'Put Me on LeBron's Team': Inside the Summer's Most Star-Studded Pickup Game

photo of Yaron WeitzmanYaron Weitzman@YaronWeitzmanFeatured ColumnistIn New YorkAugust 22, 2017

The first rule of scoring an invite to participate in the world's greatest pickup basketball game? Fight Club fans would be proud.

"You've got to keep it a secret beforehand. You don't want everybody to find out and come to the building to watch," Oklahoma City big man Enes Kanter tells Bleacher Report.

Kanter's offseason games are often first-rate. He trains at Life Time Athletic at Sky—an upscale Manhattan gym where former New York Knicks staffer Chris Brickley works with Carmelo Anthony and dozens of other pros. 

And so as Kanter picked up his phone last week to check his latest text from Brickley, he expected to see the same names flash across his screen. Then he opened Brickley's message. 

LeBron James and Kevin Durant would be joining them, it read. Giddy, Kanter punched in a response. 

"I told Chris, 'Just make sure you put me on LeBron's team,'" he says.

A few days earlier, James had posted a message to his Twitter followers.

Anthony, it seems, had an answer for his longtime friend: New York City.

On Tuesday morning, James boarded his private jet in Miami and flew north, where he met Durant, Anthony and a handful of other NBA players: Kanter, JR Smith, Lance Thomas, Marshall Plumlee and Dahntay Jones. Smith's younger brother, Chris (a former NBA player), Real Madrid's Dontaye Draper and University of Kentucky basketball players Hamidou Diallo and Nick Richards were brought in to help fill out the squads.

"It was like an All-Star Game," Kanter says.

And in terms of personnel, this was one of the greatest pick-up games of all time.

Life Time Athletic's regular members have grown accustomed to seeing a bearded (and often hooded) Anthony and other NBA players honing their jumpers alongside Brickley. But on this Tuesday morning, the gym's management was told that "a big star" was coming in and the club's regulars were trying guess who it could be. 

Then, a little before 11 a.m., James and his crew strolled through the building's 42nd street entrance and made their way to the gym's lower-level court. Black shades were plastered to the glass windows to prevent the usual peering eyes and phones. 

"It's the kind of game you want to be a fly on the wall for," Chris Smith tells Bleacher Report in a phone interview.

Brickley divided teams beforehand. LeBron, JR Smith, Thomas, Kanter and Jones were on one side; Durant, Anthony, Plumlee and the two Kentucky players were on another. Those "lowest on the totem pole" sat after losses, says Chris Smith. 

They played for nearly two hours. The games were to 11 (by ones and twos) and the first team with five wins was the victor. Players called their own fouls, according to Chris Smith, who adds that Dahntay Jones was guilty of doing so more than the rest.

Smith laughs as he recalls the games, but gets serious when he talks about playing with James.

"Being on his team, you're just like, 'Wow, he can do everything.' And even there, he's so competitive. He wants to win every game."

What about the other stars?

"Carmelo's mid-post, hesitation jump shot fading away toward the baseline is unstoppable," he adds. "And KD just needs two steps to get to the rim from half court."

There's no time for trash-talking, Smith says, when games are so short and you have wizards like James, Anthony and Durant on the floor and a sniper like JR Smith causing them all to look on in awe.

"I've never seen anybody better at pickup basketball than JR Smith," Kanter says. "In a five-on-five game in the summer time, I'll take JR Smith over everybody."

Why?

"He just plays with so much confidence," Kanter says. "He hits these crazy shots—step-backs, drives, hook shots—where everybody just looks at each other and goes, 'Did he just make that?'"

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 08: JR Smith #5 of the Cleveland Cavaliers shoots the ball during practice and media availability as part of the 2017 NBA Finals on June 08, 2017 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and
Darren Carroll/Getty Images

For Kanter, the game is a welcomed respite from the regular monotony of practicing alone in a gym. Also, he says, it gives him an opportunity to get himself into game shape and work on his weaknesses, like defending ball-handlers in space. That's why he's made pickup with his peers a regular part of his offseason routine, and why those who work with NBA players are always pushing their clients to do so as well.

"It's important for my young clients to see the work ethic that a star like Melo has, and to be able to be in the gym going through the same routine helps them understand what it takes for them to accomplish their own goals," says Tzvi Grossman, who manages a number of NBA players and assisted Brickley in turning Life Time Athletic into a bastion for offseason pickup games. "Iron sharpens iron, and everyone benefits from putting their skills against the best in the world." 

Per Grossman, three years ago, Nerlens Noel (his client) was preparing for his second season in the NBA. He had missed his entire first year to a torn ACL and sought to increase his offseason work. Grossman suggested joining Anthony for a pickup game.

"He walked off the court and told me that that was the best talent he had ever played against," Grossman recalls.

The day after the James/Durant game, Anthony, Jones and Thomas were back at Life Time Athletic, but this time without the NBA Finals rivals. The black shades isolating the court from the outside world were removed and few of the gym's members congregated outside the glass doors. They watch Anthony drain jumpers and Lance Stephenson and Jones argue over foul calls. On any other day, it would be a spectacle. 

"You should have been here yesterday," one member says to an onlooker. "That was something."

Yaron Weitzman covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @YaronWeitzman, and listen to his Knicks-themed podcast here.