Virginia is for hoopers (who want to LEARN)

by June 22, 2007
7

High school camp season is here, and SLAM is all over it. High school expert Aggrey Sam checks in from the National Basketball Players Association Camp in Charlottesville, VA. Keep it locked to Slamonline.com all summer for coverage of the big high school events.

Before I get into where I’m at right now—the NBPA Top 100 Camp at the University of Virginia—I want to plug my man Rahim Thompson’s event. Rahim, who works for Reebok, also runs the Chosen League at Cherashore Playground at 10th and Olney streets in Philly. Arguably the top summer league in the city, ‘Him is trying to open it with a bang this summer, as he let me know that he’s hosting a matchup tonight featuring the best seniors in the city and some of the best seniors in the country. Scheduled to participate for the Philly team include: Pitt-bound Brad Wanamaker, his twin brother Brian (headed to Central Connecticut State), high school and future college teammates Antonio “Scoop” Jardine and Rick Jackson (Syracuse) and 6-9 and 6-10 twins Marcus and Markieff Morris, among others. Slated to play for the National team are: Mike Beasley (Kansas State), Donte Greene (Syracuse), Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes (Villanova), Austin Freeman and Chris Wright (Georgetown), Nolan Smith (Duke) and Malcolm Delaney (Virginia Tech).

So If you’re anywhere close to Philly Friday night, stop by 10th and Olney for the game, which is preceded by a rematch of last year’s 16-and-under chip at 7:30.

Moving on, as we documented in last fall’s edition of PUNKS Magazine, the NBPA camp is different from most gatherings of elite high school players for a number of reasons. While the players here—here being the beautiful, year-old John Paul Jones Arena—are being evaluated by recruiting analysts and media outlets like SLAM, the month of June is an NCAA “dead period,” so Division I coaches aren’t present. Furthermore, the camp’s staff consists of former NBA players and its guests are current pros, who don’t just demonstrate or give a quick lecture—they get down and dirty, doing drills with the kids and reflecting about their often similar personal experiences.

Marc Jackson of the Hornets worked out the camp’s big men and raved about the campers’ potential. “I really just preached patience, weighing your options. The level of athleticism just keeps going up, so if they can have the mindset to go with it, their games will go through the roof,” said the veteran NBA banger. “This is a real camp. You can’t get this type of instruction anywhere else.”

Retired pro Rick Brunson (a Temple alum, like Jackson and myself) worked the camp as a coach (rising sophomore stud Brandon Knight of Florida, among others, was on his team) and found the campers enthusiastic and receptive to his advice. “This camp is a little different than having my own team because they’re all elite players, but the work they put in is phenomenal and everything has been positive,” said the John Chaney disciple. “They’re getting more than just basketball here, they get an education, which is priceless. I just tell them to have big ears and big eyes.”

ESPN.com’s Paul Biancardi, another coach at the camp, concurred. “I think this camp is one of a kind. It portrays real-life situations through the experiences of NBA players,” said the former Wright State head coach and assistant at Ohio State and Boston College. “They told us to coach these kids like your team in college, prepare them for college coaches and the reality of what they will face.”

Chuck Hayes of the Houston Rockets was an NBPA camper back in 2000, and concedes that the lessons of that week went in one ear and out the other back then. “When I was here, I wasn’t trying to listen. It’s funny how the tables have turned,” said Hayes, a speaker at the camp. “I took it for granted because when you’re young, you don’t know these guys. Now I’ve started to realize and respect what they did in the League.”

“But the drills they show you are very accurate. They really teach the fundamentals of the game,” Hayes continued. “The camp helps you become more of a student of the game, even without knowing it.”

Wizards big man Etan Thomas, who also worked with the campers, found them “very responsive.” “I told them to just keep working hard. As you get more notoriety and more attention, don’t rest on your laurels, because the guys ranked below you will pass you,” my fellow slamonline.com columnist said.

“The camps I went to were more of ‘just roll the balls out and play.’ I showed the different drills we do in the League,” Etan continued. “I didn’t want to talk their ears off, but I did say that they shouldn’t let the reason you don’t make it be the bad choices you make. I think it’s great that the NBPA is preparing for them life, on and off the court.”

