Steaming Hoops

Knoxville's summer league attracts incredible attention

Sports

by Tony Basilo

If you build it, they will come, is one thing. What's happening on Knoxville's summer basketball scene defies description. Bruce Pearl and staff have obviously built it! The level at which Tennessee fans are coming is quite another thing altogether. Hoops junkies in the area are getting a special treat with the inaugural season of the Pilot Rocky Top Summer Basketball League.

The games are played on Monday and Wednesday evenings in the non air-conditioned Bearden High School gym. The first day of the event, I visited with league founder Andre Whitehead, who predicted a crowd of around 400. He was only off by about 1,100 folks. Standing room only! Smokin' hot.

Curiosity aside, surely attendance is diminishing three weeks in for the league that runs through late July? Guess again. Already at capacity, crowds are at fire-marshal frenzy. The reasons to go are there. An up and down show of athleticism, free admission and complete interpersonal access to the stars of today make for an old-school, kid-friendly/fan-friendly environment.

UT's head assistant coach Tony Jones knows that Rocky Top's appetite is whet for a winner.

â“Let's hope we don't have too high of expectations. Obviously, no one rises to low expectations. We want to win the SEC and hopefully get to the Final Four,â” Jones says.

Jones thought UT had potential for excitement with men's hoops, but nothing like this.

â“To be honest with you, no. We knew that we had a tradition here at the University of Tennessee. Ray Mears. Ernie and Bernie. Allen Houston and guys recently like Ron Slay. We knew we had tremendous facilities and world-class athletes. I'm speaking across the board in all sports like football, women's basketball, track and field,â” Jones says, â“so we felt fortunate to get the opportunity. With the basketball program, we knew that if we got a couple of key components, combined with our offensive philosophy, we knew we could compete in the SEC. Now that we've proven we can compete, we have to do it on a consistent basis. We have to win SEC Championships and contend past the Sweet 16.â”

Crowds of this size for summer basketball are unheard of even in major cities like Jones's hometown of Detroit. â“It just goes to show you that Knoxville has embraced basketball. They've embraced these young men! Fans and people in the community are looking for information any place they can get it when it comes to basketball. It's special. Fans want to see guys like Brian Williams, Cameron Tatum and Tyler Smith and see what the newcomers look like,â” Jones says. â“And then there's the chance to see Chris Lofton and the improvement of Ramar Smith and Duke Crews. Just how good are those guys going to be next season.â”

So, why is this summer league such a success? Is this a further demarcation of the Pearlization of Knoxville?

â“Andre Whitehead has done a great job in his organization. You can't say enough about the sponsors stepping up to help. This league is what Knoxville needs and deserves. Former college players and current high school kids plus current college guys from the area who are quality college players at their level (Carson Newman, ETSU, UTC, etc). need a place to play and this gives them an opportunity. Plus it gives fans of all ages a chance to see their favorite players up close. It's really a great thing.'

The aforementioned Tyler Smith has created a stir by becoming immediately eligible for the upcoming season. His decision to transfer to Tennessee has only thrown fuel on an already raging four-alarm love affair of expectation for what could be next March.

â“Not in my wildest dreams would I have thought that Tyler would be with us. But we're talking about grown men and mature individuals. Sometimes you can let bygones be bygones. Bottom line. As I look back on his recruitment from a couple of years ago, it's obvious that Tyler is a quality young man who got some bad advice first time around. There were some people who didn't have Tyler's best interest at heart. I operate under the principle that you never say never, and who can argue? Tyler Smith is a Tennessee Vol. Which is the way it should've been two years ago!â” Jones says.

Smith who's been tabbed â‘'Lil' Bron Bron due to his resemblance on and off the court to NBA wunderkind Lebron James, has raised Tennessee's national profile with his presence.

â“It's huge on the recruiting trail. We're able to get in doors that were closed just a couple of months ago. He's going to be a phenomenal addition to our program,â” Jones says.

Watching the burgeoning crowds in excess of 1,500 per night spill into the boiling hot Bearden gym, it's not apt to say that Tennessee basketball fans have basketball fever. It's more like a Big Orange strain of the Anyarena Virus. m

Tune in and talk sports with Tony Basilio weekdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on ESPN Radio WVLZ 1180 AM.   Visit www.tonybasilio.com for more information.

Tune in and talk sports with Tony Basilio weekdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on ESPN Radio WVLZ 1180 AM.   Visit www.tonybasilio.com for more information.

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