The Nashville Pro-Am: How One Man Brought Back the Best Show in Town

Photo by Darwin Moore

Run for cover. Dive into the first row. Throw your hands up in surrender. At the Nashville Pro-Am Basketball League, the usual rule applies: don’t get dunked on.

In the first round of the NPBL Playoffs at East High School, Belmont’s rising junior Kevin McClain learned this the difficult way from Tennessee State’s spidery Damarri Moore. This lesson was reviewed countlessly, like a belligerent study partner, by NPBL host Young Quael, and plastered like a motivational poster on the league’s Instagram account. But that’s how it goes at the Nashville Pro-Am: rap hammers through the old gym, Quael cracks wise, and the city’s rising phenoms, old hats, and sparkling, in-their-prime NBA heroes get up and jog down court, calling for the ball, eager to make their own highlight, to teach someone a lesson of their own.

Photo by Darwin Moore

Entering Stratford High School, the pro-am’s Sunday habitat, the first-time guest is greeted with simultaneous sensations: the splattering of all-the-way-up hip hop, and the shock of all-the-way-up-close professional-amateur athletes. Police officers constantly have to usher gawkers away from the gym entryway and to their seats, fire hazard as it is — everyone does it, though, stands there and gapes, your brain processing the immediacy and energy of exceptional and exceptionally-large athletes, all soundtracked by brain-racking rap. That’s — that’s Rob Covington, you, the casual NBA fan, whisper to yourself as you’re shooed to a seat. Holy crap, is that Saben Lee? the Vandy fan will rhetorically ask. Finding a seat, you take it all in, scanning the pregame layup-turned-dunking lines for familiar faces, and they’re all familiar, though you don’t always know from where, from humid high school gyms or the OVC Tournament or ESPN. You cannot rest in your ignorance, so invariably you Google it — nashville pro am basketball roster, you type. You come up empty. The Nashville Pro-Am Basketball League will not be so easily consumed. You’ve got to sit there and watch.

The basketball, you’ll notice, is good. It is very good basketball. It is not quite clear who many of these players are — again, you’re squinting, racking your brain through every roster in the SEC, who is this guy? — but you are convinced that, whoever they are, they’re toeing the line of being an NBA All-Star. The night I first visited, it was not immediately clear that Covington — TSU alum and first team All-Defense for the Philadelphia 76ers this year — was even the best player on the court. I mean, he was, as it turned out, but still — guys were going at him, dudes from Belmont and Lipscomb and UT-Martin, taking it to the rack, right into the chest of the man who rangled with LeBron all season.

After you resist the urge to launch a Google manhunt every time Quael, the sideline-straddling hype man and host, says someone’s name — “Qawn for three…buckets!” — your phone will remain in your pocket the entire game. There is no time to look at it. There are hardly any timeouts, few stoppages, a four-minute halftime, and, blessedly, no playcalls. The basketball just keeps happening. It is infinitely more arresting than a regular season matchup between, say, TSU and Vanderbilt. It’s pickup with structure; pros without flow-throttling coaching. Never do the games bloat into an all-star game dunk contest, and lapses in effort are met with stern words from — who is that? — from someone who means business and must have played somewhere good, because people are listening. All the while the players’ heads bob with the music, your head bobs with the music, Quael riffs on, and Rasheed Walker, the man who made it happen, sits on the front row, watching.

Rasheed Walker is short and compact, all optimism and dreams and energy — hard work draped in a custom throwback. The league’s CEO grew up going to the original Nashville pro-am, less of a curated event than his own, “just guys in the gym hooping,” he remembers, but beloved in the community all the same. From his perch on the sideline, he does it all. When an unproven Lipscomb kid rises up and buries a three, Walker stands and takes a few steps toward the court, hand raised to the sky, celebrating — just as he would if one of his big gets, say, Covington or local blue chipper Darius Garland, made a play. He can be seen distributing water bottles to nearly everyone — players, refs, guys working the scorers table.

“I’m never gonna tell anybody to do something that I wouldn’t do,” he says of his leadership model, “or haven’t done.”

Walker confers with trainers, chats with the police officer, daps a sponsor, and drops reminders in Quael’s ear to hype up the concession stand. He is, seemingly, everywhere — striding purposefully, sitting peacefully.

To talk to Walker is to experience that peace, a genuine thankfulness, but it is also to experience the 29 year-old’s quietly fierce determination. In 2014, when he announced to his buddies that he wanted to bring back the Nashville Pro-Am — a staple of the city in its more grassroots late-90’s/early-2000’s iteration — he was met with a blasé, barely-take-your-eyes-off-the-TV sounds good, man. Walker remembers this reaction, this blip of uncertainty from his friends, as what launched the Pro-Am into its current version.

He is the type, then, to use this momentary slight as motivation, to take to his Instagram story with his daily mantra — How can I get better? How can I improve? This is a man who, working with kids in his Hustle Strong Foundation, tells them, in mixed-sports metaphors, “Yesterday’s home runs don’t win today’s games,” the man who encouraged me, as we signed off the phone, to keep pitching stories: “You can’t get a yes or no if you don’t ask.” The man says things I wouldn’t say, made-for-Instagram platitudes — everything is about growing and elevating; there’s always room for improvement — that, coming out of his mouth, work. I would work for this man, volunteer with his foundation, blow up his phone to play in his basketball league.

Which they do. The basketball players of middle Tennessee line up to play in Walker’s pro-am.

