Though Brooklyn Tea sits in downtown Atlanta, the quaint shop would easily be at home in Brooklyn’s Park Slope or Dumbo neighborhoods. It’s clean, quiet and keeps the cups of tropical green coming. You can see why Long Island native Jah Rawlings would want to meet there to talk basketball.
“I was born in New York, but Atlanta raised me,” says Rawlings, who hooped for Georgia Perimeter College before founding the Atlanta Entertainment Basketball League (AEBL) in 2010. “[Atlanta] gave me the opportunity to get my dreams out and flourish and do the things that I wanted to do. That’s why I rep so hard for the city.”
On this day, Rawlings doesn’t order anything at the tea shop, but he does explain how he’s poured his heart and his wallet into the AEBL, a pro-am summer league he envisioned having the swagger of ATL with the soul of Harlem’s Rucker Park.
“If anyone can do it, I can,” Rawlings, 39, says. “My mentor was Greg Marius, rest in peace. He started EBC [the Entertainer’s Basketball Classic tournament at Rucker Park—Ed.]. My uncle, Bob McCullough, created the Rucker [Pro Tournament]. It’s already in my DNA.”
Rawlings admits that the first few seasons of his outdoor hoop dream were a challenge—light crowds, heavy rains—but he kept at it. A former member of the Atlanta Hawks organization, Rawlings knew the city had a thirst for streetball, he just needed more time for things to simmer.
First step, take the game indoors. Second, ask another “uncle” for an assist. In 2017, Kyrie Irving was filming Uncle Drewin Atlanta. A friend of a friend invited Irving to come through and the point guard said he would. Rawlings didn’t get his hopes up until he saw the future Hall of Famer walk into the gym. And once he did, a buzz shot through the rafters that still hasn’t cooled.
Over the past few years, a who’s who of Hawks (John Collins, Trae Young), NBA ballers (Jaylen Brown, Montrezl Harrell) and future stars (Auburn’s Jabari Smith) have suited up. And they aren’t out there half-assin’ it. Once vets like Lou Williams and Isaiah Thomas get a taste of the competitiveness and massive crowds, they’re hooked.
Much like Rucker’s legendary summers, AEBL games are about more than just the action on the court. It’s the energy and the engagement everywhere else. At any given game, 2 Chainz or Tee Grizzley could be in the stands. Halftimes almost certainly turn into mini concerts. In-arena host Bria Janelle is magnetic on the mic. The “E” in AEBL really means something.
Still, Rawlings is as proud of his league’s ability to prepare young staffers for careers at Nike and in the front office with the Atlanta Dream as he is about seeing ’21 MVP Kevon “Cheat Code” Harris ball out in the G League. Additionally, AEBL participates in community initiatives, donates to local athletic programs and volunteers at shelters over the holidays.
“I want young kids to know that I made it pro as a CEO,” says Rawlings. “I’m still in the game. I’m actually a major player in basketball. I’ve never stepped foot on an NBA court, but look at what I’ve done. My mentors are like, Man, we see you being a GM. I’m like, I got my own NBA.”
AEBL’s 2022 season kicks off with a bang on July 4th weekend. In addition to the men’s action (former Hawk Joe Johnson is debuting a squad), the calendar will include a dope women’s league and other events. With adidas as a sponsor, AEBL is also dropping a Trae Young 1 sneaker, draped in the league’s logo and stylings.
“AEBL is bigger than basketball,” says Rawlings, who spearheads an HBCU-focused camp and a program aimed at elite high schoolers throughout the year, too. “We’re culture. We’re community. We’re entertainment. We’re mentorship. When people look at us now, they’re like, Oh, this is bigger than just some NBA guys playing on the court.”
Photos courtesy of AEBL.