A Thoroughly Unique Event: The CYP Tournament
Kyrie Irving makes his mark alongside past legends.
by Colin Powers
On a Friday night at a tiny church gymnasium in Port Chester, New York, one of the most exciting AAU tournaments in the country is about to tip off. The gymnasium at Our Lady of Mercy is packed to capacity on this early Spring evening, humming with energy in anticipation of the two semi-final contests to come; those lucky enough to get here early are at the courtside seats, but I should clarify what is meant by courtside. There is seating along both sidelines…with the chairs literally on the sideline, and legs of the fans extending onto the court. On one baseline, I stand with a couple coaches and other onlookers. Again, we are literally on the baseline. Our backs are against the padded wall that will really determine when the whistle blows, and we’d all be in pretty good position to take a charge if need be. I’ve got my notepad out, trying to jot some things down on the collection of college talent in the house, but I’m also having to direct some attention to mere self-preservation. There will be a number of 6-8 bodies occasionally flying toward me for the next couple of hours, and I’d really prefer to avoid subsequent damage they might do to my health if they were to land on me. My health insurance plan is far from comprehensive at the moment, and it’s gonna take some time for Obama’s legislation to kick in.
For the past 64 years, Our Lady of Mercy has hosted this amazing event in the same undersized gym I played CYO ball in as an 11-year-old, thinking even then, damn, this court’s too narrow for me to break these guys down with the inside-out-cross. Just about every legend of NYC basketball has passed through, from the transcendent Connie Hawkins to Stephon and Shaheen Holloway to the Odom-Brand-Artest era of the late ’90s to the big dog at this year’s event, Duke bound Kyrie Irving. Each year, out come the Gauchos, the Roadrunners, in the older days Riverside Church, and all the fixtures of NY/NJ basketball, the players sharing the hope of a big-time performance on this most unique of stages. To ask long-time tournament director Joe Bellofato to sum up the tournament’s great history is impossible, but he tried, telling me, ‘It’s a great tournament. I’m very lucky. I know a lot of people in the AAU world and I get the same guys pretty much every year, and they have the best kids, so I do OK.’ And in case you were wondering, he said the squad with the Hawk and Billy Cunningham was the best to ever come around.
They all come for the tradition, for the excitement, for the history of the game. As one of this year’s participants told me, UConn-bound Maurice Harkless, ‘it’s fun, it’s very fun, everyone’s trapping inside this little gym, but it’s a good experience. Especially today, the atmosphere, a lot of people showed up, it should be a good game. Everyone’s ready to play, hyped. I like this atmosphere.’
I don’t have exact measurements for the court, but I would estimate the half-court line is about the distance of an NBA three pointer, maybe a few feet beyond it. There are no baseline 3’s: the court is not wide enough for the high school distanced 3-line to sneak inside the sideline in the corner, thus leaving no space for Bruce Bowen’s favorite shot. There is no ‘foul territory’ anywhere either, just a line of bystanders and then the lightly padded walls ringing the perimeter.
The floor’s a bit slippery, with players continuously swiping the bottom of their shoes with their hands in the ephemeral pursuit of a bit more traction on the hardwood. Finally, to complete this landscape as original as a Salvador Dali, on one sideline and on one baseline, a wall extends about fifteen feet up, upon which stadium seating is available, looking directly down on the court as if it was a dungeon below. Those stands are crammed with a diorama of young kids, parents, players, high school coaches, AAU coaches, college coaches, college scouts, and old-time locals that have been coming by the gym since King Bernard ran New York. A TV by the entrance has the NCAA Tournament on, but only a handful of people pass by, usually only for a few moments on their way to grab a soda before returning to the live action. The place is buzzing.
With a court this small and the athletes so big and quick, if your squad isn’t ready for full court trapping, if you’re aren’t ready for the blink-of-an-eye decision making that is necessary in these intimate confines, and if you’re not strong with the ball, you’re in for a long night. The refs understand the chaos inherent to this environment and the uncontrollable nature of the trapping and pressing. It’s madness out there, and they won’t be calling much. Anything below a cardinal sin will likely be forgiven.
In the first semi-final of the night, Team Frenji, led by 6-7 Jayvaughn Pinkston (Villanova bound) and the relentless guard combo of Jabari Hinds (NY Region 1 Mr. Basketball and only a Junior at Mount Vernon) and Russell Smith (Louisville bound) take on the New York Falcons, led by Tyshon Pickett and Shane McLaughlin.
