I was having a pretty good 2013, but it couldn’t have ended any better when I was offered a 10 day trip to Florida in the US with GB Regional Institute, Barking Abbey Basketball Academy.
The academy, currently the country’s only GB “regional” institute (doesn’t that make it National?), has an unrivalled track record when it comes to placing players, both male and female, in the US college system. Since it’s inception in 2005, no less than 53 players have advanced to teams in the US or Europe.
They were heading to the US to compete in The City of Palms Classic. If you haven’t heard of the City of Palms, it is no small deal. Generally considered the best high school basketball tournament in the US, the competition has been running since 1973, and over the years has grown to include the nation’s finest athletes and teams.
It has featured over 530 players that have gone on to play NCAA Division 1 basketball, 60 players who advanced to the NBA, and 78 McDonald’s All American. The gym is standing room only for many of the games (2000+ people), whilst scouts and college coaches line the baselines scouring for prospects.
Academy coach Frank Holloway, who joined last season, is originally from Florida, and when he heard the tournament was looking for an international participant for the ‘Signature Series’ portion of the tournament, BA jumped at the opportunity.
Not only was this a great chance for the players to experience a basketball trip of a lifetime, competing against competition they just wouldn’t face in England, and experiencing the lifestyle in the US, but also an opportunity for BA to get more exposure for their players, to give them a shot at scholarships in the future.
The 12-man roster BA took was stacked, featuring a number of junior internationals, and some of the top talent in various generations:
Reis Pinnock – 6’0″ guard
Joe Junior Mvuezolo – 6’4″ guard
Calvin Nevill-Kintu – 5’8′” guard
Karolis Kundrotas – 6’9″ forward
Akwasi Yeboah – 6’3″ guard
Dwayne Orija – 6’4″ guard
Daniel Ogunseye – 6’3″ guard
Patrick Lyons – 6’1″ guard
Nathan Smith – 7’1″ centre (injured, so was unable to play)
Joe Lockwood – 6’9″ forward
Josh Steel – 6’4″ guard
Oisin Kerlin – 6’7″ forward
Along with the 12 players, they took two coaches, the aforementioned Frank Holloway, and Lloyd Gardner…along with myself!
What follows is a 10 day recap of the trip, including some video clips for context, with some final closing thoughts. There will be a full feature video coming soon.
Huge thank you to Barking Abbey for the opportunity.
Day 1 – Friday 13th December
It was an early start to catch the 9:55am flight from Heathrow Terminal 1 into Miami.
Thirteen hours later (and a whole lot of films), we touched down at Miami International, picked up the cars (a 15 seater truck, and a nice GMC for easy getting around/baggage storage – see pictures) and began the trip to Boca Raton.
It was semi-depressing for it to be raining when we arrived at the hotel at around 8:30pm local, but it was straight to our rooms/bed, with practice scheduled first thing in the morning.
Day 2 – Saturday 14th December
Waking up to glorious sunshine, life was good! After breakfast, we headed to Delray Beach, the home of Ganon Baker’s Elev8 Sports Institute Basketball Academy for the first practice of the trip.
It began with Coach Holloway, re-emphasising the differences between high school basketball and what the team is used to playing here in England (they’d already discussed this before coming out).
“There’s no shot clock,” he began with. Wait, what? There’s no shot clock?! It was unbelievable to me that somehow I never knew this. Apparently it varies by State, and there has been much debate about changing it over the past few years, but as it stands that’s what we were going to be playing with. Wow.
Additionally, the three point line is WAY closer. Like a legitimate couple of feet closer. The lane is smaller. And he added to be prepared for physical, aggressive athletes.
After practice, showers and food, we headed to South Beach as we had tickets to watch Miami Heat take on Cleveland that evening at the American Airlines arena.
That wasn’t before a visit to Hooters though, for a quick bite with great views across the port.
At the arena, the jet lag kicked in, and a quick look across our row would show you numerous members of the team (and myself) drifting off throughout the game!
Miami won by 7, but otherwise not a whole lot to report; the arena was half empty (don’t people say Miami fans are the worst in the league?), Mike Brown got ejected and LeBron showed no interest during many timeouts, standing or sitting a good few feet away from the huddle.
