The long ride for the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. basketball team ended when two panel vans pulled into the Georgetown University parking lot at 9 a.m. yesterday, 48 hours after leaving Racine, Wis.
"It was pretty much long," said 5-foot-9 guard Mark Gill. "We think we can do something here. After this, we'll be on the map."
The King team is one of 38 teams aspiring to win the Amateur Athletic Union 17-and-under National Basketball Championship tournament, which began with opening ceremonies last night at Georgetown's McDonough Arena.
More than 600 high school players, and even two rising college freshmen, marched in team uniforms into the thick heat of McDonough, greeted by the sound of parents' applause and the scrutiny of dozens of college scouts.
Also looking on were the tournament sponsors, who have covered all tournament expenses except team travel. Sears Roebuck is the national sponsor, Chevrolet provided 32 vans stamped with "AAU Transportation" and Coca-Cola paid for room and board at Georgetown, the first time in tournament history the teams have had free living quarters.
Later, the Reston Youth Club opened round-robin play with an 88-62 victory over Southaven, Miss.
"There is a lot of talent at a lot of positions in all shapes and sizes," said Gary Bargen, assistant basketball coach at the University of Nebraska.
There are a few players who may face added pressure because of their names. There is Jay Bias, brother of late Maryland star Len; Brent Price, brother of former Georgia Tech guard Mark, and Ronald Thompson, son of Georgetown coach John.
"Guys will say, 'You're just playing because you're John Thompson's son,' " said Ronald, who will be a junior at Flint Hill next year. "But I just keep working hard and prove them wrong."
Not every player will be in high school next year. Crossland 1986 graduate Mike White and Mackin grad Henri Abrams, both 17, will be freshman players for George Mason.
"I feel kinda old now," said White, who will turn 18 in December. "I think if I had another year of high school I could be somebody's all-American."
As far as the AAU is concerned, No. 1 in America is Price's team, the Rams of Oklahoma City. The Rams, led by highly regarded college prospects Richard Dumas and Mike Maddox, both forwards, are top seeded after being the runner-up in last year's AAU championship in Jacksonville. Today, they will play two games in 12 hours in heat similar to Oklahoma's.
"Whew, it's hot," Price said. "It's hot and windy in Oklahoma . There's no wind here. We passed some flags on the way in, and they were just hanging there. It is hot. But I don't think we'll notice once we start playing."
Reston and Southaven got their first taste of the competition last night. Reston's 5-8 guard Curt Smith, a sophomore at Mackin, sparked the victory with 24 points, four assists and five steals. He had eight points and three steals in a 10-0 first-period run that put Reston ahead for good.
"This is our first game," said Southaven guard Bernard Veasley, who scored 14 points. "And, in a way, it was our first real practice since we have players from all over Mississippi. We'll come back tomorrow. We didn't come here to lose."