Houston’s legendary Fonde still a basketball proving ground via the No Excuses Pro League
Once a place where stars such as Moses Malone and Hakeem Olajuwon tested their skills, the historic gym still attracts top basketball talent
It’s the third game in a slate of eight on a recent Sunday afternoon of the No Excuses Summer Pro League, and Team Simms — a veteran squad assembled by former NBA guard Jonathon Simmons — is caught up in some unexpected drama against a team composed of Division III players from the University of St. Thomas. Simmons is a no-show, playing later in the day alongside Rashard Lewis and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf in a Big3 game in Dallas.
No worries for Team Simms, which fights back to tie the game after overcoming a late five-point deficit. Team Simms then spaces the floor for point guard ShawnDre’ Jones, the former University of Richmond star who played last season for the Motor City Cruise in the G League, to operate.
For the defender, it’s pick your poison. He decides to fall back on defense to protect the lane, allowing Jones to launch a lightly contested 3-pointer.
“Just out here perfecting my craft, man,” said Jones, the league’s second-leading scorer who will suit up on Friday for the Air Raiders in a Round 1 game of The Basketball Tournament. “And to do it here, in a basketball gym where so many legends played and that has so much history, is great.”
That gym: the Fonde Recreation Center, located on the northeast side of Houston’s central business district.
The legends who played at Fonde: Several generations of Houston Rockets legends, from Elvin Hayes to Moses Malone to Clyde Drexler to Hakeem Olajuwon, as well as occasional visiting players who included Charles Barkley and Cedric Ceballos.
The history: While the Drew League represents the current standard of summer pro-am basketball, the run and games at the Fonde were once considered the best run outside of New York’s Rucker Park.
“You ain’t done it,” is what Hall of Fame center Malone once said, in a quote that appears on a plaque just inside the front door to the gym, “… till you’ve done it at Fonde.”
Who can you see getting it done this summer at the No Excuses pro-am, which will crown its champion in August?
Including Simmons and Jones, on any given Sunday you might see other former college stars/current pros with roots in Texas such as Johnathan Motley (Baylor, Dallas Mavericks and LA Clippers), Damyean Dotson (Oregon, University of Houston, New York Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers) and Rasheed Sulaimon (Duke/Maryland) as well as up-and-coming college talents such as Markhi Strickland (Saint Louis) and Davon Barnes (Texas Southern).
“A lot of college players from the University of Houston, Texas Southern and Rice will have their younger players run here to get a taste of serious competition,” said Casey Williams, the executive director and founder of the No Excuses Pro League. “What’s great about coming here is that the games are free. It’s great basketball and a family experience in a game that has so much history.”
Today it’s Fonde, site of the No Excuses pro-am.
Back in the day it was just Fonde, where some of the most talented players in the NBA would show up.
It began with Hayes and his teammates from the University of Houston playing here in the 1970s, it picked up steam with Malone bringing players to Fonde to run in the 1970s (the floor is named after Malone), and it continued over the next few decades with a long list of basketball legends coming through: Calvin Murphy, Rudy Tomjanovich, George Gervin and even the Harlem Globetrotters.
“They [University of Houston’s Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler] got tore up. They ended up being a great college team, but going against Moses Malone, it’s pride kicking in and the pros were thinking, ‘I’m not letting these young guys come in and show me anything.’ ”— Selwyn Wilkinson
“When I started playing pickup here with Moses, we’d always start the day on opposite teams,” said Robert Reid, a 13-year NBA veteran who began his career with the Rockets in 1977 and played in Houston for 10 seasons. “But I had to stop playing that first game against Moses because I’d always lose and, once you lost, you might as well take your shoes off, because you weren’t getting back out there.”
Word got around quickly that NBA players were playing at Fonde, resulting in kids from the nearby Allen Parkway housing projects flocking to the gym to catch their favorite stars.
“Those kids couldn’t go to The Summit to see a game,” Reid said. “So they came to Fonde to see us, and we always made sure we had extra shirts, shoes or something to give them because we knew they couldn’t afford to go to a game.”
After the Fonde run, the players grabbed a bite at the Houston This Is It Soul Food restaurant, a Houston food destination established in 1959, located about four miles from the gym.
“I stepped outside for a second and the kids were saying they wanted to get our autographs,” Reid remembered. “But I overheard some of the older guys saying, ‘Later for an autograph, check out those rims.’ So I went back inside and told the guys, ‘You better hurry up, and eat, or else you’ll be thumbing it.’ ”
Selwyn Wilkinson was at Fonde the day a big lanky kid from Nigeria, Olajuwon, stepped into Fonde for his first run alongside his University of Houston teammates Drexler, Benny Anders and Larry Micheaux.
“They got tore up,” said Wilkinson, who now coaches in the No Excuses league. “They ended up being a great college team, but going against Moses Malone, it’s pride kicking in and the pros were thinking, ‘I’m not letting these young guys come in and show me anything.’ ”
Rodney McCray, an NCAA champion at Louisville (1980) and an NBA champion with the Chicago Bulls (1993) said the run at Fonde rivaled the games played at the iconic New York playground not far from his home in Mount Vernon.
“It reminded me of the Rucker when I played here,” said McCray, who also coaches in the No Excuses Pro League. “The history down here, it’s just one of these legendary buildings and when you come to Houston it’s the place everyone wanted to play.
“If you thought you were good, this is definitely the place where you came to test your skills.”
Pickup runs at Fonde evolved into pro-ams that attracted college players and pros. But the level of participation from the professionals has lessened in recent years.
“Teams build these facilities to accommodate players year-round, so the guys who are in town are going to the Rockets facility to work out,” McCray said. “Other guys organize their own invite-only run.”
