Prime Time League sees it all over 27-year history

BY MATT CABEL | JUNE 20, 2013 5:00 AM

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When Dr. Tom Davis arrived on the Iowa campus in 1986, he changed the perception, attitude and culture surrounding Iowa basketball.

Meanwhile, lawyer Randy Larson wasn’t able to give up the game of basketball after the conclusion of a walk-on basketball career at Iowa State, a year of playing abroad in France, and playing AAU basketball in the Iowa City area.

Davis wanted a way to evaluate his players before the upcoming season, and because Larson had been scheduling pickup games in the summer, Davis approached him with the idea of a summer basketball league.

“Because I was a lawyer, I think Coach Davis thought I could handle running a summer league and following all the NCAA rules,” Larson said. “It was him that put the idea into my head.”

Larson formed the Prime Time League in the summer of ’86, the longest running summer basketball league in the country, which will commence its 27th season at the North Liberty Community Center today. The first game starts at 6 p.m. and the next two at 7:30 p.m.

“Really, from day one, it’s been the same thing,” Larson said. “There’s been great interest in seeing the Iowa basketball players play in the summer. It’s a way to see them up close and personal; it’s a way to find out who’s developing in the off-season.”

The league has always kept the same scheduling format, which has featured a fluctuating number of regular-season games and a championship at the conclusion of the playoffs. The games, however, used to be played at City and West High, which Larson said were “the only gyms big enough to hold the crowds we had.” The league moved to North Liberty when the community center opened.

At the same time the league began, Kevin Lehman, who has coached a Prime Time team since 2001, was an assistant coach to Eldon Miller at UNI from 1986-95. Lehman and Miller believed it would be “extremely beneficial” for their players to participate in the league, because they would compete against players like Roy Marble and B.J. Armstrong.

Lehman then became the head coach at University of Nebraska-Omaha in 1995, and sent numerous players to participate in Prime Time. While Lehman wanted to develop his players, he also used the league for coaching purposes.

“We would come [to the Prime Time] to evaluate the local high-school players,” he said.

Both Larson and Lehman enjoy seeing the players — particularly the ones from Iowa — act as role models and interacting with the fans, progressing in their basketball skills, or just learning how to play team-oriented basketball.

“The last Prime Time League game that Chris Street played, during the championship game of the playoffs, the game was over, and his shirt probably had about five pounds of sweat in it,” Larson said. “He stripped it off and handed it to the little 8-year-old boy who was sitting next to him on the bench that was just watching — he didn’t know him.

“Those kind of things are certainly highlights.”

Larson said that attendance for Prime Time has remained steady over its 27 years — even as fan attendance at actual Iowa basketball games hasn’t. Prime Time coach Ron Nove said after the draft that the talent level for Iowa’s best players is practically equal.

“There’s not much difference [of talent] between the top eight [Iowa] players,” Nove said on June 16. “You just try to draft someone that you’ve worked with in the past.”

While Larson said that the attendance numbers might have dipped a little during the Lickliter era of Iowa basketball, people continue to flock the North Liberty Community Center to see the development of players old and new.

“People want to see [new players] for themselves,” Larson said. “They don’t want to read a recruiting newsletter, they don’t want to listen to the coaches say that they’re great. They want to find out for themselves, and [the Prime Time League] is a way to find out.”

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