Jalen Lewis liked high school, and why not? At 6-foot-9, with a bird’s nest of hair on top, he was instantly recognizable in the hallways of Bishop O’Dowd, in Oakland, Calif. Students he had never met would call out his name on the mornings after basketball games, raising a triumphant fist or extending a palm for a hand slap. In his freshman season, 2019-20, Lewis helped his team to the brink of a state title, until the pandemic came and shut down the tournament.
Beyond the basketball, Lewis also enjoyed his classes. “Obviously, I’m tall, and I can play,” he told me recently. “Everyone knew that’s why I came to the school. But I also liked showing people in class that I could answer the tough questions you wouldn’t usually see an athlete raise his hand to answer.” Lewis has a knack for math and science. In those subjects, especially, he was determined to show his classmates that he was more than a jock. “Knowing they knew I was smart made me feel good,” he said.
Lewis’s mother, Tiffany Massimino, died of breast cancer when he was 2 months old. His father, Ahlee Lewis, dedicated himself to raising his son. He played him classical music and Baby Einstein videos. A recruiter for a medical-device company, he used his salary (plus a chunk of financial aid) to enroll Lewis at Bentley, one of the East Bay’s best elementary and middle schools. He shuttled him around the region for practices and games.
By third grade, Lewis had expressed a desire to play in the N.B.A. Ahlee, whose own basketball career ended after three seasons at U.C. Davis, promised to help, but only if Lewis studied as hard as he played. Bishop O’Dowd had a strong academic reputation and had sent several players to the pros. It felt like an ideal fit. Last May, following his sophomore year there, ESPN’s rankings placed Lewis second nationally among the class of 2023. His success on the court and in the classroom hadn’t gone unnoticed; the list of colleges recruiting him hard included Michigan, Georgetown, Vanderbilt, Stanford and U.C.L.A. Offers from Duke, North Carolina and U.C. Berkeley seemed sure to follow.
But Lewis won’t be playing basketball at any of those schools. In July, he signed a contract with Overtime Elite, a fledgling league for teenagers with N.B.A. aspirations. Instead of studying for the SAT on the last Friday in October, he was inside a new 1,200-seat arena in midtown Atlanta, where Overtime Elite is based, with eight teammates from around the United States and overseas. As rap music pulsed and video screens flashed on all four walls, he burst through a curtain of smoke. The din was disorienting. The scene was like a video game come to life.
While warming up on the court, Lewis briefly scanned the seats for celebrities who had promised to be there, including the rapper 2 Chainz and the N.B.A. legend Julius Erving. Neither was in the building, but the plush couches that served as V.I.P. seating under each basket were filled with local prep and college basketball players, familiar faces from reality TV series and assorted influencers. “There was a lot going on,” Lewis would tell me later. “You didn’t know whether to be excited, or try to lock in.” Then he stepped up to take the opening jump ball. At 16, he was the youngest professional basketball player in U.S. history.
Jalen Lewis, 16, scoring in OTE Arena in Atlanta.Credit…Victor Llorente for The New York Times
Five years ago, Dan Porter and Zack Weiner started a basketball business called Overtime. Actually, it was a content business. It used deftly packaged highlights from high school games and other amateur competitions to attract 55 million followers on social media. Then it found ways to monetize that following.
As Porter and Weiner immersed themselves in the world of teenage basketball, they found themselves bewildered by the process through which the most talented adolescents became N.B.A. players. It seemed to work well enough for everyone but the athletes and their families. Weekly travel to tournaments run by the Amateur Athletic Union, the A.A.U., was subsidized by parents who often couldn’t afford it. That was followed by a year or two of these aspiring pros playing basically without pay on a college campus. And the half dozen of them who did manage to land in the N.B.A. at 19 or 20 often had little notion of how to run their own lives. That led to truncated careers, financial distress and regret about lost opportunities. “I’ve seen a lot of talented kids who weren’t ready — physically, mentally, socially,” says Avery Johnson, the former N.B.A. and college coach, who is an Overtime Elite investor. “When they show up in the N.B.A., they don’t even know how to write a check.”
