Air conditioning is nowhere to be found inside the hot, somewhat cramped gymnasium at Judge Memorial Catholic High in Salt Lake City, but the people playing in or watching Powder League basketball games on this 95-degree night don’t seem to mind.
“If you really love basketball, this is where you want to be,” says former University of Utah star Tim Drisdom, who is on one of the nine Powder League teams himself, but is just watching on this night as another former Ute, Parker Van Dyke, goes off for a league-record 85 points for Team Berger.
As Van Dyke’s points pile up and trendy music blares during the action, Drisdom, his brother and several others chest-bump strangers and become more and more animated in rooting on the one-time East High star.
“This is what we envisioned when we started this a few years ago. We are proud of how far we have come. Keep in mind, though, that we still have a long ways to go to get to where we want to be.” Powder League co-founder Keegan Rembacz
Despite the heat — mitigated a little bit by the large box fans circulating the air at various strategic spots throughout the historic venue — the scene is lively, energized and upbeat.
“It is a billion degrees in here,” said former Utah State star Danny Berger, laughing. Berger can afford to chuckle — he is the founder of the league’s best team, Team Berger.
On a balcony overlooking the north end of the court, not far from where the late, legendary Judge coach Jim Yerkovich used to devise game plans in his memorabilia-filled office, Powder League founders Neema Namdar and Keegan Rembacz look on with a sense of pride and accomplishment.
“This is what we envisioned when we started this a few years ago,” Rembacz said. “We are proud of how far we have come. Keep in mind, though, that we still have a long ways to go to get to where we want to be.”
The Powder League is a summer pro-am basketball league featuring nine teams comprised of current and former local college stars, a few NBA players and a good share of guys — such as Van Dyke and former BYU stars Zac Seljaas and Yoeli Childs — who are making a living in the NBA’s G League or playing overseas.
“I would call it a big AAU game for grown men, because these games are very competitive,” Namdar is fond of saying, referencing the all-star summer traveling circuit that features youngsters playing in cities such as Las Vegas, Indianapolis, Houston and Atlanta while trying to catch the attention of college coaches.
Friends at Sandy’s Alta High years ago, before Rembacz went on a church mission to Spain and Namdar played college hoops at Southern Utah, USU-Eastern in Price and Hawaii Pacific University, the duo formed the league in the summer of 2020 during the pandemic and played games that year at a tiny facility in Lehi.
In Year 2, they played games on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays at American Preparatory Academy, a charter school in Draper, and had 12 teams.
This year, they decided a move to hipper, more-populated Salt Lake City was needed and found the old gym at Judge a good, perhaps temporary, fit. The founders said Judge Memorial officials have been great to work with, and they knew the gym wasn’t outfitted with AC when they signed on.
“We wanted a more centralized location, and a place to cater to the NBA guys who are coming into town to play, because they usually stay in Salt Lake City,” Namdar said. “It is a place where they can get off the plane and be about 10 minutes away from the gym.”
As for trimming the league from 12 to nine teams, Namdar said it isn’t because players are losing interest. Rather, they don’t want the product to suffer.
“We tried to make the teams more competitive and even. It has really changed the league because you never know who is going to win each night,” said Namdar, who played professionally in Brazil last winter but is thinking about playing in Europe or the Middle East this fall. Or he might return to Brazil.
Games are now held at 7 and 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday and Friday nights. Namdar said Friday nights are the most lively, particularly when NBA players such as Rayjon Tucker are in action.
“Honestly, for our third year, it is going great,” Namdar said. “Having it in Salt Lake has been great. I feel like it has gotten more people here. … It is hot, like old school AAU games in Vegas, but that makes the basketball that much harder, and everybody is ready to play, staying loose.”
Drisdom, who has played all three years and been the head boys basketball coach at Intermountain Christian School the past five years, said the league has consistently gotten better.
“They have added better players,” said Drisdom, who is stepping down at ICS. “With the exception of how hot it is, I think this is a good venue. The fact that they have been able to sustain it (despite) COVID and all that over the last couple of years has been really good. I have enjoyed playing in it and I think it will be around for a long time.”
Last Wednesday, former American Fork star Tanner Cuff and his Salt Lake Community College teammates (Team Covington) engaged in a tight game with Team Bullock, which had former NBA G League player Kentrell Barkley.
The SLCC Bruins reached the NJCAA national championship game last March in Hutchinson, Kansas.
“This league has improved in every way, like advertising, social media, everything,” said Cuff, who will be a sophomore this fall. “All the players have gotten better, so the competition is better. And there are more fans as well. It is just a good time.”
Before his record-setting performance — he was 18 of 27 from 3-point range — Van Dyke said the new venue is closer to the better players, and the league has grown every year to the point where word is getting out beyond Utah.
“It is pretty impressive how it has gotten better every year, not only the competition, the quality of players, but also the way it is run, the organization and all that stuff,” Van Dyke said. “It is only going to get bigger and better, just because the exposure is better. I think there are big-time players that want to be a part of it — NBA guys, guys like that.”
Van Dyke leads the league in scoring with a 40.4 average; Seljaas is No. 2 at 30.6 points per game and was the MVP at last Saturday’s all-star type game.
“To be able to play in the summer is awesome,” said Van Dyke, who is headed back to Germany for a second season playing there. “To find really good competition to play against in the summer, to create a game-like feel in the summer, is hard to do. To have this available is awesome.”
Rembacz says the league is loosely patterned after the Los Angeles-based “Drew League” that draws not only big crowds, but top-notch NBA talent. Superstar LeBron James played in it a few weeks ago. The graphic designer and business consultant in brand creation said there is no reason why the Powder League — named after Utah’s famous snow — can’t grow into something similar.
“You put Donovan Mitchell in a Powder League game, it would be just as packed,” he said. “There would be so many people here it would be crazy. This is about getting the community involved to show them this a cool thing that will level up the basketball culture of the community overall.”
Rembacz said the nonprofit Powder League’s time will come.
“It is just a matter of being patient,” he said. “We are being patient because we know what we do works, and people like it.”
Now, about that air conditioning.