Ryan Bewley eyed the thick stack of papers in front of him, ready to make history. It was the middle of May, and after three days of meetings at a Marriott Marquis in Miami, representatives from Overtime Elite had just presented Ryan and his identical twin, Matt, with their final pitch—and their best offer. Two months earlier, the media company Overtime had launched a basketball league for high school stars, promising six-figure salaries and an alternative path to the NBA. It had hired Kevin Ollie, who’d won a championship at UConn, to be its coach. But Overtime Elite (OTE) still had no facilities, no schedule, and, crucially, no players. Ryan turned to Matt and asked whether he was ready.
This wasn’t the path that Matt had imagined for them. He thought they’d spend their final two years trying to bring their hometown high school, Northeast, its first state title. He thought they’d be all-everything—city, county, state, and American. He thought they’d play one season of college basketball at Florida State, the team they’d grown up cheering for, before making their way to the NBA.
Signing with OTE meant becoming a pro and surrendering high school and college eligibility. It meant abandoning so many of the experiences that high school stars would normally get to enjoy. “I was like, ‘What if it doesn’t work?’” Matt said. “I was thinking about all the risks, but Ryan was thinking about all the benefits.”
Although Matt, born a minute before his brother, was typically the leader in their relationship, Ryan had in recent years become the risk-taker. He was the first to get stitches. The first to break a bone. When the temperature at their home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, briefly dipped below freezing last winter, Matt planted his feet in the sand and howled as Ryan splashed into the chilly Atlantic Ocean. And now, with Matt’s nod of approval, Ryan picked up a pen and started scribbling, ready to dive headfirst into the unknown again.
In OTE, Ryan saw a way for them to get college-caliber coaching during their junior and senior years of high school. He saw a place for them to battle against the best prospects in their class every day, not just in a handful of games each season. He saw an opportunity to build their social media accounts—which, at the time, were run by their mother. And, of course, he saw those six-figure salaries.
“I told him it was a chance to get paid to do something we loved. It was a chance to do something different,” Ryan said. “I told him, ‘It may be a risk, but let’s take it together.’”
After signing, Ryan threw the pen down, pushed his chair back, and stood up to dance. Matt slid into the empty chair to start signing his contract, but OTE executive vice president and head of basketball operations Brandon Williams noticed a problem: Matt was signing the same stack of papers that his brother had left behind. He sprang from his seat to stop Matt. “The real funny thing is that we were still getting to know each other, and I couldn’t tell them apart yet,” Williams said. “So I had to figure out if Matt signed Ryan’s contract, or if Ryan signed Matt’s. These are legal documents, you know? We’re a startup, so there were a lot of chaotic moments like that in the beginning, but we always got it right in the end.”
After a few moments of confusion and cross-outs, the paperwork was finished, and the room erupted in renewed celebration. Ryan and Matt had made history as the first American high school underclassmen to go pro in basketball.
By signing the five-star twins, Overtime had shown it could attract top talent. But many questions remained. Could a media company that had helped turn high school basketball stars into celebrities also turn them into NBA players? Could a league that paid teenage prospects above the table blow up the black market of high school basketball recruiting? And, perhaps most importantly, would anyone watch?
For Matt, the most pressing question was what his ex-girlfriend would say. She’d dumped him the week before, jealous of the way he prioritized basketball over her, and skeptical of his plan to get paid. When the Woj bomb dropped the day after he’d signed his deal, she was his first phone call. When he hung up, he looked at Ryan, and they started laughing and celebrating all over again.
For the first half of the NBA’s 75-year history, the path to the pros was the same for most players: four years at your hometown high school followed by four years of college basketball. But when the Timberwolves drafted Kevin Garnett straight out of Farragut Academy in 1995, a new generation dawned. For the next decade, first-name-only talents like Kobe and LeBron bypassed the NCAA on their way to NBA superstardom. While the prep-to-pro era was brief—the minimum draft age for Americans was raised to 19 in 2005—it showed that a handful of high-schoolers each year were ready to graduate directly into the NBA, and it generated great interest, from both fans and front offices, in figuring out who those stars would be.
Scouts flooded into high school gyms. Message-board-fueled sites like Rivals launched and focused on high school recruiting in football and basketball. And major media companies like ESPN started viewing high school sports as prime-time opportunities. In 2001, at the peak of LeBron James’s pre-NBA hype, ESPN broadcast his St. Vincent–St. Mary team’s improbable upset over powerhouse Oak Hill Academy. Millions of people tuned in from across the country. Unprecedented sums of money have poured into high school sports since, but NCAA rules have prohibited players from accepting even a penny of the profits.
