Chicago Basketball League: A Courtside Community

A basketball RSO is one of the campus's best-kept secrets.
Photo by: 
Danilo Linhares
A lot of it is just the culture around pickup basketball. If someone comes in and is good at basketball, it doesn’t matter if you know them or not—you introduce yourself, you want to meet them.
Jay Cullen

Maybe you’ve seen them during their mid-March exhibitions in Crown. Maybe you got lost on campus one day, ended up in the Lab School gym, and saw them playing. Or maybe, if you’re lucky—and good—you’ve been handed one of their business cards as an invitation to join their league.

The Chicago Basketball League (CBL) is one of the best kept secrets on campus. It’s an RSO that reaches beyond the undergraduate community to put on a quarter-long season of organized basketball each spring. The 120 members of the league run the gamut, from local high schoolers to undergrads to graduate students, Hyde Parkers, dining hall workers, and anybody else who loves basketball.

“I think everyone here has a really good sense of community, sense of friendship with their teams and with their competitors,” fourth-year Will Fernandez said. “I like everyone. I’ve enjoyed being in the league so much just because of the people that I’ve gotten to interact with.”  

An undergraduate named Taotao Zhang (AB‘08) started CBL eight years ago, with some help from his classmate Keenan Pontoni (AB’08). They turned a twice-weekly pickup game that began in 2006 into a system of organized competition in 2008.  

CBL strikes a balance between casual pickup basketball and more formal, commitment-heavy games like those found in varsity athletics. This is what sets CBL apart. Pickup basketball doesn’t have set teams; players can’t rely on being on the court with the same players week in and week out. But in CBL, there’s the added element of organization, as well as the opportunity to form team relationships. This structure comes from a system in which General Managers (GMs) draft their teams following three days of exhibition games. G.M.s act as player-coaches, charting plays and maintaining morale. Most of the players participated in organized sports in high school, so CBL offers them a chance to experience the advantages of being on a team again, without the varsity or club commitment.

Each matchup begins with a ritual, in which both teams meet at the center of the court to go over the rules: Players call their own fouls, and games end after a team scores 50 points.

Teams play a seven-week season with 14 games, competing for playoff spots and a chance at eternal glory. The winning team’s G.M. gets possession of a wrestling-style belt until the G.M. of next year’s champions takes possession. This year the winning team was then-fourth-year Danlei Yan’s “Love Handles.”

The commissioner is the main force in the league, making sure everything runs smoothly. A few of the many tasks of the commish include organizing the draft, presiding over any disputes that occur during play, and keeping track of the basketballs. Since Zhang’s stint as the first commissioner, different senior members of the league—all undergrads—have taken on the role.

This year’s commissioner was Jay Cullen (AB’15), who discovered CBL through one of the league’s classic recruitment tactics.

The board members scout players at intramural games. If a player stands out, as Cullen did to CBL elder Jordan Green, a member hands that player a business card after the game.

“I had heard about [CBL] from a few other guys who balled, but I didn’t really take it seriously,” Cullen said. “But when he handed me the business card, I was like, ‘Oh wow, I’ve got to take this seriously.’”

Although he’s the commissioner, Cullen wears no special emblem on a regular night, stands in no specific place, and demonstrates no forced hierarchy over the others in the gym. Instead, his leadership is rooted in his maintenance of CBL’s culture of honor and equality on which Zhang built the league.

The composition of the league each year is varied, with players featuring different levels of playing experience.

While there aren’t any male varsity basketball players in the league this year, there’s a growing trend of women’s varsity players in CBL. Graduated fourth-year GM and Maroons’ varsity basketball player Mary MacLeod (AB’15) got involved in CBL her second year after establishing a name for herself playing pickup in Ratner throughout her first year.  

At the time she joined, MacLeod was one of two women in the league, and just the third in CBL history.

Now, thanks to MacLeod’s heavy recruiting, there are eight girls in the league this year. Each is an undergraduate varsity athlete, from sports including soccer and volleyball in addition to basketball.

“A few of these girls could give a bunch of these guys a run for their money,” said rising second-year Elizabeth Nye, who also plays on the women’s varsity basketball team.

For women’s varsity players, coed basketball isn’t the norm—until they join CBL.

“The guys were really awesome [last year] about knowing that girls are good and being OK with passing us the ball,” rising third-year Britta Nordstrom said before the CBL season started. “Plus, once you don’t mess up too [much], they’ll learn to trust you.”

Since its inception, CBL has undergone a lot of other changes as well over its eight years. A chief development of late has been securing a regular venue for the twice-weekly games. Prior to 2014, CBL games took place in Henry Crown. This was a risky home to have, as Crown courts could not be reserved, and often an entire slate of games had to be cancelled when the courts were already full.

With Crown undergoing renovation in the spring of 2014, those in charge of CBL had to seek out a new space. They came to an agreement with the athletic director at the Lab School, and now play twice a week on two courts reserved in the Lab School’s gym.

With this home court space locked in, the league is now entering a period of stability. The board members know how to do the draft, and they’re able to organize the exhibition games seamlessly. Cullen and others invested in CBL’s future are now thinking of ways to grow and change the organization for the better.

One of Cullen’s goals as commissioner was broadening CBL’s footprint across campus beyond the spring quarter season. In the winter, CBL organized a three-on-three charity tournament to raise money for a South Side center that encourages youths to engage in pickup basketball, among other activities.

These developments testify to the strength of the league. No matter where the games are held or how many teams are in the league, CBL has developed a dedicated following of players who return year in and year out, showing up at the Lab School every week out of an appreciation for the sport itself.

“Everyone who plays in the league loves to play basketball,” rising fourth-year and 2015-16 CBL commissioner Sam Zacher said.

These words may seem simple, even obvious or unnecessary. But they provide clues as to how an RSO predicated on two weekly basketball games per team has survived for so long. There’s no stopping the players from giving up on their teams early in the season, or simply signing up, participating in exhibitions, but never showing up to a game.

Nobody takes attendance, but the players come back every Tuesday and Thursday anyway. It’s because they love the sport, they bond with their teams, and they want to keep playing. They create relationships with people who are complete strangers at the start of the season.

“I think a lot of it is just the culture around pickup basketball. If someone comes in and is good at basketball, it doesn’t matter if you know them or not—you introduce yourself, you want to meet them,” Cullen said.

More than the numbers or the wins and losses accrued, CBL stands out for the community it fosters. Players frequently linger long after their games are done for the night, cheering on teams that are still competing. Completely focused on the court, people are almost never checking their phones.

One game night this season, the Chicago Bulls were locked in one overtime, and then two, against the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs. But the two teams playing on the Lab School’s Court Two were leaving it all out on the court, playing a fierce and physical game. Even with the Bulls game playing on the side on a laptop, the 18- to 30-year-olds draining threes on a middle school gym took center stage over the double-OT NBA game.

For those involved in CBL, the game is all that matters when the clock’s on.

This is an abridged version of a feature from the Spring 2015 edition of Grey City. For the full version, click here.

Tagged: student life