Andre Dawkins, who normally plays for Duke, will play for Sheraton Imperial this summer.

On Thursday, June 30, Indy summer intern Philip Hoover attended the opening night of the S.J.G. Greater NC Pro-Am at N.C. Central’s McLendon-McDougald gym. The annual five-week event has become a big draw for area basketball fans and players alike. Hoover will be filing reports from the Pro Am this summer.

In the modern world of overbearing corporate advertising campaigns, massive TV deals, high-definition broadcasts and a struggling national economy, the sports landscape is changing.

Over the past decade, ticket prices for professional and high-profile college sporting events have skyrocketed. HD television, cable and the advertising opportunities that they allow have become cheaper, more attractive alternatives to watching live sports. Anyone who’s been to a Charlotte Bobcats game lately can attest to the dwindling crowds in the NBA (even if the NFL’s Panthers remain a decent draw). It seems like the traditional notion of going to the game seems as outdated as short shorts or H-shaped goalposts.

Luckily, diehard hoop-heads in the Triangle get to enjoy hard-fought games among the area’s top college and pro players this summer. Beginning last night and continuing on Tuesdays and Thursdays over the next five weeks, area fans can drop in on the S.J.G. Greater NC Pro-Am, which features the best players from UNC, Duke, N.C. State, N.C. Central and other North Carolina colleges.

And frequent visitors are often rewarded by cameo appearances by NBA players.

The league is the brainchild of Jerry Stackhouse, Donyell Bryant and Chuck Jones, native North Carolinians and childhood friends who decided to start a competitive summer recreational basketball league for area players. N.C. Central agreed to host the event, and the idea took off quickly with help from Stackhouse’s NBA notoriety and the bevy of local college and high school talent of the area.

The talent alone makes the Pro-Am well worth attending on a hot, potentially aimless summer night. But the real reason this league is so unique and interesting is that, for all the talent on display, it’s really just a rec league. Admission is free, and the intimate confines of NCCU’s McLendon-McDougald Gymnasium, which seats 3,000, is perfectly suited for the diverse fans who show up. These conditions make for one of the best, most competitive summer leagues in the country.

This year, there are plenty of subplots. Normally, high-profile NBA players would only make appearances here for the last few games, but this year may be different. With the NBA lockout now in effect, it seems likely that the high-profile professionals will seek out these games as a way of staying fit.

Notable area alumni and professional players dot the rosters, including such as Josh Powell, Julius Hodge, Raymond Felton, David Noel, Nolan Smith, Kyrie Irving, JamesOn Curry, David West and John Wall.

The college players include four rising freshmen who were 2011 McDonald’s All-Americans (all Duke- or UNC- bound), eight returning UNC players, four returning N.C. State players, nine returning Duke players. There are also incoming transfers, walk-ons, recent graduates and even college club players.

One big change this year: High school players are no longer permitted. The change came at the behest of the NCAA, which was concerned that host school N.C. Central, newly promoted to Division I, would derive a recruiting advantage for star-struck high school players.

While the prohibition against younger players must be a disappointment to local prep ballers trying to make their mark, it also ratchets up the competition. This upgrade seemed evident in the first night of games on Thursday.

After newly added women’s and wheelchair games to open the festivities, the men took the court at 7 p.m. Team McGladrey, led by Duke’s Mason Plumlee and N.C. State’s C.J. Leslie, rallied to upend CEO Munny (yes, that’s the team’s name) and its star, Wake Forest’s J.T. Terrell, by a 93—74 margin. The frontline of Leslie and Plumlee was unstoppable, with the two big men blocking shots and throwing down monstrous dunks regularly in the second half.

The second game featured two returning UNC players pitted against two highly touted incoming UNC freshman. Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald led Sheraton Imperial against team 20/20, which featured James McAdoo, a top-five recruit, and Desmond Hubert, another incoming big man for the Heels. Sheraton Imperial also features returning junior Duke guard Andre Dawkins and superstar Kyrie Irving, who was little-seen in Cameron Indoor Stadium last year, but became the top pick in the NBA draft last month anyway. (Neither Irving nor Dawkins were present for last night’s game.)

The 20/20 roster was also less than advertised last night, as McAdoo was absent, as was former UNC forward and local favorite David Noel, who graduated from Southern Durham High School. Nevertheless, the game proved competitive as Hubert and NCCU center Dave Best battled it out in the post, but the Strickland-McDonald backcourt proved to dynamic for 20/20 to handle as Sheraton Imperial prevailed in a defensive struggle, 71—62.

I’ll be reporting back from the McLendon-McDougald gym in the coming weeks.