Sportsball: Camaraderie and catharsis lead the Josh Level Classic

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UNC signee Brandon Huffman throws down a dunk at the Josh Level Classic.

Photos by Matthew C. Brown

All at once the gym exploded; players and coaches of both teams leapt from their seats and stormed onto the basketball court, as did some onlookers from the bleachers and sidelines. They howled, grabbing friends around the shoulder with one hand and simultaneously filming the frenzy with the other. Some rushed for the exits, briefly dipping out of sight only to be dragged back in a few seconds later, hands covering the awe and elation on their faces. Greensboro native Theo Pinson, six weeks after winning a national championship at UNC, reveled among them.

Sudden and spontaneous, the crowd at the Josh Level Classic reacted to Ian Steere’s posterizing windmill dunk with undeniable kinship — unanimous in their celebration, thrilled in their disbelief. The dunk’s victim beamed as bright as anyone.

That one whirling moment and the entire May 20 evening at Greensboro’s Dudley High School illuminated the goals of community, celebration and even catharsis — aspirations of those who created the annual basketball game.

It was just what Josh Level would have wanted.

On Feb. 19, 2013, the New Garden Friends School varsity basketball team played a road game against Quality Education Academy in Winston-Salem. Walking over to his team’s huddle in the second half, junior Josh Level collapsed. A few hours later, he died at Baptist Hospital. Examiners found that Level had myocarditis, a viral infection causing inflammation of the heart muscle.

For his senior project at New Garden Friends School the following year, Level’s close friend Kanayo Obi-Rapu Jr. founded the Josh Level Classic, an annual memorial basketball game that features some of the most talented high school players in the state and around the country. This year, nearly all of the players have received Division I scholarship offers, and the lineups included three UNC signees as well as players committed to NC State and NC A&T.

Proceeds from the games go toward developing the Josh Level Foundation, a nonprofit working to provide high-school gymnasiums with automated external defibrillators, which may have been able to save Level’s life. The foundation also supports anti-bullying campaigns — an important issue for the late teenage basketball player.

“Josh’s whole spirit was against name-calling and putting people down,” Obi-Rapu Jr. said in an interview before the May 20 game, recalling Level’s relationship with his sister, who has Down syndrome. “He’d be the first to tell anyone: ‘You’re not gonna make fun of people.’”

Before the game began, the players mingled in a room near the gym, greeting each other, eating Chick-fil-A, taking pictures and changing into either gray or purple uniforms. Whether or not the players had known Level before his death, the event generated a strong camaraderie between them.

PJ Hairston — a former player at Dudley High School, UNC and in the NBA — coached the gray team during this year’s Classic. For him, as well as for the majority of the evening’s players, he said, it’s all about his friend Josh Level.

“These players do it for him,” Hairston remarked. “They play as hard as Josh would have.”

Though the evening honored someone who has passed away, players, coaches and spectators conjured a raucous, joyful energy. If the beat of the ball, the squeak of the shoes and the rattle of the rim formed the percussion of a players’ jazz funeral, the crowd was their second line — dancing, shouting, cheering, and through other cathartic expression celebrating the life of Josh Level.

The high schoolers displayed unbelievable talent — mesmerizing dunks, impossible passes, humbling blocks. The boundary between player and spectator didn’t command the same adherence as a more formal game, and fans could often spot certain attendees — particularly Theo Pinson, who claimed a seat with the gray squad— occasionally bounding out nearly to the free-throw line to hearten or heckle players on either team.

The camaraderie that the evening created didn’t end with the final buzzer — though the intense contest ultimately came to a 125-123 conclusion.

“Seeing everybody come together — it’s a big deal,” Pinson said smiling as he looked around the court full of people after the game, thrilled to know that the legacy of Josh Level lives on.

Tar Heel player Theo Pinson takes the court after the game.

For a couple of other spectators, their presence at the event wasn’t just in memory of Level, but for the manifestation of Level’s life in someone else.

Kenny Williams and Seventh Woods, teammates of Pinson’s in Chapel Hill, came to the Gate City with their fellow Tar Heel.

For Williams, the reason he made the trip could be summed up in a word: “Theo.”

Knowing what Level and the memorial game meant to Pinson was enough for two of his teammates to join him on the trip down Interstate 40 to Greensboro.

For the Classic’s organizers — including Level’s family, Obi-Rapu Jr., Hairston and many others — the annual event and its context of community become ways to celebrate Josh Level’s life through playing, cheering and otherwise celebrating something that the young man loved so dearly.

For a couple of hours each year, the convivial power of sport helps to make their pain endurable.