Day 3 – Sunday 15th December
The team had another practice on Sunday, then spent the day at Malls, and chilling at the hotel, whilst I spent the day catching up with family who live in Florida (on South Beach, getting sunburnt and stung by jellyfish).
Always make time for family time!
Day 4 – Monday 16th December
Monday was game day, but not before we had a visit to NCAA Division 1 school, Florida Atlantic University.
FAU, competing in its first season in C-USA after moving from the Sun Belt Conference last season, is a mid-major school with 31,000+ students.
Having never visited any type of college in the States, I was intrigued to see what it would be like.
To say it was impressive was an understatement. 5,000 seat gym (see picture), dedicated strength and conditioning room for athletes only, locker rooms, dedicated academic centre for athletes’ tutoring, a ridiculously big football arena, and pretty much everything else that British universities don’t have!
It’s utterly non-comparable to anything we have in England, and to think it’s not even a big school makes the whole thing even crazier.
Assistant Coach Tim Kaine gave us the tour, and explained that a lot of the facilities are due an upgrade soon and are afforded by “boosters” from alumni.
The halls of residence had swimming pools (the joys of being in Miami!), and all of campus with lined with palm trees. One thing I immediately noticed, is the whole campus is covered with FAU Owls branding; pavements, street lights, walls, bins, the whole lot. I can’t help but think this plays a huge role in making the entire college feel more as one, and encourage support of the school’s various sporting competitors.
After the tour, the team had a refreshingly honest talk from FAU basketball Head Coach Mike Jarvis (“99.9% of you aren’t going to the NBA, get your education and have another plan,” was the general gist of it), and then got to watch the Owls practice.
From there, it was time to get into game mode, as Barking Abbey prepared to play their first game of the trip against Elev8 Sport Institute’s High School team; featuring two three star recruits, amongst others, they would be a more than challenging first test.
It was clear from the warm-ups that this Elev8 team were incredibly hyped up. The ball was thrown up, and right off the tip Elev8 broke away for a dunk attempt, and drew a foul.
BA’s first possession, and Elev8 stole the ball, went coast to coast and elevated to throw down what would’ve been a huge dunk all over Joe Junior Mvuezolo – but he got a piece of it for the block. Despite the block, the message was clear; Elev8 weren’t playing around.
Playing incredibly aggressive defence, full court pressing, trapping, and sitting in a zone that almost left no space (they had some long armed athletes) anywhere on the court for BA to operate, Elev8 jumped out to a 10-3 lead on a shell-shocked BA side.
Elev8 kept on coming. After the first quarter they led 22-7, and then 39-17 at halftime.
During halftime, BA sat in the locker room unsure what had just happened. But the game wasn’t over. Both Coach Holloway and Gardner emphasised not getting caught up in Elev8’s game and to play BA’s style. Slow it down, get it set up in the half court and run their offence.
First half nerves out the way, BA come out with a point to prove in the third. Josh Steel and Joe Junior Mvuezolo hit back to back threes, BA opened the quarter on a 10-4 run. They got the game back to single digits, looking a lot more like the team they are capable of being.
Whenever Elev8 moved out of the zone, BA would dominate.
However, that was the last challenge they would give Elev8. After three quarters, BA trailed 54-38, and eventually lost the game 69-53. Elev8 started to hold the ball with approximately 6 minutes left and a comfortable lead – the joys of having no shot clock.
Oisin Kerlin & Josh Steel led BA scorers with 8 each.
BA had their first experience of American High School basketball under their belt.
Day 5 – Tuesday 17th December
With a line drawn under last night’s game, we headed to JUCO, Palm Beach State, where BA alum David Akibo is plying his trade this year, to watch practice, and Division 2 school, Barry University, for a tour.
Thought we didn’t get a tour of Palm Beach State, the campus looked impressive enough driving through, and the basketball court was really nice. Unfortunately, Akibo was unable to practice due to an injury, but it was still interesting to see what a US college practice was like (suicides are also used in the States!).
In the UK, I think many kids are in the mindset of Division 1 or nothing, and turn their nose up at lower level schools.
After leaving Barry University (and Palm Beach State!), it was clear that some of the lower level schools are just as much of an upgrade on anything we have in England, as a Division 1 school.
