The NBA Entertainment League was birthed from a regular pickup game featuring a host of friends with showbiz-world connections. It launched in 1999 with eight teams and a lower caliber of celebrity. It quickly became evident that the players enjoyed not only the competition but also the opportunity to see each other regularly. “How many times are you going to get a guy to play golf with you?” asks Cain rhetorically. And so the NBAE grew rapidly, and it now comprises two divisions of eight teams each and 192 players.
The league plays a 15-game regular season of 40-minute contests (two 20-minute halves, with a running clock). Most of the players show up for eight or nine games. Uniforms must be tucked in. Headbands must match. Undershirts and jewelry are strictly prohibited. A revolving staff of eight referees monitors the proceedings.
Not surprisingly, invitations to play are hard to come by. In Hollywood hoops, as in Hollywood deal making, it’s all about the back-channel maneuvers. Duffy receives solicitations from people up and down the industry food chain, including agents, publicists, friends of friends -- you name it. He also scouts out potential additions during pickup games on Tuesday mornings and during the summer. While the championship squad remains intact for the following season so as to have a chance to defend its title, the rosters of the other teams are shuffled; the NBAE has seen no Celtic-esque dynasties.
“Every single person is in this league for a reason,” Duffy says. “I’ll take a chance on a young actor over a director with a few films out, because [the actor] might be more visible from a promotional standpoint. He may show up in People magazine before the other guy.”
Running the NBAE isn’t Duffy’s primary professional responsibility. He heads the NBA’s Los Angeles office as director, entertainment marketing, player and talent relations, a role in which he helps coordinate NBA/Hollywood tie-ins, among other duties. Still, he clearly treasures his role as the NBAE’s commissioner, facilitator, peacekeeper, promoter, and ego wrangler.
For eight-plus hours every Sunday, Duffy bounces between the stands and the sidelines, working players and spectators alike with the easy familiarity of a small-town mayor. Banter comes naturally to him, and he uses it both when he’s needling his charges (to Johnny Alves, cousin of actor Mark Wahlberg and the reported inspiration for the character of Johnny Drama on Entourage, he yips, “You have six points? You shoot 38 times, you better have more than six points!”) and when he’s defusing tense situations with a comforting word and a pat on the shoulder.
The players are very much “his” guys; he talks up their careers and their on-court abilities like a proud parent would. He notes how Frankie Muniz of Malcolm in the Middle fame “has grown up in this room” and how fledgling actor and boy-band member Bobby Edner, 19, the league’s youngest player, “is so smart. He’s thinking about interning with one of the guys so that he gets a good handle on the business.” When young and largely unknown actor Jarod Einsohn departs after a quick schmooze session, Duffy says, conspiratorially, “He’s up for a huge part. It’s going to happen for him; you can just tell.” Duffy knows his players’ on-court tendencies too. Before actor Jon Sklaroff fires up a three-pointer, Duffy calls “glass.” As if on cue, the shot careens off the backboard and kisses the net as it drops through the hoop.