Overtime entered the amateur sports ecosystem in 2016. Backed by former NBA commissioner David Stern and $2.5 million in seed funding, Overtime set out to create an app that allowed users to share highlights they captured, primarily of high school athletes. (Ironically, Stern was the main reason the NBA ended the prep-to-pro generation.) It was in keeping with the skill sets of the company’s cofounders, Dan Porter and Zack Weiner. Porter had built multimillion-dollar apps and run the talent agency WME’s digital operations; Weiner had started a sports site powered by unpaid contributors.
“We essentially built our business around high school basketball because we didn’t need rights, there were lots of games, and you could film with an iPhone,” Porter said. “Plus, basketball was at the center of culture.”
Those highlights helped Overtime become a force on social media, where the company’s following rose in a sort of symbiotic relationship with the stars that it covered. Zion Williamson would have been a star without Overtime, but the company fueled his early acceleration with its footage—like this two-handed excommunication of another high-schooler’s dunk attempt captured by an Overtime contributor. And his videos, in turn, helped fuel the company’s. Overtime expanded its access to players through longer videos, like its Day in the Life! features, increasing its library of intellectual property in the process.
Overtime’s logo became ubiquitous at amateur basketball events, and its social accounts became a go-to source for highlights of the sport. As Overtime grew, its goal evolved: It now wanted to be a digital competitor to ESPN for a younger audience, and with its relentlessly positive coverage, it managed to turn the players themselves into fans of the brand. By 2019, Porter and Weiner were publicly discussing starting a sports league to increase the company’s programming, allowing it to feel like a 24-7 sports network, and to deepen its partnership with players.
“We wanted to find a way to merge two lanes: the needs we had as a business, and the needs of the players we were covering,” Porter said. “We were a huge part of contributing to the popularity of these players before they became pros. When Zion walked across the stage at the NBA draft, half of the people in America knew who he was, and Overtime had a lot to do with that. In a way, we were amplifying other people’s IP. From a business perspective, that doesn’t do a lot for me.”
Later that year, the company invited a dozen of the best men’s and women’s high school basketball players in the country to Brooklyn for the Overtime Takeover, a McDonald’s All American–type showcase for the social media era. The event featured a three-on-three basketball tournament and a dunk contest, as well as skills challenges for fans who came by, and merch tables everywhere. During Takeover, Overtime’s executives talked to families about the challenges they were facing on the path to the pros, which was starting to become more complicated as NCAA alternatives began to form.
During those conversations, Porter heard about three main problems: basketball development, quality education, and economic empowerment. Takeover also tested Overtime’s idea that hosting these stars—notably, social media giants like Mikey Williams and Jaden Newman—in live events could be big business. The event was sponsored by Converse, and it was an enormous draw for Overtime’s audience, generating more than 150 million views across the company’s social channels.
Overtime, which had by then raised more than $30 million from investors as a media company, returned to fundraising with a new goal: Starting an all-star high school basketball league. The company would offer players six-figure salaries along with perks like shares in Overtime, disability insurance, and $100,000 toward their college education if they decided not to pursue pro basketball. In return, Overtime would have almost unlimited access to, and long-term relationships with, the NBA’s future superstars.
By April, Overtime had armed itself with another $80 million from investors like Drake and more than two dozen NBA players. It had hired Aaron Ryan, a former NBA marketing executive, to be the OTE’s commissioner and president. In turn, Ryan hired Brandon Williams, who had gone from the league office to front offices—first in Philadelphia, and eventually as assistant GM of the Sacramento Kings. Ryan and Williams were confident that, respectively, they knew how to build a league and a team. But they didn’t know what it would take—or what it would cost—to convince star recruits to commit.
On a break between classes, Matt Bewley tucked his 6-foot-9, 180-pound frame into a booth to talk with Maisha Riddlesprigger, OTE’s head of academics. It was a Monday morning in mid-October, and OTE’s Midtown Atlanta facility wasn’t finished, so players were taking classes in a WeWork space with wooden floors and colorful couches. Aside from the retro Jordan 4s on his feet, Bewley was otherwise draped in OTE apparel. After talking about their favorite movies for a few moments, Riddlesprigger asked Matt whether his family was going to move to Atlanta.