Porter, 55, is a great-nephew of the economist Milton Friedman. A digital entrepreneur, he formerly ran the gaming studio that became Omgpop. Before that, he spent a decade in education, including a stint as president of Teach for America. Weiner, now 29, comes from a different generation. A three-time Ivy League chess champion at Penn, he was barely past graduation when he and Porter started Overtime. The idea of creating an alternate pathway to the N.B.A. appealed to their vision of themselves as disruptive outsiders. It also, not incidentally, promised to be another lucrative business.
The ongoing rupture of amateur basketball’s traditional order has played out quite publicly. On July 1, following a Supreme Court decision, the N.C.A.A. finally allowed its athletes to be remunerated for the use of their names, images and likenesses. Still, a vast majority of them end up earning only the basic contours of an education, even as sponsors, television networks and sneaker companies reap profits from the multibillion-dollar business the sport has become. But the dysfunction starts earlier: Games held between individual high schools, once the centerpiece of teenage competition, have become almost irrelevant. College recruiters prefer the A.A.U. tournaments, where they appraise hundreds of prospects in a weekend. A.A.U. teams, organized and run by entrepreneurs with varying motives who may or may not have coaching experience, crisscross America from March to October. “It’s totally unhealthy,” Ahlee Lewis says.
Amid the signs that the system was starting to unravel, Porter and Weiner saw an opportunity. They weren’t the only ones. In 2017, LaVar Ball, the father of two N.B.A. guards, created the play-for-pay Junior Basketball Association, a league for disaffected high schoolers that featured eight franchises nationwide. (All of them were nicknamed the Ballers.) That folded after one season. The Professional Collegiate League, founded by a group that included a former associate athletic director at Stanford, a Cleveland lawyer and the N.B.A. veteran David West, was supposed to start play this year as a salary-earning alternative to N.C.A.A. basketball, but its debut was postponed to 2022; it will require that players be enrolled in college to participate. And because players don’t become eligible for the N.B.A.’s draft until the year after their high school class graduates — a 15-year-old rule that may be changed after the current collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union expires in 2024 — the developmental G League now accepts prospects who have finished high school but don’t want to play in college.
But Porter and Weiner have something that those leagues do not: the 1.6 billion views their content gets every month. Their new venture is a professional league for teenagers that will take the place of A.A.U., high school and college competition. When they explained the concept to Carmelo Anthony, an Overtime investor who is playing in his 19th N.B.A. season, Anthony took to it immediately. “He literally interrupted us in the middle of our pitch and finished it for us,” Weiner says. “When we started talking to other people about it, many of them said, ‘I’ve been waiting for something like this.’”
Many of those people asked to buy a piece of it. Overtime is backed by the venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz and a roster of investors that includes Jeff Bezos, Drake, Reddit’s Alexis Ohanian and four owners of N.B.A. franchises. The most recent round of financing, in April, raised more than $80 million. Kevin Durant, Trae Young, Devin Booker and more than two dozen other current pros have joined Anthony in signing on. For its first season, the league has grouped 27 players, ranging in age from 16 to 20, into three teams of nine. They compete against one another and against high school and international teams that agree to play them. In the coming years, the league hopes to grow to six or eight teams that will face opponents from the G League, the best college programs and — “you never know,” Porter says — eventually the Knicks and Lakers.
Overtime Elite’s coaching staff is run by Kevin Ollie, who coached UConn to a national championship in 2014. The players are given personalized nutrition plans and training programs. They are marketed across Overtime’s social media network. (So far, sponsors include Gatorade and State Farm, which signed multiyear, eight-figure contracts with the league. Topps has a licensing deal.) And in the most obviously radical departure, each player gets a small share of the company and earns a salary of at least $100,000 annually, plus bonuses, depending on the contract he has negotiated. Jalen Lewis and some others make more than $500,000. (“There is a marketplace,” says Aaron Ryan, a former N.B.A. executive who has been hired as the league’s commissioner, “and players have varied value.”) In return, they have agreed to forgo their remaining years of high school and any chance of playing in college. That means no state titles or prom dates, no strolls on leafy campuses, no March Madness or Final Four. They also allow Overtime to use their names, images and likenesses, the same assets that college athletes have just earned the right to monetize for themselves, though the Overtime Elite players are permitted to strike their own deals with sponsors in noncompetitive categories.
