Venice Basketball League
VBL Fuses Peace and Oneness with Street Toughness for Love of the Game
Mouthpiece and DB pace the court in front of the scorekeeper’s box as they cover the game. Sunglasses on, DB has the microphone so close to his mouth it looks like he might eat it. He shouts updates to the crowd as 10 men and one orange ball exchange points, passes and pushes. “The Beast takes it one-on-one with the Big Fella down low,” he yells.
The details of the players’ personal lives and a small collection of promotional updates are Mouthpiece’s territory. “Spiderman’s got that new movie coming out, ladies and gentlemen,” he says. The writing on his shirt explains to spectators what’s going on here with 300-like drama, “This is Venice Ball.”
Venice Beach, California is notorious for, among other things, its intense street basketball scene. The courts here — flanked on one side by the Venice boardwalk and on the other by the Pacific Ocean — have been immortalized in scenes from “American History X” and “White Men Can’t Jump.” The Venice Basketball League is the only official league to have emerged on the beach, complete with a National Basketball Association-style draft, paid players and staff members. Indeed, a few of the players once played in the NBA or still play overseas.
But don’t be fooled, this is still street ball. Official league rules, for example, state — in all capital letters — “NO TIPITAP. This is VENICEBALL.”
“It means you just gotta deal with it,” league co-founder Jon Nash said. “There’s no 3-second violation, there’s no free throws.” The league creates order out of chaos while preserving the elements of street ball that keep the game fast-paced and fun, Nash said.
In addition to the VBL, Nash, with business partner and fellow baller Nick “And Some” Ansom, created the KVBL — Kid’s Venice Basketball League. The KVBL takes the form of the Natural Leaders Camp — a free-of-charge, 14-week-long summer program for kids that is natural, according to Ansom, because it was so easy to put together. The camp is also natural because of the values it aims to instill. Nash is a raw foods chef, many of his friends are yogis, and nearly everyone involved in the kids camp subscribes to the “peace, love and oneness” school of thought Nash so frequently returns to in conversation.
Nash gave campers a booklet during the inaugural year. He asked them — mostly poor, inner-city children like himself — to fill out worksheets related to yoga, tree-planting and healthy eating.
“Everyone told me I was crazy,” Nash said. “ And I started to doubt myself.” But with encouragement and attention, the kids actually filled out the books, and enjoyed what they were doing. “When I found out it was just the kids’ own self-doubt that was holding them back, it really brought me up to another level in everything we’re doing and in life,” Nash said.
Nash is quick to credit Ansom with generating the kid’s league concept. “It’s about teaching the kids from the ground up,” Ansom said, citing his own fortunate upbringing in France with caring parents and a healthy diet. “You need to learn from a young age; and the kids are very open-minded.”
Most of the players at Sunday’s game did not exude the same connection to Mother Earth conveyed by the large feather poking though Nash’s tousle of long, black hair. Nor do they all subscribe to the same vegan diet Nash chooses to. But they all love basketball. That much was clear as the game entered its final three seconds, tied at 89.
For four eight-minute quarters, the game oozed energy. Loud cussing matches are routine on Venice Beach’s center court and Sick-wit-it, a mohawked veteran of the Venice All Stars and former And1 player, was the impetus of more than a few of these dialogues.
A Venice All Stars player who doesn’t speak and wears his jersey backward, known as The Mute, earned the Most Valuable Player award after a series of spinning dunks, game-altering steals and numerous breakaways ended in the tie-breaking shot that won his team the game.
Other leading athletes of the day included Woody the Woodpecker, Crackers and Cheese, The Male Model, Beast… Although the nicknames are all self-bestowed, Nash admits some are later regretted.
One recent Sunday, Woody Woodpecker approached DB. “DB,” he said, “I don’t want that name anymore, don’t call me Woody Woodpecker, OK?”
Before DB could respond a young camper came tugging at Woody’s shorts. “Hey Woody Woodpecker, you gonna play today?” The excited young man asked.
Woody turned back to DB. “Nevermind. I want to keep the name.”