After Big Shots tournament last weekend in Myrtle Beach, local high school coaches and UNCW head coach Takayo Siddle discuss the benefits, and concerns, of playing travel basketball this summer.
High school basketball teams in New Hanover County and across North Carolina are dealing with heavy restrictions as workouts continue during the COVID-19 summer.
At Laney, head coach Eric Davis has his players split into groups of four, working on dribbling and conditioning while abiding by N.C. High School Athletic Association guidelines outside the famous Michael Jordan Gymnasium. Every player has his own basketball, and team work is reserved for online Zoom meetings.
But a handful of Davis’ students are still finding their competitive outlet this summer through the travel basketball circuit. Davis knows there are risks involved — and many local players recently traveled to COVID-19 hotspot Myrtle Beach for a Big Shots tournament — but the Laney coach also empathizes with the need to get out and play.
“When I was 16 or 17 years old, I was obsessed with the game of basketball,” Davis said. “I can’t imagine being a kid right now, going through all this and being told I can’t play the game I love. If my parents would have allowed me to play, I would have done it.”
Davis is quick to note the seriousness of the health situation, and that he hopes players and travel basketball organizations are following proper protocols when competing this summer. In Myrtle Beach, there were temperature and wellness checks, and everyone on site was required to wear a mask when not playing, coaching or officiating a game.
Normally, summer tournaments are an easy way to play in front of college coaches, but the NCAA has suspended all in-person recruiting through Aug. 31. Instead, many events provide live streams, and UNCW head coach Takayo Siddle is one of many tuned in. The broadcast quality can make it tough for Siddle to get a true evaluation, but it’s better than nothing.
“Your first thought is always about the athletes and their well-being, but once they decided to proceed with tournaments this summer, we had to start treating these streams like we would a normal recruiting cycle,” Siddle said. “My assistants and I are watching as much as we can because this is our first full recruiting cycle, and it’s going to be huge for our development as a program.”
However, not all local coaches are happy that travel basketball is still happening this summer. Ashley High boys coach Wells Gulledge is worried about the overall impact of traveling as COVID-19 numbers continue to rise in the Southeast.
“Even if a tournament is doing everything right, can you guarantee the hotels these kids are staying in and the restaurants their eating at in a place like Myrtle Beach is handling everything with the kids’ safety as the primary concern?” Gulledge asked. “I’m disappointed, to be honest, that coaches are pushing kids down that road.”
Gulledge calls himself an avid supporter of travel basketball during normal circumstances. He wants his athletes to play against unfamiliar competition and perform in front of college coaches. Gulledge just doesn’t feel like it’s appropriate to have players, parents and coaches crowding inside gyms this summer.
With that viewpoint, he also feels added responsibility to contact college coaches about his athletes. If the kids aren’t playing basketball this summer due to the ongoing pandemic, he wants to make sure they don’t lose the opportunity to play at the next level.
“I don’t think there’s a college coach in the country right now that wouldn’t take your word as a high school coach, or at least ask for tape. If you can play, you can play, and you’ll find a school that fits your talent level. The high school film isn’t going to lie,” Gulledge said.
A canceled season in 2020 could give Gulledge a new approach, knowing that seniors missed out on their final opportunity to showcase their talents.
One thing all coaches can agree on is their continued hope to have some sort of season this winter.
“When I wake up in the mornings on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday and drive to Laney for workouts, I’m so excited,” Davis said. “There’s a smile and energy that’s hard to describe. Just getting back to a sense of normalcy, you want that for yourself but especially for these kids. Losing this season would be so tough.”