Higgins having a ball

Vintage athletes gradually come to accept that their feet get slower with age. Fortunately, their minds get quicker.

That's why former Tennessee Vol Jon Higgins, now 28, continues to rank among the top players in the Pilot Rocky Top League. He makes plays with his brain that he once made with his legs.

"That's it in a nutshell," he said following a 21-point outing earlier this week at Bearden High School Gym. "As you get older, you get smarter. I liken myself in this league to (NBA veteran) Chauncy Billips. I'm not going to blow by every guy here but I'm going to make the right play, the smart play, and I can still shoot it a little bit."

Originally from Shaker Heights, Ohio, Higgins proved he could "shoot it a little bit" during a distinguished Vol career (2000-2003). The 6-3, 200-pounder made 39.8 percent of his 3-point tries, ranking fifth in program history for that category.

After playing some pro ball in Austria, England and France, he settled in Knoxville. He's grateful that the Rocky Top League enables him to stay in shape while continuing to compete in the game he loves.

"I haven't played professionally in a couple of years, so this is a good way for me to get out and see where I stand among guys who practice or play every single day – guys playing professionally, guys playing college ball," he said. "This is a good chance for me to get out, have some fun and show people I can still play a little bit."

Basically, the Rocky Top League is a lot closer to street ball than to pro ball. Key players routinely fail to show up. Team uniforms don't always match. Discipline and defense are nowhere to be found. Anything short of assault and battery is not considered a foul.

Higgins recognizes these shortcomings but overlooks them. He believes the Rocky Top League has a charm all its own.

"Really, it's the atmosphere," he said. "I love the atmosphere. Some people dislike playing in hot gyms; I love playing in hot gyms. I love the fact fans can come out here for free, get to see guys – past, present and future – play a little basketball. It gives the fans a chance to have a good time and gives us a chance to get some good runs in."

Although the Rocky Top League is mostly about having fun, the players get quite serious when a game is up for grabs entering the final minutes. Higgins is a perfect example.

"Every guy out here is a competitor," he said. "Every guy out here has either finished playing college basketball or is about to start playing college basketball, so every last one of us is a competitor. When it gets to those last few minutes everybody is going to buckle down and everybody is going to play hard."

Detractors argue that summer-league basketball is a waste of time because it emphasizes individual development instead of teamwork. Higgins disagrees. He wishes the Rocky Top League had been in existence during his college career.

"I'm telling you, this would've benefited us a great deal," he said. "My teams had a tendency not to play as much in the summer time. This would've been a great outlet for us to get together and play competitively all summer long. It would've been fantastic for us."

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