When No. 11 Clinton Christian meets nationally ranked Cape Henry in the featured game at the Nation’s Capital Hoops Classic on Saturday at Coolidge High, fans will be treated to a rare showdown of one of the area’s top teams against a Virginia Beach power. Several future Division I recruits, including Eagles guard Jon Davis (DePaul) and Cape Henry junior Chris Clarke, will be on display before a packed gym in Northwest.
The game will be the last of five scheduled in the event, one of nearly 15 showcases that have taken place during the first three months of the 2013-14 high school basketball season.
“People in this area love to see good basketball,” said Coolidge Coach Vaughn Jones, whose school hosted the MLK Hoopfest Showcase last weekend. “When done right, showcases allow for that to happen.”
Showcase events feature rare, out-of-conference matchups within a day-long format that can include as many as seven consecutive games on the same floor. They provide an extra avenue of exposure for players, schools and outside organizers, luring college coaches and spectators, but also blurring the lines between high school athletics and profit-driven event promotion.
In a region rich with basketball talent, perhaps the easiest step in the year-long event planning process is finding teams to showcase. Also included on an organizer’s to-do list are nailing down a venue, hiring referees, searching for sponsorships, navigating various league regulations to make sure teams are appropriately matched and locking down security.
No amount of money or planning can account for the seemingly inevitable during showcases.
Tip-offs are often delayed due to the unpredictable flow of games. Concession stands may become bare as most of the food is gobbled up during the day’s early contests. Inclement weather can also get in the way, as was the case when last month’s snowstorm forced organizers to cancel the final three games of the DMVelite Tip Off Classic at C.H. Flowers. With fans flocking to see top talent in a single setting, space can be a concern. The final game in last year’s More Than Basketball Uptown Hoopfest was nearly called off when a heavy flood of fans entering and leaving the Carroll gym briefly created a fire hazard.
“It’s a very big undertaking, and it can teach you a lot of about patience,” said Chris Lawson, who in 2009 founded DMVelite Showcase Events, which creates and hosts basketball events and covers area players and teams.
With the opportunity to place their players before college scouts at all levels and prepare their teams for the postseason against competitive opponents, more high school coaches are looking to fill their schedules with showcase events.
Both Maryland and Virginia limit public schools to 22 regular season games. In 2005, Virginia teams were given the freedom to make their own out-of-conference schedules, allowing for a player like former Herndon and Villanova star Scottie Reynolds to raise his profile with a 27-point performance against national power Oak Hill Academy and become a 2006 McDonald’s all-American.
“I’d rather go to D.C. and get my butt kicked by a really good team than play a bunch of teams that won’t challenge us,” said Wakefield Coach Tony Bentley, whose team has played in three showcases this year. “Some coaches get caught up in the win-loss record, but I see these events as glorified scrimmages that get you ready for the playoffs.”
In Maryland, the scheduling rules vary by district. Montgomery County schools must lock in out-of-conference opponents for two years in a home-and-home series, whereas Prince George’s County recently dropped the number of required conference games from 18 to 17, opening up another chance to schedule a showcase game.
With their greater scheduling flexibility, area private schools have competed in local and national showcases for decades, sometimes playing at two in one day, as Riverdale Baptist did during its packed 36-game schedule last year. The events can serve as a lifeline for schools vying to enter the local hoops discussion, like this year’s Clinton Christian boys’ team, which will compete in its fifth showcase of the winter this weekend.
Mike Glick has seen both sides of this dynamic. While coaching at Pallotti and Spalding, he knew that a handful of college coaches would fill the gym on any given night to see Rudy Gay and the other Division I talent that typically fills private school rosters. Once Glick took the helm at Gwynn Park in 2006, finding a similar platform and audience for his public school players proved difficult.
“I know that the game we played against Cesar Chavez normally wouldn’t draw any college coaches,” Glick said of the Jan. 20 game. “But because we played them in the MLK Showcase, we had 20 coaches in the stands to see kids on both teams.”
With showcases often serving as a one-stop recruiting shop for college coaches, the focus can sometimes shift from the team to the player.
“As a fan of basketball, I like seeing good matchups. . . but I often wonder if too much is made of exposure,” longtime Magruder Coach Dan Harwood said. “When you’re playing so many games, there’s less time to practice and fundamentals sometimes are sacrificed in the name of individual attention.”
Depending on the contract and school system’s policies, a school also stands to benefit from hosting a showcase, be it through concessions, donations or venue fees, that can run upwards of $1,000, according to Wise Athletic Director Jason Gordon.
How the rest of a showcase’s profit is spent varies by event. Mark Tillmon, a former player at Gonzaga and Georgetown, directed most of his revenue from last weekend’s MLK Hoopfest to the scholarship fund under his nonprofit company, the Shooting Straight Program.
For Arize Ifejika, the annual showcases put on by his More Than Basketball company since 2009 have brought more publicity and consumers to his clothing line and go-go music band. Those who attended his Uptown Hoopfest earlier this month were greeted at the ticket table by flyers featuring Ifejika’s picture, product promotions and copies of a basketball documentary he directed.
“Same way I promote basketball to kids, I know they care about fashion as much as they care about basketball,” said Ifejika, a 27-year-old D.C. native. “They care about music as much as basketball. Because of that, the market is wide open for this.”
While many laud the elevated awareness of college opportunities that showcases provide, others remain cautious amid the concern that, in some cases, teenage athletes can be used as pawns for the interests of profit-driven individuals and event promoters.
“I don’t think they add anything to high school athletics, but what they might bring are the negative things that can sometimes happen in youth basketball with some of the out-of-school activities and characters involved,” Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association executive director Ned Sparks said. “It’s not really something that is complementary to education-based athletics. . . . But just because it doesn’t add anything to the stature of high school athletics doesn’t mean somebody might not find a lucrative possibility to promote themselves or gain some notoriety.”
Sparks and others fully expect to see more showcases pop up on the local scene in the coming seasons, looking to cash in on opportunities for exposure while feeding the region’s insatiable appetite for quality high school basketball.