By Garrett Cote
Basketball history is all over the city of Springfield. Whether mozying your way over to the Hall of Fame or driving through the campus of Springfield College, where Dr. James Naismith invented the now worldwide sport of basketball by hanging up the first peach basket, you can feel the history.
The same goes for James Naismith Court inside Blake Arena on Alden Street. The history is felt.
For 19 years, the best young basketball talent across the United States of America has migrated to the birthplace of the sport for the most prolific high school showcase in the world, the Hoophall Classic presented by Eastbay.
“The Hoophall is a perfect storm of basketball history,” John Doleva, CEO of the Basketball Hall of Fame, said. “Having it played at Springfield College, having the Hall of Fame right here in Springfield and the fact that each of the teams get a chance to go through and have a tour of the Hall of Fame is a great moment for everyone involved.”
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the event, and Blake Arena will yet again be filled to its 2,000-seat capacity.
As each fan squeezes shoulder-to-shoulder into the bleachers, they quickly forget the cramped seating arrangements and turn their focus to the dazzling skills of these future NBA stars.
“[Blake Arena] draws a feeling of Hoosiers,” Doleva said. “The beautiful setup of it allows the crowd to come in there and make it feel like it’s rocking and rolling. It’s really difficult to duplicate anywhere else.”
The last 11 No. 1 overall NBA draft picks have all competed in the Hoophall Classic, which is traditionally held on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend at Springfield College.
This year’s slate of games certainly won’t disappoint. Fifteen of the top 20 ESPN 100 players will participate, including Dereck Lively (No. 2, Westtown School, Duke), Keyonte George (No. 3, IMG Academy, Baylor) and Dariq Whitehead (No. 5, Montverde Academy, Duke).
“People think about the Hall of Fame being a museum, implying that it only looks back at history,” Doleva said. “But what we’ve done over the past several years is try to become relevant in today’s game.
“Rather than just chronicling basketball history, we want to be involved in the present. Our staff has done a wonderful job of doing that by putting us front and center in the Hoophall Classic where we have seen so many Division I players and number one draft choices.”
Personally, I have experienced that history – past and present – first-hand. I can vividly recall my excitement as December approached. Not because of Christmas or the New Year, but because the schedule for the HoopHall Classic would be released. My grandfather and I would study over it and pick out the must-see players and games every year.
Some years would provide the sunniest of weather. Other years we would have to drive well below the speed limit during blustery blizzard conditions. Regardless, the normal hour-long car ride from Northfield, Mass. always felt like a cross-country road trip as my anticipation built with every exit sign passed.
The 2016 Hoophall Classic in particular will be in my memory bank forever.
Bentonville High School, led by the high-flying Kentucky commit, Malik Monk, matched up with St. Anthony (NJ), which was coached by the legendary Bob Hurley Sr. Hurley’s swarming defense bottled up Monk for most of the contest. In the fourth quarter, he exploded for two spectacular jaw-dropping jams — one being a backboard-shaking tomahawk dunk from a step inside the free throw line on a fast break — that left everyone watching, including me and my grandfather, stunned.
That was the first and only time I saw Hurley coach, as St. Anthony closed for good the following year. It was truly a work of art watching him orchestrate his team.
That same day, Jayson Tatum and Chaminade Prep (MO) battled Markelle Fultz and DeMatha Catholic (MD) in an overtime thriller. Tatum poured in 40 points, convincing the crowd he was sure to be a lock to make it to The League, while Fultz casually racked up a 20-point double-double. Following short stints in college, they were both drafted in the top three of the 2017 NBA Draft.
With coaching legends like Mike Krzyzewski, John Calipari and Roy Williams looking on, big-name players such as Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, Michael Beasley, Lonzo and LaMelo Ball and Zion Williamson have all showcased their skills at Hoophall.
Even LeBron James couldn’t resist stopping by. In 2020, LeBron watched his son, Bronny, and Sierra Canyon (CA) face off against Paul VI (VA) ahead of his matchup later that evening against the Boston Celtics at the TD Garden.
It’s moments like these as a fan that will stick with me my entire life. Watching my favorite sport be masterfully executed by these illustrious players and coaches, alongside the man who introduced me to basketball, my grandfather, is one of the countless reasons this tournament is so special.
The Hoophall Classic has provided priceless memories for basketball aficionados over the past two decades. And after a one-year break in 2021 due to COVID-19, those memories — in whatever fashion — will be revived, revisited and restored once more this year.
Photo Courtesy of Joe Arruda/The Student