They say the best things in life are free. Some are free because they’re products of nature, whereas others are free, well, because they’re NCAA-regulated.
Pittsburgh Basketball Club’s summer Pro-Am (Professional-Amateur) league is the latter, and for eight years, it has been one of college basketball’s best-kept secrets.
The games showcase pros facing and teaming up with some of the best amateur talent in the area. With the exception of the league’s inaugural season in 2006, games have taken place at a rickety gym in Greentree.
This year, admission will still be free while the league upgrades its location to Montour High School’s athletic complex in McKees Rocks, Pa. Games — starting June 23 — are on Mondays and Wednesdays, but the addition of another court at Montour will allow two games to be played at once, at 7 and 8 p.m., respectively.
In recent years, people have flocked from surrounding states – some from as far as 2 1/2 hours away – to watch the fusion of the region’s basketball talents clash in pickup-style games. Players from Pitt, Robert Morris University and Duquesne University participate in the league, as do players from West Virginia, Penn State, Youngstown State and other schools within driving distance.
The Greentree establishment, which hosted games for seven years, is part of a building that appeals to sentiment more than to the comfort of players and their fans — the bleachers are too small, there is no cell phone reception and soccer balls from the court’s neighboring indoor field often whack Pro-Am’s spectators in the back.
“I remember being there one time, two hours before the first game tips off,” John Giammarco, the Pro-Am league’s director, said. “I’m plugging in the scoreboard and there are no lights on in the place, just the lights so you’re not standing in the dark, and you could feel somebody was looking at you.”
Giammarco was surprised to see a father doling out packed lunches to his kids, setting up a picnic in the gym.
“If you want these front row seats, you’ve got to be here early,” the father told Giammarco, who looked at him cross-eyed. He ran into him again later in the day.
“Hey, I didn’t mean to scare you, but I could never afford the donation to buy the expensive seats to be this close to these kinds of players,” the father said, referring to expensive prices of courtside seats at regular season games.
A remarkable aspect of the league is that it was essentially formed by accident.
Giammarco gives credit to Pitt’s men’s basketball coach, Jamie Dixon, for its development.
“[I was] at the  Final Four in Indianapolis. I basically made the left at Albuquerque and I bumped right into coach,” Giammarco said. “Pittsburgh Basketball Club’s high school leagues are [120 teams deep], and just through small talk, he said, ‘How come we don’t have one of these for the college guys?’ and I said ‘Coach, I never thought about it.”
While quickly preparing for its first season, Giammarco first saw the difficulties involved in directing a college-level summer league. The players wanted to play, but the NCAA complicated things.
The NCAA sets geographic restrictions to ensure its players don’t travel too far to play in semiweekly games during the summer. The organization has a rule stating only players who either live or go to school less than 100 miles from the site of games may participate in a league.
Additionally, there’s a rule limiting the number of players per summer team who attend the same school. This year, the rule has been tweaked, primarily because of increases in “one and dones,” transfers and incoming freshmen at high-level programs.
“What’s going to change this year, you can only have two kids [from a program] per team no matter what year they are,” Sammy D’Agostino, commissioner of the Pro-Am, said. "The rule used to be a team, as long as they were freshmen or transfers, could have more than a couple players from the same school.”
As a result, rosters will now have a hodgepodge of players.
When the league began in the summer of 2006, games were held at North Allegheny High School in Wexford, Pa. The level of competition was unprecedented, but the season went deep into August and Giammarco and others involved with the league were unable to finish games because of conflicts with the high school’s gym schedule. At Greentree, the coaches again faced scheduling conflicts because of players’ class schedules and spectators’ plans.
And this year, the Greentree gym will be left behind, along with its memories.
One of the more memorable moments for David Tobiczyk, the Pro-Am’s scorekeeper, involves a Pitt player who stood out from the rest.
“Going into Sam Young’s senior year [2008-09],” Tobiczyk said, “Sam arrived literally a few seconds before the game started and he ran essentially down onto the court from out in the parking lot and lined up for the opening tip. The opening tip came to him and he turned around, shot and made a three.”
Another time, Young’s Pitt teammate, DeJuan Blair, threw down a transition dunk so monstrous that the hoop tipped and nearly toppled to the ground.
“There was somebody sitting on [the cushion attached to bottom of the hoop], and [the cushion] threw him two feet in the air. This poor guy looked like a jack-in-the-box,” Giammarco said.
The player-on-player matchups have become arguably more potent memories than the highlight reel plays. Players in the 2011 league included T.J. McConnell, the Duquesne-turned-Arizona point guard.
“In one of the games, [McConnell] was matched right up against Ashton Gibbs,” Tobiczyk said. “A lot of folks say with the summer league that it’s just a summer league. Well, the way those two folks were going at it, both were playing as hard as they could to win. It was quite a battle.”
At times, McConnell lost his cool during the game, glaring towards a pack of anti-McConnell hecklers who ran their mouths three rows from the floor.
A few choice words resulted, but McConnell held his own against Gibbs.
Last summer, the Pro-Am featured a contest reminiscent of the City Game at its height.
In a July championship game that featured much trash talk, pushing, shoving and obscenities, a team led by Pitt’s Talib Zanna and James Robinson overcame a squad led by many Duquesne starters.
“That was as intense a game we had since we’ve been there,” D’Agostino said. “We had to break up two or three fights.”
Zanna and Duquesne’s Ovie Soko received technical fouls during a scuffle, but Zanna came through with 37 points and the league’s MVP award.
“That might be the first time since the late ‘70s when I saw Pitt and Duquesne players chirping at one another,” Giammarco said. “They’re in different worlds [now], but Duquesne was battling.”
Duquesne coach Jim Ferry was there to see the game. The league reminds him of the nitty-gritty pickup games played every summer in New York City.
“In New York, we always had the Rucker Park summer leagues going on, and I think this Pro-Am is right there [with them],” Ferry said. Rucker Park, the famed outdoor court in Harlem, hosts competitions during the summer as well, most notably the Entertainer’s Basketball Classic.
The Pro-Am league’s move to Montour can only boost its current status.
Both courts have a college-level 3-point line and shot clocks are placed atop the baskets. The clocks will not be used this year — the league has never had them before — but Giammarco plans to in the near future.
There is never an empty seat, and fans have had to stand along a wall during games in years past if they wanted a place in the gym, demonstrating a level of interest that continues to make an impression on Giammarco.
“It’s just the fan turnout to this thing. I’ve never seen anything like it. The fans just support this religiously,” he said. “You hear some of this nonsense that ‘Pittsburgh is not a basketball town,’ but Jamie Dixon is the modern era. He had this vision. It is exactly what he said it would be.”