As basketball lifers, Greg Kristof and Steve Gibbs always spent their time following the bouncing ball from gym to gym, but the eureka moment that led the two friends to weave a web of well-oiled basketball tournaments up and down the East Coast came at small tournament they put together at Swampscott High School four years ago.
The gym already was buzzing with several young local teams.
But Leo Papile, a prominent figure in Boston basketball from the youth to the pro level, also was there with his BABC team that happened to be loaded with future Division 1 stars, including Nerlens Noel, who went on to be the sixth overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft.
“Everyone in the crowd kind of stared and watched him,” Gibbs said.
As Kristof and Gibbs looked around, it hit them.
“It was the first time the everyday basketball player, the 11-year-old, could play right next door to the kids dunking,” Gibbs remembered. “We said, ‘Wow, this is the model. We can have the best of the best play with the everyday kid.’
“And at that moment, we knew we had something.”
What they had was a chance to create what they saw as a “governing body for youth basketball” that built a bridge between the high-profile, high-stakes world of elite Amateur Athletic Union hoops and the countless other teams that played around the country without the same fanfare.
The idea became Zero Gravity, the Beverly-based company that puts together a tightly run web of youth tournaments for teams around the country.
“We always saw a major void in the youth sports market place, where there’s all this attention to the high level, college-bound prospects where everyone ran first-class events for that and put them on a national spotlight,” said Gibbs, the company’s COO. “We saw the everyday basketball player being overlooked. They didn’t have any major place to play on a big stage and I thought they were being overlooked.
“So we got together and said, hey, we want to create an avenue for every basketball player . . . to have the opportunity to play at a great stage and get some attention and spotlight them and make sure they can play the appropriate competition in good venues and in an organized fashion on a weekly basis. That’s where the whole idea started from.”
This weekend, Zero Gravity will host its national final with 500 teams from 9-year-olds to high school seniors, playing at more than 35 venues around the Greater Boston area, from Brandeis University to Wheaton College to the Mansfield Sports Plex.
“We have a very loaded field, where at the high school level there’s all these players that are going to be playing on ESPN someday,’’ Gibbs said. “Then we have all the way down to 9-year-olds, giving these kids their first opportunity to play on a national stage.”
“It’s really cool,’’ Kristof said. “We have teams traveling from Canada and throughout New England, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, Texas.
“It’s just a really cool thing to bring all that to our home town this week and really have a celebration of youth basketball, both in our region and nationally.”
Their mutual basketball backgrounds helped them create a vision for what they thought youth basketball tournaments could be like with the right execution and organization.
Kristof, Zero Gravity’s director and CEO, played college ball at Brandeis and coached at Brimmer and May.
“I think really understanding what coaches want, what they need to have the best experience possible is huge,” Kristof said.
“I think having the inside knowledge was huge because we understand what these people really want and what’s going to make them happy.”
Gibbs coached at Pingree School and spent a decade working in the athletic departments at Boston College and the University of Massachusetts.
“It became very obvious to us through coaching, going to other venues and going to tournaments that there’s something here,” Gibbs said.
Laying the foundation in the early stages was the hardest part. They had to build relationships and earn a reputation for putting on quality events. The details mattered, from extensive statistics to scheduling to seating for parents.
“Back in the early stages, we were running tournaments with 40, 50 teams and those were difficult,” Gibbs said. “It’s very difficult to build initial credibility, to convince people that this is going to be the organization that people want to come play at and just to make sure to get it right.”
They viewed the dynamic with coaches and parents more as a partnership relationship than a customer relationship. Their motto was to under-promise and over-produce.
“The biggest thing was getting out there and meeting with people, telling them about our vision, really letting them know what we were trying to do and how we could best accommodate them,” Kristof said. “One of the most successful things we did was listen to the club basketball directors and ask them, ‘Hey, what do you need more of? What can we do to help you?’”
With youth athletics constantly taking blows to its credibility, they knew integrity mattered. In April, the FBI investigated the Kentucky-based Elevate Basketball Circuit and its founder David Kelly, who charged more than 700 teams $1,600 to compete in a full spring and summer season but folded after just three days,
“You have to really be careful about who you work closely with,” Kristof said. “That’s why starting after our national finals this week, we’re going to work together with USA Basketball on certifying all of our coaches so they have to go through multiple-point inspections. I think a lot of organizations fall short on the way they certify their coaches and we want to go above and beyond and there’s not a better brand out there than USA basketball. That’s why we’re going to be working with them in the future just to make sure that kids are all playing in a safe environment.”
For Kristof and Gibbs, the basketball is bigger than the business.
“It’s not a business, it’s youth sports,” Kristof said. “It doesn’t feel like a job. It’s more like a lifestyle business.”