By Jack Margaros
Since 2001, the Spalding Hoophall Classic has brought together the nation’s top high school basketball players and teams to compete in a weekend of exhibition games. Springfield College’s Blake Arena routinely fills with prestigious college coaches who observe their most recent recruits or scout for more talent.
Mike Krzyzewski and John Calipari have been seen watching together in the past. Geno Auriemma likes to make an appearance on occasion.
It is not uncommon to see some of Hoophall’s top performers eventually advance to the NBA and WNBA. Current NBA stars such as Anthony Davis, Karl Anthony Towns and Kyrie Irving have all competed in Blake Arena within the past decade, as have WNBA stars Tina Charles, Elena Delle Donne and Breanna Stewart.
Countless Hoophall alumni have made it professionally, but few have propelled to elite status and garnered their leagues’ highest honors.
Charles won her first and only MVP award in 2012 with the Connecticut Sun. Delle Donne has won two — one with the Chicago Sky in 2015 and then in 2019 with the Washington Mystics. Stewart won her first in 2018 with the Seattle Storm. She was 23 years old, with talent to add more.
Kevin Durant (Oklahoma City Thunder, 2014), James Harden (Houston Rockets, 2018) and Derrick Rose (Chicago Bulls, 2011) have also received MVP honors after participating in Hoophall. The tournament has grown into a hotbed for some of the best high school basketball matchups of the season.
Delle Donne was in the middle of one of those matchups in 2008. She had returned from injury just in time to face former national champion Christ the King on Opening Night. The injury kept her out for ten games, including Ursuline Academy’s first meeting with the Royals in the Nike Tournament of Champions
Missing their 6 foot 5 inch superstar, Ursuline fell to Christ the King in that game, 44-42. They had collectively posted a 5-6 record heading into the tournament — uncharacteristic for a team that won multiple Delaware state championships throughout Delle Donne’s career.
At the time, she was regarded as one of the top high school players in the nation and committed to play basketball at the University of Connecticut. She was overwhelmed by the amount of Husky fans that made the 30-mile trek to Blake Arena, including UConn head coach Geno Auriemma, to witness Storrs’ next big star.
Playing just her second game of the season, Delle Donne worked out the nerves with a layup to open the game. She had a noticeable size advantage, leading to many buckets inside, but also sank several jumpers, making her a near impossible assignment to guard. She finished with 38 points and brought down 11 boards — shooting 13-of-22 from the field and 11-of-12 from the foul line as Ursuline downed Christ the King, 57-37.
Her 38 points was a game-high for the entire four day set of games, besting the likes of Isaiah Thomas and Dion Waiters.
Kevin Durant put together a similar performance in 2006, when Montrose Christian, ranked No. 7 heading into the tournament, faced off against Nuemann Goretti, unranked, but still one of Pennsylvania’s top squads.
Nuemann Goretti, led by Scoop Jardine, had their hands full with Durant, the No. 2 player in his class. Sporting a No. 3 jersey that was far too baggy for his lanky high school figure, Durant went shot for shot with Jardine for the whole game.
Leading 65-64 with 47 seconds left, Jardine was out on a fast break, and lobbed a pass up to Derrick Rivera. Rivera caught it in mid air and finished up and under the rim to give Nuemann Goretti a three-point lead with just over 30 seconds to go. Coming out of a timeout with two seconds remaining, Montrose designed a play for Durant to get open at the top of the key. He was able to create some space, but a Goretti big man fought through multiple screens at the last second and nearly got a hand on Durant’s potentially game-tying shot.
The shot banked off the glass hard and rolled off the rim as time expired, as Montrose was handed its second loss of the season. Durant finished with 30 points, but came up just short against Jardine and a talented Nuemann Goretti team.
Instant classics like Montrose and Nuemann Goretti have become commonplace at the Hoophall Classic, prompting ESPN in 2010 to start airing a handful of games each year. It is to capture moments like Durant or Irving dropping 30, or Delle Donne racking up 38, and reminisce when they establish themselves as some of the best players in the world down the road.
Photo courtesy of Hoophall