Originally published in SLAM Presents JORDAN Brand

by Franklyn Calle | @FrankieC7

There’s a common saying that applies particularly well to hoops: It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish. Most serious basketball players begin playing ball when they’re not too far removed from the crib, and, for over a decade, the top high school basketball players in America have culminated their prep careers in what has become one of the most highly celebrated bball events of the year—the Jordan Brand Classic.

Technically serving as their last basketball game before heading off to the college ranks, some of the most coveted recruits in the sport have annually converged on the same court to participate in the JB Classic. Since its inaugural showcase in April, 2002, the prep-star game has produced over 75 NBA players and an array of overseas pros.

The nation’s capital hosted the JBC in its first two years at the  Verizon Center, formerly known as the MCI Center. The event was initially called the Jordan Capital Classic and changed its name to the current one after jumping states and venues, landing in  Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden.

In the ’02 game, four-time NBA All-Star Carmelo Anthony, along with current New York Knicks teammate Amar’e Stoudemire, highlighted the marquee rosters. Anthony, who finished with a game-high 27 points, was awarded Co-MVP alongside Sean May—the former Tar Heel who led North Carolina to the 2005 National Championship—after the latter posted a double-double, scoring 26 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. Stoudemire dominated the glass, racking up 17 rebounds, which still stands today as the Classic’s all-time rebound record, to compliment his 23 points, 6 assists and 3 blocks.

The following year, man-child LeBron James took DC by storm, rocking the rims to the tune of 34 points (JBC’s all-time scoring record) while also notching 12 rebounds and 6 assists in front of an almost sold-out crowd. Phoenix Suns guard Shannon Brown shared MVP honors with James, as his 27 points and 8 assists led his All-American team to victory. Another superstar in the making partook in that year’s event, as L.A. Clippers All-Star guard Chris Paul’s 18 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists foreshadowed his bright professional career.

In ’04, the Jordan Brand Classic moved to nearby Comcast Center on the University of Maryland’s College Park, MD, campus. Some tall kid out of Atlanta, GA, named Dwight Howard emerged as the main attraction. He balled out, amassing 18 points and 15 rebounds, earning him MVP stripes. Joining him on the court were future NBA stars Rudy Gay and Rajon Rondo.

In its fourth year of existence, Jordan Brand moved the festivities to Madison Square Garden. The inaugural year in New York City saw Indiana Pacers forward Tyler Hansbrough put up a 24-point, 8-rebound performance. He shared MVP honors with Andray Blatche, who had a 26 and 16 game of his own.

A year later, a lanky kid named Kevin Durant took center stage and began the process of making his name known around the world. KD led his team in a losing effort with 16 points and 7 rebounds, while a tenacious Thaddeus Young, who’s now a key player for the Philadelphia 76ers, demonstrated why a couple of years later he would end up being a Lottery pick—wrapping up the night with 28 points and 13 rebounds.

In ’07, the Classic featured two future Big East standouts: New York’s own Corey Fisher and Baltimore’s Donte Green. Fisher, who went on to star at Villanova, accumulated a 12-point and 10-assist performance, while Green, a Syracuse signee, scored a game-high 20 points. The two shared the MVP award. This incarnation of the game also featured a couple of guys who would end up becoming franchise players just a few years later: Chicago Bulls’ Derrick Rose (12 points and 10 rebounds) and L.A. Clippers’ Blake Griffin, who actually came off the bench, compiling 8 points and 8 rebounds in 13 minutes of play.

An all-time assist record was set the following year as Milwaukee Bucks star Brandon Jennings dished out 14 dimes to accompany his 10 points. Joining him with Most Valuable Player honors was Tyreke Evans, whose 23 points, 7 rebounds and 3 steals made for an all-around impressive effort. High-flying, future Dunk Contest participant DeMar DeRozan showed nuances of his foreseeable NBA talent after finishing with 17 points and 4 rebounds, while hometown hero Kemba Walker, who ended the game with 11 points and 5 rebounds, spearheaded his rags-to-ritches journey in his own backyard.

The following year, ’09, saw big men dominate the floor as Utah Jazz’s Derrick Favors along with current Mississippi State Bulldog Renardo Sidney led a star-studded class. Favors’ 21 points and 5  rebounds, and Sidney’s 15 points, 7 rebounds and 2 blocks, commanded respect, while future top draft pick John Wall mesmerized the crowd with his passes and moves to the basket.

In 2010, the last game (for now) at MSG, reigning No. 1-pick Kyrie Irving picked up where Wall left off, pulling out his own bag of tricks as he enchanted the crowd with a collection of moves to the rim, as well as displaying play-making abilities that make up his repertoire, finishing the night with 22 points, 7 assists and 4 rebounds. Joining him as MVP was current Tar Heel Draft prospect Harrison Barnes, as his 20-point, 15-rebound outing depicted another star in the making. The fourth overall pick of the 2011 NBA Draft, Tristan Thompson, also had a notable showing, piling up 19 points and 13 rebounds. In addition, current college basketball stars Terrence Jones of Kentucky, Jared Sullinger of Ohio State and Dion Waiters of Syracuse were also among the participants.