But the No Excuses pro-am is still a place to see rising stars, established college players and local professional players earning a living overseas. No Excuses was launched in 2016 after the previous pro-am was dissolved.
“We worked to restart the program because of my passion for basketball,” Williams said. “I played in the Houston Pro City, and later coached and it was great, but there were a couple of years where it didn’t take place. I had a conversation with John Lucas in 2015 and decided to bring the pro-am back.”
Year 1, 2016, was a struggle with games played once a week.
Year 2, 2017, the league grew enough to a point that Williams decided to add an extra day, Wednesday, the following season.
Years 3 and 4, 2018 and 2019, attracted more top local players, which began to establish Houston as a summer basketball destination. But the coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2020 season.
The league, while playing full schedules these past two years, is still attempting to reestablish its pre-pandemic footing.
“COVID had a big impact not only on our league, but for pro-am leagues around the country,” Williams said. “You miss a year of games, but you’re really gone for two years. We’re getting the word out to people that we’re back.”
This year, No Excuses debuted a six-team women’s league, giving an opportunity to locals such as Anacia Wilkinson, who played collegiately at Tennessee Tech, to compete during the summer.
“I’ve been helping out with the No Excuses league for years, and when they started to talk last year about starting a women’s league I was excited,” said Anacia Wilkinson, who will play professionally next season in the Czech Republic. “Playing here helps keep my game sharp. But it’s also exciting to play here with all this legacy.”
“My name carried no weight in Houston, and that bothered me. So I worked hard, and each time I came home, my mindset was to kill everything in front of me.” — Shannon Shorter
There’s a buzz in Fonde as Shannon Shorter steps to half court for the Game 4 opening tip, for good reason: It’s the season debut for the reigning league MVP (he’s won it twice), who has been dealing with a case of plantar fasciitis that forced him to shut down two months ago during the playoffs of the Croatian league.
Shorter’s gait in his first game back: Limping.
His speed: Slow motion.
His lift: Virtually nonexistent.
He looked a lot older than 32.
Yet, it’s Shorter who hits the big shots and makes the right passes late in a six-point win, finishing with 24 points, 5 rebounds and a team-high 9 assists.
“I know I gotta test it,” said Shorter, who needed the work to help prepare for his appearance with the Bleed Green team made up of the University of North Texas players that opens play in The Basketball Tournament on Friday. “No legs today, but it’s the first step to getting myself right.”
When it comes to local legends, Shorter is someone of an anomaly. He’s not big, his game’s not flashy and, even at full strength, he’s not likely, at his current age, to blow by an opponent.
But he’s crafty, and intelligent, which has earned him the two MVP awards at the No Excuses League pro-am in 2021, a season that included a record-breaking 60-point performance and two 40-point-plus games during the playoffs.
Shorter’s passport, since leaving North Texas in 2011, has been consistently stamped with professional stops that have included Mexico, Argentina, Israel, Japan, Turkey and Lebanon. This past season he earned first-team honors in Croatia’s HT Premijer Liga, where he led KK Split in scoring (17.6 PPG).
While his status as an international basketball star pays the bills, Shorter’s participation in the No Excuses league — where he plays for free — gives him the most satisfaction.
“It’s great playing here, especially going against some of these young guys who think, ‘He’s won the MVP, and I want to prove something to Shannon Shorter,’ ” Shorter said. “It means a lot, because I was a late bloomer and coming up I never got the respect from my peers.”
That’s because Shorter wasn’t highly recruited out of Westside High School in Houston, leading to an unremarkable college career at three schools (Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Paris Junior College and North Texas). Even though he won titles in the Korean Basketball League and was the all-star game MVP in the Israeli National League early in his career, that meant nothing when he came home for the summer to play at Fonde.
“My name carried no weight in Houston, and that bothered me,” Shorter said. “So I worked hard, and each time I came home, my mindset was to kill everything in front of me.”
That paid off in 2018, when Shorter was named the league’s MVP, beating Simmons (who was with the Orlando Magic at the time) and Team Simms in the title game. That helped seal his rep in Houston where, in player rankings, he’s usually among the top 2.
“I came home and solidified myself that summer. Three years later, now it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s him,’ ” Shorter said. “Now everybody knows me, and looks forward to when I play.”
It’s hard not to know who Shorter is. Every time he touches the ball, the public address announcer calls him “the league MVP.”
“Guys like Moses Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon, Robert Horry and Sam Cassell have played here, and for me to play well in this league and have the top scoring game, that means a lot,” Shorter said. “These games are all about pride and respect and local bragging rights.”
Shorter is finding out that those bragging rights are tougher to maintain control.
“I’m 32 going against these young guys, and I remember being their age and wanting to do well playing against guys like Myron [‘Tha Show’] Allen, Dwayne [‘The Legend’] Rogers,” Shorter said of two local Houston pro-am stars in the 1990s and early 2000s. “This just gives me a chance to lay a foundation for young individuals who play here at Fonde, because I was that same person at one point.”
It’s nearing the end of the eight-game schedule at Fonde and Williams, the commissioner, has been in constant motion. He goes from checking on the scorer’s desk to greeting the game officials and fans to even taking to the sideline to coach a women’s game.
“Casey’s done a tremendous job with this league,” Selwyn Wilkinson said. “It meant a lot to the players for him to bring it back.”
The vision, for Williams, is for the No Excuses pro-am to simply build on the established history.
“I once saw a guy come in from Chicago, and he just stood in the building, looked around and said, ‘Man, I’ve heard so much about this place,’ ” Williams said. “Moses Malone, Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith have all played here — this is the place in Houston.
“There’s a vibe here you can actually feel when you’re present. If you play at Fonde, then you’re serious about basketball.”