Robert Covington is the obvious one: 6’9”, undrafted out of Tennessee State — goes on to shoot 37% from three and lock down a first team All-Defense spot for the 3-seed Sixers — lacing up for pizza-sponsored Slim & Husky’s. Covington plays in the Pro-Am — one of the tallest out there, yet the one most apt to bomb from deep — with the joy and laxity of one playing back in their college town. He operates, from my vantage point, on about 75%, until an open-court opportunity gives reason to rev it up. The postgame crowd mills on the court after Team Slim & Husky’s play, kids getting pictures, adults like myself just wandering in Covington’s vicinity to catch some of that larger-than-life NBA sparkle.

In addition to Covington, the Pro-Am has enjoyed a cameo or two from the big league. Kenneth Faried dropped in last year. On Sunday, the Hawks’ Alex Poythress relentlessly attacked the rim for Team Cash, while coach, team sponsor, Portland Trail Blazer, and rumored championship game participant John Jenkins clapped from the bench. The NBA guys are cool to see up close, of course, cordoned off as they normally are by the TV screen or by security guys and thirty rows of arena seats. But it is the relentless legion of other guys, desperate for a roster spot, in the G League, overseas, anywhere, who end up snatching your attention.

Pat Miller, whose biceps one could admire for several sustained minutes of game action, has been Slim & Husky’s best at getting buckets, just as he was in 2014, when, as a senior at TSU, he was fifth in the nation in scoring (Miller just signed a contract to play in Germany). Another product of TSU, Gerald Robinson Jr. made his way to Georgia, then all over Europe, then back to the Nashville Pro-Am, at which his insistent, stuttering-yet-smooth headlong drives demand eyeballs. Robinson, suiting up for Team Cash, is the captain of the I-know-I’ve-seen-him-before ship: he took Georgia to the 2011 NCAA Tournament, and led the Bulldogs in scoring the following season. And though the ex-Tigers — Covington, Miller, Robinson — are the standouts, the current TSU squad (over half of whom participated) certainly deserved to be there: Jy’lan Washington, Jalen Duke, and Moore (he of the poster dunks) each turned heads.

Schools all over the city sent their best. Rob Marberry and Kenny Cooper, fresh off an NCAA Tournament appearance for Lipscomb, impressed, while Josh Williams, a Bison alum, played himself into a pro contract in Luxembourg. The dunked-upon McClain, whose athletic drives and quick pull-ups more than made up for the poster, led a trio of Belmont players. Vanderbilt fans got early looks at transfers Matt Ryan, who lit it up for Car Source, and Team Pinnacle’s leapy big man Yanni Wetzell. In Sunday’s semifinals, Nashville’s own Garland, a McDonald’s All-American and five-star Vandy recruit, wowza’d the crowd with a series of crossovers that had me clutching my ankles.

The names and Google searches could go on: my curiosities at last revealed the identities of Jaqawn Raymond, who started and scored 11 points for MTSU in their unforgettable upset of Michigan State in the 2016 tournament; Desmond Cambridge, the Nashville native who co-led Brown University in scoring as a freshman this year; and Josh Wilkerson, Kentucky State’s spry rising freshman and the recipient of host Quael’s “Three Times!” nickname, for his jersey number and proclivity at peppering threes.

Even the old hats elicited awe from fans and quips from Quael: Myles Thrash, a 1999 Stillman College star, and 2003 SEC Player of the Year Ron Slay, whose skills, if not conditioning, are still obvious.

With such a collection of names on the court and in my search history, I wondered how Walker was able to get them all to play — was there money involved? Friendships or favors or owe-you-ones? As it turned out, the answer is a lot cleaner than that.

“Hoopers hoop,” Walker said. Indeed they do.

The finals of the Nashville Pro-Am are on Sunday at Stratford High. There’s a dunk contest, three-point shootout, and the game to follow. The stars will be out: Covington, Jenkins, Poythress, and Garland. For hoops junkies, it’s like hooking yourself up to a House of Highlights IV. I anticipate moving from my seat only to whoop maniacally at each crossover, stepback, and poster dunk.

With so much great basketball to speak of, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this event was merely a launching pad to the pros, an occasion for a great Instagram. But, scanning the crowd, you notice the teenagers, the kids with their parents, the pulsing, frenetic youthfulness of the place. Glancing to the scorers table, you see the high school kids running the scoreboard and keeping the books, and you start to wonder if there’s something more than hoops going on here.

“It’s about the community,” Walker said. “It’s a free event, so kids can come out, watch games, and aspire to play in this league one day. But more so, if they’re in the building with me, they’re not out doing something they shouldn’t be doing.”

What they should be doing is being kids, and, according to Walker’s vision — and long-term plan — moving up. The Pro-Am features an internship program, worth college credit through Tennessee State. The league’s previous photographer got a gig with the Titans; Darwin Moore, the man currently behind the camera, works for MTSU’s basketball and football departments. The Pro-Am’s corporate sponsorships help to keep admission free and undergird Walker’s nonprofit, the Hustle Strong Foundation — which helps to fund youth athletics and provide kids with safe, positive outlets for engagement. This Sunday, the foundation is hosting a shoe drive for children in poverty.

“Basketball is the focal point, but for me and my vision — it’s bigger than basketball,” Walker says. “It’s really about the community, people getting the opportunity to elevate.”

At the Nashville Pro-Am Basketball League, the competition is great — there certainly exist enough highlights to furnish the league’s robust Instagram feed and keep Quael busy on the mic. And while buckets are gotten and ankles are elasticized and unfortunate victims recover from their posterings, there’s Walker, taking it all in, checking on his employees, his refs, the players breaking to the basket, the kids chilling in the stands. Because even as Rob Covington rises to catch an oop — check the ‘gram — Walker is making sure that everyone involved is elevated.

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