To ease the transition to N.B.A. life, Overtime Elite requires its players to spend as much as 20 hours a week in an academic setting, a mash-up of online classes, face-to-face instruction and guest lectures. Players are taught how to give news conferences and use social media. They learn how agents and sponsors operate. They also take basketball-focused versions of conventional subjects, math and history and English, so they will have fulfilled the necessary requirements if they ever want to apply to college. If basketball doesn’t work out, Overtime Elite promises to pay $100,000 toward a degree to any player who wants to get one.
But if someone never reaches the N.B.A., will losing the opportunity to play in high school and college have been worth a few sure years of substantial income? When I put the question to Porter, he dismissed it. He described the connections made with Overtime Elite’s sponsors, investors and affiliated celebrities as yet another form of compensation, as if a shooting guard who turns out to be a step too slow could simply go to work for Drake instead. “We’re a family,” he insists. “We’re not going to forget about these guys.” If an Overtime Elite alum is struggling at some point in the future, Porter promised to volunteer his own services. “He can call me,” he says. “I’ll help him find a job.”
One afternoon in September, a rented black van pulled up at Core4, a basketball facility in northeast Atlanta. This was where the Overtime Elite teams were practicing while their arena near downtown was being finished. Overtime staff members held up cameras and smartphones to record the players as they stepped off the bus. Once on the court, the players stretched. A few jogged in place. Then they split into six groups and started shooting. The cameras and smartphones roamed among them, capturing bits of dialogue and game play.
Overtime’s videographers are charged with collecting footage for use on various platforms. Some of it, the attention-worthy dunks and no-look passes, will be sent out as clips on Instagram, TikTok and Twitter. Other interactions, including conversations among players and motivational speeches by Ollie, and the footage of classes and down time that offers a glimpse into the players’ daily routines, will show up in documentary-style pieces on its YouTube channel. If players go shopping for sneakers, a crew is likely to come along. If they’re relaxing in the living room of their apartments, watching a movie or playing Xbox, someone might stop in and record that too. Though players are told they will not be filmed without their consent, part of the bonus they get at the end of the season is based on their willingness to participate in the content generation.
During practice, two of Overtime’s social media producers sat with their laptops open, organizing the material that was coming in. Occasionally, they posted an image accompanied by a comment in the vernacular of their target audience, a 13-to-35 demographic. One recent example: “Yo real talk T JASS been having that thing on a STRING,” referring to a former prep basketball player, now 21, who became an Instagram celebrity with videos of trick shots. “It’s not that young people aren’t sports fans,” Weiner says. “It’s that they don’t want to necessarily consume sports in the way that is traditional. It’s not always about the final score of the game. Or even about who won or who lost.”
Beginning in 2016, Overtime started building its following by recording highlights of entertaining plays in high school and A.A.U. games. It paid $25 for someone to stand on the baseline in an Overtime T-shirt and hold up an iPhone. Every alley-oop or windmill dunk was uploaded to its servers with the press of a button. When Zion Williamson, who played at a small private school in Spartanburg, S.C., and for the South Carolina Hornets A.A.U. team, emerged as the next great prep standout, Overtime was just getting started. The company sent three videographers to each of his games. “Every time Zion dunked, we’d get three different views on our server,” Weiner says. “We’d look at them and post the best one.”
By the end of his high school career, Williamson had dunked enough to get a scholarship to Duke, where he spent one season before leaving for the New Orleans Pelicans. Overtime, meanwhile, had created a stealth empire. Whenever Porter ran into an executive from another media company, he got the same question: “How much live sports are you showing?” The answer was invariably confounding: Overtime Elite wasn’t showing any live sports at all. “Our competitors would have crushed us years ago if they actually understood what we were doing,” Porter says now.
In effect, Overtime Elite is Zion Williamson writ large, an entire roster of players highlight-reeling their way into the public consciousness, or at least Overtime’s delineated segment of it. But this time, Overtime’s access to these players is virtually unlimited. And because it owns the entire, vertically integrated property, so is the company’s ability to make money from it. When an Overtime Elite player drove to the basket during a scrimmage during the practice session at Core4, then went up for what looked like a layup before suddenly flipping a pass to a teammate in the corner, videographers were there to record not just the move but also the astonished reaction of Lewis, who was sitting out the practice session with an injury. Paying the athletes entices them to sign up, but it also mitigates any guilt Porter might have about profiting from their personal narratives. “We’re going to create media around it,” he says, referring to the league. “Why should it be controversial to pay them? It would be controversial to not pay them. That’s called the N.C.A.A.”
