Summer basketball leagues for college players came and went all over America the last few decades, but the Prime Time League lived to be 31 years old.
Why? PTL founder/commissioner/coach Randy Larson says the answer is obvious.
“They didn’t have Iowa kids,” he said. “Our guys would buy into it and not tell the coaches what to do, all with the idea of getting better.
“We tried to get players to maintain good habits. For them, it was 8 to 10 nights you knew your teammates would pass the ball if you did.”
The play was racehorse since the first PTL game in 1987. It was summer ball, after all. No one was in it for 30-second, 10-pass possessions. Working on offensive skills and having some fun were priorities. Still, the games almost always were team-oriented instead of one-on-one showcases.
“Most coaches would take somebody out if they weren’t playing defense,” said Larson.
“I had (former Iowa standout) Adam Haluska on my team, and in his very first game somebody on his team shot from the right wing. Instead of going to the board, Adam went back on defense. I called timeout and said ‘Adam, you won several track events in high school, you’re 6-5 and you can jump out of the gym. I know it’s just a summer game, but I want you to go to the boards.
“To his credit, he played hard and played the right way every time.”
Ron Nove of Fairfax coached in the PTL in every season but the first one. He drafted the Hawkeyes’ Aaron White four straight years.
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“I don’t know how I got him, but I did,” Nove said. “He had fun and played hard. He understood the game.
“You got to see who shared the ball and played the right way. That’s what Larson always emphasized, playing the right way.”
In 1987, then-Iowa coach Tom Davis encouraged Larson, an Iowa City attorney, to start the PTL. The NCAA was fine with summer leagues, but it had a lot of navigate. Davis told him, “You’re a lawyer, you can figure it out.”
Larson was a former walk-on basketball player at Iowa State and a pickup-game fixture with Hawkeye players after he moved to Iowa City. He accepted Davis’ request and built a league. Its first years were at Iowa City High School in a gym that wasn’t air-conditioned. Davis watched most of the games in the stands with the fans.
The league’s 21st century home was the cooler North Liberty Community Center.
Even when the Hawkeyes were coming off a lackluster season, a few hundred people would show up to watch games in the summer.
“People were always interested,” Larson said. “They wanted to see the new Iowa players, see if they were talented or overhyped or underhyped, see who played which positions. They pretty much filled the gym.”
Talent usually abounded. Especially when the league debuted in 1987, a few months after Davis’ first Iowa team went 30-5 and was a whisker from a Final Four.
Kevin Gamble and Brad Lohaus were NBA draft picks in 1987. You wouldn’t see this in 2018 now that the NBA has its own summer leagues to evaluate young players, but the duo stayed in Iowa City and played PTL ball that summer. Gamble scored 39 points and hit the deciding shot in the PTL’s first championship game, which was shortened 10 minutes because of 90-degree heat.
“If it falls, it falls,” Gamble said afterward. “If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. Somebody has to take the last shot.”
Gamble went on to a 10-year NBA career. At least 17 other PTLers played in the NBA. But the PTL was for far more than stars. Many small-college players and top preps passed through. There were more than a few players from foreign pro teams who summered in Iowa and brought veteran toughness and talent.
And, the league was a boon for the Northern Iowa Panthers.
“We sent our guys from UNI right away,” said Kevin Lehman, who was on Eldon Miller’s Northern Iowa coaching staff and later was the head coach at Nebraska-Omaha for six years. “It really helped us mentally.”
The Panthers stunned Missouri in the first round of the 1990 NCAA Tournament. It isn’t far-fetched to say the PTL had some sort of effect on that. UNI players made a lot of round trips from Cedar Falls to Iowa City, and they got better.
“Before that, UNI was kind of fodder for Iowa,” Lehman said. “Then in the summer we’re playing against B.J. Armstrong, Roy Marble. It really gave us a confidence boost when we started the regular season.”
A couple of 1987 UNI players who graduated before that 1990 NCAA upset have told Larson the PTL was good for them.
Greg McDermott, who went on to coach Northern Iowa, Iowa State, and now Creighton, played in the league in 1987.
“McDermott said he didn’t remember ever having more fun than that,” Larson said.
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Nick Nurse, the new head coach of the NBA’s Toronto Raptors, was another Panther in the PTL’s first year.
Said Lehman: “We were getting ready to play Iowa and Nick told us ‘You can’t put me on B.J. Armstrong. He got 42 on me in the Prime Time League. I can’t guard him.’ ”
Lehman laughed, adding “So we put him on Roy Marble.”
But Nurse could play. He made a school-record 46.8 percent (170 of 363) of his 3-point tries.
“He came out of Carroll Kuemper and didn’t have immediate success at UNI,” Larson said. “Nick Nurse said I was the first coach he ever played for who made him believe he was a major-college player.”
Last Wednesday had been the scheduled date for the start of the PTL’s 32nd season, but Larson announced the week before that the league would no longer exist. NCAA rule changes that went into effect in 2012 allowed players who attend summer classes to participate in eight hours of countable workouts per week.
“It used to be there was no player-coach contact in the summer,” Larson said. “That changed, for the betterment of the game. But between skills work, conditioning and going to school, they had a lot on their plates when it’s supposed to be the offseason, so this was the one thing (Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery and UNI Coach Ben Jacobson) could eliminate.”
So that’s that for the PTL, which once had enough talent that Larson took then-junior college player Ali Farokhmanesh in the eighth round of his draft. Farokhmanesh went on to make the 3-pointer heard ‘round the world when Northern Iowa shocked Kansas in the second round of the 2010 NCAA tourney.
Farokhmanesh had no Division I offers out of Iowa City West High, but worked his way into becoming a memorable college player. He was a great shooter who was happy to pass the ball for a teammate to get a better shot. Which sort of makes him symbolic of the PTL.
“It feels like we stayed true to our original mission,” said Larson. “It was a privilege to do it.”
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