Desert Reign ProCity is a destination for homegrown, NBA and WNBA talent
The Las Vegas pro-am has highlighted the talent in the city, from pros such as Pierre Jackson and Sequoia Holmes to high school and college prospects
LAS VEGAS — It’s 45 minutes to the start of the season finale of the Desert Reign ProCity and there’s a bit of a commotion along the baseline of the gym’s north side, which briefly draws attention from the game in progress.
But this is no disturbance: Pierre Jackson has entered the building.
Over the years, the Desert Reign has attracted a great deal of big-name talent: DeMarcus Cousins, Montrezl Harrell, Gary Payton II and numerous NBA players and international basketball standouts have been regulars since the league was launched in 2012.
Yet one of the league’s smallest players (Jackson’s generously listed at 5-9) has long been Desert Reign’s largest attraction, for good reason. He’s a homegrown (East Las Vegas) former junior college player of the year and two-time All-Big 12 pick at Baylor with a stellar basketball résumé that extends from college stardom to international fame.
In his prime Jackson, 30, was bouncy.
Jackson experiences fewer explosive liftoffs these days, but the two-time NBA D-League All-Star (he got a taste of the NBA with the Dallas Mavericks during the 2016-17 season) maintains his status as a master showman.
And Jackson, known locally as “Pappy Gawd,” is a Las Vegas legend.
“This man has his logo on the uniform, that’s how big he is here,” said former NBA guard Jeremy Pargo (Memphis Grizzlies, Cleveland Cavaliers, Philadelphia 76ers, Golden State Warriors), grabbing the No. 55 — Jackson’s number — that’s embroidered on the top left shoulder of his gold uniform jersey. “Everybody in this city knows who he is and comes out to watch him play, and the fact that he’s shown up every week for 10 years is big-time.”
It’s easy to assume the cities with the best pro-am leagues are places that have/had NBA teams (Drew League in Los Angeles, SwinCity in Dallas, The Crawsover in Seattle). But if you enjoy basketball and are in Las Vegas on a Tuesday over the summer, pull yourself off the Strip and travel to Doolittle Community Center in the historic Westside of the city for one of the nation’s most intense and highly competitive hoops experiences.
“I’m from Chicago, but I live here now and we may not have an NBA team, but we have a lot of ballers who live here,” said Pargo, whose brother, Jannero Pargo, played on eight NBA teams and is now an assistant coach with the Indiana Pacers. “It only lasts for four weeks, but people come out and have fun in the city. That’s a good thing.”
For Orlando Johnson, the visit to Doolittle this Tuesday is an attempt to “get in some bump.” Johnson’s a world traveler: the second-round pick by the Sacramento Kings in 2012 has played on four NBA teams as well as professionally in Russia, Australia and most recently in the Philippines.
With that kind of résumé, Johnson, a California native who played at Loyola Marymount and University of California, Santa Barbara, has no problem securing a jersey.
“Vegas has got a lot of good pro ballers, and I just wanted to come out and hoop,” Johnson said. “I’ve played at the Drew, Dyckman and the San Francisco pro-am, and there’s just as much talent here because you have guys who have played around the world at high levels.”
The Desert Reign ProCity is the brainchild of Bjorn Berg, an assistant coach at Bishop Gorman High School and director of the Desert Reign Foundation.
“I wanted to create a safe, engaging, competitive atmosphere for all the professional players and NCAA student-athletes all under one roof,” Berg said. “And I wanted to get the community involved and just provide an awesome platform for the athletes to participate in.”
Games in the early years of the league were played at Durango High School just southwest of the Las Vegas Strip. Games were played in a gym with no air conditioning, but drew big crowds because of the presence of UNLV players.
“The stands were packed because all the Rebels were playing, and there was just red everywhere,” Berg said. “One summer, [there was] a brand-new incoming freshman that had just signed up for summer school, and when he walked into the gym after his plane was delayed, it was bananas.”
The NCAA certification allowed compliance officers from other schools to allow athletes from Las Vegas to play, which resulted in a high level of competition.
“Everybody enjoys playing, but guys now are more hesitant to go play in the park,” Berg said. “When you bring in the officials and then the fans and you just make it a little bit more professional, it just kind of legitimizes the league.”
The league scheduled games for eight to 10 weeks, two nights per week the first few years, which included a regular season, playoff and championship game. The decision to scale it back to four teams over four weeks has resulted in high-intensity, competitive games.
“We started playing on Tuesday so we didn’t compete with what goes on in Vegas,” Berg said. “A game on Tuesday, in the middle of the week, allowed the guys in town working out to come out here and play without distractions.”
The run is an opportunity for young players to gauge their skills against professionals. Keshon Gilbert, who’s entering his second season at UNLV, has been a regular; C.J. Shaw, who earned a spot on the Class 4A All-State team last season as a freshman while leading Mojave High School to a state championship, debuted in Desert Reign on the league’s final day.