Advertising is the easiest way for Overtime Elite to generate revenue. There are plenty of others. The Overtime website, which does a $10 million business selling hoodies, iridescent basketballs, jewelry and other merchandise, has added Overtime Elite apparel. A Jalen Lewis trading card, from a set issued by Topps just a few weeks ago, is listed for $1,200 on the secondary market. Next, why not Overtime Elite workout videos? Or a new Gatorade flavor?
“We already have the audience, we already have the brand, we already have many of the relationships,” Weiner says. “So we can go to a company like Gatorade and charge them millions of dollars in Year 1.” When Overtime Elite was unveiled last March, a little more than a year after the Junior Basketball Association sank under the weight of its debts, much of the skepticism concerned whether it could have the economic wherewithal to survive. With the first wave of sponsorships in October, the league announced that it had become self-sufficient into the foreseeable future.
For its blueprint to work, Overtime Elite needs players. And not just any 17-year-olds with smooth moves and silky jump shots. Its targets must have a reasonable enough expectation of reaching the N.B.A. to consider skipping college. They need to be regarded highly enough by recruiting analysts that Overtime’s followers will embrace them as the descendants of Zion.
The job of filling the rosters was assigned to Brandon Williams, who played briefly in the N.B.A. before moving into executive roles with the Philadelphia 76ers and Sacramento Kings. Williams had an elite education — Phillips Exeter Academy, Davidson College, law school. He also had grass-roots basketball connections. Still, creating an entire league from a standing start, even one with just three teams, presented a formidable challenge. The six-figure salaries helped entice some families. So did the involvement of Durant, Drake and Bezos. But Williams’s best argument, he felt, was that players who considered themselves headed toward the N.B.A. weren’t improving those prospects by competing against markedly inferior talent. “I’m playing against a guy who is going to be a milkman; I’m playing against a guy who is going to work at U.P.S. — but I’m not playing against a pro,” is how he describes that perspective.
Williams also appreciated that many parents were unsettled by the A.A.U. experience, which appeared to be optimized for the convenience of recruiters, not the physical and emotional health of the players. “They’d say things like, ‘It seems weird that my kid played in the 9 p.m. game on Friday, and now he has a 9 a.m. game on Saturday,’” Williams says. “We told them: ‘We’ll have our own building. And in that building, we’ll have great coaches. In fact, here are their résumés.’ And they’d say, ‘I recognize that name — national champion.’ And you start to stack up the offering.”
Williams hired a staff of scouts to go to A.A.U. tournaments and find potential recruits. “I couldn’t spend a lot of time talking to the irrationals, the person who really fought against this whole idea,” he says. “I wasn’t trying to be a salesman — ‘I’m better than Duke.’ What I wanted was to find parents who were saying, ‘I’m spending so much of my day doing this, I’ve spent so much money and I’m not even sure of the results.’”
In May, Overtime Elite signed its first two players, twins from Florida named Matt and Ryan Bewley. ESPN ranked Matt third and Ryan 12th among players in the graduating class of 2023. Getting them made national news. Another set of twins, the Thompsons, probably helped even more within the A.A.U. subculture. Ausar and Amen Thompson grew up in Oakland, not far from Lewis. They relocated to Florida’s Pine Crest Academy before eighth grade so they could play high school basketball a year early. Like Lewis, they were excellent students, dabbling in coding and taking Advanced Placement classes. To ESPN and the other high-profile websites, they were afterthoughts. But as last spring’s A.A.U. season progressed, they developed into cult favorites. “Some people told us they might be the best players in the entire class,” Williams says. The Thompsons signed at the end of May. That prompted Lewis, among others, to take notice. “They kept telling us, ‘You won’t be able to get the high-level players,’” Williams says. “With every one that we were able to secure, it crushed that argument. And then the kids started talking to each other.”
Lewis was the biggest target. Not only was he among the best prep players; he was also an ideal protagonist for the stories the company was trying to create. “He’s a good-looking kid,” Williams says. “Articulate. Courted by everyone. Recognized by everyone. Single dad, so there’s an interesting story.” The scouting staff set out to get to Ahlee and make its pitch. “In this case, the dad was at least receptive,” Williams says. “He was asking very deliberate and very advanced questions.”
