PORTSMOUTH, Va. — Back in 1952, Mahlon Parker was just another basketball player trying to impress pro scouts at the first-ever Portsmouth Invitational. But as he sat between games of the 59th edition of this pre-draft tournament for college seniors, Parker wondered aloud whether all the work he has put into the event has been worth it.
Seton Hall guard Jeremy Hazell particularly incurred Parker’s ire.
The tournament had a van waiting for Hazell at the airport Tuesday, assuming he had taken the flight organizers had paid for once Hazell confirmed he would be attending the previous week.
But Hazell was nowhere to be found. When Parker tried calling and texting his cellphone, there was no answer. As of Friday, Parker still hadn’t heard from Hazell.
“We should know better. We talk about it every year, but I really can’t figure it out,” Parker said. “Even if the mock drafts aren’t right and they’re off a little bit, why wouldn’t you play if you’re a second-round pick? I guess you have to have enough guts to come, but you’re gonna have to play sooner or later.”
This, though, is the situation facing the Portsmouth Invitational with the championship game set to take place Saturday night. Long ago, potential first-round picks stopped coming here for fear of hurting their draft stock, instead waiting for an invitation to the NBA’s pre-draft combine in Chicago. But now, even players most project as fringe prospects are choosing to skip the 64-player, four-day postseason tournament that pits top college seniors against one another in five-on-five games in front of scouts from all 30 NBA teams.
In the past, players such as Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman Tim Hardaway and Ben Wallace have proven themselves in Portsmouth. And just last year, Landry Fields, now a key contributor on the New York Knicks, burst onto the scene with a strong showing at Portsmouth.
Some players’ decisions this year have confused observers other than Parker.
“Agents hold the players out and I think a lot of them make a mistake,” said Ryan Blake, the NBA’s assistant director of scouting. “They can make the NBA here. You can become a first-round draft pick here. But now we’ve got  people that pulled out, and as a result, you’re going to have 15 guys that don’t get into Chicago, and they’ll probably not get drafted. Sometimes you can’t just blame the player; you blame bad advice.”
This year Parker said 172 credentials were handed out to NBA personnel, including a record 13 from the Knicks. Virginia Tech Coach Seth Greenberg, a longtime attendee, said this year he’s seen “more European guys than I’ve ever seen before.”
Among those in attendance Thursday night was Washington Wizards General Manager Ernie Grunfeld, who has been coming to Portsmouth for 25 straight years. He said that while the quality of player has declined over the years — the last time two eventual first-round draft picks came to Portsmouth was in 1999 — there is still a benefit for prospects and front offices alike.
“You can find a gem here,” Grunfeld said from his seat along the baseline of the Churchland High School gym. “It’s a real good tool for us to evaluate these players, and they can only help themselves. I would like to see all of them play.”
Parker said the tournament, which is run as a non-profit and gets about $3,000 from each NBA team and a bevy of local businesses, has to eat all the costs of players who back out late. Most people involved with the tournament, including Parker, are unpaid volunteers, and all of the proceeds from the event go toward funding college scholarships and local charities.
In Hazell’s case, the tournament not only had to pay for his plane ticket but also cover the last minute flight Bradley’s Andrew Warren took from Los Angeles to take his spot.
George Mason’s Cam Long got the call to come to Portsmouth late last week and drove the 185 miles from campus to Churchland High. By Thursday afternoon, he was in the starting lineup as his team took the floor for the biggest job interview of his life.
“It’s an honor, just getting the opportunity to play with the best seniors, in front of the best coaches and the best scouts,” Long said. “It’s about trying to get to the NBA, but it really comes down to having some foreigners out here, and at worst, see what they have to offer. This makes it so there’s a lot of options available.”