On Friday, August 16, the best non-NBA players in the New York City area headed to East Rutherford, New Jersey to play for a spot on New York’s Red Bull Midnight Run squad. The best eight guys in the gym would be selected to represent NY in a final showdown this winter against eight other cities at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
In between the action, Dime caught up with two local standouts â€“ Courtney Nelson from Rutgers, and Derek Braxton, Jr. from Paterson, New Jersey â€“ to get their take on what got them into basketball, their journey with the game, and the talent that always comes out for the New York iteration of the Red Bull Midnight Run.
From the moment the 110+ players entered the gym they were amped to compete. The sounds from DJ Astro on the 1’s and 2’s added to the energetic environment. According to the players we spoke with this competition acts as a barometer of skill level for the NY area. While there was some catching up with old friends and competitors, for the most part guys were there to play. That meant it was time for business.
The play itself was well rounded. It was some of the best team basketball we’ve seen in the competition. Some guys played full-court defense, others sat back and protected the paint. Either way, it was a strong display of guys playing hard while keeping the action as entertaining as the emcee.
Courtney Nelson was a highly recruited All-State basketball player out of Newark, New Jersey’s Bloomfield Tech who initially agreed to play with the University of Richmond before transferring to Rutgers. Despite the accolades in high school, Nelson didn’t get the playing time he needed to make the step after college into the professional ranks. But a chance meeting with a Dominican scout on a Brooklyn court led to a change in his basketball career trajectory.
Dime: How’d you first get into basketball?
CN: Family. Everybody played. Aunts, uncles, father, brothers, so it’s just kinda in the family. It’s sort of like a must [for our family] to go into the game.”
Dime: What’s the difference between New York and some of the other cities the Red Bull Midnight Run visits?
CN: You gotta bring it, man. Every game someone’s coming for your spot, coming for your name. So every time you step on that court, you gotta be ready to go.
Dime: It’s not like that in other cities?
CN: No because in New York the name is everything. You might have the biggest name out there, and then someone takes your name and you’re a memory. So every time you step on the court when you’re going in New York, you gotta be ready to go, and you gotta be ready for the match-up.
Dime: Where were you playing this past season?
CN: I was in Colombia this past season.
Dime: How does international competition compare to the States?
CN: It’s such a cutthroat business going over there because there are millions of Americans waiting to take your spot, so there are no days off, no games off, you gotta be ready to go. And I tell everybody I think most of the game over there is mental. Being over there away from your family, handling that life not speaking the language all the time. So, I think a lot of it is mental, and how bad do you want it? I’ve played since I was five years old, so to get here now at this point in my life, the game is a must. I’ve come too far to let down now.
Dime: What led you here to Red Bull Midnight Run?
CN: Coming out of high school I had a big name. I was the Gatorade Player of the Year with that class with J.R. Smith, Cedrick Jackson â€” who both went on to play in the NBA. I got caught up in the college system where things just didn’t go good after coming from a situation [high school] where everything goes your way. So for me man, it’s pretty much to keep pushing and going on, no matter what goes on throughout your career or your life. I’ve always grown to rise above any situation. You can go back and look at my numbers while I was at Rutgers. There were games where I played two minutes; games where I didn’t play; I averaged 5 points [per game] in my whole career and out of that team there are only two people who are still playing professionally, so it’s all about overcoming and accepting the challenge that God give’s you.
Dime: What was that next step after coming out of Rutgers? Did you get an agent?
CN: My story was rare, honestly. I was playing in a summer league in Brooklyn called Rodney Park. And some guy just came up to me, randomly, and said, “I think you’re a good player. Do you want to play professionally?” I was thinking the guy is joking. And the guy said, “I have some contacts in the Dominican Republic, if you’re interested.” From there we exchanged numbers. At that point I had heard it all, so I thought, this guy is full of s**t. Exactly eight days later he called and said, “You in shape? You ready to go?” and I asked, “Go where?” He said, “The Dominican-Republic, I told you, I got you the job. You leave tomorrow if you want it.” And that started the road.
DEREK BRAXTON, JR.
Braxton spoke to us about his love of kids, his odyssey to the Red Bull Midnight Run and its elite status in comparison with other New York summer leagues. Plus, Braxton speaks honestly about his plans for continuing to mentor young kids from his hometown of Paterson, New Jersey with basketball as an alternative to life on the streets.
Dime: How’d you get started playing basketball?