Ahlee learned all he could about the project. He called Aaron Goodwin, a longtime friend who is a successful agent, and found Goodwin to be enthusiastic. Only then did he approach his son. Lewis had heard stories about his father’s college career. But he’d been “a crazy Warrior fan” since he was 8. The way he saw it, he and his peers were trying to get to the N.B.A. so they could get paid to play basketball. “If you could start getting paid early, and get more work than anyone else, and work with people who were already in the N.B.A., that’s the full package,” he says. At Bishop O’Dowd, and even with his A.A.U. team, he was a 6-foot-9 center, playing with his back to the basket. That made sense, because Lewis could dominate smaller players. He would get the ball, roll to the hoop and score. But if he made it to the N.B.A., it would most likely be as a small forward, playing without handling the ball much, shooting from the corner when he did. Posting up in the foul lane wasn’t going to refine those skills.
Ahlee had help from Goodwin, who represented both Durant and LeBron James early in their careers. “The negotiations were not easy,” Williams says. “They knew the value of what Jalen was giving up. Being at home, going to homecoming, maybe going to Cal or U.C.L.A.” The salary was one variable, but Williams asked what he could do to give them a sense of other opportunities. “What lever can we pull?” he said. Was it a meeting with Drake? Access to other investors?
In the end, money turned out to be secondary. For 16 years, Ahlee had been trying to orchestrate every aspect of Lewis’s progress while simultaneously earning enough to support them both. Not only was he exhausted; he also wondered if he was making smart decisions. “How do I make sure my son eats right?” he says. “How do I make sure he gets proper rest? How do I drive him all over the Bay Area, so he gets the extra work he needs to get better? With Overtime Elite, so much of that stuff was under one roof. And that was just the basketball part. They also made the academic part relevant. That made me want to turn cartwheels.”
On July 9, Lewis announced he was leaving high school to play for Overtime Elite. “The moment we got Jalen, it opened up conversations not just with players but with entities,” Williams says. “Nothing boutique, nothing nuanced, just the stud. Jalen Lewis comes in, and he’s recognized on the national level, the U.S.A. Basketball level. It got easier from there.”
I was curious to see what the academic part of Overtime Elite looked like, so I stopped into some classes one morning. A few players were giving presentations, reading scripts off an iPad. They had chosen topics and written speeches. One lobbied for the merits of iPhones, as opposed to Androids. Another warned against recreational drugs. Lewis spoke persuasively about the health benefits of alkaline water.
Some of the athletes, like Lewis, are advanced beyond their grade level. Others consider the idea of not studying for exams one of Overtime Elite’s significant benefits. I wondered how it was possible to teach them all in the same classroom.
Last February, Overtime Elite hired Maisha Riddlesprigger, who had been a principal in Washington, to solve that problem. In 2010, working under Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of the District of Columbia’s public schools, Riddlesprigger deconstructed and then rebuilt a low-performing elementary school. Later, she did the same in Anacostia, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. That makeover involved extensive use of online learning in rotation with a traditional curriculum, a combination that hadn’t often been used in the area. “And then, when the pandemic came, everyone did it,” Riddlesprigger says.
For Overtime Elite, she hired facilitators versed in math, English, science and social studies. Then she found an online program flexible enough to integrate sports into its curriculum. That way, history can be taught through the lens of athlete activism, from the 1968 Olympic protests to the Milwaukee Bucks’ refusal to play their N.B.A. game following the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis. Math might involve free-throw percentages or tracking the parabola of a three-pointer. That would appear to leave out vast areas of knowledge. “But some of our more academically challenged students, when you couch the traditional system in a subject they’re interested in, they apply that interest,” Riddlesprigger says.
Each student’s class load depends on the status of his transcripts. Those who have fallen behind grade level take extra classes so they can get on track to graduate — which in this case means earning a degree accredited by a private nonprofit organization, Cognia, that exists for such circumstances. Others might only need two or three classes. Within each subject, the level of the work is tailored to the individual. In May, after the games end, Overtime Elite plans to hold some sort of ceremony for its 12th graders. It all sounded like a reasonable facsimile of high school, except for the parts of high school you actually remember years later.
