On side-by-side courts at the Suwanee Sports Academy Monday night, a few interesting basketball teams were in action.
One was headed up by B.J. Puckett, a 31-year-old Dacula grad who has made a career out of pro basketball, most recently in 2014-15 in Japan. Staying sharp for the upcoming pro season, he fielded a team that included Mill Creek grad Zach Landis, who restarted his college basketball career at 23, because of rough knee injuries, last season at Chattahoochee Tech. They were joined by Shiloh grad, three-time Georgia Bulldog football All-American and now well-known ESPN analyst David (Davey to us) Pollack.
Puckett’s team picked up the victory over a group that included former Atlanta Falcons wideout and now 680 The Fan host Brian Finneran.
The court beside theirs featured a Berkmar all-star team of sorts, headlined by longtime overseas pros Tony Akins and Wayne Arnold. They squared off against a group of younger guys fresh out of college, including Greater Atlanta Christian’s 6-foot-8 Trent Wiedeman, who is between Georgia Southern and pro basketball, and Peachtree Ridge’s Khalid Mutakabbir, fresh off an exceptional pro basketball season in Spain.
The same sort of scene plays out each Monday night in the summer with the Team Belief Summer League, a faith-based enterprise founded three years ago by Berkmar grad David Akin. He built the foundation for the summer league with friends and connections in Gwinnett basketball, and it has flourished from there.
Six teams of college players and six teams of pros (and guys like Pollack and Finneran) compete Mondays at 7 p.m. for the college guys and 8 p.m. for the pros. Sometimes the younger players, as North Gwinnett grad Kam Calhoun and former North guard T.J. Howard did this past Monday, join the pro teams if they’re short on players.
The league isn’t about making money or about promises of pro careers. It’s about basketball, a place to play it, and Akin’s Christianity.
“We tell them, ‘This is what it is, you’re going to come play pickup against professional players and just leave it at that,’” Akin said. “I think that, more so than anything, is important to me because I’m not a salesman. This is not a business. This is something I get to do. I get to pray for the young men. There are no strings attached. They know what they’re getting into.”
Akin tries to listen to the pros who attend, catering to their requests on improvements — like adding the NBA 3-point line after the first year.
“You have high-caliber players who play ball for a living, officials in here who have refereed at the highest level, it’s head and shoulders above any other league right here in Gwinnett County,” Puckett said. “This is a basketball-rich area. For guys like me who live in the county, we would have to go down to Atlanta, to the other side of Atlanta to play ball. Now we can come to Suwanee, Georgia to do it.”
The venue is certainly a lure for the players — the Suwanee Sports Academy is one of the most highly regarded basketball facilities in the country — but the league itself draws rave reviews as well. NBA referee Sean Wright heads up a large group of officials who keep the action more regulated than typical summer pickup games.
“You’ve got three refs, this one’s legit,” Pollack said. “You’re not getting away with as much (as other leagues). It’s well officiated. … It’s very well put together. The best competition, probably, you’re going to find.”
That competition is a major draw for those who play in the league. Some play every week, or just about every week, while others pop in when they’re in town and free. Akins, a former Georgia Tech point guard entering his 14th season of pro basketball, played Monday night on a rare trip home from South Korea, where he plays currently. Arnold’s game Monday was his first Team Belief action of the summer.
“I didn’t know a league here was like this,” Akins said. “It’s competitive. These guys can play. Even though I’m a pro, I haven’t played in three months. I like it. There are a lot of young guys, athletic guys. You can tell if your team knows how to play ball, you’ll win. If they don’t, you won’t (win). It’s a good league. I like it here.”