“I know my mom wants to,” he said. “It’s weird because we’re a little ahead of schedule, right? I mean, normally right now I’d just be getting my license. But instead, me and Ryan moved to another city. Mom keeps saying, ‘I miss my babies!’”
It’s not unusual for basketball stars to move away from home while they’re still in high school. The Bewleys themselves had transferred to a private school, West Oaks Academy in Orlando, for their sophomore seasons, which forced their parents to make multiple six-hour round-trip drives per week to see them play. Athletic academies like IMG Academy in Florida and Hillcrest in Arizona attract top recruits from around the country and world. And even though prep schools are plagued with problems—from NCAA violations to grade inflation to outright corruption—they remain a popular destination for top prospects. In the Class of 2020, 20 of the top 25 recruits—and nine of the top 10—played for prep schools.
In the early months of recruiting those players, OTE’s leaders were surprised to learn that their proposed six-figure salaries weren’t of interest even to some high school sophomores. “We thought $100,000 would move the needle,” Williams said. “We quickly learned that it doesn’t. So we had to figure out on the fly: How much do you pay for a likely lottery pick? How about a likely draft pick? The market we discovered exceeded our expectations, and to their credit, our investors pivoted. They increased our budget.
“But in some cases, we were still outbid. I mean, just think about that. We publicly told the world that we were offering six-figure salaries, and players were turning that down. It leads to a pretty obvious question: Why would a player who is planning to play in college for free turn down that money?”
The NBA’s own alternative basketball development team, the G League Ignite, had learned a similar lesson two years earlier. The NBA had hoped to launch Ignite in the fall of 2019, but its $125,000 salaries weren’t enough to lure any top players. It wasn’t until Ignite agreed to pay prep star Jalen Green $500,000 that it began to draw elite talent. Ignite also hadn’t yet proved itself as a viable pathway to the NBA, though Williams and others say there is more competition than the few NCAA alternatives.
“If you look at the salaries that the G League Ignite team and Overtime Elite have been paying, it’s pretty obvious that amateur basketball players in high school and college are, in one way or another, collecting six-figure salaries,” said one NBA front office executive, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity. “I’d estimate that, at the peak of the high school basketball black market, up to $10 million was changing hands each year.”
OTE has so far signed 27 players but has declined to reveal the dollar amounts of any deals. Many players are represented by agents, but none has signed marquee name, image, and likeness (NIL) or sneaker deals to date. Most players on the roster are likely making something very close to that $100,000 salary. But the top prospects have no doubt commanded much more. “We had to compete in hand-to-hand combat for every one of those guys,” Williams said. The Bewley brothers’ contracts are reportedly worth seven figures over two years.
As Matt Bewley got up from the table to return to class on that October morning, it was easy to forget that he is well on his way to becoming a millionaire. In classes, he and the OTE players act like typical teenagers. They check their phones approximately every 10 seconds. They try to watch YouTube videos (mostly basketball highlights) on their iPads surreptitiously. And they eat. Oh, do they eat. There’s a Chick-Fil-A downstairs, and the teachers have joked that OTE’s players have become de facto investors in the franchise.
But they also seemed to respond to educators’ efforts to make the learning more engaging. At many of the prep schools OTE competes against, the students are enrolled in online high school curricula but not given any in-person instruction. In the early 2000s, the NCAA called schools like these “diploma mills” and tried to ban them, but they only evolved. OTE’s financial backing allowed Riddlesprigger—a former principal in the D.C. public school system—to build a curriculum and a teaching style that would feel relevant to these students.
To learn about muscle groups, they outlined each other on the ground, leaving the classroom looking like a scene from Law & Order. To learn about nutrition, one teacher put the students through a blindfolded taste test of healthy snacks. And the math teacher repeatedly pressed students on not only the answers they calculated, but how they arrived at that conclusion.
From 9 a.m. to noon on weekdays, the juniors and seniors work toward their Georgia high school diplomas while the postgraduates participate in internships that match their interests, including with Overtime media. (OTE doesn’t provide college courses.) And they all attend classes and seminars on topics like social media branding, mental health, and financial literacy.