Removing teenagers from a traditional high school experience is only one way that Overtime Elite has caused consternation. Tommy Sheppard, the general manager of the Washington Wizards, said that when he initially heard about the league, it struck him as “somewhere between Amway and a Ponzi scheme.” College coaches competing with Overtime Elite for talent use the rapid demise of the Junior Basketball Association as a cautionary tale; at least one of the Baller players who sacrificed his eligibility claims to have received only a $1,000 payment.
Leonard Hamilton, the head coach of the Florida State basketball team, had been courting six or seven of the players who ended up signing with Overtime Elite. He didn’t want to be perceived as dismissive of the league merely because it is new, but the math concerned him. There are only so many spots across N.B.A. rosters. “Making the N.B.A. is extremely hard,” he said. “How many of these kids are really going to get there?” Hamilton also put in a plug for the current system, which enabled him to get a basketball scholarship to the University of Tennessee at Martin in 1969. “Academics has meant a lot to people in America who look like me,” he said. “It changed the whole culture of my family. I don’t have a crystal ball — I can’t see the future. I don’t know the end of the story. But there are 6,000 kids playing Division I basketball every year, and only about 30 kids have a chance to end up in the N.B.A. With that in mind, those others aren’t doing too badly.”
Rodney Rice, a guard from DeMatha Catholic, in the Washington suburbs, who recently committed to play at Virginia Tech, was one of Overtime Elite’s initial targets. By remaining in high school, Rice’s chances of making the N.B.A. perhaps declined by a few percentage points. “But at DeMatha,” his coach, Pete Strickland, told me, “he’s going to be told to tuck in his shirt in the hallway. To be in class on time. By teachers who don’t know if our ball is stuffed or blown up. That’s how we grow up. When you mature as a kid, you mature as a player. Those things are connected.”
After academics and lunch, the players returned to the van for the ride to practice. They arrived home at 6 p.m., having been out all day. Their apartments, which are paid for by Overtime Elite, include four bedrooms, a kitchen and a living room. One bedroom is kept empty for storage. The players eat dinners prepared in conjunction with the health and performance team — extra-large portions of, say, grilled chicken with pasta, broccoli, a dinner roll, blackberry cobbler — that are stacked on a table in the hallway.
One unoccupied suite has been designated for use as a social center. On an evening when I was there, Lewis wandered in. A minute later, Amen Thompson showed up to see who might be around. Soon they were immersed in a game of table tennis. The points were long and intense, and startlingly athletic. When I told Weiner about it later, he used it as an example of yet another potential revenue stream. “What if we set up a Ping-Pong tournament with the players and charged $1 to see it on TikTok or YouTube?” he said.
With the score 19-18, and Thompson 2 points from winning, Lewis ranged far to his right and sent a resounding slam across the table. The dinners were piling up in the hallway, but the winning margin had to be 2 points, so I figured they might be there awhile. Instead, Thompson won the next 2 points, the last by magically parrying what appeared to be a sure winner with a flip of his paddle. When it ended, both players were sweating. They bumped fists. It was a perfect moment for social media, but for once there wasn’t a camera in sight.
In late October, on what was called Pro Day by Overtime Elite, representatives of N.B.A. teams were invited to visit the facility. That pro scouts would see the players was a major component of the league’s pitch. “How is that not a massive advantage,” Weiner said to me, “if the company you want to work for gives you feedback in real time?” Except that until the scouts actually showed up, nobody knew for sure that they would. The number of talented players involved made Overtime Elite intriguing, but the league was new: an addition to an annual schedule that, for most scouts, had been in place for years.
When the doors to the practice court opened at 9:30, scouts from 29 of the 30 N.B.A. teams were there. (Only the Portland Trail Blazers hadn’t sent anyone.) Not surprisingly, the event as staged by a media company had a far different feel than the stripped-down showcases the scouts were accustomed to attending. “To pull up and see that new facility shining bright like a diamond — we were all blown away,” Ryan Hoover, the vice president of global scouting for the Milwaukee Bucks, said.
Over the course of the four-hour session, the stock of some prospects rose. Others’ fell. But the judgments didn’t need to be conclusive. N.B.A. rules stipulate that scouts can attend only a limited number of high school and A.A.U. games annually, but Overtime Elite is a professional league. That meant the scouts could return whenever they wanted. Tommy Sheppard told me that the possibility of seeing so many prospective pros in one place would pull scouts for the Wizards away from games around the region. “Most college games, there’s only one or two prospects, to be honest,” he said. “The name Overtime Elite — I mean, not even every N.B.A. player is truly elite, so I don’t know about that. But that Pro Day convinced us that there’s definitely a lot of talent. We’ll be following these kids.”
