Fame Game: Inside the 2015 Spalding Hoophall Classic, America’s Best HS Basketball Tournament

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    St. Anthony (NJ) vs. Constitution (PA)

    In the day’s first game, St. Anthony, led by McDuffie, faced off against Constitution and their 6-7 George Mason signee, senior Ahmad Gilbert. The early start had quite a few fans in the stands by 9 a.m. and the game didn’t disappoint as St. Anthony led most of the way in this contest. The George Mason/Wichita State rivalry has been fierce ever since the 2005-2006 season when George Mason made it to the NCAA Tournament and magically made the Final Four as a result of beating Wichita State on the road on a last-second three by Tony Skinn. Both schools were in the hunt for Gilbert, turning this one into a battle of future rivals.

    With less than seconds remaining in the game, St. Anthony missed a 1-and-1 while up by a single point. Gilbert got the rebound, dribbled through the Friars defense, and…missed a game-winning layup try as the horn sounded.

    With his future coach Paul Hewitt in the crowd, the building let off a collective sigh as St. Anthony survived another close game at the Hoophall, 57-56. McDuffie showed signs of what’s to come in the Missouri Valley Conference next year for coach Greg Marshall‘s team with a double-double (12 points, 14 rebounds) while Ahmad Gilbert led all scorers with 27 points in a monster game.

    “I had a chance to win the game for our team and I missed,” Gilbert said afterward. “Playing against one of the greatest high school programs in the nation, making that shot would have been the icing on the cake.”

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    Wheeler (GA) vs. Bishop O'Dowd (CA)

    The second game might’ve been the most anticipated, considering it featured a battle of nationally-ranked teams in No. 17 Bishop O’Dowd High School, led by 6-11 Ivan Rabb, versus top-five recruit Jaylen Brown and his No. 3-ranked Wheeler High School. The action brought out all the stars to Blake Arena. The gym was buzzing as John Calipari, Paul Hewitt, Kevin Ollie, and a host of other coaches sat in the Coaches Pit behind the basket to watch one of the marquee games of the day.

    Ivan Rabb owned the paint to the tune of 24 points, while Jaylen Brown finished with 31 points through an array of amazing moves and some monster dunks. In the end though, O’Dowd and Rabb held off Wheeler for the upset.

    “My teammates played huge and it’s not about me,” Rabb said. “[Point guard] Paris Austin held his own against the No. 3 team in the country and we won. Flying across the country and playing the best of the best and winning, it doesn’t get better than this.”

    The trip back to Oakland will be much sweeter for the Dragons of Bishop O’Dowd.

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    Oak Hill (VA) vs. Villa Angela St. Joseph (OH)

    Oak Hill, with legendary coach Steve Smith, is always loaded and is a perennial favorite in their matchups in the Hoophall. This year, the Warriors are led by Daniel Giddens, Dwayne Bacon, and Josh Reaves. Their opponent from Cleveland was Villa Angela St. Joseph, led by 6-10 Carlton Bragg. The Vikings took a 45-36 lead into the half but that’s where it all ended for them. Oak Hill’s senior guard Bacon put on a clinic and finished the game with 33 points as Oak Hill came back to win, 76-72.

    It’s always a treat to see what sneakers some of the players wear off the court, and that’s doubly so with Oak Hill, a Jordan Brand school ever since 2002 alum Carmelo Anthony. I asked Giddens, Bacon, and Reaves what shoes are their current favorites and they all responded with Air Jordans, specifically the VII, XI, VI, I, III, and V, referencing Michael Jordan‘s signature sneaker line. It’s always a tough question to ask a teenager, especially one from a school that gets laced with shoes from their favorite brand. They all said it’s like Christmas whenever a shipment comes in from Jordan Brand, once and sometimes twice a month.

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    Montverde (FL) vs. Bishop Gorman (NV)

    Two against one. Let’s preface this nationally televised game by pointing out the top high school basketball player in the country in LSU commit Ben Simmons showcased his No. 4-ranked team in Montverde and his No. 1 ranking against two ESPN100 top-10 recruits in 6-11 Chase Jeter (on his way to Duke) and 7-0 center Stephen Zimmerman. Despite Bishop Gorman’s double-trouble dose of big men, Simmons and Montverde showed out, leading from start to finish as they cruised to a 76-57 win. Australian-born Simmons showed the country why he’s, without a doubt, the nation’s best player with the top performance of Monday’s Hoophall: 36 points and nine rebounds. Bishop Gorman was led by a familiar name in Charles O’Bannon Jr. (son of UCLA great Charles O’Bannon) with 22 points. Jeter and Zimmerman had pretty tough outings, combining to score just 17 points on 4-for-12 shooting, with 11 turnovers between the two of them.

    “I’m glad our team performed well and was able to stick to coach’s game plan,” Simmons said. “Without a doubt, this is where the best of the best compete against one another.”

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    Paul VI (VA) vs. Chaminade College Prep (MO)

    The last game of the night might’ve had a small crowd, considering the Hoophall was coming to a close, but the talent was still undeniable. Missouri’s Chaminade College Prep was led by Jayson Tatum and his 25 points in a team effort as Paul VI High School was outmanned for most of the game. It showed throughout. Though V.J. King, the 19th-ranked junior by ESPN, tried everything in his arsenal, scoring 38 points, it was not enough against the balance provided by Chaminade’s frontcourt, which scored 70 percent of their team’s points in the 88-78 win.

    In the end, as usual, many of the fans stayed in attendance until the very last buzzer, content to watch eight-plus hours of the best high school basketball you’ll find anywhere.

    “It’s awesome. It’s great,” said Nike’s High School National Director Tony Dorado. “In terms of a tournament format, the City of Palms has six days and 50-plus teams. From a showcase standpoint [Hoophall] is the best. This is the place to be. This is like the old Prime Time Shootout. Anyone that is anybody in grassroots basketball is here.”

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  • 2015 Spalding Hoophall Classic
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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