DB: I started playing basketball around, 9, 10 [years old]. I started then because I wasn’t happy boxing, so I started playing basketball more.
Dime: What was going on with the boxing?
DB: You can’t hit a certain way when you’re sparring, soâ€”I got hit that way, and I hit him back. It got a little out of control.”
Dime: You still spar?
DB: I might play around a little bit.
Dime: But if someone steps to you on the court, you’re probably OK?
DB: Bad boys move in silence. [laughs]
Dime: Where did you grow up, and what got you into the Red Bull Midnight Run?
DB: I live in Paterson, NJ still. That’s where I grew up. It all started at a court called the 12th Ave Court. They used to run tournaments up there. It started there when we were a young team playing older guys. They liked us, so they kept us in the tournament. That’s where I grew up at.
Dime: Any big names come out of there?
DB: Yeah. I used to play against Tim Thomas, James Scott, James Hargrove. A lot of the big name veterans out of there. That’s one reason I started playing so much. There were a lot of tournaments back then. I had a great group of friends and we played basketball and football. We even made up games. That’s probably what got me to keep playing basketball.
Dime: So how did you get here? Did you play in college at all?
DB: I mean I went to college through street ball. So I tried college. I didn’t stay too long, though. Probably like 6 or 8 months. It wasn’t for me. But I heard about the Red Bull Midnight Run because I played in other NY competitions. I went last year, and I really liked it. I was a little upset because I didn’t make the team, and I think I should have made the team [laughing].
Dime: So there’s probably motivation for this year.
DB: Of course.
Dime: So you’re playing in Paterson and in other summer leagues around New York. How does the Red Bull Midnight Run compare?
DB: Oh man. Like you said, it’s an open gym, but it’s very competitive. You gotta bring it. It makes you want to play more. Red Bull Midnight Run is more competitive to me [than the other Summer Leagues]. It’s something that gets you known, too. Also, I play for the Harlem Wizards. It’s like the Globetrotters. This will be my fifth season [he’s known as Derek “Downtown” Braxton].
Dime: Tell us about that?
DB: It’s a lot of fun. We do fundraisers for kids. We go visit schools and go to assemblies to get the kids into the game. We do our routines on the court. Practice a lot. Bring the crowd into the game. A lot of tricks.
Dime: So you like getting kids into it and stuff of that nature?
DB: Of course. Honestly it’s getting the kidsâ€”they’re playing basketball instead of going on the streets and stuff.
Dime: Yeah, we think basketball is a good way to improve neighborhoods and give kids something else to do with their free time.
DB: Yeah. In Paterson, they’re bringing a lot of tournaments back. It fell off a little bit because of the crime and stuff like that. The crime is still crazy, but what we’re trying to do is put that [basketball] in the middle of it. To slow it down. The Paterson NBA is one tournament there. That’s where Tim Thomas and James Hargrove came together there.
Dime: So what are you hoping to do moving forward? Do you want to play professionally?
DB: Well I’m with the [Harlem] Wizards right now, and I like that. If someone offers me a better financial option to play professionally, I would.
Dime: How much traveling do you do with the Wizards?
DB: Last year we played 290 something games.
Dime: All across the country?
DB: Yeah, even overseas.
Dime: Wow. What’s a spot that’s got some really good ballers no one would normally imagine?
DB: I would say Massachussetts. They got a couple hidden ballers. Ohio. Kentucky. But we play anybody. Like we’ll play teachers, or if the teachers want to get college students, we play the college students. Whoever it is. But we run into some great ballplayers.
Dime: Compare the level of play â€” like you play with the Wizards and in Summer Leagues â€” but compare the level of play at the Red Bull Midnight Run vs. other places?
DB: Definitely this one [is the best]. I’m a competitive player. I like to win, but I want to play competitive basketball. The Harlem Wizards is entertainment basketball; it’s a show. So you do your dunks. Clap for the crowd. Do your dunks. You’re entertaining. But Red Bull Midnight Run is what I love. This is competitive basketball. I work out for this.
Dime: What about basketball, were you hoping we’d ask you, but we didn’t?
DB: That’s a good question. It’s sort of what the Harlem Wizards have done as far as getting kids into the game and out of the streets. I want to be able to start my own basketball training camp; a non-profit basketball camp. Just bring kids in, I don’t want any money. I could get donations for baskets, balls and courtsâ€”whatever it is. That’s what I’d want to do. I really think it’ll help.
What do you think?
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