Being given the tour by Justin Furr, we got a great insight into the life of Barry’s student athletes.
It’s evident that if you go to the US on a scholarship, you will be looked after. Maybe too much?
In the evening it was back in game mode, preparing to face Elev8 Sports Institute’s Prep team.
Being an older team, they were a lot bigger and physically developed than the high school side BA had faced the night before.
Elev8 won the tip, and on the opening possession made it perfectly clear what a difference having no shot clock makes; they didn’t attempt a field goal for around the first three minutes of the game! They missed it, got the offensive rebound and threw in a jump hook.
As BA coaches would say multiple times during the trip; having no shot clock makes all your mistakes magnified. Lose an offensive rebound, and you haven’t given up another 24 seconds, but potentially minutes!
BA looked far better than their opening day performance, and showed a lot more poise. After the first period, the score was tied at 10 a-piece.
Defensively, BA deteriorated in the second period and got killed on the glass. Elev8 capitalised on second chance points, and led 31-21 at the halftime break.
Elev8 kept it coming in the third, led by Zach Lee, who went on a 6-0 run to open the period by himself. Lee is sitting on a couple of D1 offers and is also receiving interest from the likes of Georgia Tech.
After three periods, Elev8 led 48-29.
In the final quarter, BA were better; they outscored Elev8, 17-12, but their fate was already sealed. Elev8 win 60-46.
Joe Lockwood led BA with 10 points.
BA had a post-game talk from Ganon Baker, who was impressed with their grit and playing to the end, but ultimately the team knew they had to do better if they weren’t going to get eaten alive at the City of Palms Classic.
Day 6 – Wednesday 18th December
Wednesday marked a travel to day; a two hour drive, passing through “Alligator Alley” (you could see them chillin’ in the sun along the side of the road – on the other side of the fence) to Fort Myers, were the City of Palms would take place.
We stopped off at some outlets, giving everyone a chance to do some shopping and Christmas shopping, before continuing on to our next destination.
Essentially, the trip was split into two parts. The first part in Boca Raton was preparation, and more of a holiday, from here on out it was all business. The team had travelled a long way, and had no intention of going home without making some noise.
Day 7 – Thursday 19th December
With one day remaining until BA’s opening game, we took the opportunity to head to the tournament to watch powerhouse, and number 1 ranked high school team in the US, Montverde Academy (Fla.), take on Alpharetta Milton (Ga.).
Montverde featured the top ranked junior in the nation, Ben Simmons, who put on a show. Montverde blew out Milton, 77-42, as Simmons finished with 31 points, 13 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 blocks and 1 steal, on 14/18 shooting! Not bad for 21 minutes work. Check his highlights:
Montverde, the City of Palms defending champions, repeated in the 2013 tournament, defeating Paul VI, 58-53 in the final.
After a day at the tournament, we headed back to the hotel, where Coach Holloway and Gardner had put together some exercises for the team to think about and help them focus on the game tomorrow.
Players were split into groups and had to write down what they thought the keys to winning would be, and what they needed to do to ensure they would happen. The biggest thing that came out of it was the need to be more of a “team”. Play together. Have each other’s back. Clap when someone comes off the floor. Run to pick up a teammate that gets knocked down.
I think that’s something that a lot of teams in England struggle with. We have a very weird mentality over here, and will jump to “hate” on anyone having some sort of semblance of success. Sometimes, I think, teammates don’t even want their own teammates to succeed.
Just bringing each other’s attention to it worked; after the opening game members from the crowd approached the coaches and commented on how impressed they were of their team work and spirit.
After the first exercise, they were broken into groups positionally, and had to think about not only what they needed to do in their role to help the team win, but also what college coaches would be looking to see.
It served as useful exercise, I think, and got the team’s mind in the right place before the big day.
Day 8 – Friday 20th December
I woke up on Friday incredibly nervous. Weird, especially when I wasn’t even playing, but at breakfast you could sense everyone was feeling the same way.
Despite having played two preparation games, neither of them were in front of large crowds, let alone at the most prestigious high school basketball tournament in the US.
Wichita Sunrise Christian Buffaloes, out of Bel Aire in Kansas, would be Barking Abbey’s opening test, and they were far from just a “regular” high school team.
