By Cait Kemp
As the team walked in, all hovering at over 6 feet, they each held out their phone filming and taking pictures of what they were seeing. It was the holy ground, where all the best players of the game were enshrined. The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Earlier in the day, Sunrise Christian Academy of Bel Aire, Kansas, competed in an overtime battle against Combine Academy on Day Three of the 2022 Spalding HoopHall Classic presented by Eastbay. After securing the victory, it was evident why they are ranked as the number one high school team in the nation.
The cameras, reporters and fans were all over them. They were famous, even though they were 17 and 18-year old kids.
Later at the Hall of Fame, after their hard-fought win, it was time to let loose. It was night and day seeing their focused, dialed-in personas during game-time turn into laughing, joyful faces while having fun at the Hall.
Despite being some of the most talented and watched players in the nation, they are still just kids.
As they toured through the exhibits, they took the time to size themselves up next to Steph Curry’s hand, scoffing at how small it was compared to their own, and Shaquille O’Neal’s shoe size – one that had them all beat.
They took pictures of themselves towering over the mere 5’3” cutout of Muggsy Bogues, resting their elbows on top of his head.
Playing a sport for their whole lives and competing at such a high level, it’s easy to assume these players were excited to see the Hall of Fame. Coming from Kansas, it’s not like they can take a day trip to explore the Hall. The Hoophall Classic is potentially the only opportunity for many players and coaches to appreciate the history of the sport that has given so much to them.
“It’s pretty awesome because Dr. Naismith invented the game, obviously affected all of our lives, changed my life for the better,” said head coach Luke Barnwell.
“He has roots deep, deep in Kansas, so his name rings loud to me growing up in Kansas and just the opportunity to be where it began is really special.”
James Naismith taught and coached at the University of Kansas after inventing the game of basketball at Springfield College. He also wrote the rules while he was working at the University, and initiated the start of the sport at the school. So, although the beginnings of basketball in Springfield are far from home for Sunrise Christian, they have their own piece of basketball history right at home.
“For a basketball player, this is kind of like a dream, really, seeing all the former NBA players, current NBA players, and guys that did a lot for basketball. If you love the sport, you love this place,” said assistant coach Elhad Emerllahu, “Coach E” to the team.
After looking at different displays and taking in all of history, the fun really began. Representatives from the Hall quickly shuffled the team into the SLAM Magazine Lounge to unwind and prepare for an interview the magazine conducted with several players.
Magazine covers from over the years, donning the most impressive and decorated professional basketball players of the modern era, lined the walls. Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and LeBron James all looked down as the next generation of greats stood right below them in the room.
It felt too fantastical, knowing that some of the Sunrise Christian players would probably end up on that wall themselves.
The players did not seem to have those big-pressure thoughts in their minds, though.
A ping pong table, foosball table, and dual television screen set filled up the room, the dream set up for a teen boy.
Immediately they took over the lounge, partaking in every activity they could.
“We didn’t have social media growing up so this is all we did,” said one player as he served up the ping pong ball.
It was a relaxing change of scenery for the team, who had been traveling, practicing and playing for the past few days.
“Obviously, on the court it’s a different story, we’re getting ready for games and everything so it’s just season-wise, but off the court, I feel like this is even more special in a way because we’ve seen guys who have created this game so its huge,” said Sunrise Christian player, Gradey Dick.
After being the number two ranked team last season and making it to the national championship, they came just shy of achieving that ultimate title after a loss to Montverde Academy. Most of their roster graduated and moved on to the next level, and an almost entirely new team stepped onto the court for the 2021-22 season.
“This year, a lot of people counted us out because we lost almost our entire team, but we’ve come together and we’re playing well at the right time. I feel like we’re becoming a unit each and every day,” said Coach E. “The rankings, you know a lot of people have different opinions about it but we’re just trying to get better everyday, we really don’t pay attention to it that much.”
The fun at the Hall had to come to an end at some point, though. The team headed back to their hotel to get a good night’s sleep in preparation for another game at the Hoophall Classic tomorrow. Sunrise Christian knows how to turn on the switch. They will be back to their determined and focused mindsets as soon as they step on the court.