By Dave Krider
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. –
With a hop, skip and a joyful jump, a young boy – about age eight or nine – came bounding onto Center Court
at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He raced to the nearest basket and began firing jump shots. It was obvious to even the most casual observer that he was having the time of his life.
In seven short years, the Spalding Hoophall Classic, now directed by Hall of Fame Manager of Events and Awards Greg Procino, has become one of the most highly-regarded basketball events in the USA. As one enthusiastic employee, Joshua Williams, put it, “People are coming to us now.”
And why not? The Hall of Fame is not only a hoop junkie’s delight, but also provides a fun time for most any tourist who comes through town. It’s a stop that everyone, male or female, should make at least once in their lives. The history of basketball at every level – from players, to coaches and even media members who have made the game so great – is everywhere. It’s in pictures, story form, even scrawled on the walls and doorways.
In addition to having some “PT” on the big court, fans may dunk on their basket of choice. Lined up in a row are baskets standing six feet, seven feet, eight feet and nine feet. There are many games to be played and extroverts even can “broadcast” a game if they wish.
The building also houses souvenir stores and several restaurants. One even can enjoy live entertainment and dancing every Friday and Saturday night at the Pazzo Restaurant (Pazzo After Dark). Obviously there’s something for everybody at the Hall!
Ursuline Academy (Wilmington, Del.) senior point guard Kayla Miller had a ball imitating her coach, Fran Burbidge, on a “live” broadcast. The Falcons’ boss has a habit of placing his hand partially over his mouth during timeouts when he is chewing a player out so nearby fans can’t hear exactly what he’s saying. It comes out rather muffled, of course.
Well, Kayla mumbled expertly through an imitation of her coach – finishing with a couple coughs when she was supposed to identify him as the broadcaster – and, as expected, cracked up her entire team. Burbidge, who somewhat resembles movie actor Scott Glenn, had just as much fun as his girls.
The Hoophall Classic is a tremendous showcase, this year featuring 46 teams from a total of 15 states, plus a junior team from China. There were 23 games spread over four days, finishing on Martin Luther King Day.
Though each team played only one game, there still was some bonding going on. Ursuline Academy, for example, bonded with its opponent, Christ the King (Queens, N.Y.). The girls went through the Hall together and had some group pictures taken.
The Classic opened with four girls games at Springfield College’s Blake Arena, which is well lit and seats around 2,000 (it was near capacity most of the time). A large plaque hangs on the wall behind one of the baskets, trumpeting “Birthplace of Basketball.” James Naismith, indeed, did invent basketball in Springfield in 1891.
The second game was a nail-biter as hometown Springfield Central (8-1) nipped Norwich (Conn.) Free Academy, 49-47, in overtime on a dramatic three-pointer just before the buzzer by Felicia Barron. The 5-7 senior guard, who shot 9-of-17 from the field, took game honors with 26 points and eight assists. Talented Norwich Free sophomore guards Kastine Evans and Stephanie Long combined for 30 points.
The third game, however, was the one everybody had been waiting for: Ursuline against Christ the King. Ursuline’s 6-foot-5 senior superstar, Elena Delle Donne, had played only one game this season before being sidelined by mononucleosis. She had missed 10 games and her once nationally-ranked team had compiled only a 5-6 record. In fact, it was to be only her second game in the past eight months.
Veteran Christ the King coach Bob Mackey told MaxPreps long before the game that Delle Donne “is the best standing jump shooter – boy or girl – I ever have seen.” He has been watching elite basketball since the early 1980’s, not long after girls basketball was revived around the USA.
The personable Ursuline star, who has signed with the University of Connecticut, admitted to having “butterflies” before the game. She said she was “shocked” by the large turnout of UConn fans on her behalf. She quickly got over the tension, however, by grabbing a lob pass and scoring on a layup to open the game. She posted up time and again and bested Christ the King defenders with one bank shot after another. She also drilled some spectacular jumpers and even tossed in a sweet 15-foot hook shot for good measure.
When the smoke cleared, Delle Donne had scored 38 points – a high for the entire four-day set of games – and grabbed 11 rebounds as the Raiders posted an easy 57-37 victory. She drilled 13-of-22 from the field and 11-of-12 from the free throw line. She received a big ovation from the appreciative crowd when she went to the bench with remaining.
Former national champion Christ the King was crippled by the loss of four players who were left home with flu. Another player is out with a knee injury. The Royals wound up starting two freshmen who weren’t even listed in the game program. One of them, 5-9 Bria Smith, scored nine points, had four steals and is called by some New York’s next great player.
