NORTH AUGUSTA — The more things have changed over the last 21 years, the more the main draw to Nike's Peach Jam has stayed the same.
Consider how different the youth travel basketball landscape has changed since the inaugural tournament in 1996. While you're at it, consider the event's name in its first go-round: the Nike Peach Basket Classic.
Peach Jam, as it's been known since its 1997 sequel, has experienced changes in policies, attendance, participation and plenty else over the last two decades, but one thing has remained the same:
It's simply the best youth basketball tournament in the country.
The 2017 edition has that in common with the 2016, the 2015 and all others before it. Many of the nation's top basketball recruits, the college and professional stars of tomorrow, will soon be at North Augusta's Riverview Park Activities Center to battle it out for the tournament title at the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League's crown jewel.
(That EYBL designation is also something that's changed. The EYBL, Nike's effort at structuring and revolutionizing travel hoops, made its debut in April 2010 at the Boo Williams Invitational in Hampton, Virginia, according to an April 8, 2010 story on ESPN.com.)
Those stars will have their chance to shine under the increasingly-brighter lights of Peach Jam, which continues to draw more and more national media attention.
Peach Jam has spotlighted a staggering supply of star power, and that's even with a competing adidas circuit taking top talent – most notably LeBron James, who linked up with Leon Powe and others with the Oakland Soldiers in the early 2000s, per a June 1, 2015 story in San Jose's The Mercury News.
This year's Peach Jam will be without Spartanburg Day superstar Zion Williamson, arguably the headliner of the Class of 2018, while he plays on the adidas circuit.
Nike and Peach Jam haven't missed out on too many, though.
The players' prominence can be looked at two ways: their level of fame at age 17 — or younger — or the pro careers they ended up having.
The inaugural event is a perfect example of that. The first team championship was won by the legendary New York City Riverside Church team, a squad led by future pros Elton Brand and Ron Artest that's widely considered to be among the greatest travel ball teams of all time. Riverside went 69-1 during the summer of 1996, according to a January 22, 1999 story in the New York Post.
Brand was well on his way to being a mega-star at Duke and the first overall pick in the 1999 NBA Draft — one of more than 10 Peach Jam alumni to go No. 1 — and Artest, now known as Metta World Peace, later achieved fame leading St. John's to the Elite Eight before being drafted 15 picks after Brand.
A raw talent from overseas that year ended up eventually outshining them all — Dirk Nowitzki, the future Hall-of-Famer who was the NBA's unanimous MVP in 2007 and led the Dallas Mavericks to an NBA title in 2011.
The star power at the second tournament, the first known as the Peach Jam, wasn't limited to the on-court action. Moses Malone, two years and change after his last NBA game and four years before his induction into the Hall of Fame, and then-current NBA players like Charles Oakley spoke at a "Believe to Achieve" children's clinic before the tournament, as detailed in the July 12 and 13 issues of the Aiken Standard.
Nowitzki wasn't the only future star from overseas to visit North Augusta in the tournament's early years. Yao Ming, the 7-foot-5 Shanghai Shark who in 2002 would become the first pick in the NBA Draft, played at Peach Jam in 1998 for Carlsbad, California-based High Five America.
The 2000 tournament featured the top two picks in the 2001 Draft, Kwame Brown and Tyson Chandler. Sure, Brown is now considered one of the greatest draft busts of all time, but he remains notable for being the very first player to be drafted No. 1 overall directly out of high school. Obviously, Chandler's selection a few minutes later made it the first time high schoolers went 1-2 in the draft, and they hold the distinction as the only duo to do it — one Brown and Chandler will hold for as long as the NBA has an age limit.
Pool play in 2003 hosted a titanic clash between future pros Al Jefferson and LaMarcus Aldridge, the latter a five-time All-Star. The 2006 tournament saw one of the best backcourts in AAU history in the Mean Streets Express' Derrick Rose and Eric Gordon, who rolled in the championship game after a Rose buzzer-beater in pool play helped keep them undefeated.
Witnessing history repeating
The championship games the last two years have been routs, decided by an average of 27.5 points per game, but that's far from the norm at Peach Jam.
The second edition of the tournament was punctuated by one of the most exciting finishes ever, as future pro Quentin Richardson's slam dunk at the buzzer gave the Illinois Warriors the title and snapped Riverside's 15-game win streak dating back to the previous year's championship.
A year later, future Atlanta Hawk and multi-time All-Star Joe Johnson was the tournament's dominant force for the Arkansas Rockets. But "Iso Joe" and his teammates had to settle for a heartbreaking second-place finish after the Houston Jaguars stunned them with Taliek Brown's game-winning layup with 6 seconds to play.
The legendary Boston Amateur Athletic Club, or BABC, boasts 17 national championships but had to wait until 2011 before finally winning Peach Jam. BABC's most painful defeat came in the 2001 final, when Team Texas' Ross DeRogatis' 3-pointer from the corner with just 3 seconds left turned the Boston club's one-point lead into a 57-55 defeat.
The 2002 championship couldn't be decided in regulation. Drew Lavender, the future Oklahoma and Xavier star who stood 5-7 and had a flair for the dramatic when the stakes were highest, poured in 27 points to lead All-Ohio Red to their first Peach Jam title. Lavender led the tournament in scoring, averaging 22.8 points per game, in an event that had often been dominated by the big guys.
One of those bigs was Jefferson, who led the Jackson (Mississippi) Tigers to the 16-and-under national championship in '02. One title that eluded them, though, was Peach Jam — their 2003 team was sunk at the buzzer by Russell Robinson and the New York Gauchos.
“We wanted to either win it or go to overtime. I just waited until the last minute,” said Robinson, who finished with a team-high 16 points, in the July 18, 2003 Aiken Standard. “I didn’t want to miss because I knew it would mean trouble if we went to overtime the way Big Al (Jefferson) was playing.”
