As you may know by now, Matt, Drew and I are currently down south in beautiful/sweltering North Augusta, South Carolina for the Elite Youth Basketball League finals at the NIKE Peach Jam. As I write this, Drew and I are both sitting behind a partition in a sequestered media area, typing away at our laptops with no one else around. On the other side of the partition I hear the sounds of four basketball games being played simultaneously — which sounds exactly like a thousand high-pitched squeaks of shoes rebounding and fast-breaking on four hardwood courts at once. I’m not going to break down the players themselves; Matt and Drew will surely come along to do that a little later. Rather, I thought I’d be your eyes and ears down here at the biggest AAU-High-School-Recruiting-Meat-Market in the country. After all, it’s my first time at the Peach Jam, and if you haven’t been, you might not know exactly what to expect from an event like this yourselves.
We rolled into North Augusta this afternoon after an evening in rollicking Columbia, South Carolina where we left a flaming bag of poop on Steve Spurrier’s doorstep in the middle of the night and saw as many sights as one can see in a largely college town currently entertaining practically zero students. It should be noted that the state line separating Georgia and South Carolina splits the city into two halves — Augusta, in Georgia, which holds the Masters Tournament, and North Augusta, in South Carolina, which houses the Peach Jam. Technically, this really should mean that the Peach Jam would be better titled the Palmetto Jam, but that doesn’t sound nearly as appetizing and more like some sort of second-rate South Carolina county fair dance. Your mind, I’m sure, is picturing Augusta/North Augusta as a lovely southern town surrounded by manicured hills, golf courses, boutique hotels and trendy restaurants, but your mind would be really wrong about Augusta. In actuality, the town feels a little run down and kind of empty, despite the fact that it’s home to one of the world’s greatest golfing event, puts on the nation’s greatest high school basketball tournament and has an economy clearly strong enough to support an entire store dedicated to frisbee golf. There are a lot of really dingy hotels around, and abandoned “Adult Entertainment” stores which bear rickety, falling signs and look like the owner fled the country in the middle of the night and didn’t even take the mannequins out of the windows.
Still, the facility which houses the Peach Jam is more than adequate for an event of this size and caliber. The Riverview Park Activities Center is a huge complex in which four basketball gyms branch off from a main lobby bustling with players, media types, coaches, parents and workers. Inside each of these gyms an elite basketball squad of young players battles with team names like “Team Texas Elite,” from Texas, or “Meanstreets,” from Chicago, or “California Supreme,” from L.A., or “The Family,” from Detroit. There are also some names which are more esoteric, aren’t as imaginative or make less sense — like “Team Scan,” “Team Fast” or “Team Final,” respectively. With all these teams rolling up into tiny North Augusta the vibe feels a little like the opening scenes of The Warriors where Cyrus summons all the gangs in New York City to Van Cortlandt Park. Make no mistake, there’s a lot to prove.
And there are a lot of important people to whom you can prove your worth. Even in these opening hours with the player classes of 2015 and 2016 kicking off the event, we’ve already seen big-name coaches like Frank Haith, Anthony Grant and Jim Boeheim alongside countless coaches and assistants bearing insignias of schools like Clemson, TCU, Ohio State and Georgetown.
Everyone at the Peach Jam has their eye on someone else, either conspicuously or otherwise. The coaches, who aren’t allowed yet to engage these athletes in any way, are watching the players like hawks from designated seats courtside. The players are watching the coaches, hoping to catch their eyes. The parents are watching the coaches and media, hoping the right exposure or interest can catapult their kids’ dreams through the stratosphere, and the media’s constantly watching each other and everyone else to see what’s going on, get the scoop, and paint the picture. Even division I college referees are here watching the Peach Jam referees as auditions for college games, as the referees watch the gameplay. It’s all very intricate and there are a lot of eyeballs watching things.
It’s also crucial, it would seem, to look important. As you walk among others at the Peach Jam, you can’t help wondering just who everyone you pass is. With few true “spectators” unconnected to the event here, you can’t help trying to figure out every person you see. Simultaneously, everyone’s also trying to figure out who you are. For instance, I’m nobody — but I can guarantee you that if I put on a garnet polo shirt with a Gamecock logo tomorrow and walked around the Peach Jam, everyone would assume I work for the University of South Carolina. I’m not saying I look important or like I should be a basketball coaching assistant for any team, but that’s what the coaches wear. This charade would no doubt continue until I bumped into Frank Martin, he noticed my ruse, and ripped off both my arms and beat me to death with them as a horrified team of sixteen year-olds from Memphis watched in abject terror. Drew is, in fact, this very second wearing a UK polo himself and everyone thinks he’s John Robic.
So the Peach Jam is officially underway, and with it our coverage. Tonight we’ll lay down camp somewhere in the hotel bar and eavesdrop on the coaching staffs, hoping to glean something. Or maybe we’ll just pants Jeff Goodman. Either way, as the next two days get rolling I’ll keep you informed of how things go and how the Peach Jam operates. Stick around.