YMCA Capital City Basketball League captivates fans, invigorates players


Jameel McKay guards Georges Niang during a game at the YMCA Capital City Basketball League in Des Moines last summer. 

Max Dible

Hilton Magic gripped Cyclone Nation last spring as Iowa State made a run to the Sweet 16. This summer, the magic resides at Valley Southwoods Freshman High School in West Des Moines, Iowa.

From June 15 to July 13, ISU players break ranks across six teams to compete with — but mostly against — one another in the YMCA Capital City Basketball League.

Fans are granted free admission to all the games and have shown up in droves this summer to watch some of the best collegiate players in the state go head-to-head in a high-flying, fast-paced style of summer basketball.

“It is crazy actually,” said ISU redshirt junior Jameel McKay. “My first time playing [in the Capital City League] I signed a lot of autographs and I was surprised that people actually came out to watch. Whenever I play now, I try to give it my all and put on a show for the crowd.”

The atmosphere often gets raucous as a barrage of 3-pointers and slam dunks rain down on each basket and team scores almost always eclipse 100 points.

Brian Dunker of Windsor Heights, Iowa, said he has been attending the league games for four years and that it is a fantastic addition to the community.

“It is great for Drake and Iowa State, and getting to see those guys play up close and personal is the best part,” Dunker said.

Derek Hannah, the youth development director at the John R. Grubb YMCA in the Drake area of Des Moines, has been involved in the league since its inception in 2003 and has run the league as commissioner for the last six years.

Hannah said as public awareness about the league has risen, the popularity and attendance of the games have followed suit.

It is not just the fans garnering benefits from the Capital City League, however.

“Iowa State and Drake — each entire team participates,” Hannah said. “Iowa State really likes it because their fans come out in hoards to watch. It builds some buzz and it is good PR, and Iowa State may even sell a few season tickets because of it.”

Georges Niang, junior forward, talked about what the players draw from playing organized basketball throughout the summer.

“The value of it is to get away from our team setting and play against other competition from around Iowa,” Niang said. “The fun part is you can go and play in front of these great fans. It is great to come out here, show what you have been working on and play against some of your teammates.”

Each of the six teams is sponsored by a local business, which helps the YMCA, a nonprofit organization, cover what Hannah said amounts to roughly $10,000 in cost per season. Hannah said that a week before play begins, those teams get together and hold a draft.

“There is a random drawing to determine the draft order,” Hannah said. “We do an [ISU] round, a Drake round and then an open round for players from smaller schools or high schools. We draft 60 players every year, but we do have some applicants who are not drafted.”

The draft pool is filled up by the ISU and Drake rosters, and after that it is an open application for which anyone who meets the requirements may apply. Hannah laid out the draft eligibility guidelines.

“NCAA rules say that anyone who has a summer address or attends school within 100 miles of the game site can participate,” Hannah said. “Kids who go to college here or went to high school here and come back to live with their parents are eligible.”

Hannah said there is a screening process and if his group does not recognize the name of a player they will call the listed coaching reference to vet that player. Each team has ten players this season, including one high school-aged athlete.

NCAA rules play a big role in league processes, forbidding coaches employed by participating schools from coaching the Capital City League teams and even from attending the games.

The league registration process with the NCAA is an annual fixture in early spring and the sponsoring YMCA is not allowed to earn revenues from attendance.

Even still, Hannah said as long as the sponsors generate enough money to keep the YMCA out of the red, the Capital City League will continue in perpetuity.

“My supervisors are seeing more and more that there is a need and an interest in the league, so we are happy to provide that for the community,” Hannah said.

The league also tries to get fans involved, which it did in a big way during the most recent set of games on the evening of June 29, when 7-year-old Carson Crabb made what was arguably the play of the night.

Crabb, who is enrolled at Downtown School in Des Moines, attended the Capital City League games with his grandfather.

The young basketball fan heard his name called to step out onto the court at halftime of the second game and shoot a 3-point shot to win a four-month membership to the local YMCA.

“I got picked a few games before and I tried a normal shot. It did not work out too well, so then I practiced,” Crabb said. “I tried the granny shot and I made lots of them, so I figured that is what I should do if I got called out again.”

Crabb received a second opportunity June 29, and he seized it.

“I was thinking there is no way I am going to make this shot. I am making a fool of myself right now, but it just happened,” Crabb said. “I made it.”

The crowd exploded when Crabb sunk his shot, and he said that feeling was even better than winning the YMCA membership.

Hannah said young fans like Crabb are one of the biggest reasons he runs the Capital City League and why the YMCA sponsors it.

“My hope is that this year we light a fire in a few kids to strive to play at a high level,” Hannah said. “These ISU guys are all great student-athletes who are good role models while they are here. They say positive things to the kids and the kids learn from them what it takes to get good grades, work hard and strive to get an education while playing a sport.”

Each team plays seven regular season games as well as takes part in the single elimination tournament at the end of the year.

The final regular season set of games will take place July 9, while the playoff champion will be sorted out on July 11 and July 13 — the final two Capital City League dates of the season.

Games begin at 5:30 p.m. July 9. Admission is free to the public.