There’s this character in Apple TV+’s Ted Lasso(if you’re still not watching, you’re missing out), Dani Rojas, whose entire schtick is that he loves football. Eats, drinks, and lives football. “Football is life.”
His attitude reminds me of NBA players who spend their off-seasons playing hoops—be it in half-empty gyms, summer pro-runs, or barnstorming tours. Maybe without Rojas’s over-the-top exuberance, but the philosophy is the same. While others would prefer to rest and unwind, there are those that have a singular purpose: ball is life.
With still another month to go before the regular season tips off, I thought it would be fun to do an all-time starting five based solely on off-season performance.
Here are the rules: official NBA summer leagues and international tournaments don’t count, and, of course, it will be all about buckets, buckets, buckets. This is not a list of streetballers, so any type of game counts.
Now, without further ado, here’s the NBA All-Time Off-Season Team.
Notable Highlights: 2-year unbeaten run with the GOAT; 63 points plus game-winner (2014); back-to-back 50-point games (2014 & 2021); 31 points and 10 assists in inaugural Crawsover-Drew League match
In hindsight, Crawford should have been one of the first three picks of the notoriously bad 2000 NBA draft. He certainly ended up as arguably the most decorated: 19-year career, 3-time Sixth Man of the Year, only player to have 50-point games for 4 different teams, and the oldest player to score 50 points. You know who possibly foresaw this? The GOAT himself, Michael Jordan.
As Crawford tells it, Jordan reached out through legendary trainer Tim Grover in 2000 to do some workouts. They started playing together in pick-up games and never lost for 2 years while playing against the likes of Penny Hardaway, Tim Hardaway, Antoine Walker, Michael Finley, and Ray Allen. Jordan respected Crawford’s game so much that he reportedly did not want to play in games until J.C. got there.
Crawford’s game is perfect for the summer. He’s got deep range and possesses the best handles of all-time according to Bill Russell. Crawford runs the Seattle Pro-Am, aptly named the “Crawsover,” and he absolutely owns it too. He dropped 104 points in 2 games back in 2014 and had 101 in 2 games as a 41-year-old this year. His most memorable game is this 63-point showpiece in front of Kobe Bryant, which J. Crossover capped off with a game-winner:
An interesting piece of trivia about Crawford: remember Jordan’s iconic 23 vs 39 Gatorade commercial? Crawford played young MJ and was personally asked to play the role by Jordan himself.
Notable Highlights: “Shattered Backboard” (1985); 54 points in the 1988 Midsummer Night’s Magic; 49 points in the 1989 Midsummer Night’s Magic; 37 points in ACB Presentation Game while switching teams at halftime (1990); The Greatest Game Nobody Ever Saw (1992); 52 points at Scottie Pippen’s All-Star Classic (1994)
The GOAT famously had the “For the Love of the Game” clause in his NBA contract that allowed him to play basketball anytime, anywhere, because he loved hooping that much. It was the only such clause that Jerry Krause allowed and we couldn’t be more thankful.
In the summer of ‘85, Jordan traveled to Italy and suited up for Stefanel Trieste in an exhibition game. He finished with 30 points and shattered the backboard with a powerful slam late in the game. The significance goes beyond the game, however, as the orange-and-black jersey he donned would later become the inspiration for one of the most sought-after Jordan 1 colorways, the “Shattered Backboard.”
Perhaps the greatest of Jordan’s off-season exploits is the Dream Team scrimmage match in Monte Carlo, “The Greatest Game Nobody Ever Saw.” In a game that featured 11 future Hall-of-Famers, it ended with Magic acknowledging that there’s a new sheriff in town.
There’s also this bit when Kenny Rogers “put [MJ] in the popcorn machine” in a charity 3-on-3. Needless to say, it didn’t end well for Rogers’s team. Maybe the “For the Love of the Game” clause is actually the “Competitive Addiction” clause.
In addition, a lot of younger fans might not know or remember that MJ made the studio build him ‘The Jordan Dome’ and had some famous pickup games with All-Star caliber players like Reggie Miller, Shaquille O’Neal, Alonzo Mourning and more while filming on set for the original Space Jam.
Notable Highlights: 49 points vs Nets (1975); 40 points vs Bullets (1971); 4 fouls and 3 technical fouls vs Nuggets (1975); 52 points in the Press-Radio All-Stars charity game (1967); 32.6 points per game average in ABA-NBA interleague play
At the height of the rivalry between the ABA and NBA in the late 60’s and early 70’s, the two leagues agreed to play pre-season interleague exhibition games. Most of the interleague games were played in ABA arenas and were not televised because the NBA did not want to legitimize the ABA in front of NBA fans. Thankfully, we have Google and The New York Times’ digitized archives to fill us in.