For its 10-year anniversary, the Jordan Brand Classic relocated to the old-school (and current) stomping grounds of Michael Jordan, Charlotte, NC.

“New York City is fantastic, but in a city so big there is a lot going on. Charlotte offered us a basketball-rich platform where our participants can be front and center,” says Jordan Brand Marketing Director Sean Tresvant. “North Carolina is where MJ got his start and we thought it was the perfect location for our kids and our game.”

Headlining last year’s JBC were many of the players who have made the current college season so entertaining. Current UNC forward James Michael McAdoo tallied 26 points and 14 rebounds, while co-MVP Anthony Davis of Kentucky filled up the stat sheet with 29 points, 11 rebounds and 4 blocks. Davis’ Wildcats teammates Marquis Teague and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist also were impressive as they combined for 26 points, while ex-Duke Blue Devil Austin Rivers—son of Doc Rivers—exhibited his pro-ready talent.

Despite its annual top-notch national rosters, the JBC has also offered the audience an opportunity to watch local talent since its inception. The regional game, which takes place prior to the national contest, has become a favorite for fans, as they get the opportunity to watch some of their own homegrown talent on the floor.

And in ’08, the Jordan Brand Classic decided to expand its horizon internationally. Looking to capitalize on the ever-growing popularity of the game overseas, the JBC launched an international tour with a goal of finding the top 16-and-under prospects from around the world. “As the game of basketball has evolved globally, it was a natural progression and great opportunity for us to expand and celebrate the game,” says Tresvant. “It allows us to showcase some of the world’s best basketball players. For some of the players, it is their first time visiting the US so we’re thrilled to be able to provide that experience for them.”

In its first year of international existence, the Jordan Brand Classic hosted training camps in Vilnius, Lithuania; Rome, Italy; and Athens, Greece—inviting approximately 35 to 40 players from countries in the surrounding regions to each of the intense training sessions, and with a trip to the United States to participate in the JBC inaugural international game at stake. The Brand brought in renowned trainers Ganon Baker, Tim Grover and Christopher Thomas to help them with the evaluation of players, in conjunction with some of the Nike scouts in Europe. Thirteen of the young players ended up earning flights to New York, with the diverse group representing Europe, Africa and even Australia. The game, which is played before the regional and national games, has since included players from Asia and South America, and quickly proven successful—no more so than in the 2011 NBA Draft, when two of the game’s past participants were selected in the Lottery (Enes Kanter of Turkey was selected third by Utah, while Jonas Valanciunas of Lithuania was selected fifth by Toronto).

If you think all of this is just a bunch of top prospects flown in to play in an all-star game, you’re highly mistaken. The games on Saturday are just a small fraction of the nearly week-long festivities. The players usually arrive on Wednesday with a whole slate of activities awaiting them. When held in New York, the players got the opportunity to tour NYC, as well as ESPN’s campus in Bristol, CT. After moving to Charlotte this past year, the tradition continued. Players toured the ESPNU studio and were able to meet and speak with the anchors. They also spent time at the Joe Gibbs Racing track facility and hung out with Jordan Brand endorser and NASACR FedEx car driver Denny Hamlin. On Thursday, the fellas participated in a celebrity bowling game and a 2K Sports video game challenge.

But the event also emphasizes giving back to the community and helping others in need. On Friday, the day before the big game, players visited the Presbyterian Children Hospital in Charlotte and put on a basketball clinic for the kids. An award ceremony at the Bank of America Stadium overlooking the field, where the NFL’s Carolina Panthers play, was also among the highlighted activities leading up to the main event on Saturday, which was (and always is) televised nationally on ESPN.

“The Jordan Brand Classic has evolved just as much as the game of basketball has. Based on the players and location, it has become more of an experience that includes activities both on and off the basketball court,” says Tresvant. “From doing live hits at the ESPN studio to riding in a car with Denny Hamlin, this event is truly unique to Jordan. At the end of the day, we are dealing with young kids that are still in high school. There is a lot of pressure on them and we try to create the most fun and relaxed atmosphere as possible. MJ personified greatness on and off the court and it’s important to create experiences that these kids will remember forever. One way we try to accomplish that is to create this amazing week-long experience. But the big differentiation [with the JBC] is MJ’s legacy and impact on the game and what we can provide as a Brand. We provide these kids with some of the best apparel and footwear on the planet. In fact, this year they will be wearing special JBC colorways of the Air Jordan 2012.”

Although the showcase has already established itself as a sought-out event for any young hoop dreamer, the Jordan Brand is looking to enhance the overall experience to new levels. “Moving forward we want to become the premier showcase of high school basketball’s elite and raise the level of the game across the board,” says Tresvant. “That includes the best roster, the most innovative products on court, raising the visibility of the game globally, especially in key markets such as China, and a greater community involvement.”

And if the talented players from the Class of 2012 are any indication, the Classic’s legacy will continue.