It is Sunday afternoon, and Corey Bowman is trying not to shout back. He’s just whistled a foul on Future Minds and, even though the team is getting blown out by CMB, somehow it’s his fault.

The crowd is even more agitated, breathing down his neck like the Cameron Crazies at Duke, calling for him to get his eyes checked. The foolproof solution to settling down the “Lion’s Den” — just put the ball back in and keep going.

“For a ref, you have to have thick skin or just block it out,” Bowman said. “As a player, you better bring it every day. If you don’t bring it, the crowd is going to let you know about it.”

In the Brunson League, the fans are as much a part of the game as the players. For 10 years, they’ve sat for free courtside and chirped as Baltimore’s best battled it out on the basketball court. Some skip church to attend the games, which feature players ranging from New Orleans Pelicans forward Naji Marshall, the league’s MVP, to Derik Queen, the sixth-best high school player nationally.

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“It doesn’t matter what your résumé is. It doesn’t matter how much money you make,” said Sean Brunson, the league’s founder. “It’s like ‘show me who you are today.’ If you don’t [show up], the whole crowd is going to get upset.”

This season was another successful one for Brunson, with Championship Sunday today. The game will be played between Grand Rising and World Class Ballers. But, financially, 2023′s tournament was as hard to put up as the first, Brunson said.

Although fans may not notice, this was the first season Brunson didn’t have a sponsor for the tournament. In previous years, companies such as DTLR, Foot Locker and Red Bull helped fund the event. DTLR had to drop out at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Foot Locker cut back on spending for sponsored events in the region.

Brunson isn’t just running the scorer’s table or taking stats on his own, as he does every year. Now, he’s fronting everything financially.

“It’s costing me a lot of money, but for me it’s an easy choice. I’m going to suffer financially, but the city is going to love this,” Brunson said.

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Marquise McClean (left) collides with Jordan Strickland at a Brunson League game July 30. The championship game is today. (Dylan Thiessen/The Baltimore Banner)

Remembering ‘Lil Dev’

The inaugural season in 2013 featured six teams. Two squads consisted of Brunson’s friends, and three were made up of Brunson’s colleagues at the Nike office where he worked. The sixth was filled with random locals, including Alvin Parker, who played professionally in Germany and Spain and is the longest active player.

Parker remembered immediately recognizing the subtle differences with the Brunson League. While most leagues had players scribble their names and numbers on the backs of T-shirts with a Sharpie, Brunson had custom Nike jerseys for each team. He also had statistics on the league’s website — Parker has a league-record 18 assists in a single game.

Parker wanted to start his own team after the first season, and word spread through the city too. By Year 2, there were eight teams. Now, there are 18.

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“I’ve gotten the opportunity to sit and be around it and embrace it from the beginning to now,” Parker said. “It’s always astonishing to me in a good way to see how he took his vision pretty far.”

But a league isn’t anything without a star. Before Will Barton introduced the addition of NBA players to the summer pro-am in 2017, local legend Devin “Lil Dev” Colston made it into a communal event. Parker’s team One Love battled Colston in 2015 and 2016, defeating him in the championship that first year.

“A big part of the league growing was the two years Lil Dev played in it,” Parker said.

Half of Colston’s neighborhood packed the small Baltimore Junior Academy gym for every game, watching as he set a league record with 63 points in June 2015. Colston won the championship with Longwood & Dukeland in 2016, a few months before he was killed in a shooting.

Brunson stayed up most of the night after Colston’s death. The Baltimore community, and more specifically the basketball world, was wounded. He knew Barton was already set on joining the league at that point and thought that announcing the news would bring a positive message to the city. After a little sleep, he woke up to a text from Barton.

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“Will had already texted me: ‘We gotta announce it now,’” Brunson said. “It’s like he was thinking the same thing as me without us even talking about it.”

Brunson originally had a 10-year plan, but Barton’s addition, along with the rise of the league’s presence on social media, solidified its yearly place in the community.

“It’s a great atmosphere because there’s nothing going on, no NBA on, everyone wants to watch basketball because this place is a hotbed,” said Kurk Lee, a former NBA player who is the athletic director of the Under Armour House, where the games are currently played.

110 percent

The Drew League and other Pro-Ams spread their games across multiple days each week, but the Brunson League has always packed its eight weekly games into Sundays from 11 a.m.-7 p.m.