The pace is relentless, with the jet-quick combination of Smith and Hinds contesting every bounce of the ball from the Falcons’ guards. No pass can be taken for granted, and no shot at the basket goes unchallenged by the bigs on both sides. At the same time, the opportunistic gambling encouraged by the court’s dimensions leads to a lot of defensive breakdowns, particularly for Team Frenji. The Falcons capitalize through out the evening, keeping their overmatched squad in the game with timely shooting. They stay close, but in the end, the disparity in talent was too great them to ever genuinely threaten Team Frenji.
Jayvaughn Pinkston, who will be playing in the McDonald’s All-American game tonight, is a match-up disaster for just about anyone in the high school ranks. He’s not only 6-7 but thick and very powerful, a man-child at present time in the middle of developing his physique into the more refined musculature that awaits him in coming years. Oh, and he can handle it. Pinkston does most of his damage after catching the ball on the perimeter and attacking his defender with an assortment of explosive moves. For a man his size, the speed with which he moves especially when driving to the basket is striking (and quite frightening when standing against the wall which he might barrel into after getting his shot off). Hinds and Smith constantly spark the break and prove themselves both to be excellent finishers at the rim and in the mid-range game. They both were able to get anywhere they wanted at any time they wanted to, securing a 99-91 win for Frenji.
The guy I’ve come to see, however, is featured in game two between the Gauchos and the New Jersey Roadrunners: Kyrie Irving. The young man hyped as the best Duke-bound guard/New Jersey high school guard since Jay Williams is playing for the Roadrunners before hopping a flight on Saturday for Columbus, Ohio and the accompanying McDonald’s All-American game festivities. I had seen Jay play a number of times in high school and on the summer-camp circuit when I was a kid, sharing a mutual coach who rightfully directed my attention to the archetype of point guard play that Jay was. With that point of reference, I’m excited to watch Kyrie and project what the ACC might have in store for it next year.
He does not disappoint. Though not as physically imposing as the bullish Williams, after standing next to Kyrie I estimate he is a legitimate 6-2 and far from frail in his own right. Given the circumstances, i.e. the bizarre court and his upcoming showcase in Ohio, Irving does not come out of the gate playing like his life is on the line, and understandably so. But as the game stays close and grows increasingly heated, competitive nature wins out and he matches the intensity, accordingly.
Irving is very smooth, and along with his impressive backcourt-mate Eli Carter (headed to St. Bonaventure), he clearly displays more composure and control with the ball than any of the other guards that evening (those who frequently succumb to the frantic mind-state inspired by the small court). Kyrie is never in a rush and does his best to instill that poise in some of his more inexperienced teammates.
Offensively, his game is well polished and absolutely nuanced enough right now to seamlessly transition to the college game. His handle is sure and confident, his footwork and technique practiced, his cross-over low and quick. On a number of occasions, he buries contested pull-up 15-18 footers off the dribble, going both left and right, an essential shot for the NCAA level because of the more widespread athleticism of the competition. Irving flashes a nice floater in the lane as well early in the 1st, another very valuable shot going forward.
Then, of course, there is the range. Trailing near the end of the 2nd quarter, Kyrie unleashes a barrage of 3s, pulling up just beyond the half-court line at one point and knocking it down. He elevates well and is very clean in his release while also showing great consistency in his mechanics. All his misses are ‘good misses’ (long or short), and he makes his adjustments in short-time. He finishes the game with an easy 37, and I’m convinced his skill-set will irrefutably translate well when he rolls into Durham next year.
At his point, I feel the need to address the ongoing disputes on Irving’s athleticism. No, he is not the powerfully explosive dynamo that Jay Williams was, but to hold him to that standard would be foolhardy. Kyrie had a number of sequences last Friday that demonstrated the extent of his own impressive array of physical gifts. In the middle of the second quarter, he rushed over from the help-side to challenge one of the Gauchos 6-7+ big men at the rim, blocked their shot and kept possession of the ball. He raced forward and after passing half court, completely froze his defender with a lightning quick fake-behind-the-back combo before dishing for an easy bucket. The speed and change of direction in the move were big time. Later in the game, Irving finished a few baseline drives with strong, quick rises to the basket. He banged on the defensive end against players far bigger and more than held his ground, swiping the ball away on a number of occasions when the offensive player turned to face the basket, shaking his head at the audacity of the dude to challenge him. His swag was clearly different from the rest of the guys in the gym. No doubt, he belongs in the conversation of the best high school guard in the country.
We’ve gotta be real for a minute. These John Wall/Derrick Rose athletes don’t come around very often, so don’t start hating on every guard unable to measure up to their impossible legacy. Kyrie Irving will never have the craziest BallisLife mix-tape, but he has the game to compete with anyone in college next year, and is more than capable of breaking down the D and getting into the lane. He will get buckets, and you will hear an exasperated Gus Johnson shouting ‘PURE!’ at some point in the years to come after he drills a backbreaker from deep; trust me, don’t sleep on him.