The following Friday, the Overtime Elite teams started playing games with an opening-night tripleheader. Each faced an opponent that had flown in for the weekend. Lewis’s team was matched against Vertical Academy, which everyone called Team Mikey. It had been created as a showcase for Mikey Williams, a solidly built, 6-foot-2 point guard who has become the most famous prep basketball player in America. Williams had been heavily recruited by Overtime Elite. Instead, he moved from San Ysidro High School in San Diego to North Carolina, where his father and uncle had established a relationship with Lake Norman Christian School outside Charlotte. Vertical’s players attend classes at Lake Norman Christian, but they compete as an independent team.
In July, Williams became the first high school athlete to sign with a major sports management firm. Two days before the Overtime Elite game, he announced that he had agreed to a sneaker deal with Puma. By then, he had amassed 3.3 million Instagram followers. He had made millions of dollars. And because he wasn’t getting paid directly for basketball, he would still be eligible to play in college.
It seems logical that Overtime Elite’s players may eventually be able to do the same. If their contracts are restructured so that they’re playing basketball unpaid but selling Overtime Elite the same name, image and likeness rights that college players now control, the N.C.A.A. might be persuaded to amend its rules. Those who find that unlikely should consider that many of the Overtime Elite players will have huge followings by the time their classes graduate. Would the sponsors that underwrite March Madness prefer that they play in college at that point, or somewhere else?
Each of the three Overtime Elite teams will soon have its own name and logo. Until then, they are differentiated by the names of their coaches. Lewis’s team is named for Dave Leitao, who won the A.C.C.’s coach of the year award while at Virginia. The atmosphere before its game with Vertical Academy was intentionally raucous. “You walk in, there’s cameras everywhere, it’s loud, you’re walking through the smoke,” says Abdul Beyah Jr., a Vertical Academy guard. “It took time to adjust.” Lewis needed time, too. He missed his first seven shots. At halftime, Team Leitao had a 39-37 lead. Lewis had scored a single basket. Watching from the stands, Ahlee was philosophical. “This is like a show,” he said. “The boys are thinking performance rather than basketball.”
When he came out to warm up for the second half, Lewis caught his father’s eye. Then he scored 16 points in the third quarter, ending it with a fadeaway jumper from well beyond the 3-point arc. He was hit as he shot, and the force of the contact sent him sliding backward past midcourt. He made the foul shot for a 4-pointer. After three quarters, Team Leitao had a 17-point lead.
A scripted reality show couldn’t have been more dramatic than the way the game played out. Vertical Academy rallied. Late in the fourth quarter, Williams banked home a drive and hit a foul shot. With seconds left, his team led by 3. Then Overtime Elite’s Bryce Griggs sank a long 3-pointer at the buzzer. The cameras positioned around the court had recorded the shot from various angles, and all those Overtime employees jumped into action. By the time Team Leitao won in overtime, helped by another thrilling 3-pointer, the highlights had been viewed by thousands of fans. By Sunday, the number of views across all of Overtime’s accounts approached four million. “OTE vs MIKEY was one of the best games I’ve ever seen omgggg” was the caption on @ote’s soundtrack-backed TikTok post.
Overtime Elite versus Mikey may prove to be foundational in the annals of guerrilla basketball history. It was surely the most visible game ever played outside the purview of a major network — or any network. It validated Overtime Elite’s credibility. As for Williams, his 4-for-21 shooting meant little in a virtual universe that prioritizes three-second highlights, like his baseline drive in the final minute. Some portion of Overtime’s 55 million followers had caught a glimpse of his artistry, which could only enhance his reputation. His team had lost, but Williams didn’t seem too troubled by the outcome. Sitting on the training table in one of the spacious locker rooms, he couldn’t hide a smile.
Bruce Schoenfeld is a frequent contributor to the magazine. He last wrote about the Big Ten’s football season in 2020. Victor Llorente is a portrait and documentary photographer based in Queens who was born and raised in Spain. He was selected in The 30: New and Emerging Photographers to Watch in 2020.