By Danny Priest
Let’s throw it back to January of 2020.
January 16 to be exact. It was the first day of the Spalding Hoophall Classic, an annual tradition at Springfield College that sees the top high school basketball talent in the nation take to the hardwood inside Blake Arena and put on a show.
Quite literally, it’s a show. It’s high flying dunks, packed crowds and a glimpse at the future stars who will light up the NBA.
This year would have been special. It would have been the 20th anniversary of the Hoophall Classic being held at Springfield College.
There was going to be storylines, star talent and intrigue like there is every year with Hoophall. Instead, due to COVID, Blake Arena laid silent over Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, rather than being filled with thousands of fans all taking in the moment.
The cancellation of the event this year has personally made me all the more grateful that myself and six other Communications/Sports Journalism students had the opportunity to cover the event last year.
It’s cliche to say that you’re “lost for words” when describing an event, but truthfully, Hoophall is difficult to describe.
It was months of prep work leading up to the event. Planning stories, developing contacts, scrapping plans and putting them back together again.
Coordinating the printing of the newspaper we would eventually put together, numerous attempts to put together a schedule for posting content online and then the ability to adapt knowing that the teams/players who arrive at Hoophall could change at any moment.
I had no idea what to expect when January 16 rolled around. What ensued was five days of walking into Blake Arena around 7 or 8 a.m. and leaving usually after 10 p.m. Constant work, constant emails and a hands-on learning experience like no other.
It was exhausting, but it was so worth it. Fortunately, we had a team that nailed their coverage and handled all challenges head on with an outstanding level of professionalism.
Now a year later, there are a lot of amazing moments looking back. Yet the ones I remember the most might not be what you’d expect.
I’ll give you a few examples of those “amazing moments.” First and foremost, we shared the locker rooms with the potential top two picks in the NBA draft this summer (or November, depending on COVID) in Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley.
I recorded on my phone as Kris Rhim laughed with Cade Cunningham while asking him about his favorite video games to play and who his funniest teammates were. I also took pictures while Ian Snowdeal became likely the only student reporter in the country to nearly match Evan Mobley in height.
We sent our reporters on tours to the Basketball Hall of Fame, they sat baseline and captured amazing photos of all the action over the weekend and we had the ability to see so much beyond just the games.
On day four of the event, I snuck over to Dana Gym to check out a Montverde Academy practice. If you don’t know, Montverde was the best high school basketball team in the country last year and arguably one of the best teams ever assembled in the history of high school basketball.
I was standing on the baseline underneath the basket and watched as the No. 45 recruit in the nation Moses Moody got a step on the No. 12 recruit Day’Ron Sharpe. Moody, who was about 5 inches shorter, leapt up and absolutely detonated on Sharpe.
It was a mean dunk. Like, one of those soul crushing kinds where you just feel bad that the defender even made an attempt to contest it.
The rim was left shaking and his teammates lost their minds. Screaming, laughing and celebrating like they’d just won a title. The practice on the other side of the gym stopped because of the commotion. Even the Montverde coaches stopped the drill and had a laugh at Sharpe’s expense. You can’t see those types of moments anywhere but Hoophall.
If all that wasn’t enough, LeBron James also showed up – which I’m sure most everybody reading this has heard about by now.
Still, that feels surreal to type. I’ve never heard Blake Arena louder than the moment he walked in. He also left with multiple copies of The Springfield Student newspaper – that’s something I’ll always be proud of.
I could go on and on with these sorts of things that happened, but let me talk about some of those moments you might not expect that still stand out.
First and foremost, the crowd. Blake Arena had amazing energy every day. It was incredible, but getting anywhere was a chore. Literally, I mean getting from one baseline to the other was a task. We had to squeeze by people, bump people and finesse our way through simply because so many people were in the building.
With the way COVID has made things, a crowd like that is missed more than you could ever imagine.
I also miss the stories, but like I said it might not be the ones you’d expect. Talking to the stars is an honor, but my favorite piece I wrote was on George Miller — the public address announcer for Hoophall. A longtime PA man in Western Mass., he was so excited to share his story with me and it was so fun for me to get to tell it.
In a week where I interviewed Zaire Wade and a host of other big names, George Miller is always the first name I mention when I talk about pieces I wrote at Hoophall.
Lastly, I miss the human interaction. Plain and simple. Seeing my classmates everyday and working together (maskless), making connections with professionals covering the event and crowding into a small space for a quick post-game interview.
On the last day of Hoophall when our work was nearly complete, I went over to the coaches section which had almost emptied out. I spoke to two people while I was there.
First I went up to Roy Williams, the legendary University of North Carolina coach, and asked if I could interview him for a piece I was working on. He obliged and I spent the next 10-minutes speaking with him and staring at the big, powder blue National Championship ring on his finger.
I can’t think of many other situations where a college reporter can go up to one of the greatest college basketball coaches in the country and simply ask for an interview on the spot and have it work. Shoutout to Hoophall and Coach Williams for that.
After that, I sat down next to Ed Lacerte, a name some people may not know. Ed was the Boston Celtics trainer for 30-years and also the trainer for the 1992 Olympic Dream team. I recognized him from all the times I’d seen him on the Celtics bench watching the games on TV as a kid.
I introduced myself and we simply just talked. Not an interview, just a conversation.
We talked about his career, the state of basketball and we discovered that we grew up just a town apart from one another.
It was a small thing, but both of those instances happening now are unthinkable. COVID has changed a lot and Hoophall is the least of the damage it’s done, but I sincerely hope it can return to Springfield College next year.
I’ll forever be grateful we got the experience we did in 2020.
Photo Courtesy of Springfield College Marketing & Comm.