“My coach asked if I wanted to play, and I said why not,” Shaw said after the game, where he scored four points. “What did I learn? This run is a lot more physical than I expected. But it’s a good experience for me.”
There are two gyms at Doolittle, with the adjacent gym hosting women’s games that are played simultaneously. Players from the UNLV women’s team have a big presence, as well as current players from Europe and former college and WNBA stars looking to stay active.
Among them are players such as Sequoia Holmes, a former UNLV star who played professionally in Europe and with four WNBA teams (Houston Comets, Phoenix Mercury, San Antonio Stars and Las Vegas Aces).
“My grandfather lives two minutes up the street from here, and playing in Doolittle is a dream come true because it’s the mecca of basketball here,” Holmes said. “As a kid I’d come here and watch the pros and semipros play in the late-night hoops.”
Holmes, who played professionally in Greece last season, currently coaches an AAU team in Las Vegas. As a longtime Vegas vet, Holmes, now 36, finds herself playing games in the Desert Reign league against players she coached and mentored.
“They’re my little ones, and they make me feel tired and dated,” Holmes said, laughing. “They come out there talking smack, and I like the competitive nature they have. But my team hasn’t lost a game in the four years I’ve played.
“As long as I’m on the court,” Holmes added. “I’m going to make sure I win.”
“Being around this brought that love back for me. Nobody knew who I was before I went to Baylor, but I was able to make a name for myself here. For people to put me at the top of the list when it comes to basketball in Las Vegas, it’s special to me and super humbling.”
— Pierre Jackson
The biggest move to help legitimize the league: moving the games from Durango High School to Doolittle, located in the historic neighborhood of West Las Vegas. It’s a neighborhood that was established in the 1930s when Black residents flocked there after laws were established to limit casinos to white patrons.
Black people created their own version of the Las Vegas Strip near Jackson Avenue, just south of Doolittle, by opening businesses that included the Cotton Club and the Harlem Club.
“This is the historic Westside, one of the toughest parts of the city, and a lot of athletes come from this area,” Jackson said. “We got here in 2018, and I’ve been able to use my connections to get NBA players here and the people have fully supported it.”
Jackson’s able to attract top-notch talent to the pro-am because his name carries weight. He was an all-state player at Desert Pines High School in Las Vegas, earning him a scholarship at the College of Southern Idaho, where as a sophomore he was named the NJCAA Division I Player of the Year while leading his team to its third national title.
That led to a decorated college career at Baylor, where Jackson earned more accolades, including Big 12 Newcomer of the Year, All-Big 12, Bob Cousy Award finalist and the Most Outstanding Player of the 2013 NIT tournament, where he led Baylor to the championship.
“He’s not super all, but he’s explosive with quick moves and the young kids aspire to be like Pierre,” Berg said. “He’s a local legend, and you can always rely on Pierre to play. He has an amazing personality, and every time he walks in the gym he’s taking pictures with fans and signing autographs.”
Jackson walks through the gym with a constant smile, and the joy he exudes is genuine. Which makes it surprising to learn that basketball, a few years ago, became a grind.
“I kind of fell out of love with the grind,” said Jackson, sitting courtside after a recent game. “I’m superfamily-oriented, and I was spending a lot of time away from my people and that was tough.”
That’s the emotional impact of making a living overseas which, for Jackson, included stops in Turkey (2014 league champion), Croatia (2016 league champion), Israel (2018 league champion and All-Star game MVP), China (2019 CBA scoring champion) and France. The coronavirus pandemic was extremely trying for Jackson, whose family wasn’t allowed to travel overseas during the height of the pandemic.
“My kids are 8 and 5, and being away from them for a long period of time was tough,” Jackson said. “Now my wife can come overseas to see me, and my kids get to visit different places and see how other people move.”
Jackson credits returning to play in the Desert Reign league as helping him recharge. The games are free, which allows fans who might not be able to afford to go to the NBA’s summer league to see top-notch talent.
“Being around this brought that love back for me,” Jackson said. “Nobody knew who I was before I went to Baylor, but I was able to make a name for myself here. For people to put me at the top of the list when it comes to basketball in Las Vegas, it’s special to me and super humbling.”
It also puts a target on Jackson’s back, and among those coming for him in the final game of the season was Julian Newman, a diminutive player with a massive social media following.
Jackson, upon seeing a player smaller than him (Newman’s listed at 5-7, but appears shorter), decided to post up the youngster in what turned out to be an extremely physical sequence.
“These young guys, they get a chance to play against me in a game with refs and a venue with cameras, and they want to try to embarrass me,” Jackson said, laughing. “I’ve been playing basketball for a long time and I’m pretty seasoned. I know they’re going to try me, and it feels good to go at these young guys.”
For Jackson, it also feels good to see basketball thriving at a high level in a place not necessarily known as a hotbed.
“We’re trying to make this one of the best pro-ams,” Jackson said. “I’ve played at Drew, which is the biggest one in America. We’re not there yet, but I’m trying to get it to that.”