” inside?
“The players outgrew the park,” Thompson explained. “In the Chosen League, every team has three to four Division 1 recruits or Division 1 signees, so playing on concrete does affect them. The court at 10th and Olney was small,” he continued. “Here we play at 94′ by 50′. We are preparing guys to go to college — they need to be in this atmosphere.”
Now that the league has moved on to the hardwood, players who wouldn’t participate before are now joining.
Over 200 Division 1 recruits have played at the courts at 10th and Olney — but the idea is that number would be even higher if players didn’t turn it down because of the detriments concrete can have on knee health, and the overall increased risk of injury.
Plus, there’s the camaraderie at FiDonce. “The other league brings in a big crowd,” said Justin Steers, an undecided rising college freshman with multiple Division 1 offers. “It didn’t make the the Chosen League crowd worse, they made it better.”
While the transition to inside may have attracted new talent, some players still miss the playground.
“People play in the Chosen League to play outside in front of everybody,” said Christian Ings, a rising senior guard at Neumann Goretti high school in South Philadelphia. “The court packed, everybody on top of you, that’s what people live for.”
Another thing missing inside is an emcee.
In years past, emcee Donald “Reds” Kenner would often stroll up the court at the same time as a player, wielding his microphone as he poked fun at the athletes and acted as commentator for the game.
“Having a emcee was the best part,” said Ings. “Having him calling out nicknames in the middle of the game, it just makes you want to play harder.”
While having no emcee leaves a void for some players, one thing that hasn’t changed is Keith “Showtime” Sanders. He’s been officiating the league since its inception in 2002, and has made a name for himself with his extremely animated foul calls.
For Sanders, the move has not affected the league at all. He says he’ll keep on dancing inside because he’s been doing it for 40 years and if he stops people will say he’s getting old.
“It feels the same to me, I like both environments,” Sanders said after a night of games this week. “It makes no difference. Wherever there’s basketball that’s where I’m at.”
Ultimately, Thompson feels the move will only help the success of league and its players — because the Chosen League is more than just 10th and Olney.
“We are not a street basketball league, we’re a basketball league,” said Thompson. “Yeah we’re not outside, but instead of having a family barbecue, now it’s the family dinner. Which is a big difference.”