The semi-pro Venice Basketball League brings the game closer to fans
By Sam Catanzaro
It’s opening day and the Brand Black Future All Stars are taking on a team called Sunblock in the showcase matchup.
Measuring at least seven feet tall, a player who calls himself The Mythical Creature sees an opening and suddenly charges toward the basket.
Leaping, he dunks the ball and hangs on the rim for an extra two seconds of glory.
A deejay pumps out bone-shaking hip-hop beats.
The crowd of hundreds erupts in cheers.
It’s hard to image basketball more exciting than watching LeBron James and Steph Curry facing off in the NBA Finals, but the Venice Basketball League aims to give the pros a run for their money with a unique brand of fast-paced, intensely physical, crowd-pleasing streetball that’s all about bringing fun back to the game.
“It is a player experience. You get to play outdoors. You get big crowds. You get an emcee. You get a deejay. Hundreds of people watching. Women in bikinis everywhere. I would call it a hooper’s paradise,” says Nick Ansom, founder and president of the Venice Basketball League — VBL for short.
The league’s ninth summer season began June 7, and teams continue to play each Sunday through mid-August at the boardwalk-adjacent Venice Beach basketball courts.
Over the years, NBA stars such as Ron Artest, Derrick Rose and Blake Griffin have made guest player appearances, as have former NFL wide receiver Terrell Owens, rapper Snoop Dogg and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Hoopla and hype aside, the high level of play is enough to keep any sports fan entertained.
“The overall experience was very positive with a lot of energy,” says spectator Cory Mills. He was visiting from San Francisco last Sunday, noticed the crowd gathered around the courts and ended up staying to watch a whole game.
‘Just Straight-Up Ball’
Ansom was working as a deejay in Hollywood when he founded the Venice Basketball League in 2006 as a way to combine his love of music and sport. Born in France, Ansom always wanted to play basketball. After arriving in the U.S. in 1988, he immediately began playing pickup basketball at the Venice Beach courts.
“I loved Venice Beach so I decided to create a basketball tournament in Venice where I would be able to showcase my deejay and basketball skills,” Ansom says. “I would bring artists I met in Hollywood to do halftime shows and just try to tie in all my passions in one place.”
Venice Beach is already a tourism hotspot, but the VBL thrives by drawing on the area’s longstanding reputation for high-intensity outdoor pickup games. The league has adopted the pared-down rulebook of streetball, which speeds up play versus conventional basketball.
“I think streetball just makes for less politics. We are here to play ball, and it’s just straight-up ball. Nobody ain’t got to worry about certain minor rules,” says the Venice Basketball League’s announcer and emcee, who identifies himself only as “Mouthpiece.”
With the league’s streetball style of play, free throws play a different role in the game. Instead of awarding players free throws after fouls, each team’s fouls are tallied throughout a game and if a team commits more than eight fouls their opponents will be awarded free throws in the last minute of the fourth quarter. Eliminating free-throw interruptions makes for faster-paced, higher-caliber games.
“It raises the level of play,” says Joel Brokenbrough, a member of the VBL team Ballerz World who also plays Division 1 ball for Cal State L.A. “People gotta earn their buckets.”
Also adding to the league’s intensity is a rule that shortens the shot clock from 24 to 10 seconds in the last two minutes of the fourth quarter for the leading team if the score differential is 10 points or less.
Streetball also tends to be more physical than the conventional game, as players on defense are not allowed to double-team an opponent. Rather, all defense must be man-on-man, and fouls have to be pretty egregious to get called.
“We are going to allow a lot more contact to go through here,” VBL referee Reggie Ramirez says courtside during a break in the action.
“Contact” may be an understatement. Venice Basketball League players often wrestle for the ball on the ground while officials stand by and let them determine possession without a jump shot.
‘… And the Scenery, Man’
Despite being described by Ansom as “player-oriented,” the league comes across as geared primarily toward giving spectators a great time.
In addition to the non-stop music blared by the league’s deejays, announcer Mouthpiece provides colorful commentary that evokes frequent laughter from the crowd.
“I give a sense of livelihood to it, and the scenery, man, you know it’s so much wrapped into one. We just have a great time out here,” Mouthpiece says.
Showboating can be an issue, though. Players are constantly attempting spectacular dunks and plays, which according to spectator Mills perhaps hinders the overall level of play.
“I thought a lot of people were trying to show off too much and do a bunch of tricks, rather than actually passing the ball a lot and trying to score a lot of points. It was really entertaining to watch, but the level of play was not at the pro level. But it was still very high,” says Mills.
The VBL is today composed of 12 teams that travel around the world to play basketball at various tournaments and events, but it was not always this way. When Ansom started in the league, there were only four teams.
“We started the league as a skins-versus-shirts league, and for the first two years it was unorganized until we started doing sponsors,” Ansom says. “For the first five years it was just a passion. It was me playing every Sunday to make it happen. Now it is starting to turn into more of a business, and with sponsors being involved it makes it a little more legitimate.”
In addition to player registration fees, sponsors such as Whole Foods, Nike, GoPro, RVCA and Red Bull fund the league. The VBL is also looking to become more self-sustainable through sales of apparel and merchandise.
“This year we created designer basketball uniforms. They are all hand cut and sewn in L.A. Creating appeal is the best way to become sustainable and not depend on corporate sponsors, because honestly it has been somewhat of a challenge to bring in big money to fund the program,” Ansom says.
‘For the Love of the Game’
Despite all the responsibilities that come with running the league, Ansom makes sure not to forget why he founded it, and he still finds time to play.
“There was a gap in L.A. basketball. There was no other league like this — no outdoor league in Los Angeles, the greatest outdoor city in the world,” Ansom says. “Playing on the court reminds me why I started it and why I actually do it: because it is so much fun to play.”
The VBL struggled to get the attention of NBA and NCAA players in its early years, but Ansom believes the pure fun of league games has been the key to attracting high-level talent looking to play in front of an enthusiastic and engaged audience.
“It has definitely opened the minds of a lot of players. Slowly but surely I see somewhat of a revival of people coming out there just to play for the love of the game,” Ansom says.
The Venice Basketball League has also created an international presence, playing tournaments in Mexico and France.
Ansom hopes the VBL will continue to expand its footprint in order to spread the talent, flash and enthusiasm the league brings to the court.
“Year by year more and more people want to join. We are getting better competition, and with more awareness for the love of the game,” he says.
For more information about past and future Venice Basketball League games, visit veniceball.com.