The players also heard a presentation on career education led by Debbie Rothstein, the Players Association’s Director of Career Development, with assistance from pros Emeka Okafor and the aforementioned Jackson. Rothstein focused on “the need to have a plan for life outside basketball,” and used statistics on the average playing career (4.4 years) and retirement age (27) of NBA players to further illustrate her points. “Players need to take charge of their lives and manage their image,” said Rothstein.

In the spirit of that goal, campers were given “education agreements,” where they pledged to graduate from college, even if they left early for the League or did their four years without completing their degrees. While only a select few of the elite high school players down at UVA will actually make it to the NBA, Rothstein will keep the pledges on file and present them to the players who make it at the NBA’s Rookie Transition Program, run by ex-pro Charles Smith. Okafor and Jackson shared their college experiences with the kids. Both players left after their junior year, and while each graduated, they gave the players some insight on what it takes to get their degree ahead of schedule (in Okafor’s case) or return in the off-season to graduate (as Jackson did).

Rothstein also addressed the ways the NBPA helped players further their education after they make it to the League, such as a five-day, mini-MBA executive education business program at Stanford, where players receive six hours of instruction from top-notch professors and study time, as well as four hours to work out, daily.

The NBPA camp itself also featured a number of sessions used to educate parents and campers alike. An acting troupe named Zinc, headed by Zach Minor, put on skits detailing scenarios likely to occur in the players’ careers. “It started with the Len Bias incident…the NBA wanted to focus on personal challenges, as well as decisions, choices and consequences,” said Minor, who is in his eighth year of working with the NBPA camp, 20 with the NBA’s rookie transition program (he has also worked with the NHL, NFL and MLB) after a show his troupe did that was based on Bias aired on the Today Show in 1986.

“We use role play to try to teach young people how to stay on track, not tell them what to do. Peer influence is so much stronger because young people listen to each other; we just want them to reduce risk, prepare and anticipate situations.”

Parents of the campers, who were also in attendance, received their own education at the camp, something NBPA head Billy Hunter strongly supports. “With a lot of the public perception focusing on the character of the players in the League, we thought it would be smart to also bring in the people with the most influence on the players from an early age,” said Hunter.

Purvis Short, a former NBA player and one of the founders of the camp, also placed great emphasis on the education stance. “After we present the information to them–about substance abuse, for example–we follow that with group discussions, so that they can talk about issues more intimately. We also bring in psychologists to help give them feedback about things they might be concerned about.”

“It helps when we have veteran guys who have been in the same position they’ve been in, who have dealt with difficult issues and overcome them,” Short continued. “They need to see what happens when you make bad choices. The same lessons we deliver to the campers—all real-life stuff—we give to the pros.”

Parents of the campers were appreciative of the life lessons and experiences imparted to the players—and themselves—at the camp.
“The educational component is excellent,” said Byron Brown, whose son, a rising senior point guard of the same name, attended the camp. “As parents, we’ve shared the importance of listening and communicating with our sons.”

“I think this is an experience that will stay with him for the rest of his life,” continued Brown, who happens to be the mayor of Buffalo, N.Y. “He learned what it takes to succeed on the next level, and that there is more to life than basketball.”

NBA legend Ralph Sampson worked at the camp as a coach and instructor, but also had his two sons participating: Ralph Jr., a heavily-recruited 6-10 rising senior, and Robert, a 6-6 wing. “I think this is the best life skills educational camp ever put together,” said the ex-UVA star. “When you have excellent high school players working with current and former NBA players, it helps them realize they have a lot to work on.”

Above everything else, that’s the message the players took from the camp. “It’s been a great experience. I’ve had a lot of fun and I’m really enjoying myself,” said New Jersey’s Samardo Samuels [pictured], one of the top big men in the class of ’08. “Some things they tell you, you can take to your everyday life, like how to overcome tough situations.”

“Sometimes that stuff can be boring, but when you hear it from guys like Emeka and Marc, it makes you pay attention,” continued the recent Louisville commit. “Then, when they show you different things on the court, you really take it to heart.”

Don’t be surprised if Samuels and other players here use those lessons—on and off the court—to their benefit in the very near future. More immediately, I’ll be back next week to report on who played the best in VA.