“Kobe wasn’t lying! That champagne burns your eyes!” coach Cliff “Case” Pace told me from just outside the locker room at Kezar Gym. I could barely hear him over his jubilant Bay City squad, just a few feet away.
And this is how I knew Bay City celebrated in style after beating a talented Bay Raiders team on Friday, 87-84, in Game 3 of the 2022 SF Pro-Am Championship to claim this year’s coveted trophy.
Oakland’s Larry Wickett closed the contest in the final minute for Bay City, stealing the ball from the Bay Raiders on a vital possession. Wickett took it to the house after his theft, throwing down a monster dunk that gave Bay City the lead with seconds to go, sending the crowd into a frenzy.
After the on-court celebration wound down, I caught up with Bay City guard Kenny Woodard. He starred for Bay City all season, especially in the pivotal second game of the Championship Series.
“It feels great. After Covid, and everything that happened,” Woodard said, explaining that he was happy to be back on the court after suffering an injury playing overseas, let alone win a championship. “I was able to get out here this summer, get out here and compete and win a Pro-Am Championship playing against some high-level players.”
Woodard and Bay City ran into some NBA talent in the season’s final series — a best-of-three affair — as the Bay Raiders featured Lakers forward Juan Toscano-Anderson in Game 2. Kendall Smith of the Santa Cruz Warriors paced the Bay Raiders in Games 1 and 3.
With the Bay Raiders winning Game 1 by 11 points, and Toscano-Anderson reportedly suiting up for Game 2, most thought the series would be over early.
But Bay City had other ideas. Woodard and guard Micah Elan led the team to a 101-100 win to force a third game. Bay City caught fire in the third quarter, erasing a deficit and building a double-digit lead before closing it out.
Woodard, a product of Terra Linda High School in the North Bay, was deadly from beyond the arch, and Bay City put on a better show than the NBA player most of the crowd came to see.
“Honestly, it comes from my teammates,” Woodard said when I asked about his big Game 2. “We had a game plan where I was going to be off-ball. We stuck to it, and I was able to get good looks. My guys were able to just move the ball and play with confidence. And one of my strengths is shooting, so it kind of opened up my game in Game 2 and we were able to deliver.”
Though Bay City faced some NBA talent in the Championship, there are scores of talented ballers in the SF Pro-Am, with a good portion of them on the Bay City roster — and not just at the top end. Having watched Bay City a few times leading up to Game 3, I had been impressed with their depth and overall athleticism.
In fact, if Bay City hadn’t lost Game 1 by 11 points (I missed the game and only saw the final score), I would have had them favored, however slightly, over the Bay Raiders in Game 2, even with Toscano-Anderson on the floor.
In Game 3, Bay City’s depth and talent shone brightly. Pace said he pays attention as other teams build their rosters, and he was confident from the season’s opening tip, despite some adversity.
“At the start of the season, we had three starters go out, and there was no drop-off,” Pace said. “We had guys go overseas, injuries. Everybody stepped up. This is probably the most talented team I’ve ever been a part of, one through 15. It’s really a tribute to them and how they worked to be ready when their number is called.
“I had ultimate trust in these guys. I believed from day one that we were the best team.”
Bay City faced some adversity in Game 3 of the Championship Series, too, as they fell behind early thanks to a strong effort from Kendall Smith of the Bay Raiders.
But Bay City didn’t back down.
As Smith drove hard to the hoop in the first half, a Bay City player (it looked like Fairfield High product John Dixon), held his ground and nearly drew a charge, resulting in a bloody nose for Smith.
For a while after the play, Smith played with some gauze in his nose. The sequence seemed to provide a momentum boost for Bay City, and they surged ahead. But the Bay Raiders didn’t give up, mounting a comeback to take the lead again.
Bay City displayed equal grit, however, and kept chipping away, playing solid team basketball. Wickett’s “Above the Rim” style dunk put a cap on the back-and-forth scoring, as Bay City was finally ahead for good.
Overall, Bay City was led by Wickett, Woodard, San Francisco natives Dixon and Elan, and Cal State Bakersfield’s Erik Kinney, though it was a total team effort as almost every player on the roster saw action.
The win was Bay City’s second SF Pro-Am Championship, and this title carried extra significance. The loss of Bay City’s longtime team owner and leader, Doc Holliday, was still fresh on the minds of Pace and his players.
“He was my mentor. And he trusted me to take over the team. And even though we won one before, this one meant a little more to me because Doc wasn’t here,” Pace said, adding, “I had to earn my respect. I feel like I answered the challenge.”
Woodard said Holliday’s memory and legacy helped carry the players to the finish line, too.
“That gave us more of a push to really get this done — and we did,” he said.
And when Woodard, Case, and the triumphant Bay City roster won it all, the bubbly was ready. Just like the late, great, Kobe Bryant, they embraced the stinging pain in the eye that a champagne shower can bring.
That’s a solid representation of the hoopers that grace Kezar each summer, and their brand of basketball. They’re tough, battle-tested, talented, passionate, competitive, high-flying, entertaining, and gritty, and they love the game.
And they know, as most athletes do, that without a little bit of pain, victory isn’t nearly as sweet.
Here’s to a great return season at the SF Pro-Am, and a highly-entertaining Championship Series. And a big thank you to league director John Greenberg, who founded the Pro-Am in 1979 and still runs the show as nobody else can.
I had a blast watching these guys play, just as I have, off and on, for a decade now. To close us out, here’s a portion of my tweets from the thrilling finale of a fantastic season at the 2022 SF Bay Area Pro-Am.