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Atlanta is a basketball city

In a historically “bad sports town,” there is one growing giant around the corner from the H.E. Holmes MARTA station that dispels the hopeless, uninterested reputation of one sport and its professional franchise’s star players.

Rashad Milligan

ATLANTA — The gym inside of Kipp Collegiate Academy was standing-room-only on a Sunday in late July.

More than likely, most basketball and/or Atlanta Hawks fans have seen the clips floating around online of Trae Young and John Collins popping up to play in the Atlanta Entertainment Basketball League (AEBL) by now. Collins began the game with a booming one-handed alley-oop that he caught from former Toronto Raptor Lorenzo Brown, before hitting a few mid-range jumpers in the first half. As Young and Collins’ team pulled away in the second half, Collins finished getting his 41 points on the night with, for lack of a better term, a lot of dunks. Young found his way to unofficially finish around 30 points with a couple of trips to the line and quality takes to the basket. With the exception of a couple of corner threes, he struggled to get it going from three-point range in the exciting exhibition.

While the crowd was buzzing a little more watching the city’s young duo, and the gym was filled to a capacity that isn’t normally seen outside of AEBL’s championship week, Sunday was no exception to what has now become the norm during Atlanta summers.

AEBL has brought out some of the cities’ best, strengthening by the increased frequency of NBA appearances. In Sunday’s four games alone, KJ McDaniels, Shelvin Mack, Paul Millsap, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Jaylen Brown, Josh Powell, Jordan McRae, Kevin Ware and Lorenzo Brown also played in addition to Young and Collins.

The Hawks’ newest two-way guard Brandon Goodwin played on Saturday.

“It’s amazing,” Ware, the former Louisville and Georgia State guard who played with Canada’s “London Lightning” this past season, said. “Coming home, after the season overseas, being able to play in one of the top leagues in the country is really one of the best atmospheres that you can really play in. It’s fun. I like being able to come home and play in AEBL.”

Each weekend, fans of the game come together to watch NBA players play overseas professionals and D-1 players, as well as some of the top high school prospects in the country. In an interview with rolling out, Lou Williams has said that he appreciates the fact that the league allows some of his friends the platform to showcase their talent in front of various scouts.

“[I’m trying to get a chance] with anybody [in the league],” Ware, who held his own with a solid offensive showing in Sunday’s finale against Collins and Young, said. “I don’t know what I have to do, I’m here, let’s make it happen.”

Al Harrington took in the action courtside, while Atlanta hip-hop artist K-Camp stood a few rows behind the former Hawk. Before he got his break in music, he was known as a frequent hooper in parks throughout Atlanta and Marietta.

“It’s a good crowd,” K-Camp said. “Shout out to my dawg [AEBL founder and CEO] Jah [Rawlings] for putting this together. It’s always a dope thing seeing everybody coming out here and hoop, there no issues. Everybody’s chilling and having a great time.”

The art of streetball is something special. It intertwines the worlds of culture and sport in a unique way that can’t be recreated. There is no cost of admission to the games, so the possibility of the genuine passionate fan being priced out is nonexistent.

Streetball courts in the summertime are places where popular NBA players like Kobe Bryant, Jamal Crawford, Kyrie Irving, James Harden, Kevin Durant and Lou Williams can immortalize themselves in the legacy category that goes beyond what can be recorded in a stat book. A large reason why New York was known as the original “mecca of basketball” is because of the summers at Rucker Park and all of the magic those seasons have brought the area. The “Jelly Fam,” a group of prep standouts who popularized a specific finger roll, have made Dyckman Park the go-to spot in New York now in recent summers.

The Drew League in Los Angeles is also respected as one of the best summer leagues historically, it’s a place where James Harden found himself scoring 40-plus points after winning the NBA MVP award last year.

At AEBL, a DJ is playing a constant clean mix of the latest hip-hop hits while the “Voice of Atlanta Basketball”, Bria Janelle, emcees all of the happenings in a very entertaining fashion. From the first game of the day, the fans reacted to every highlight, fully engaged, whether it was a player that they’ve never seen before or an NBA star who plays on national television every week. The gym remained to be standing-room-only through the tipoff of Collins and Young’s finale nearly five hours later.

This may very well be the summer that Rawlings takes AEBL to the next level of being not only one of the best, but one of the most famous summer Pro-Ams in the country. AEBL highlights have popped up on social media from different outlets perhaps more frequently than ever this year. A few weeks ago, Sharife Cooper, the first non-senior to win the MaxPreps national Boys Player of the Year award, made his AEBL debut and matched up against top in-state high school recruit KD Johnson. Williams, Jaylen Brown and Kobi Simmons also played in the game with the standout prep prospects.

“We are the city,” K-Camp said. “You don’t see anything like this besides Rucker Park, New York, so this is dope for Atlanta.”

There’s no secret Atlanta catches a lot of flack as a sports city, and for good reason. The Hawks are currently 27th in the NBA in 2019 for attendance, averaging 15,327 fans showing up for each home game, per ESPN. The 22-60 Chicago Bulls were second in the league for attendance, averaging 20,084 fans a game this past season, for reference. In 2015, a year that included a long-stretch of sellouts during the 19-game winning streak and a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Hawks were 17th in the league for attendance, per ESPN, averaging 17,412 fans a game.

However, it is apparent every weekend at Kipp Collegiate Academy that beyond the surface-level numbers, Atlanta is, in fact, a basketball city.

“It’s right there competing with everybody else, I feel like,” Ware, who originally moved from New York to Atlanta when he got to high school, said. “A lot of people look down on Atlanta for basketball because they don’t look at it like California or a lot of other places, but a lot of people come from Atlanta now. You got Jaylen Brown, Kobi Simmons and the list goes on. These young guys, Sharife, KD, [2020 five-star recruit and Kentucky-commit] Brandon Boston, [2019 five-star recruit and UGA freshman Anthony Edwards]. There’s a lot of guys coming from Atlanta now that you can’t really sleep on anymore… you saw how the gym was today.”

Attendance numbers show that the Hawks are slowly crawling up from the bottom of the league in attendance back into the middle-of-the-pack range they once were, but Sunday night was just another example of how people actually care for the game and the city’s cornerstone pieces in the new era of Hawks basketball.