As I set to embark on yet another July recruiting period, I can't help but reminisce about the good old days.
You see, I sewed my oats on the recruiting trail, sitting in rickety bleachers for 15 hours a day, yearning to get out and see the top teams, the big-time individual battles.
They are few and far between these days -- and in an ode to Sonny Vaccaro, who I truly miss, I give you my Sweet 16 stories from the all-important and once-entertaining recruiting period.
1. LeBron vs. Lenny
This was one of Sonny's finest moments at the Adidas ABCD Camp, back in July 2001. The court was surrounded -- coaches, fellow players, media and even all those New York personalities and street agents. I was actually sitting right next to Gloria James -- the mother of The King -- as her kid dismantled the local star, Lenny Cooke. I remember it began with a shake-and-bake move from Cooke, who had a man's body before LeBron, in the grill of James. But 'Bron wouldn't be outdone on this day -- as he scored 24 or 25 points (I can't remember exactly what the total was) and buried a running 24-footer at the buzzer to begin the Legend of LeBron.
|NBA lottery picks in 2008, Derrick Rose and Eric Gordon were spectacular as teammates in 2006. (Getty Images)|
I've seen some great teams, some terrific players come and go over the past decade. LeBron, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard just to name three. However, I've never watched a more entertaining and dominant backcourt than Derrick Rose and Eric Gordon. These guys were essentially thrown together for the Peach Jam in July 2006 -- and looked as though they had been playing together since they were in grade school. It was the Eric and Derrick Show -- and they didn't disappoint, winning the Peach Jam. The footnote was that Gordon -- who actually still was committed to Bruce Weber and Illinois at the time -- was being trailed every step he took by then-Indiana assistant Jeff Meyer. Days later, ex-Hoosiers head coach Kelvin Sampson actually tried telling me that Meyer was not recruiting Gordon.
3. Billy Donovan's Ric Flair impersonation
Billy Donovan was fresh off a pair of national titles in 2007 and had just got done with his about-face with the Orlando Magic. Donovan, myself and my colleague, Gary Parrish, were listening to how the entire scenario played out -- among other stories -- at a downtown Akron restaurant at night following the LeBron James Camp. One of the stories was how Donovan had shocked his team with a surprise pregame appearance from wrestler Ric Flair before one of the NCAA tournament games. There Parrish and I were, on the barren streets of downtown Akron, watching Donovan re-enact The Nature Boy's act, with all the whistles -- including the screams and struts. Man, I wish I had an iPhone back then.
4. The toughest kid on the circuit
I am often asked: Who is the one guy I would take down to Rucker Park or any of those famed, rough playgrounds in America? My answer is Paul Harris. For my money, he was the ultimate warrior. I remember the first time I laid eyes on him, it was at Hal Pastner's Kingwood Classic back in 2004. He looked as though he had gone a dozen rounds with Mike Tyson (the vintage Tyson), with a bottom lip that was the size of a softball. As it turned out, Harris had busted his lip the previous night in a game and didn't get back from the hospital until 5 a.m. But there was Harris, going for 30-plus points and grabbing 20-plus rebounds, in a 9 a.m. game en route to yet another win -- something he did often on the AAU circuit.
5. Meltdown in the desert
The first rule you're taught when you're a coach -- whether it be in the NBA or at the local YMCA -- is never to pull your team off the court. Well, that's exactly what Derrick Rose's older brother, Reggie, did with his team on July 24, 2009, in Las Vegas. His team was getting knocked around pretty good by Tristan Thompson's Grassroots Canada group (down 30 or so) and Rose didn't like a particular call, so he instructed his players to leave the court with about 10 minutes remaining and about 50 college coaches in the stands. Then he went on a profanity-laced tirade at the refs, followed by another tirade at a certain writer who called it a classless move, and had to be escorted out of the gym.
The excitement & storylines are mostly gone because Sonny Vaccaro isn't around to play nemesis to the power structure. Read >>
Parrish: The highs and lows of summer recruiting
6. O.J. vs. D-Rose
It went down in front of a packed gym at the Las Vegas Big Time tournament and it was one of those that lived up to the hype. It was early Sunday morning and the game went back and forth. Rose and Mayo were both terrific, but it was Mayo who won it on a four-point play that left D-Rose literally in tears as he walked off the court.
