As I walk the icy sidewalks of Springfield College on this cold January morning, I see two buses off in the distance shuttling high school kids to a basketball gym. It’s 7:45 a.m. and St. Anthony High School and Constitution High School are already arriving at Blake Arena. Ahead of the crowds. Ahead of the TV cameras. The only non-televised game of the day still has legendary coach Bob Hurley and star Wichita State Shocker signee Markis McDuffie, making it just an appetizer of what’s to come.
In basketball circles, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is now circled on calendars around the country by players, coaches, and fans. Why? Because of the Spalding Hoophall Classic, what many are now calling the best high school tournament in America. Amateur basketball’s answer to the Super Bowl is four days long and the last day, which falls on MLK Day, is must-see TV whether in person or on ESPNU.
Orlando Antigua, a former Kentucky top assistant and now the head coach at South Florida, summed up why every program in America sends their coach to the Hoophall: “The top-notch matchups, TV coverage, and venue are what make the Hoophall so special.”
The Hoophall is more than a showcase. It’s a right of passage for any player aspiring to play beyond the collegiate level. The alumni list is littered with future NBA stars — Kevin Durant, DeMarcus Cousins, Ty Lawson, Michael Beasley, Jabari Parker, Kyrie Irving, Lance Stephenson, O.J. Mayo, and Derrick Favors to name a few — and the long weekend has grown from humble beginnings in the late 1990s to ESPN camera crews, sold-out games, and celebrity sightings. Dave Elkins was the tournament’s first director, after his forward thinking birthed the tourney when the city of Springfield lost their Christmas Basketball tournament due to a lack of fan support. Then in the mid-2000s, current director Greg Procino single-handedly made this the best showcase event in the country.
Held at Springfield College in Western Massachusetts, home of the Basketball Hall of Fame and also where Dr. James Naismith first invented the game, the tournament is getting so large it might outgrow itself. To cap off this year’s action, Monday featured a televised gamut of games from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on ESPNU with familiar national powers like Oak Hill Academy, Montverde Academy, Bishop Gorman High School, and St. Anthony.
This year featured top players like Georgia’s Jaylen Brown (No. 2 recruit in the ESPN100), Ivan Rabb of Oakland (No. 6 in ESPN100), Bishop Gorman teammates Chase Jeter and Stephen Zimmerman (No. 9 and 10 respectively in ESPN100), as well as Jayson Tatum, the top-ranked junior in the country, and finally, the crown jewel, LSU signee Ben Simmons, the top high school player in the country.
I was there for it all on Monday. Follow along here with dozens of exclusives images of every game to see just what makes this tournament so special, from the players to the sneakers to the atmosphere.
all images via Chris Marion
Follow Miguel on Twitter at @thenational