The Buffaloes are a consistent powerhouse in High School basketball, finishing the past two seasons ranked amongst the nation’s top 10, and coming into this game, were ranked sixth in the country.
Since taking the reigns in 2000, Head Coach Kyle Linsted has compiled a 282-69 record, good for a ?? winning percentage, and won six post-season championships.
To say BA, who out there were met by a regular reaction of ‘a basketball team from England?!’, were underdogs, is a huge understatement.
Playing at 6:30pm local time, the team had time for one last morning practice (in a gym that is just ridiculous for a high school), before eating and getting their heads in the right place for the game.
With so much a stake; BA’s reputation, scholarship offers, and not to mention the UK’s reputation, as tip off approached, I had no idea how BA were going to respond. Would they play scared, be intimidated by the crowd of over 2000 and their opposition, or come out aggressive and take it at their American counterparts?
To my relief, it was the latter.
Karolis got BA off the mark with a baby hook in the lane to go up 2-0, Josh Steel caused huge problems early drawing fouls and getting to the line, whilst Calvin Nevill-Kintu came off the bench and provided a spark, scoring a tough lay-up and a three.
After one quarter, much to everyone’s surprise, BA led 11-10.
Calvin hit another three to open up the second period. He now has 8 points in a couple of minutes. BA lead by 4 and the crowd gets behind them a little.
BA continue to get to the line, Orija knocks a pair down. Sunrise finish the half strong, and at halftime, BA trail by just two, 17-19.
BA’s confidence is sky high. Here is a team from England, giving the sixth ranked team in the US a run for their money! Everyone in the gym is impressed.
It didn’t last long.
The third quarter was a whitewash. Led by Michigan State signing Lourawls ‘Tum Tum’ Nairn, the number 61 ranked Senior in the nation (Rivals), who dominated the entire game, Sunrise held BA to just two points in the period.
Just like that, BA trailed 38-19 heading into the final period.
Sunrise Christian cruised from there on out, winning the game 53-24, as Nairns finished with 16 points and 7 assists on 6/10 shooting.
Josh Steel and Calvin led BA, who were held to just 7 points in the second half, with 8 points each.
With the loss, BA dropped into the consolation round of the four team signature series, being matched up against Oldsmar Christian, who had suffered a heavy defeat to Brewster.
Of course, Sunrise Christian being ran so close in the first half was put down to the long bus journey and too many McDonald’s. No credit given where it was due, in my opinion.
Day 9 – Saturday 21st December
Saturday turned out to be a great day; whilst the team hung back and had practice, me and Lloyd Gardner headed back to where we originally came from, to catch Robert Gilchrist, another former BA player and GB talent, play for FSU against Massachusetts.
Hoopsfix covers how guys like Gilchrist are doing on the site regularly, but pulling stats from a box score, plus catching the odd game on ESPN’s College Player, is very different to actually being there in person.
To see Gilchrist being announced and come out on to the floor in a 15,000-odd seat arena, being listed from “London, Englaaaand!”, made me feel incredibly proud.
Gilchrist finished with 5 points, 2 rebounds and a blocked shot in 23 minutes, as the Seminoles won 60-55. We got the chance to have a chat with him after the game, and were interrupted on multiple occasions by people asking for photos, and autographs. The adulation from fans was something to behold, and you can see why so many kids want to go to the US.
Getting recognised by your peers and community is something everyone wants, and for young basketball players in the UK, it’s something that just doesn’t happen, unfortunately.
It was great to see Robert doing so well.
Day 10 – Sunday 22nd December
Determined to finish the trip on a high, Sunday marked the end of the trip and City of Palms Classic tournament for BA.
They would be going up against Oldsmar Christian Eagles, from Florida, a team that, once again, were no slouches.
Of their 11 man roster, two had already signed to Division 1 schools (South Florida and Oregon State), with 6 others sitting on scholarship offers.
They had four state ranked players, and were coming off a 26-8 season last year, including two wins over top 25-nationally ranked teams.
With three minutes left in the half, BA trailed by 13, Oldsmar’s largest lead of the game. It was a key point of the game; were BA going to throw in the towel and fold under the pressure, or respond?