Brunson arrived 20 minutes before noon July 30, holding a box filled with the jerseys for CMB and Future Minds, the day’s opening matchup. By 12:05 p.m., sneakers were already squeaking on the hardwood. Attendees, and even more players such as CMB’s Terry Hosley, filed in as the first game continued. Some brought their own seat cushions, assuming their usual spots along the bleachers. By 4 p.m., there was space in the bleachers but fans still arriving chose to lean on the black cushioning lining the walls, getting as close to the action as possible.

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One of the sideline dwellers was Ed “Butts” Tyson, a former Maryland Eastern Shore player. He’s been to most of the games at the UA House, always carrying a towel John Thompson style, a coffee cup in his hand.

Tyson said he’s been getting buckets for a long time around Baltimore. Now, he spectates the next generation on the floor, letting them know if the play isn’t up to par.

“This game phony as sh*t,” Tyson yelled midway through the second matchup between Heart over Hype and Punish Them All. The crowd laughed in agreement.

“I bring excitement and a bit of laughter,” Tyson said. “People that are in the stands aren’t going to say it. I’m going to say it because I’m on the baseline.”

“As a player, you better bring it every day. If you don’t bring it, the crowd is going to let you know about it.”

Corey Bowman, Brunson League referee

Washington Wizards center Daniel Gafford, who plays for La Familia, said the crowd’s engagement brings him right back to high school. He fed off the energy after an alley-oop, bringing the spectators to their feet again by dribbling behind his back before another thunderous slam. There was no instant replay, just screams and scrunched-up faces in disbelief.

“With me, it’s 110% no matter where I play, whether it’s outside, inside,” Gafford said. “I could be on another planet, and I’d be going 110%.”

Gafford has used his first season in the Brunson League to fine-tune his jump shot. Columbia University’s Josh Odunowo has found similar benefits, with the platform allowing him to test his game against professional competition.

“It’s really impactful getting tips from older guys that have been through what I’ve been through,” Odunowo said.

The league itself has a deeper significance for the number of overseas professionals. They grew up with the same crowds at their games from rec ball to high school. Now, the summer is the only time their family and friends get to see them in person.

“It’s coming back home and feeling at home,” said Raven Barber, who plays for the Boca Juniors in Argentina.

Kyle Foster waits for a free throw during a Brunson League game July 30. (Dylan Thiessen/The Baltimore Banner)

There’s nobody who feels more at home than Aquille “Crimestopper” Carr. He’s packed gyms since high school, and every Sunday his team Grand Rising draws the biggest crowd.

“There’s no violence. Everyone is just coming out to support everybody,” Carr said. “We’ve all been here to put on a show for the city.”

Carr displayed his signature quickness early against Game Results, blowing by defenders for layups. But he wasn’t the star on this Sunday or the weekend earlier, as Philadelphia native Sam Akano followed a 30-point performance with 41.

When Akano joined the league three years ago, Parker said, the fans were wary about him, as they are with any player not from the city. But, after he dunked over somebody, he won their respect. Now he’s a crowd favorite.

“This is like my second home right here,” Akano said.

The initial animosity for Akano was worse for some of the Washington, D.C., teams when they started, sparking a natural rivalry between the Beltway cities. Jamahl Brown, part of the D.C. team World Class Ballers, said they started coming to the Brunson League because they were tired of “whooping on the same dudes in D.C.”

Brown said there was an initial rush with the crowd turning against them and the more physical play that was allowed. This year, World Class Ballers went 5-0 in the regular season, defeating then-undefeated Team A9 97-76.

“This year they kicked our ass, just like everybody else,” Parker said. “The DMV and Baltimore, basketball is just different.”

Wait till next year

The result for the World Class Ballers concluded another successful regular season for the Brunson League. D.C.’s best are in the championship too, facing the hometown favorite, Grand Rising.

Brunson is looking forward to breathing and relaxing once the title game is over Sunday. He’ll take close to a month to reflect on what changes need to be made, typing them up on his laptop.

In January, he’ll start putting those tweaks into fruition. Brunson likes to keep those ideas to himself — you’ll have to wait until next season to see what they are.

Anish Vasudevan is from Cupertino, California, and is currently the editor-in-chief for The Daily Orange, Syracuse's student-run newspaper. He previously worked as a beat writer for the Chatham Anglers. Anish is interested in telling stories that expand beyond what happens in between the white lines.

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