Stars Enjoy a Basketball League of Their Own

(Kelly Carter, USA Today)


Celebrities sitting courtside at Lakers' games no longer have to dream about one day putting on an NBA uniform.

While Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire will never be confused with Shaquille O'Neal or Kobe Bryant, they are Lakers just the same, part of the little-known NBA Entertainment League.

The two actors are among the 130 players, who also include Ice Cube, David Arquette, Scott Speedman, Justin Timberlake, Morris Chestnut, Coolio, Dean Cain and Don Cheadle, who get together every Sunday to flaunt more than their acting skills. The 12-team league, now in its fourth season, is open by invitation only to those in the entertainment industry.

"Every kid who plays sports growing up wants to be a professional ballplayer," Chestnut said after his game Sunday. "For us to get to put on the uniforms, have the refs, the NBA socks, the logos and everything, it's like a fantasy league."

The league was created two years ago in an effort to build relationships in the industry as well as give entertainers an authentic environment in which to play basketball.

"We realized early on that not only do they love to watch our game, but they love to play the game," says Zane Stoddard, senior manager of entertainment marketing for the NBA and also the celebrity league's unofficial commissioner.

The NBA prefers not to disclose the location of its 11-week regular-season schedule, which runs May through July and again October through January, but the three-round playoffs are held at the Staples Center.

Games are off-limits to the public, but famous faces are often in the stands cheering on the players. On Sunday, Kirsten Dunst and Jaime Pressly cheered on their respective boyfriends, Maguire and Simon Rex. Other girlfriends and wives attending games have included Britney Spears (Timberlake), Gisele Bundchen (DiCaprio), Keri Russell (Speedman) and Courteney Cox Arquette.

"I bring friends of mine, and they get to see more famous people here than they do anywhere else," says hoopster Andrew Miano, president of Weitz Brothers Productions (American Pie).

Players range in height from the 5-foot-1 Frankie Muniz of Malcolm in the Middle to the 6-foot-7 Todd Holland, who was in Little Nicky. Their talent level varies from Miano, who had never played organized basketball, to Angel Eyes' James Caviezel, who played at the University of Washington.

Participants take these games seriously. On Sunday, Woody Harrelson got out of bed at 4 p.m. to make his 5 p.m. game, though he had been suffering from food poisoning. Last January, crooner Brian McKnight sang the national anthem at the NFL's NFC Championship game in East Rutherford, N.J., then hopped a plane back to L.A. in time for that evening's championship NBA Entertainment game, which his team won.

"Normally, when Sunday comes, I do everything I can to get back here if I'm not actually working and have a show," says the 6-foot-4 McKnight, who was the league's MVP two seasons ago.

Some players use the games for networking. When Miano's production company was casting its upcoming WB show Off Centre, six guys from the league were considered. Says Miano: "This is a neat avenue because ... I wouldn't hesitate to say to someone, 'Hey, we've got this movie. We'd love to tell you about it.' "


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