Slam Dunk

Many fans might consider June the slowest month on the sports calendar, especially in a hoops-centric state like North Carolina. But one volunteer Young Life leader and a handful of high school boys in ​Winston-Salem created their own high-stakes sports league, an idea that went from a casual conversation to a 12-team competitive schedule in just a few weeks.

For Colson Streitmatter and three dozen players primarily from R. J. Reynolds High School, this summer was transformed by the North Carolina Low Hoops Basketball Association (NCLHBA), an organized endeavor that fed their love of low hoops basketball and allowed Streitmatter the opportunity to be part of something memorable in the lives of his high school friends.

It started at the typical post-club hangout spot for Reynolds Young Life — Chick-fil-A. Streitmatter sat with a group of guys that included Jack Peatross and Fred Bland, and they were talking about summer plans. Streitmatter, a junior at Wake Forest University who is from Palm Harbor, Florida, told the guys he was looking forward to staying in Winston-Salem through the summer and having plenty of opportunities to play pick-up basketball.

“Basketball has always been a very central element of my life,” he said. “My first word was ‘hoop,’ my second word was ‘ball,’ and then I said, ‘Mom.’ I said I was excited to play pick-up again, but what if we made it organized, with an actual league and teams? I thought it would be really cool to see kids actually be kids and not feel any pressure to be cool or anything.”

Tip Off

Streitmatter started the ball rolling, and almost immediately the Reynolds students picked it up and started dreaming about what the NCLHBA, so named because they would compete only on eight-and-a-half-foot goals, could be. They’d have a draft, and an organized schedule, complete with an All-Star Weekend and playoffs. They’d give end-of-season awards including a Young Life camp scholarship. And they would get the whole thing going in less than a month.

Word spread, and soon they had enough interest to form 12 teams of three players each, with the vast majority coming from Reynolds High School. The teams would be divided into the Chris Paul Conference and the Tim Duncan Conference to honor the two most acclaimed players ever to come out of Wake Forest, which in addition to being Streitmatter’s university was the place where the NCLHBA would play most of its games. On May 6 the captains gathered at Buffalo Wild Wings to draft their three-man rosters.

Throughout the six-week season, the NCLHBA leaders maintained an active social media presence, especially on Twitter. Players unable to make it to the draft were treated to a real-time thread of each draft pick. The immediacy of social media was a key tool in creating and sustaining “the league.” As the season progressed, the players, their friends and family members knew where to go for scores, stats, highlight videos, polls, predictions and even pre-game interviews. The Twitter account went a long way to raise the league’s profile, said Peatross, who along with Streitmatter handled most of the posting.

“It was really cool because we were tweeting stuff out at first and we figured it would just be our friends, and then we started tweeting a bunch, and a bunch of our friends’ moms started following us, and then a bunch of random people,” said Peatross.

The NCLHBA Twitter feed comprises a comprehensive scrapbook of the league’s inaugural season. Special events included a dunk contest and three-point contest organized as part of the league’s All-Star Break, a weekly captains’ vote for the Player of the Week, and a “trade day” two weeks into the season. From late May to early July, the teams battled each other, and in the championship game Wheaties defeated Team Serenity 89-81 to capture the inaugural NCLHBA title.

Pivot

The players voted for a slate of postseason awards, but the one with the most potential for long-term eternal consequence was the Andrew Larsen Man of the Year Award, named after a former Reynolds Young Life leader and given for exceptional character and sportsmanship. The winner of that distinction, "WillB," received a free trip to Carolina Point, with the bus departing less than a week after the NCLHBA season ended.

WillB had gone to SharpTop Cove in 2017, but during his second camp trip, underwritten by the NCLHBA, God’s love broke through in a significant way. Streitmatter was a leader in his cabin, and he was able to see WillB begin a relationship with Christ. “One of the things he said to me really painted a picture of what the Young Life experience is: ‘Last summer I realized how much God loves me. This summer at Young Life camp I realized how much I should love God because of what He did for me.’”

That vivid God-sighting, along with the scores of new connections Streitmatter developed through the NCLHBA, speak the loudest about the league’s extraordinary potential for a basketball-crazy Young Life leader and his guys who love nothing more than a steady dose of friendly competition. The founders of the league have already scheduled a fall tournament in November, because nobody wants to wait until next summer to take the court again.

Hang Time

Streitmatter, who also got to compete in the league, knows he could go to the high school parking lot for years and still not forge the quality and number of friendships he made during that short basketball season. “Frankly, it was really fun for me,” he said. “There was a whole lot of contact work done.” And the high school guys who helped coordinate the NCLHBA know the connections formed between their Young Life leader and their friends will have Kingdom effects that outlast the memories of intense low-ball competition in the heat of a North Carolina summer.

“We weren’t really having club during the season, but in my opinion more people will start coming to club who were in the league,” said Bland, one of the NCLHBA founders. “Some people didn’t really know Colson at all, and others had just heard of him. And I feel like some of the people who came into the league really bonded with him, and bonded with him pretty well.”