Many high school basketball players dream of playing in college, and maybe playing professionally someday. But the competition is tough, and unfortunately, most players don’t get recruited.
The Junior Basketball Association (JBA)—a new league launched this year—is giving these players another opportunity to play professionally, without having to go to college.
Robert Mitchell, assistant coach of the New York Ballers and a former college basketball star himself, sees the league as a lifeline for the young men who didn’t make the cut.
“We are not only saving the lives of 64 kids that didn’t get recruited to universities, but we are also teaching them tools that will help them succeed even if they don’t play basketball,” Mitchell told Humanity.
“It’s the greatest mentorship program I’ve ever seen.”
There are eight teams in the league, based out of eight different cities, all carrying the nickname “Ballers” after the founder of the league, media personality LaVar Ball. Ball is also the founder of sportswear company Big Baller Brand, which funds the league.
Time will tell if the league is successful, but for some of the young men playing in the JBA, it has been a perfect opportunity.
One of the newest recruits to the New York Ballers is Nolan Irby.
High School Star
Irby has been playing basketball since he was in the sixth grade. The 20-year-old from Harlem, New York, had a successful high school career. He and his team won a city championship his freshman, junior, and senior years of high school.
Like a lot of talented high school athletes, Irby was going through the college recruiting process toward the end of his high school career. He was speaking with Division I NCAA schools like Bowling Green University and Central Connecticut State University, and it was looking good.
However, the young basketball star hit a bump in the road. He missed a few classes and his grades started to dip. As a result, he missed two games. Recruiters found out about his academic issues, and lost interest in recruiting him.
Missing this opportunity to play in the NCAA was crushing for Irby.
“It hurt. I didn’t honestly know what to do,” Irby told Humanity.
Irby then had an opportunity to play junior college basketball at Monroe College, which is part of the National Junior College Athletic Association, a league for two-year and community colleges. Even though it wasn’t his original plan, at least he was still playing basketball at Monroe.
However, it wasn’t what Irby expected. The system was too rigid. He felt stifled.
“I felt like I was being held back,” Irby said.
He didn’t feel like playing at Monroe would afford him many opportunities to play professionally. Earlier this year, Irby found out about the JBA through social media.
The JBA was set up as an alternative to the NCAA. But unlike the NCAA, players are paid a salary, earn income from their jersey sales, and can make endorsement deals.
A Rising Star
A friend had told him that the New York team was looking for a point guard. He tried out for the New York Ballers on June 27, 2018, and made the team.
“I was happy. I ran home and told my mom and my dad. We were all excited,” Irby said.
Assistant Coach Robert Mitchell knew he had found a player with talent and potential.
“I recruited him into this league because I saw something special in him,” Mitchell said.
At only 5 feet 8 inches, Irby scored 20 points, had 13 rebounds, and 8 assists during his first game in the league.
“This kid is a pro who has paid his dues and now is on a stage where he can show the entire world how good he is,” Mitchell said.
While ticket sales to games have reportedly been slow, the games are streamed on Facebook Live, attracting around 100,000 viewers per game, and up to eight times as many when the star players LiAngelo and LeMelo Ball, LaVar’s sons, are playing.
Irby made the JBA East team for the All-Star Game played on Aug. 3 and hopes to play in the league again next season.
He also doesn’t think twice about what it would be like to play in the NCAA, and is pleased with the platform he’s been given playing in this new league.
“I am truly happy with my decision to play in the JBA. It gave me a great opportunity, and I really want to thank them for that,” he said.
If you have an uplifting story you’d like to share, write to Andrew Thomas at [email protected]