Stan Williams was waiting outside Imhotep Charter last September when a crew of NBA players pulled in for a secret pickup game he helped arrange.
The players — stars like Trae Young, Aaron Gordon, Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanović, and Jordan Clarkson — were in town filming a movie with Adam Sandler and wanted a break from the set of Hustlewhich will be released on Netflix on Wednesday.
So Williams, an assistant coach at Imhotep, opened the door to the gym at the East Germantown school and introduced himself.
“Then I see a guy who looks like Adam Sandler,” said Williams. “’Yo, that looks like Adam Sandler.’ He’s trying to get in with a dog. Granted, I know Adam Sandler and I love Waterboy and everything, but this is still a school. Even though it’s nighttime, it’s like, ‘We can’t let you bring a dog in here, bro. We love you, bro, but can’t let you bring a dog.’”
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Sandler, a basketball junkie, surprised everyone — even his Hustle co-stars — by showing up at Imhotep. But Bagel, Sandler’s bulldog, had to wait outside.
“They had a long day of filming, so everyone was tired and his energy wasn’t all the way up when he came in,” Williams said. “But he’s like, ‘Yo, I’m trying to hoop.’ I’m like, all right, we’re going to see what he can do.”
Sandler, 55, tries to play pickup basketball everywhere he goes — as he said last year on The Dan Patrick Show, “It’s the only time I sweat.” And his usual partner in two-on-two is a former Archbishop Ryan basketball player.
“He’s a scorer, he’s tenacious, and he’s tough,” said Jonathan Loughran, a Parkwood native who has been a cast member in nearly all of Sandler’s movies and works as his assistant. “If someone is a college player and incredible, then we don’t have a chance. But we go play these guys who can do the And-1 dribbling and weren’t great athletes, then we’ll crush them doing pick-and-rolls all day and they don’t know what to do. They were baffled that they were losing to Adam Sandler, but there’s a lot of young kids around the country who got beat by Adam Sandler and myself. He’s a scorer and he can put the ball in the basket.”
Sandler doesn’t look the part of a basketball savant as he usually takes the court in a baggy T-shirt, shorts that go way past his knees, and high socks pushed down. But it works.
“It throws you off,” Loughran said. “But he’s smart and he likes to control the game. He’s tough. He’s really tough.”
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Sandler, of course, was wearing his usual outfit when he rolled into Imhotep.
“Super baggy everything,” said former Temple star Dionte Christmas, one of the local players Williams recruited to play.
A 5-foot-10 guard who loves to shoot, Sandler played three games that night. He wasn’t hitting anyone with a crossover but he could knock down an open three.
“Very old school,” Christmas said. “I can’t compare him to anybody, but it’s very old school. Like my dad. It felt like I was playing with my dad or my uncle. He has a good YMCA game. He’d be a very good YMCA player.”
Williams said Sandler was a “competitor,” which came through when Williams stopped him for a photo.
“Again, I’m not starstruck, but I’m not going to act like that’s not Adam Sandler. He’s one of the bigger movie stars of my generation,” Williams said. “I’m like, ‘Yo, can I get a picture?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, we can get a picture.’ But he really wasn’t into taking pictures after he lost.
“I’m like, ‘Bro, you really thought you were supposed to compete with Tobias Harris and Trae Young?’ But I liked that. I respected that he acted like he was supposed to be out there.”
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The game was organized after Young, the Atlanta Hawks’ star guard, said on the movie set that he wanted to play a “real Philadelphia game.”
“No disrespect to the outskirts, but he really wanted to be in the midst of it and the heart of the city,” Williams said.
Mike Foster, a G League forward who is expected to be selected in June’s NBA draft, was on set and knew Williams through Brad Wanamaker, a former Roman Catholic star who played five seasons in the NBA.
They contacted Williams, asking if he could open the gym and gather some Philly players. But he had to keep it a secret.
“So that was really tough for me, obviously,” Williams said. “I’m not a starstruck guy because I’ve had some pretty big names in that gym before, but these are guys who have won slam dunk contests and been in All-Star Games. I’m like, ‘Whoa, whoa.’ It was a big deal, but I did my best to keep it a secret.”
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Christmas starred at Fels as well as Temple before a nine-year pro career and grew up around the corner from Imhotep, making him an easy player for Williams to call. He filled the rosters with the best Philly guys he could find. Justin Edwards, Imhotep’s five-star recruit, played, as did former Imhotep stars and Maryland teammates Donta Scott and Fatts Russell.
“I had to tell them to shut up because they were trying to bring their whole team and tell everyone,” Williams said.
The NBA stars and the Philly guys kept playing after Sandler left the gym. Christmas, who has played pickup ball all over the city, felt like a kid again.
He grew up working with John Hardnett, the legendary Philly trainer who died in 2010 and used to organize games with top players. Imhotep’s empty gym felt like the Gustine Recreation Center in East Falls.
“One time you might walk in and it would be John Salmons, Allen Iverson, Alvin Williams, Cuttino Mobley all in one gym,” Christmas said. “You have Mardy Collins, Jameer Nelson. So many guys. It was crazy. I was in high school, so I wasn’t allowed to play. I was there to just watch and John told me to just sit down and learn from those guys. Those runs, to me, were everything. Steve Smith from La Salle, Marcus Green. I can go on for days.
“Playing with these guys kind of reminded me of that. Like, ‘Dang, this is how the runs used to be.’ Any given day, you walk into the gym and there’s NBA guys getting it in.”
Christmas was an all-Public League player in high school, led Temple to two NCAA tournaments, and even signed with the 76ers and played for their G League team. It’s hard to find someone better to show Young what a “real Philadelphia game” looked like.
“Just tough, competitive, and nobody really cares about your name,” said Christmas. “Like nobody cared it was Trae Young. Nobody cared it was Jordan Clarkson. We were just getting out there and playing like we’re in the schoolyard. Hard nosed basketball. I don’t care if Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving or LeBron [James] walked in. You’re still the same as all of us. We don’t really care what your name is. Once you get between those lines, we just hoop.”
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Williams followed instructions and kept the game a secret, but he did invite a videographer because he knew the night would be too special not to have it recorded.
Maybe people wouldn’t believe him that some of the NBA’s biggest stars and one of Hollywood’s most popular actors showed up to Imhotep on a sleepy September night. And if they didn’t believe it, Williams couldn’t blame them — even he had trouble fathoming it.
“I was like, I can’t believe this is going on,” Williams said. “What I respected was that none of the guys were there being Hollywood. They were out there competing. We’re keeping score and they’re yelling at us that dudes are cheating. Everyone was out there playing and trying to win.
“After it was over, I was in disbelief. I knew what was going to happen but I didn’t think it was going to go down the way it did.”
Williams caught some flak from friends when they saw the video because they wanted to be in the gym that night. But Williams listened to what he was told. Not everyone could be there. Even Sandler’s dog had to miss this one.
“Somebody walked him in the parking lot the whole time,” Williams said. “If anyone talks to Mr. Adam Sandler, tell him we apologize, but we couldn’t let the dog come into the school.”