At the halftime break, Oldsmar led 23-16. Not ideal by any means, but definitely not over.
In the third quarter, Senior Joe Lockwood, who had been great all game, put the team on his back.
Offensive rebound and putback to reduce the lead to five, then he does it again, this time drawing a foul. He knocks it down, BA are within two and Oldsmar are looking rattled.
Oldsmar come up with an empty possession, and Joe Junior Mvuezolo glides in for a beautiful baseline reverse and the scores are tied at 23 with 4 minutes left in the third period. The crowd shows their appreciation and Oldsmar immediately call timeout; BA are on an 8-0 run.
Lockwood is the man again, drawing a foul and splitting a pair at the line to give BA their first lead of the game.
However, Oldsmar weren’t done yet. They get a three point play, then finish back to back alley oop dunks for an 8-0 run of their own.
Josh Steel is the only solace for BA, scoring a quick 7 points to prevent the game getting away from them, however, heading into the final period Oldsmar led BA 40-31.
BA kept on heaping on the pressure in the fourth. Lockwood led the charge, as BA went on a 12-3 run to set up an exciting final sequence.
With 1:04 left, Oldsmar had a big dunk down the lane, giving them a three point cushion, 45-42. They were hyped.
BA moved the ball around, it went inside to Lockwood, who made a great pass across the baseline to an open Josh Steel who splashed a three! Tied game, with 32.4 seconds left, Oldsmar call timeout.
Whatever they had planned during that break, never ended up coming into fruition, as right off the inbounds Dwayne Orija came out of nowhere to steal the ball, he accelerated down the length of the floor and finished the lay-up with about 27 seconds left!
BA lead by two.
Oldsmar bring the ball up and end up coming way short on a triple, get the offensive rebound and miss again, the ball rolls out of bounds. Oldsmar ball, with exactly 5 seconds left, they call a timeout.
They call a timeout.
Inbounding from the endline, they pass the ball in and Oldsmar makes a move to the basket, Reis Pinnock knocks it away. Josh Steel picks it up and holds on to it. Game over. BA win.
GB U20, Lockwood, and England Under-18, Steel, were the stars of the show, finishing with 17 and 16 points respectively.
After the game, some of the players had to do some interviews with the media, as we hung around for the three point shoot out and renowned City of Palms Classic Dunk contest.
As you’d expect, it was pretty ridiculous. The athleticism of some of these kids was just insane.
We headed home to relax before preparing for the journey back tomorrow.
Day 11 – Monday 23rd December
It was late on Sunday evening when we suddenly realised our flights back weren’t at 8pm, but in fact 2pm! Scrap the day at the mall, and instead we checked out the hotel early and headed straight to Miami International for our return flight.
Another quick layover in Charlotte, and a tired team touched down in England at 7am on Christmas Eve, ready for family time over the next few days!
Since I’ve got back, a ton of people have asked me of my general impressions of the states, and to all of them, I’ve answered with the below points. I’m aware this is getting a little long, so will keep it short, but please ask any questions you have in the comments below.
1) As expected, the facilities and athletic provisions for basketball are just ridiculous, and way above anything offered here in England. Pretty awe-inspiring.
2) High school basketball is nowhere near as good as I thought it was going to be. Of course, the elite guys (the Ben Simmons of the world) are way ahead of everyone, both in the US and in the UK/Europe, but as an average, there are a lot of guys that just aren’t that good.
3) The rules are ridiculous. No shot clock is a confusing decision (and one that supposedly is changing soon), the three point line is insanely close, and the refs call the games too tight.
4) You don’t have to be *that* good to get a scholarship to a Division 1 school. Some of the guys BA went up against with various offers just didn’t seem that good to me. Essentially, if you’re 6’8″+ and have some sort of semblance of basketball skills, you will be able to get Division 1 looks.
5) American people (in Florida, anyway) are way more friendly and forward than people in England. Everywhere we went, people approached the team with intrigue, asked what they were doing here and wished them luck in the tournament. It was very cool.
So, that was it. An eye opening 10 days, and for everyone, a priceless experience that won’t be forgotten any time soon.
We’ll see whether BA have done enough to earn another invite next year…
Top Image Credit: @JasonMorrowSM