During a post-game press conference, Delle Donne noted, “I felt pretty good. My wind was all right, but I felt my legs go in the third quarter. I wanted to really take it to the hoop and get fouled. I really wanted to play in this game. It was really huge. I would have been crushed (if she still had been sidelined).”
In the boys opener, Springfield Cathedral raced past Northwest Catholic (West Hartford, Conn.), 73-53. Alex Berthiaume, a 5-11 senior guard, paced the winners with 31 points while also amassing seven assists and four steals. Rashad Wright, a 6-9 junior, was close behind with 28 points, while also contributing team-highs of 12 rebounds and five blocks. They combined to sink 23-of-37 from the field.
The second game was eagerly anticipated due to the presence of Brandon Knight, who is one of the nation’s highest-ranked sophomores. The 6-3 guard did not disappoint as he led emerging power Pine Crest (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) to a 95-47 rout of Holyoke, Mass, with 26 points and 10 rebounds. Knight, a 4.0 student, was playing only his fourth game after recovering from back surgery (a cyst was removed).
Pine Crest coach Dave Beckerman calls Knight “a great kid, quiet but very intense. He’s still a little rusty.” He also noted that 6-3 freshman Billy Thompson is the son of former NBA player Billy Thompson. At least one son of former Chicago Bulls star Scottie Pippen is in the Pine Crest elementary school system. The seventh and eighth grade team is coached by another former NBA player, Bobby Hurley, who predicts greatness for 6-0 eighth grader Traveon Henry – already on the varsity. With all those pedigrees, this definitely is a program to watch!
Even Beckerman is a person of interest. He thought he had retired from coaching in Connecticut when he moved to Boca Raton, Fla. However, he was asked to coach at Pine Crest, a private school, and took on the challenge. He explained, “I couldn’t play golf every day and it’s (coaching) in your blood.” So, he spends six months a year in Florida and the other six back home in Guilford, Conn.
Another of the nation’s superb underclassmen, 6-5 junior Lance Stephenson, contributed 22 points (shooting 11-of-14 from the field) and 13 rebounds to spark Lincoln (Brooklyn, N.Y.) to an 89-56 rout of Pius XI (Milwaukee, Wis.). Darwin Ellis, a 5-8 junior guard, added 19 points on 8-of-16 shooting. Senior guard Korie Lucious paced the losers with 21 points, but managed just three in the second half.
The best game of the day pitted the height of Montverde (Fla.) Academy against the speed of Chester (Pa.). The score was tied six times and the lead changed hands nine times before Chester eked out a 63-61 triumph. Senior guard Karon Burton was brilliant for Chester with 23 points, four steals and three assists. Burton’s superb fast-break assist to 6-5 junior Rahlir Jefferson for a dunk proved to be the winning play. Senior guard Dashan Harris led Montverde with 18 points and four assists.
The opener was unique because the Chinese national anthem was played along with the Star Spangled Banner. The song will become quite familiar to the world when China hosts the Olympic Games this summer.
Unfortunately, the Chinese Junior All-Stars, who have been training at a U.S. academy based in Oregon, suffered a 111-47 loss to prep-school power Brewster Academy (Wolfeboro, N.H.). The second half was cut from 20 to 16 minutes. Brewster’s press forced 43 turnovers, but the referees whistled only 12 fouls against a bumping, grabbing defense. The tallest Chinese player was 207 centimeters according to the game program.
Two potential McDonald’s All-Americans were supposed to tangle in Game No. 2, but one, dressed in street clothes, was signing autographs on the bench before the contest. That was Elliot Williams, an athletic 6-4 senior guard, who had injured his right knee and is going to miss at least two more weeks.
Without Williams, St. George’s (Collierville, Tenn.) was blanked, 25-0, in the first quarter and suffered a 69-49 loss to Benedictine (Richmond, Va.). Senior forward Laurence Bowers paced the losers with 18 points and 15 rebounds, but 6-9 senior star Ed Davis produced 21 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks while drilling 10 of his 11 shots from the field for the winners. Davis had four dunks in the first quarter and 17 points by halftime.