Although OTE’s ability to pay substantial salaries got it in the door with many prospects, its offer to continue their education was a selling point for many of their families. “A marketplace exists to pay high school basketball players,” Aaron Ryan said. “Initially, it surprised me how much that market distracted people from what we were offering at the core—education and equity and basketball development and brand building. Fortunately, we ended up with a roster full of guys who understand the big picture.”
If all you knew of Overtime was what the company shared on social media, you might expect every afternoon to devolve into a dunk contest. But Ollie and his assistants—Dave Leitao (a former Division I head coach), Tim Fanning (a former assistant coach at Israeli powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv), and Ryan Gomes (a former NBA veteran and G League assistant)—are attempting to demolish all the bad habits these prospects developed during the many years that they’ve faced little to no competition in practices or games. “In high school, we just dominated every single day,” said Matt Bewley. “But there’s no mismatches now. Everybody you go up against here is as good as you—or better.”
OTE’s 27-man inaugural roster is full of five-, four-, and three-star prospects, as well as four of the best 16-year-old prospects in Europe. And during a recent practice, Ollie was coaching them as if he were back at UConn. He was sweating through drills along with his players, sliding his feet and extending his arms to demonstrate proper defensive stances, and lowering his shoulders to show them how to shed screens. His voice was hoarse about halfway through the two-and-a-half-hour session, but that didn’t stop him from shouting at players on the other side of the court.
For much of OTE’s season, the players will compete against one another on three teams composed of nine players apiece, which are roughly balanced by talent. (Neither the Bewleys nor the Thompsons, another set of twins at OTE, for example, play on the same team as their brothers.) The high-school- and college-aged players also play prep and postgraduate programs, respectively, and travel to compete against teams in Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio.
Their season started on October 29 with a sold-out home game against another experimental school: Mikey Williams’s Vertical Academy. Williams, who has more than 3 million Instagram followers and is arguably the most famous high school basketball player in history, had an offer to play for OTE. But instead, he pursued a more familiar path for elite prospects: His family started its own prep school. Williams attends classes at Lake Norman, a private school in North Carolina. But he plays basketball for Vertical Academy, which allows his family to profit from sneaker company sponsorships and tournament participation fees directly. Thanks to the NCAA relaxing its NIL rules, Mikey has been able to sign endorsement deals without risking his college eligibility.
Team OTE stays HOT and beats Vertical Academy 94-66 pic.twitter.com/aKrc24l6oM— Overtime Elite (@OvertimeElite) October 30, 2021
OTE’s season will culminate with an intrasquad playoffs in March, yet the ultimate metric for success won’t be wins or losses, but the number of NBA draft picks that OTE produces. In recent years, LaMelo Ball and R.J. Hampton were drafted after a year in Australia and New Zealand, and Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga were both lottery picks after a season with G League Ignite. Seven of OTE’s players are eligible for the 2022 draft, but only one—Dominican guard Jean Montero—is projected to be selected.
Until the one-and-done rule is removed, rising juniors like the Bewleys will have to decide what to do after they graduate high school in two years. They can’t play college basketball because they’ve already turned pro, but they could sign on for another year with OTE or play professionally overseas or for the Ignite team. That class’s success, or lack thereof, will prove whether this experiment offers as much in the long run as it has in the short run.
At some college basketball programs, the topic of turning pro can sometimes be taboo—a distraction from every team’s ultimate goal of winning the NCAA tournament. But at OTE, the players are already pro, and there are no misgivings about their ultimate goal. Ollie and his staff instead use the NBA as a motivational tool. Near the end of practice, Ollie, a journeyman for 13 years in the NBA, noticed the team’s energy lacking during passing drills and he pulled them together to light a fire. “Y’all are better than this!” he yelled. “I believe in y’all more than you fucking believe in yourselves right now. We’ve got to be better!”
Before breaking the huddle, he moved his eyes to meet as many players as he could and then exclaimed one more point: “We want y’all to be pros!”
A few hours after practice, the Bewleys became the first OTE players to see the team’s facility. Construction crews were cycling through 24-7 to ensure that it would be finished in time for the team’s pro day on October 23. Even in its unfinished form, the facility was a tangible display of how well funded this league is. The 103,000-square-foot complex hosts not only the practice court and show court (where the team will play most games), but also the league’s offices, classrooms, a weight room, a players’ lounge, and a barbershop. “That looks nice,” Matt said as he breezed by, “but I’ll have to check the barber’s IG before I see him.”
