In May, Chandler transferred from a Tennessee school to Sunrise Christian in Bel Aire, Kan., to compete against the country’s top competition. The senior knew he may never play for his new team, but the chance to prove himself on a big stage outweighed the uncertainty. After multiple weeks of quarantining and frequent testing, Chandler seized that opportunity with a game-high 26 points in Monday’s win.
As epidemiologists discourage U.S. citizens from traveling during the pandemic, national high school basketball powerhouses have adapted but continue to jet around the country. For many players and coaches, facing the nation’s top competition and gaining exposure are worth the health risks.
“I wanted to play against the top players in the country instead of people questioning me about playing good against somebody,” Chandler, a five-star prospect and Tennessee signee, said Monday. “This is really good for us for getting ready for the next level next year.”
Between Jan. 8 and Monday, the St. James hosted one of the country’s largest high school basketball tournaments this season. Sixteen of the country’s top teams participated, traveling from as near as Hyattsville and as far as Utah.
Normally when Oak Hill Academy visits the D.C. area from southwest Virginia, Coach Steve Smith leads his players around D.C., visiting the monuments, the outside of the White House and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Trips are usually a chance for players to learn about their country’s history and bond over their experiences. On this trip, he and his players never left their Springfield hotel.
Those were the circumstances for every team visiting. Their days consisted of scrolling through their phones, watching Netflix, playing a basketball game, stretching, eating takeout and going to sleep early.
“They were going stir-crazy a little bit,” Smith said. “Eleven days in one town is a long time. But if you don’t have this event … we wouldn’t have a season probably worth mentioning. Our guys want to play.”
Sunrise Christian Coach Luke Barnwell said he and his players began to burn out midway through their visit. He held a team meeting where he and players expressed similar emotions, which powered them through the rest of their trip. Barnwell said he rented the entire fifth floor at a local Homewood Suites by Hilton to limit exposure to the virus.
For the programs visiting, preparation began long before they arrived in Springfield. Many quarantined for two weeks before leaving. When teams started their trips, coaches shot pictures of seats on buses and planes, so if one player is diagnosed with the coronavirus, they would know who else might have been exposed. When teams eat together, coaches find large rooms, and team members spend as little time as possible close together.
Coaches knew their games could be lost even after arriving in Springfield. AZ Compass Prep School from Chandler, Ariz., landed in Springfield to learn a player had been diagnosed with the coronavirus, according to a spokeswoman from the tournament. The team’s games were canceled, and team members must quarantine in their hotel before returning home.
Some programs need to travel to play games because their states aren’t permitting sports. That’s the case for Wasatch Academy in Mount Pleasant, Utah. The town has a population of roughly 3,500 and the school has an enrollment of roughly 300. Yet the program travels to areas with more coronavirus cases, such as Virginia, to play.
“Not only do we get to play, but we get to play against top teams in the country every day,” Wasatch Coach Paul Peterson said. “And for the kids who aren’t signed yet, we’re all just blessed to be in this situation.”
Other programs center their schedules each year around traveling. One of those programs, IMG Academy, has also played tournaments in Charlotte and Phoenix. Coach Sean McAloon said the team didn’t second-guess traveling this season.
“You can do it safely,” said McAloon, who coached St. John’s between 2012 and 2017. “These kids would rather be playing than being at home doing nothing. The opportunity to [play] is special.”
Traveling has created opportunities for players in areas where sports aren’t occurring. Noah Batchelor, who played last year for Glenelg Country School in Ellicott City, Md., transferred to IMG Academy before this season. He said he wanted to play the country’s top competition, but he also desired the best chance for playing a season. For unsigned players such as Batchelor, transferring is a way to showcase on-court improvement.
After learning the safety protocols used at the tournament — consistent testing, staying in hotels and wearing masks off the court — Tara Kirk Sell, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said it sounded like a relatively safe environment. Still, she said, basketball is one of the leading sports in spreading the coronavirus — and traveling, especially after contact with players from other schools, can transmit the virus. More than 400,000 people in the United States have died of covid.
“While I think that sports can happen and can be done safely in a pandemic, this moment in the pandemic is very serious,” Sell said. “There are a lot of people that are getting sick and going to the hospital and dying.”
Coaches want to take the court, but they said their main objective is keeping players healthy. When Chandler moved to Kansas, for example, he quarantined for five days. Two times this season, he said, a player in the program has been diagnosed with the coronavirus, meaning team members participated in a pair of two-week quarantines. But Chandler said he never questioned his decision to transfer, believing an opportunity like this tournament would arrive.
On Tuesday morning, Sunrise Christian flew back to Kansas. The team plans to travel to Florida on Saturday for another tournament. Until then, players and coaches will quarantine again.