Rick Barry played for both the ABA side (with the New York Nets from 1970-72) and the NBA side (with the Golden State Warriors from 1972-75). By all accounts, he was the best and most competitive player in the interleague games. In his first game, he had a game-high 24 points, including his trademark underhanded free throws in the final seconds, to lift the Nets to a 116-115 win against John Havlicek’s Celtics. He followed that up with a 40-piece against the NBA finalist Washington Bullets, another Nets victory.
The interleague games may have been labeled as exhibitions, but they were anything but friendly, least not when an ultracompetitive guy like Barry is playing. A couple of days after he nearly came to fisticuffs in a Warriors loss to the Kentucky Colonels, he was thrown out after receiving 3 technicals in the against the Nuggets.
Barry’s final game at the interleague series was also his finest. He went back to New York and scored 49 points in an epic shootout against his old team which was now led by Julius Erving, who finished with 43, and came away with a 119-114 Warriors win. It was one of those games that would’ve broken YouTube if it happened today (I imagine the actual game would’ve been akin to the Larry Bird-Dominque Wilkins Game 7 duel in the 1988 East semis).
Notable Highlights: 63 points at Seattle Pro-Am (2013); 66 points at Rucker Park (2011); 48 points in the CP3 All-Star Pickup Game (2011); 59 points in the Goodman vs Melo League match (2011); 44 and 50 points in Goodman vs Drew League games; 62 points at Goodman League (2009)
This year is the 10th anniversary of KD’s legendary Rucker Park show out. He went off for 66, 28 in the fourth, and at one point drained four consecutive threes that got the crowd so hyped that they flooded the court before the game even ended. Just watch to appreciate:
But let’s not forget that Rucker Park was only the first of many great KD performances in the 2011 off-season. He had scoring runs of 59, 44, and 50 points for the Goodman League team against the Melo League and Drew League teams. He capped off what could be the greatest single off-season run ever with a victory over LeBron James and Dwyane Wade’s team by erupting for 48 at the CP3 All-Star Pickup Game, teaming up with Chris Paul for a 175-146 victory.
Then in 2013, KD returned to Seattle to play hoops for the first time since the city lost the Supersonics franchise. He obliged with a 63-point scoring clinic against the host, Crawford, who had 44 himself.
Notable Highlights: Harlem Globetrotter (first-ever jersey retired in 2000); Rucker Park legend
There are very few footages of Wilt ‘The Stilt’, but no other big man was as active in the off-season as Wilt was. He’d spend his off-seasons touring with the Harlem Globetrotters and was one of the first household names to frequent Rucker.
I’ll just let people who witnessed him do the talking:
With the Harlem Globetrotters
“On the trip to Russia with the Harlem Globetrotters, we were in Lenin Stadium, and they assigned a dressing room to the team. The players were getting dressed for one of their games. They were in rather close quarters. Remember, these were young kids—Wilt was 23. The others were his age. They were like kittens. You bump me, I’ll bump you back. And before you know it, two of the guys set on Wilt. They started playfully pushing and shoving him. And finally one of his teammates hit Wilt a little too hard. He took these two guys, twisted each of their shirts, and lifted both of them off the ground. Each of these guys weighed over 200 pounds. It looked like he had two little crackers in his hands. I thought he was going to hit their heads together. It was an amazing demonstration of strength.” – Dr. Stan Lorber, Globetrotters team physician
“When Chamberlain played with the Globetrotters, coach Abe Saperstein had the dilemma of having two great centers, Meadowlark Lemon, the undisputed ‘Clown Prince’ of the ‘Trotters, and Chamberlain. Saperstein settled upon an original approach—playing Chamberlain as point guard, which allowed him to show off his shooting, passing, and penetration skills.” – Robert Cherry, biographer and author of Wilt: Larger Than Life
At Rucker Park
“[Wilt] dunked it every way you could go. In the school yards, they have the baskets with no nets on them. And one time, he dunked the ball so hard, the ball went through the basket, hit the ground and it went over the 15-foot fence. Somebody went to go get the ball and when they brought the ball back, the basket was still shaking. That’s how strong this guy was. He was just a dominating guy.” – Connie Hawkins, Rucker Park legend and Naismith Hall of Famer
“Wilt Chamberlain just about tore the place down.” – Ernie Morris, unofficial Rucker historian
That’s Wilt! Imagine it happening today. You can’t, because Wilt’s off-seasons are almost as unreal as his 100-point game and his claims about 20,000 women.
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