On Friday evening at 10 p.m., when most people are watching TV, partying or sleeping, the air in the Wohl Community Center is sticky and stuffy. Sweaty bodies run up and down the court. Old timers pile into a corner, arguing about the NBA back in 1995. Little kids hop up and down the bleachers. Crowd members scream out “and-one!” in between bites of cheesy nachos.
That’s the scene in the Wohl Center on a Friday night at 9 p.m. It’s not time to sleep — it’s the semifinals of the Nothing But Nets basketball league.
But Nothing But Nets isn’t your average adult basketball league. Games don’t take place on weekday afternoons. They happen deep into the night on weekends, starting at 9 p.m. and running until 1 a.m. Players are expected — mandated — to attend classes before games. The goal of the league, says administrator Preston Thomas, is to bring people together, to provide young adults with mentoring and life skills. Basketball, he says, is merely the “hook.”
“[The players] go ahead and sacrifice and do things for each other,” he says. “Well, that’s how life really is. You all are going to have to come together and do these things so that you can help build a community — the St. Louis community. That’s what’s really important.”
This is the inaugural year for Nothing But Nets, funded through $650,000 in American Rescue Plan Act money from the Tishaura Jones administration.
Thomas most notably coached at Cardinal Ritter College Prep High School for nearly two decades, leading the program to three state championships and earning an induction into the Missouri Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame. He has been retired for years but agreed to help when the Department of Parks, Recreation and Forestry reached out in the spring of 2022 about creating the first-year Nothing But Nets basketball league.
“It’s going to be giving back to the community and helping out some young people,” he says. “I know that you've got to reach back and help someone else out.”
Most adult leagues happen during the early evenings on weekdays. But this league was designed to take place deep into the night on the weekends, fostering a safe space for young adults.
“[The Parks and Recreation Department] wanted to have an activity where they keep the young men busy and off the street,” Thomas says, “so they may not get in trouble or they won’t become victims.”
Thomas says he normally doesn’t get home until 1:30 a.m.
“At that time, there’s nothing to do but go home, take a shower and go to bed,” he says.
Thomas and his fellow organizers decided to host the league in the Wohl Center, located on Kingshighway Boulevard and Martin Luther King Drive — a staple of the St. Louis community. “Everybody,” Thomas says, “knows how to get to Wohl.”
Wohl is considered the mecca of basketball in St. Louis, producing various youth, high school, adult and nighttime leagues over the years. It has turned out NBA and college stars, such as Jayson Tatum, Patrick McCaw, Cam’Ron Fletcher and Caleb Love.
Thomas hopes to continue a smaller version of the league in the spring before bringing it back full force in the summer.
But first, there were playoffs to finish this past Friday, the night of the league semifinals. People streamed into Wohl — family members, kids, partners, police and, of course, the players, who entered Wohl listening to music and watching Kevin Durant highlights.
“It gives you like that high school vibes,” says guard Cortez Conners. “Like real college game night vibes [rather than] Sunday morning men’s league vibes.”
But before the players even put on their jerseys, they had to file into the Wohl multipurpose room for their pregame class. This, says Thomas, is “a must.” The classes feature resume-writing workshops, life lessons and general discussions.
In the multipurpose room on Friday, players found Ajuma Muhammad, a community psychotherapist and St. Louis native who played for Thomas as a high schooler. “I’ve been working with young, African American males for 35 years,” he says. “That’s my calling.”
He describes himself as a “life coach.”
“I’m the person who comes in and talks about life,” Muhammad says. “Life issues, challenges, give a brother some direction and maybe some things that they hadn't previously considered. So that's my job — to introduce new ideas.”
There were no pens or paper in this classroom. For nearly 20 minutes before the games, Muhammad just talked with them. He preached the importance of traveling out of the country. He asked them for their thoughts on the new Kanye West drama. He encouraged them to read books.
“When you get together, get to know each other,” he says. “Don't just use basketball just to hoop. But think about after basketball. Life after basketball. What do you want to do with your life?”
Conners was one of those players in the audience. He starred at Webster Groves and played one year of division 1 basketball at Cal State Bakersfield. Now, at 30, his hopes of professional basketball have vanished. He currently works in a Goodwill warehouse seven days a week. He says he has worked over 90 straight days.
“I basically do the same thing every day,” he says. “Go to work, go to work, go to work.”
Except on Fridays and Saturdays.
Then Conners gets to hoop, he says, “and just be free.”