When Ryerson University’s senior basketball player Jean-Victor Mukama recalls the first time he stood next to James Johnson as his opponent during a previous Crown League season, the first thing he remembers was simply how big the Miami Heat forward was.
“You see the difference in terms of not just skills, but body,” Mukama, who is listed at 6’8” himself, told me before his team 6Man was set to take the floor last Friday night versus the Northern Kings.
“When you think of people like LeBron that make him look small, you think if he looks that big then how would Dwight Howard look, how does LeBron look,” Mukama added, “So you get a level of appreciation with these guys.”
Held in the heart of downtown Toronto at Ryerson University, it’s not an unusual occurrence in the Crown League for a Canadian university basketball player like Mukama to find himself standing opposite to professional players like Johnson.
In its fourth season, the Crown League has continued to cultivate a community for athletes from all walks of basketball life to come together to reunite and compete in the offseason. This year has seen participation flourish from players from the NBA, G League, overseas, NCAA, U Sports and even high school.
The common comparison is to the Los Angeles-based Drew League, which is also a product of Nike and has had participation from NBA superstars including James Harden, Kevin Durant, and DeMar DeRozan.
And while the NBA presence at the Crown League in past years has proven a big draw itself, with the likes of Kelly Olynyk, Delon Wright, Norm Powell, Pascal Siakam, and James Johnson, it’s really the unique mix of basketball experience that has allowed for the league to serve as a multipurpose platform for development, a launchpad to a professional career, or simply a rare opportunity for competition in the summer.
Joel Anthony, the two-time NBA champion who recently won his second championship in Argentina for San Lorenzo, played on Friday night in the Crown League for M.A.D.E. and has come to appreciate the offseason competition that an organized basketball platform like the Crown League provides.
“You get a lot of talented guys from in the city, outside the city from everywhere, coming over to play – you really can’t beat that,” Anthony said. “Especially a city as big as Toronto, with so many different players that can really play.”
While for Jean-Victor Mukama, the blending of talent and the thriving platform is a strong reason why he’s returned for another season at the Crown League.
Despite the fun atmosphere that the players enjoy so much about Crown League, Mukama maintains a certain focus on absorbing as much knowledge that he can play alongside professional players – an experience that he looks forward to bringing back to his team at Ryerson University.
One example Mukama points out, are subtle observations he picks up from players that are awarded the Crown League Player of the Week after each Friday, “Subconsciously you pick up some of the stuff they do whether it’s stretching, what do they do after the game, what they do during the game.”
As quickly as the Crown League has become the go-to basketball event in the summer for Toronto, the unique atmosphere has also made for a social tradition for both players and fans.
Philip Aglipay, a marketing professional, has been coming to Crown League since its inception in 2015 and says he tries his best to come out every Friday night during the annual five-week period of competition.
“I mean, it’s a social thing,” Aglipay said. “You get to see your friends, if you’re involved in the [basketball] culture you get to hang out with everyone else that’s part of it.”
Former Toronto Raptor and current free agent, Bruno Caboclo, who returned this past week to Crown League for a second year in a row for 6Man, noted that while the games are a good way for him to stay in shape and see his former Toronto basketball peers, it’s also the ambiance that’s really made it an enjoyable experience.
“The music for sure,” Caboclo noted about the difference between the NBA and the Crown League. “The guy that is speaking on the microphone. The fans, they are very close to the court – it’s very intense. And it’s very fun too.“
As the Crown League heads into the playoffs on July 20th, and subsequently the finals on July 27th, there’s no doubt that the Toronto summer pro-am league will continue to grow its impact on the basketball culture of Canada’s largest basketball market. And as Toronto increasingly becomes a popular destination for NBA players in the offseason, there’s little reason why Crown League won’t continue to make huge strides.
“Obviously if guys were in L.A. they would definitely consider [playing in the Drew League],” Joel Anthony noted, “and you want to be able to say the same thing here in Toronto.”
He added, “Toronto is definitely a city people like to visit in the summertime. So if they’re looking to get a couple games in, this is the best place to do it. If you want the top competition this is the place to do it.”