Social media will also be the primary way that audiences are introduced to OTE’s players. Although some older fans may scoff, social media presents players with opportunities to generate sponsorships and speak their minds. (Of course, taking L’s is always a risk.) And Overtime has more followers on Instagram or TikTok than any college basketball program, and more Twitter followers than any team except Duke, Indiana, and North Carolina. To the Bewleys, playing for a national social media audience every day at OTE was a worthwhile tradeoff to playing sporadic nationally televised games at Florida State.
Overtime’s most successful show to date on YouTube is Hello Newmans!, a cheesy reality show built around viral stars Julian and Jaden Newman, whose long-term basketball prospects are substantially lower than OTE’s players. There was skepticism from NBA executives early on that OTE would be little more than the basketball version of TikTok’s Hype House. But Porter, the OTE cofounder, bristles at the notion that OTE content would be reality TV. He prefers to compare its ambitions to docuseries like Hard Knocks. Aaron Ryan, OTE’s president, was a production assistant on a documentary crew that filmed the Chicago Bulls during their 1998 season; two decades later, that footage became The Last Dance. With OTE, he hopes to build a massive library of IP featuring future NBA superstars. But he’s more focused on what the Overtime audience will be interested in right now.
“When you think about what somewhat older viewers like me want, there’s that nostalgic element, like in The Last Dance,” he said. “But for the younger demographic, for our audience, they want that in real time. That’s what we’re providing. There will be stories in the future, but our audience wants to be part of the journey as it’s happening.”
The practice court and the show court display the dichotomy of what OTE is trying to build. The practice court, which has higher ceilings than an airplane hangar, is housed with every cutting-edge basketball technology available, from Second Spectrum to NOAH to Playsight and Kinexon. OTE’s basketball staff—30-plus coaches, sports scientists, scouts, and trainers—rivals some small NBA franchises in size and scope. A 360-degree balcony on the second floor will give scouts every perspective they’d want on OTE’s talent. It’s a court designed to produce NBA players. The show court is situated in a 1,200-seat arena splashed with turquoise and orange paint, and has more LED lighting than the main stage at Coachella. There will be eight cameras positioned around the court, including a Skycam. It’s a court designed to produce compelling content.
Live games will likely not be the biggest draw for Overtime’s audience. While the major professional sports leagues’ profits are largely derived from massive television contracts for broadcast games, OTE is attempting to reimagine how fans consume sports in the streaming generation. There will be daily—or more like hourly—social media coverage, plus a weekly documentary-style show. The league also plans to make money by selling apparel—something that Porter has said already produces more than a million dollars a year in revenue for Overtime—and sponsorships. In October, the league announced multiyear deals with Gatorade and State Farm.
For players like Ryan, long-term revenue plans aren’t much of a concern. Their contracts are guaranteed for two years, even if OTE folds. In that way, the league’s relationship with its players is the precise inverse of the NCAA’s with its athletes, who aren’t paid even though they generate enormous revenues for their schools. But Ryan didn’t have economic injustice on his mind when he looked up at his face on a huge banner hanging from the rafters in the show court. He just shook his head and said: “I’m speechless. The only thing I can say for sure is that I’m gonna have a ton of dunks in here.”
There were very few dunks the next day in practice. In fact, toward the end, the players separated into six teams to practice free throws for 15 minutes. Afterward, Leitao, an assistant coach, asked each team who hit the most. He removed a wad of $20 bills from his pocket and peeled off one apiece for the winners. The winning team ran up and down the court like they’d just seen a teammate put someone on the poster of the century. They waved the money in front of their friends’ faces like the bills were winning Powerball tickets. If a college basketball coach did this, it’d be a scandal. At OTE, it was just a small bonus for a few salaried employees. When the players calmed down, Leitao had a message for them. “If you’d known there was money on the line,” he said, “you might have taken the free throws more seriously. You have money on the line every day. This is your job. Treat it that way.”
While the winners ran to the locker room—presumably to continue bragging about their petty cash—a few of the other players stayed on the court to show off for the social media team. They attempted massive dunks and Steph Curry–range 3-point shots. And then, one of the social media directors asked them each to attempt LeBron James’s famous jab-step jumper, which reliably goes viral at least once a season. None of these teenagers looked quite like LeBron yet, but they each showed some potential. For now, for OTE, that was enough.
David Gardner is a features writer living in New York. Find him at his website or on Twitter.