It’s a Peach Jam Thursday, and as I write this post Drew and I are in our walled-off media area which is also currently serving, only a couple of feet behind our backs, as a locker room for a team preparing to take one of the courts. The coach is, quite clearly, very unhappy with the team’s play of late as he gives easily the most passive-aggressive pep talk I’ve ever heard. It’s the kind of thing you want to turn around and listen to, but I can’t because if I did I would literally, immediately become an awkward part of the team. So all I can do is listen as the coach fires up his players by telling them what they have to show out there today, and what it means. It would make no sense to mention the team or coach’s name, but I will give you an actual quote to bring you into the moment:
“The way we’ve been playing is embarrassing. Embarrassing. But you’ve got to bring it. I don’t care who you are, you’ve got to get it done today. I’m talking to you, Mr. Ohio State. And you, Mr. Michigan State. And you, Mr. You-Get-Lots-of-Phone-Calls.”
That’s right. You better get it done today, Mr. You-Get-Lots-of-Phone-Calls. If you don’t, your new name is just going to become ironic. Or at least the “getting lots of phone calls” part of it may not pertain directly to basketball so much anymore.
The scene here at the Peach Jam is a lot busier than last night, with the classes of 2014-15 taking the courts. The big names are all on the card today, and with them the biggest names in coaching. As we took our seats along the court for the Howard Pulley Panthers vs. Expressions Elite. Expressions Elite — which is not, despite its name, the modeling agency or modern dance troupe you might think — is a team hailing from the Boston Area while Howard Pulley is based out of Minnesota and features Tyus Jones, top HS point guard in the nation and looking at Minnesota, Kentucky and Duke, presumably among others. Coach K is nowhere in sight, but Cal’s in the house and though new Gophers coach Richard Pitino has yet to be seen, his assistant coach Ben Johnson (the ex-Gopher, not the defrocked sprinter from the 1988 Olympic games) is here to represent. Elsewhere along the lineup are Tom Izzo, Scott Drew, Jeff Capel, ex-Cat Mark Pope and several other coaches and assistants from top tier schools down. Seth Davis strides confidently through the gym at one end, no doubt disappointed that Krzyzewski isn’t there because he worked on his hair for, like, an hour so Coach K would finally notice him. Next to us sits Iowa Head Coach Fran McCaffrey, who is trading stories with another coach and laughing so hard he can barely catch his breath. I can only imagine they’re tales about corn or high winds hilariously blowing things into or out of his yard. I can’t hear them.
As always, I’m going to leave the breakdowns to those better suited to it than I am, suffice to say that Tyus Jones definitely looks like the real deal. Though Howard Pulley trailed the entire game (sometimes by double digits), Jones came up with 25 points — at least half of them in the last four or five minutes, to bring the Panthers back for a 71-73 loss. I’m no expert on AAU basketball talent recognition, but Jones has a lot of poise and seems to run the team well, giving the impression he’s way older than he is. His teammate Reid Travis, who has offers from Michigan State, Arizona, UCLA and Tennessee (sorry, Tennessee!) is also impressive with 20 points on the losing effort.
I mentioned it yesterday but it bears repeating — it’s a very surreal scene, with a crazily small court for such a huge deal. This particular game seems to have a lot of traction, likely because of Jones, and by halftime crowds not only pack the bleachers but have filed into the doorways and stairs and line along the walking track which sits above the court.
Drew and I are in seats alongside the court. And by alongside the court, I mean directly on the court. As in, the front legs of the chair sit on the black line that serves as one of the court’s boundaries. Which means that unless you have no legs (we do have them), you’re constantly having to pull your feet back so you don’t accidentally trip a player or ref and end young dreamer’s career. It should be noted that in these particular seats, you are constantly in grave danger of your face being hit by a basketball. I say this because it’s absolutely true and a very real fear. Drew and I were consistently flinching as errant rocketing passes threatened to be missed and end up smashing into our faces. You would think that after three or four moments of looking up in terror to see a basketball being launched directly at your face, you would get used to it. You never will, I assure you. It’s exciting to be that close, of course, but stop paying attention for a second and you could be rolling on the floor bleeding profusely from your nose while Frank Haith cradles your head and screams for a paramedic.
Of course everyone’s here to see the big names in high school ball play, but there’s a lot to be said for the supporting casts at an event like this. For starters, there is a kid with a crazy haircut on every team. This is the kid who will clearly be the most intensely aggressive player on the team. He will yell. He will pump up his team in very affrontive ways. He will try to dunk — a lot. He will, in general, seem like a much scarier player than everyone else. If you get stuck guarding this kid, or he’s guarding you, just watch yourself because there is no telling what he might do. This is your basketball tip for the day.
The coaches are always a blast to watch, because — like most AAU coaches, even non-“elite” AAU coaches like the ones perhaps in your own smaller towns — they are really, really, really into it. It’s probably because there’s a lot in it for them if their kids blow up, or maybe they got to where they are, at an event like this, by being the most insane basketball coach in their particular regions of the United States. But they sure do get mad. And they will let you know. This is helpful, in a way, because it’s easy to think of this as just a high school basketball tournament after a while. But the stakes for these kids are really high. This is serious business. And you best remember that out there today, Mr. You-Get-Lots-of-Phone-Calls.