By Eddie Gonzalez
After much deliberation and the most publicized union zoom calls in history, the NBA is finally headed to a return. With a date set and a schedule released, the Orlando “bubble season” is coming to fruition, and with league-wide testing and protocols in place if all safety measures are maintained it appears it’ll actually happen.
But the NBA has near-infinite resources to ensure the safety of their players and staff in order to finish this season and save billions of dollars in lost revenue. What about the rest of the basketball world? What about the prep and grassroots programs, who saw their seasons come to a sudden halt as well, ahead of vital live periods where college coaches are allowed to scout prospects in person?
As the country slowly opens back up – albeit in stages– these players are trickling back to the basketball court as well. With scholarships and livelihoods hanging in the balance, this basketball is equally high stakes, if not moreso, than what lies ahead of the NBA in Orlando, and throughout the country it’s taking different shapes.
The Kansas City-based Mokan Basketball Club has slowly made their return to the court. The former AAU home to lottery picks Michael Porter Jr., Willie Cauley Stein and All-Star Trae Young has cancelled a few commitments but plan to hold a Team USA-style mini camp before participating in several tournaments in July.
“Kids need these scholarships, man,” said Mokan Elite 16u coach Reese Holiday. “AAU is the main way kids get those. High school basketball is so watered down and kids may not be in the right areas to get recruited until they are out on the shoe circuit platform.” Mokan has implemented social distancing and sanitization practices at their workouts, and taken efforts to stream those workouts and games to help give their players some level of exposure, even as the NCAA’s live evaluation periods have been cancelled this summer.
“A big thing that you’re gonna see happen is guys get recruited to the wrong level whether it’s too high or too low,” said Reese. “That happens every year, but it’ll be more of that this year because coaches are going off of guy’s words and old film.” Reese expects many players to reclassify, or repeat a grade of school, in order to get another year of exposure and more opportunities to prove their scholarship worthiness.
One player that has more than proved their worthiness on the court is Oakland, California’s Jalen Lewis. The 15-year-old phenom just wrapped up his freshman year at Bishop O'Dowd High School and saw his stellar performance on the court earn him the No. 2 spot on ESPN’s class of 2023 rankings list, even as his season was cut short when stay at home measures statewide caused the cancellation of the CIF playoffs in California. Guided by the steady hand of his father, Ahlee Lewis, Jalen’s return to the court has been more meticulous than others.
“Personally, as a parent I’m not in some big rush to just thrust him on the court in some risky situation,” said Ahlee. In fact, the father-son duo view the pandemic and time away from the court as an opportunity to work on Jalen’s fitness and physical strength as he is set to shoulder a bigger load for the O’Dowd Dragons whenever high school basketball can resume. “If we can stay socially distant, and he can continue to grow his body and stuff as a young man, at least for the short term I'm good with that,” Ahlee continued. “Obviously in the long term we want the kids playing, but in the short term I’m not worried as much.”
But that situation is unique, and Ahlee sympathizes for the players who have yet to establish a reputation around the hoops world and become the type of known commodity that Jalen has. “It’s unfortunate for some kids that really need the exposure,” Ahlee said. “Maybe you’re going into your senior year or something and you’ve been flying under the radar. Now what?”
Even with Jalen taking the time to work on his body, Ahlee does concede that not playing in actual games is unfortunate. But the elder Lewis does notice that even though Jalen isn’t on the court, others are. “I look around the country and see people working out in different gyms, but out here in Oakland it’s still pretty shut down.”
In New York, once viewed as the epicenter of the coronavirus in the US, hoopers are participating in unsanctioned “All-Star” games throughout the city and surrounding boroughs. When Phase 3 of New York’s reopening is implemented on July 6th, basketball will be among the sports still forbidden to hold games or competitive practices. This has led to manycancellations of events and planned games both inside and outside throughout the city, including summer staples like The Bronx’s Hoops in the Sun, along with games at the famed courts at Dykman and Rucker Park.
Texas, despite being a hotbed for coronavirus with recent spikes in virus rates and a new peak in hospitalizations, continues to hold hoops tournaments as well. The Great American Shootout staged two tournaments in June, filling gyms across the state with spectators, offering the exposure and helping some kids earn scholarships in the process. But after covid cases in Texas surged to new highs in the state, causing Governor Greg Abbot to walk back some of his reopening plans, Great American Shootout regrouped as well, postponing all of their July events.
Kellen Buffington, CEO of TheTB5Reports Scouting and Events was ahead of the curve, taking initiative and cancelling his own events even before the government stepped in and did so.
“Safety is first and foremost,” said Buffington, who has events planned for the end of July, though he’s unsure if they’ll actually happen with the latest spike in cases. Still, Buffington has precautions planned to maintain the safety of the players and spectators at any tournaments he should. “We’ll have 50 percent capacity of the gym. No tickets sold at the door, only pre-sale weekend passes,” Buffington explained. “Everybody has to leave the gym after each game, Buff Players are isolated in separate areas before games and can only take the court after the gym has been cleared. Fans can’t watch multiple games, only the games of the teams they support.”
Even with those precautions and the eagerness of kids and their parents to resume play, Buffington maintains safety will be paramount. “I’ll watch these numbers and if they aren’t going down by then, I will cancel (everything) myself. The government won’t have to.”
In Southern California, rates continue to spike, so much so that Governor Gavin Newsom has asked to reimplement closures in the hardest hit county in the state, Imperial County, which is the Southeasternmost county in the state, bordering Mexico and Arizona. In neighboring San Diego county, one gym is thriving within the pandemic, Ryan Razooky’s The Hoop House in El Cajon. Workouts with prep phenoms Mikey Williams and Jahzare Jackson have gone viral in recent weeks, and if you look in the background chances are you’ll spy Razooky or the spray-painted Hoop House logo on the wall.
Much like Mokan and TB5, Razooky and Hoop House have implemented many of the same preventative and sanitization measures that you’d see at most workplaces. Everybody is washing their hands before entering and exiting, disinfectant is being used on balls and surfaces and any nonessential personnel or anybody with any signs or symptoms of covid are not allowed to enter.
But why even risk getting back on the court in this climate? For Razooky, it’s simple. “I have an obligation to help the youth in my city, and make sure they are in a safe environment,” he said. Razooky estimates that 95 percent of the players and parents he works with were eager “to come back right away in person in some form or fashion.”
So, at first opportunity, Razooky was back in the gym, helping players get better and prepare for whatever is next in the cycle of hoops. “People were begging me to get in the gym,” said Razooky. “I had to turn many away. All I can do is take as many necessary precautions as possible to make people feel comfortable and avoid anyone getting sick.”
Even as uncertainty reigns, basketball is back underway in some shape or form. NBA players are returning to their host cities to prepare for a truncated sprint to a championship, and their younger, ambitious but infinitely more unproven teenage counterparts are searching for ways to return as well.
"We know that COVID-19 will be with us for the foreseeable future," NBA commissioner Adam Silver said on a recent conference call with several league officials. "And we are left with no choice but to learn to live with this virus… No options are risk-free right now."
Even amidst countrywide spikes in covid cases, it seems high school kids and parents everywhere are doing just that, learning to live with the virus. And apparently, life with the virus will include basketball, one way or another.