NORTH AUGUSTA If not for the nattering insistence of your GPS, you wouldn’t know it was there.
Up and down through the rolling hills of a quiet subdivision, around gentle curves cloaked in shade from the midday summer sun you weave your way skeptically.
The first clue you have arrived at the epicenter of elite prep summer basketball is cars. Crammed into every conceivable parking space (and plenty of non-parking spaces), an ocean of Detroit’s, Germany’s and Japan’s finest welcomes you to Riverview Park Activities Center, long before the center comes into view.
If you’re lucky enough to find a parking (non-parking?) spot, then get ready for some star coach sightings and some seriously good hoops at the NIKE Peach Jam.
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On Riverview’s four courts, 24 of the Elite Youth Basketball League’s best 17-under teams and 16 16-under teams play twice a day for three days before a finals round determines a national champion on Sunday morning.
The Peach Jam has been around for a long time but the EYBL was established by NIKE three years ago to bring together the best of the nation’s best. Over four weekends, just after the end of the high school basketball season, the EYBL hosted the nation’s top travel teams at events in Minneapolis, Hampton (Va.), Dallas and Oakland.
In the process, EYBL became known as “The League” and banners to that effect are draped throughout the Riverview Activities Center.
Sitting below those banners this week: The head coach and an assistant from virtually every Division I college basketball program in the country. In all, more than 300 are expected by Sunday’s championships. USC assistant Lamont Evans was at Wednesday’s 16-under pool play. Thursday, fellow Gamecock assistant Matt Figger made the rounds. USC’s entire coaching staff is expected to rotate through, including head coach Frank Martin. His replacement at Kansas State, Bruce Weber, was at Thursday’s early session.
Depending on what rankings list is used, as many as 100 of the nation’s top 150 players at each level are represented by the two divisions, including the consensus top player at both levels — Jabari Parker (Mac Irvin Fire 17-under) and Andrew Wiggins (CIA Bounce 16-under).
Among this treasure trove: A.C. Flora’s Matt Howard.
The rising senior plays for Charlotte-based Team United, alongside South Carolina’s consensus top player, Lancaster’s Sindarius Thornwell. Growing up, Howard said he used to visit his aunt in the Augusta area each summer and attend the Peach Jam as a spectator.
“I’m always at this gym and I’ve been to all the Peach Jams,” Howard said. “I remember about two years ago, I saw Austin Rivers play here and now he’s in the NBA, so it’s a big tournament.”
In Thursday’s opener, the guard scored 10 points and grabbed five rebounds in Team United’s 67-58 win against New Jersey-based Team Final (Thornwell led all scorers with 20 points).
Of the many teams courting Howard, there is one in particular that he holds in highest regard.
“Harvard’s all over me,” he said. “That’s the team that’s recruiting me the hardest. They really want me.”
Sure enough, a Harvard assistant was in Thursday’s crowd — along with many others. A Stanford assistant poked his head in the gym as well. Howard is planning to take a visit there soon.
“It’s an honor to play here,” Howard said. “It’s really intense, though. Really intense. But it’s fun at the same time.”
A $5 ticket grants access to one of two daily sessions, where a spectator can drop in on as many as 12 games.
And, well park anywhere.