The Gauchos were again victors in Peach Jam's next great finish, when Chris Fouch made a 3 at the buzzer in overtime to defeat The Family in 2007. Fouch had a productive college career at Drexel and, at last check, is playing professionally in Slovakia. More noteworthy was the assist — from Charlotte Hornets All-Star Kemba Walker — and the 3 that eventually sent it to the extra session — off the hand of Golden State Warriors multi-time All-Star and NBA champion Draymond Green.
While recent years haven't provided the same kind of drama, three in a row this decade required clutch free-throw shooting to determine the EYBL's top team. The Oakland Soldiers bounced CIA Bounce by a point in 2012 thanks to two Jabari Bird free throws with 1.9 seconds to play; E1T1 Elite held off CP3 All-Stars the next year in the highest-scoring championship game (108-102); and New Jersey Playaz won by two in 2014 after Team Penny was assessed a technical foul with 3.8 seconds left in a tie game.
Though the Peach Jam has expanded into the nation's premier AAU event, the local ties have still been there. South Aiken superstar Tony Kitchings got to test his skills against the country's best in the 1997 tournament, and the future state Mr. Basketball and South Carolina Gamecock was front and center as the top college coaches in the nation watched.
“I think the first three minutes (of the game) we wanted to make a good impression on them," Kitchings said in the July 15, 1997 Aiken Standard, “but after that, we were able to relax.”
The Augusta/Carolina Hoopsters in 2001 became more than just a local favorite — they became a tournament favorite by pulling some early shockers, like a victory over defending champion Wisconsin Playground Warriors. Silver Bluff star Brandon Wallace and Calhoun County's Zam Frederick, both future Gamecocks, led the charge under head coach Zach Norris, a USC Aiken Hall of Famer who coached Williston-Elko to a state championship appearance in 1994.
The Aiken Tech basketball team has taken advantage of the exposure in the past, like when the 2005 team held daily scrimmages and invited the college coaches attending Peach Jam in order to give the Knights looks from bigger schools.
“With all the coaches in town, this gives us the opportunity to invite them to come and watch the talent here,” ATC coach Bruce Capers said in the July 14, 2005 Aiken Standard. “The goal is to get these guys exposure, give them the opportunity to go to some big schools and to graduate them.”
The marriage of large national scope and local setting has created at least one example of humorous confusion among out-of-towners.
According to the July 19, 1998 Aiken Standard, USC Aiken coach Mike Roberts was taking in the action when he was approached by a woman who took note of his Pacers shirt. The woman, a mother of one of the players, said her son would love the opportunity to play for the Pacers. Landing a high-profile player from Peach Jam would've been a great get for USCA — and then she delivered the kicker:
“We all greatly admire Larry Bird,” she said.
Whoops. Wrong Pacers.
Roberts confessed to the woman that he was there on behalf of USCA's Pacers, not the Indiana Pacers Bird coached at the time. There's no telling if he went ahead and offered the kid a scholarship, anyway.
Come one, come all
The tournament expanded from 24 teams to 30 in just its third year — now there are 24 17U teams and 16 more competing for the E16 crown — and by 2000 there was a legitimate fear that Peach Jam might have become too popular.
That year, children under 12 were admitted only with a parent or guardian as a means of controlling crowd size. Charged admission was introduced in 2002 after six years as a free event. Tickets were $3 per session and $5 for semifinals and finals, compared to $10 per session and $40 for a tournament pass now.
The reach of Peach Jam grew to include other events. The NCAA Coaches' Shootout Golf Tournament at the River Club started in 2001, with Roy Williams and Bobby Cremins as co-chairs.
Nike Nationals, the elite girls' basketball tournament modeled after Peach Jam, was born in 2005.
Peach Jam's exposure continues to grow in the hoops recruiting circles and beyond. The tournament continues to receive national television attention, and the players have produced more than their share of video footage.
Christian Brown of the Metro Hawks made national highlights when he shattered the backboard during a dunk attempt in the 2006 tournament. His Riverview rim-rocker appeared on Fox Sports' Best Dam Sports Show's special of the top 50 dunks in basketball history — as an honorable mention.
Why did it receive that designation and not a spot on the countdown? Well, Brown didn't actually make the dunk, instead bricking it off the soon-to-be-detached rim.
(Results gathered from Aiken Standard archives)
- 1996: Riverside Church defeated Team Assault
- 1997: Illinois Warriors 71, Riverside Church 69
- 1998: Houston Jaguars 72, Arkansas Rockets 70
- 1999: Riverside Church 70, Howard Pulley All-Stars 55
- 2000: Wisconsin Playground Warriors 75, Illinois Warriors 65
- 2001: Team Texas 57, BABC 55
- 2002: All-Ohio Red 75, Houston Hoops 72 (OT)
- 2003: New York Gauchos 52, Jackson (Mississippi) Tigers 50
- 2004: Illinois Warriors 78, BABC 46
- 2005: Boo Williams All-Stars 56, SYF Players 51
- 2006: Mean Streets Express 72, SYF Players 52
- 2007: New York Gauchos 70, The Family 68 (OT)
- 2008: Boo Williams All-Stars 62, BABC 55
- 2009: All-Ohio Red 62, Team Final 53
- 2010: Team Takeover 70, St. Louis Eagles 62
- 2011: BABC 84, Memphis YOMCA 67
- 2012: Oakland Soldiers 51, CIA Bounce 50
- 2013: E1T1 Elite 108, CP3 All-Stars 102
- 2014: New Jersey Playaz 85, Team Penny 83
- 2015: Georgia Stars 104, St. Louis Eagles 77
- 2016: MOKAN Elite 93, PSA Cardinals 65