Locals shine in The People's Games

5/13/2011 - NBA New York Knicks
The People's Games court was assembled in the North Plaza of Union Square Park. The People's Games

NEW YORK -- "A technical foul in a streetball game?" someone in the crowd yelled. "Are you kidding me?"

Many who know the inside-outs of playground basketball will tell you there is no such thing as getting T'd up. It's a forbidden unwritten rule. But what that spectator didn't realize was that this was much more than a New York City pickup game.

It was Game 2 of The People's Games, a best-of-three series between New York City and Los Angeles, headlined by some of the best nonprofessional ballers in each city. Game 1 had been played two days earlier in Venice Beach, Calif. The inaugural event was a chance for the "common man" -- who had no playing contract, no endorsements and no threat of a lockout -- to rep their hometown and come out victorious.

Of course, it was anything but commonplace.

On Monday night, an NBA-like hardwood court with "The People's Games" painted on the surface was assembled in the North Plaza of Union Square Park on 17th Street between Broadway and Park Avenue South.

The following afternoon, a picture-perfect sunny and slightly breezy day, hundreds of passersby arrived for the 5 p.m. ET tipoff. The court setting felt like it had been transplanted from Madison Square Garden and inserted into the Gramercy neighborhood of Manhattan. In addition to the playing surface, there was a PA announcer, a DJ, mop guys, fan contests and even a halftime show featuring teenage girls from the National Double Dutch League.

To top it all off, New York Knicks Hall of Famer Earl "The Pearl" Monroe and former Los Angeles Lakers star Lucius Allen paced opposite ends of the sideline. If Monroe's New York team won, Game 3 would be held the next day on the campus of The City College of New York. But in the end, missed foul shots doomed the hometown boys and Allen's Los Angeles squad prevailed 58-55.

"It was a different experience," said Monroe, who was assisted by his daughter, Maya, the head coach at the College of Saint Elizabeth in Morristown, N.J., ex-Knicks point guard Geoff Huston, and former NBA coach Cliff Morgan. "I guess I was a little more into this game than the Knicks, only because I'm here coaching it. I'm just happy to have been able to be here to participate with these guys. They're a good bunch of guys. We played pretty well, all things considered. Free throws really knocked us out."

To capture how The People's Games was really constructed, you have to go back to a beach day in California a few years ago. Co-founders Terry Jastrow, a seven-time Emmy Award-winning producer, and Armyan Bernstein, the chairman of Beacon Pictures, were literally walking by the waves with their families when they came up with the idea.

"[Armyan] said, 'I've always had a secret wish, a secret dream,'" Jastrow says, reflecting on their conversation. "He said, 'What happens if we go into the neighborhoods and we section it off, sort of like March Madness, so that the neighborhoods would play each other. They would have teams and they'd play each other to a city champion. No pros, just like the common man.' And I said, 'Oh, The People's Games.' And he stopped and said, 'You got it, you got it.'"

While Jastrow and Bernstein were brainstorming further, they decided to start with a basketball competition between NYC and LA. They then wanted two iconic coaches, one to represent each city. After getting a commitment from Allen, a two-time NCAA champion at UCLA who played under John Wooden, Allen led Jastrow and Bernstein to a New York legend.

"[Lucius] said some version of, 'Man, I hate to do this, but your guy is Earl Monroe,'" Jastrow says, laughing. "He said, 'He's a really great friend of mine and he's a lovely guy.'"

All it took was one lunch meeting with Monroe, and he was on board. Jastrow was honored to have such "basketball royalty" taking part in the inaugural event, which commenced with tryouts in March. There were only three rules for participants: They had to be at least 18 years old, a resident of New York City or Los Angeles, and have no previous professional hoops experience.

After three tryouts, the 16-member NYC team was chosen, with ages ranging from 22 to 35 and every borough represented except for Staten Island. But these weren't just talented ballplayers. Some of them were just fortunate to be alive, let alone be able to play in The People's Games. Each guy had the makings of his own documentary.

Majestic Mapp, 29, a former McDonald's All-American who tore his ACL his freshman year in college, is now trading commodities on Wall Street, including heating oil, crude oil, natural gas and gasoline. Durell Watson, 28, suffered four stab wounds (one was about an inch away from causing permanent paralysis) while growing up in the drug-ridden Brownsville section of Brooklyn, and is now a caseworker for individuals with mental illness. Daniel Alotta, 35, is a Hodgkin's lymphoma survivor who is now cancer-free and working in the fashion and restaurant business. Others were holding down two jobs just to make a living and one is even unemployed, having been laid off a few months prior.

"For the most part, everybody comes from some kind of situation that separates them from someone else," Mapp said. "You just like the fact that no one has given up. Everyone is moving on, moving forward with their lives and not letting basketball be the end all, be all of their lives."

"The most important thing is that they're here and they're participating and competing," Monroe said. "We formed kind of a bond, a little family. Whatever else happens out there, that happens. But within our circle, we're family."

Jastrow and Bernstein's vision for The People's Games is to expand to other sports, including football, baseball and soccer, and add more tournament-style competitions in other major cities in the U.S. Their ultimate goal is to sell the concept to television as a reality series.

After the game, Mapp, who had played on some of basketball's biggest stages from high school at St. Raymond to college at Virginia, said he had never been involved with an event quite like this.

"No, not at all," Mapp said. "They put on a good show -- an experience I will never forget."