From all over the Midwest, teams flock to Fort Wayne, Indiana. A facility tucked away off the interstate becomes a destination for prep basketball.
Soon after the ball is tipped, the court is covered in sweat and the air fills with angst. With each dribble, each pass, each shot, the basketball feels like it weighs the world. This is Indiana, the birthplace of basketball, where even the AAU game felt so important this weekend.
The pressure mounts through each round of the Bill Hensley Memorial Tournament. The crowd along the baseline grows a bit larger with scouts grading each move a player makes. For the family members and friends watching, each basket draws cheers and each missed call by an official (and there were more than a few) brings jeers.
Call it silly or irrational, and in the basketball-crazy state of Indiana, one would normally agree—but not this weekend. These weren't just games, they were opportunities.
This is the AAU circuit, where basketball names are born. Each game is a tryout, an evaluation, and a high-school kid's biggest job interview.
The scouts are going to be tough; frankly, some are wrong more than they're right. If a player doesn't hustle on a transition, then he's deemed lazy. If a kid shows some attitude, he carries the label of a jerk. On an off shooting night, he's labeled as bad.
Don't blow it.
Players feel the pressure. So do the coaches, families and friends in attendance to watch and support their kids. Earn a college scholarship, it's the chance of a lifetime. That's what they're after.
For some, the opportunity is different than others, but the burden still weighs the same.
Jaquan Lyle is already a proven five-star prospect with scholarship offers from some of college basketball's giants. In a matchup with Eron Gordon, another hot commodity, the freshman harshly bounced the ball in Lyle's direction—which he later explained was all in fun. Lyle wasn't laughing, and took it out on the court. He responded with 14 consecutive points and posted 44 in the game.
For sophomore Aaron Jordan, the tournament offered the chance to make his name known. The talented shooting guard is just beginning his AAU basketball career and must prove himself. He did just that.
The opportunity doesn't last long. When those final seconds tick off the clock, those crowded bleachers clear and the scouts file out.
That heavy burden either makes or breaks you.
After standout point guard Jalen Brunson missed the game-winning shot in a Friday night game, he walked off the court in anguish. Brunson holds many high-major offers and will likely add more, but his chance to be a hero, with all eyes watching him, rimmed out.
For the reserve player on the Indiana Elite squad, who missed a three-pointer which would have won their Saturday game, the stakes were a bit higher. Purdue, Illinois, and DePaul won't be calling his name like they have for Brunson. For this kid, it was his big chance. He blew it.
The kid was inconsolable on the bench, draping a towel over his head for more five minutes after the game. His mother, also crying, offered a hug and helped him off the bench. They left the gym walking by all of those framed jerseys.