7. John Riek's coming-out party
It was at the LeBron Camp in 2007 where there was this anonymous 7-footer who was simply dominating. He was blocking and dunking everything, running the court, seemingly grabbing every rebound and making the No. 1 player in the nation at the time, Samardo Samuels, look silly. Just about everyone -- coaches, media and players -- were whispering about this kid and how he would eventually be the No. 1 overall pick. His name was John Riek -- and believe me when I say he had a couple of the best days I've ever seen anyone have in the month of July. Now Riek, who has battled countless injuries since, can't even get off the bench at Mississippi State. Sad.
8. Bassy vs. Darius
Only Sonny could have gotten everyone pumped up to see Sebastian Telfair vs. Darius Washington. We've got much better guards today, but Sonny knew how to promote -- and these two kids loved the hype. Telfair was the guy, New York's own -- and there was Washington, who felt disrespected. The two met at ABCD Camp in 2003 -- and Telfair came out on top.
9. The great Gauchos
I've seen some terrific teams. The SoCal All-Stars squad that featured Kevin Love, Brandon Jennings, Chase Budinger, Daniel Hackett and Taylor King. The Atlanta Celtics team that had Dwight Howard, Josh Smith, Javaris Crittenton and Randolph Morris. How about the Spiece group that boasted Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Eric Gordon and Daequan Cook. But honestly, there was no better team than the Gauchos squad that featured Russell Robinson, Sundiata Gaines, Ronald Ramon and Curtis Kelly back in 2003. I saw those guys win the Kingwood Classic, Peach Jam and the Super Showcase.
10. The real Renardo Sidney
I spent one day with Renardo Sidney in Las Vegas after his junior season. Hung out with him, his father and the rest of his family. It was then that I should have realized his career would never be what many anticipated. One game Sidney forgot his sneakers -- and at the end of the day, Sidney's team (coached by his father) was 0 for 3 and was knocked out of the event.
|Four years before jumping over a car as an NBA rookie, Blake Griffin was a high-school dunk champ. (US Presswire)|
Gary Parrish and I were talking to a young kid named Ryan Miller in July 2009 at the LeBron Camp upstairs in the media section. The place was barren -- as coaches weren't allowed to attend that year in Akron. Miller was telling us the story of how he took video earlier in the day of LeBron being dunked on by Jordan Crawford -- and immediately had it confiscated by someone from Nike. We eventually asked one of the head honchos at Nike, Lynn Merritt, about the tape after he wouldn't let us speak to LeBron -- and ended up writing it, causing the firestorm that was Tape Gate.
12. Big laughs with 'Big Baby'
Glen "Big Baby" Davis was always a show. His mother used to watch his games, pace up and down the sidelines and yell at the top of her lungs, "That's my baby." But one of the most entertaining Big Baby moments came during the 2003 ABCD Camp All-Star Game with Davis at the foul line and the music blaring. Davis took the ball and just busted out dancing -- for a good 30 seconds. Absolutely hilarious.
13. The great Wall
I'll give Brian Clifton credit. He called it. There I was sitting courtside next to Clifton and one of his former D-I players, Eric Wallace, when he pointed to one of his guys on the court and told me he was going to be the No. 1 player in America. Then I proceeded to watch John Wall get to the basket whenever he wanted, throw down a couple of vicious dunks -- and flat-out dominate. This was the summer before Wall "blew up."
14. A first glimpse of Blake Griffin
The first time I ever saw Blake Griffin play, I knew he was going to be a lottery pick. I've gotten plenty wrong over the years, but Griffin was an easy one to call. He played hard, looked as though he was on a damn trampoline -- and had an NBA-ready body when he was 15. My first glimpse came at Wes Grandstaff's tournament back in 2006 in Dallas -- when a coach told me I had to come down to a side gym. There was Griffin, going against Hasheem Thabeet. I've got to say I never figured I was watching the two guys who would shake David Stern's hand three years later.
15. Local pride
One of the more rewarding moments for me was watching BABC's Jeff Adrien "blow up" at the Peach Jam in 2004. Adrien is a local kid who I had seen for a couple years, a guy who visited Wright State before deciding to go the prep school route at Brewster Academy. After a dominating morning session performance in which he showed his relentlessness in pushing around the Team Texas frontline of Durrell Arthur, Bryan Davis and Kevin Rogers, literally every high-major head coach in the building was sitting courtside to get a look at Adrien.
16. Only in Vegas
I'm not going to throw out their names, but I was sitting at the same blackjack table as one big-time head coach, one former high-major head man and a few other assistants at the Mirage at around 3 a.m. a couple years ago and about 25 feet away was a plastered Mel Gibson, cigarette in hand, shirt unbuttoned and what appeared to be a 17-year-old girl on his arm.