Another player everyone wanted to see was 7-2 post-grad John Riek Suas, who undoubtedly will be taken in the NBA draft this spring. He had 14 points and 11 rebounds as Winchendon (Mass.) lost to unbeaten Patterson (Lenoir, N.C.) in a 68-67 thriller matching two of the nation’s top prep schools. Riek Suas still is a major work in progress. He lost the ball several times because he didn’t hold it high enough and it was knocked away. Larry Anderson (6-5) scored 24 points for Winchendon. Super-quick guard Courtney Fortson, paced Patterson with 21 points and four assists.
St. Benedict’s (Newark, N.J.), still bidding for a national championship, rolled past DeMatha Catholic (Hyattsville, Md.), 75-41, and it wasn’t that close. Senior strongman Samardo Samuels (6-9) came up big – as he always does in major games – with 22 points and junior guard Tamir Jackson added 20. The losing Stags, who have a very young team, had no player with more than 10 points and were out-rebounded, 36-16.
The day’s best game by far pitted former national champion Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) against rising Batimore, Md., power Mount St. Joseph. Oak Hill, which has one of the thinnest benches in its history, led by one at the half, 33-32, and finally prevailed, 73-70, thanks to superstar senior guard Brandon Jennings, who finished with 32 points, three assists and three steals.
Jennings had made a slick pass to 6-7 junior Glenn Bryant for a dunk and a 71-69 lead with 52 seconds left. A free throw cut the margin to 71-70 with 40.3 seconds remaining. Playing with a 30-second clock, Jennings was forced to put up a long jumper and the victory definitely was in jeopardy when the Gaels gained control. However, a split second later, Jennings stole the ball and scored a clinching layup with 1.8 seconds to play.
“Great players make great plays,” chirped Van Coleman, national recruiting analyst for CSTV.
Equally brilliant in a losing effort was 6-11 senior Henry Sims – a steal for Georgetown – who matched Jennings’ 32 points on outstanding 10-of-16 shooting from the field and 12-of-16 from the free throw line, along with grabbing a game-high 10 rebounds. Promising 6-2 sophomore guard Eric Atkins added 18 points and four assists.
Misfortune struck again on the final day when another marquee player, 6-9 senior Drew Gordon, was unable to play because he broke his foot the previous week. Archbishop Mitty (San Jose, Calif.) not only lost Gordon, but also was missing its starting point guard, Chris Weber (stress fracture in his right foot) and Weber’s backup, Stevie Calderon, who dislocated his elbow.
Of course, Mitty was thrashed by talented Holy Cross (Flushing, N.Y.). NOT! The Monarchs (16-1) battled the New Yorkers tooth and nail and wound up with a stunning 62-61 victory. Enoch Andoh, a 6-8 senior, drilled a 10-foot jumper with 21 seconds left, and later made a key block to give Mitty the hard-earned victory. He finished with 21 points, two more than 6-6 Collin Chiverton. Sylven Landesberg, a talented 6-6 senior, paced the losers with 26 points.
One New York school, St. Raymond’s of the Bronx, did go home with a victory as it pulled out of a 37-37 halftime deadlock to deal Taft (Woodland Hills, Calif.) a decisive 84-69 defeat. A 6-6 junior, Kevin Parrom, was outstanding for St. Raymond’s with 27 points and 16 rebounds, while another junior, 6-3 Omari Lawrence, added 23 points. Eugene Phelps, a 6-6 senior, paced Taft with 20 points and 11 rebounds. Standout senior point guard Larry Drew dished out eight assists and added 16 points.
The nation’s No. 1-ranked team, St. Anthony (Jersey City, N.J.), demolished Scott County (Georgetown, Ky.), 95-52, to remain undefeated. Veteran coach Bob Hurley’s guard-oriented juggernaut shot a blistering 67.2 percent (39-58) from the field and played strong pressure defense. Six-foot senior Travon Woodall, normally a starter, came off the bench to lead the balanced Friars with 19 points.
“The game everybody will want to see will never happen,” Donnie Wilkie said. Wilkie, who annually directs the prestigious City of the Palms Classic in Fort Myers, Fla., was referring to the match-up of New Jersey powers St. Anthony and St. Benedict’s. Hurley’s youngest son, Danny, coaches St. Benedict’s. Chris Hurley, wife of Bob and mother of Danny, has said “absolutely, no!” to any possible meeting anytime while both of her men are coaching.
The Hall of Fame is decorated with quotes from famous basketball icons. Here are two of this writer’s favorites:
“Life is good, but basketball is better:” Legendary St. John’s coach Lou Carnesecca.
“Even when I’m old and gray, I won’t be able to play – but I’ll still love the game:” Michael Jordan.