The Bass Pro Tournament of Champions basketball tournament has brought the future of the National Basketball Association to the Ozarks.
And it’s not much of a stretch to say the tournament helped bring a real NBA future to one of Springfield’s own.
“After seeing those guys play, I realized I had a lot of work to do,” said Anthony Tolliver of the Atlanta Hawks, now in his fifth NBA season.
But despite NBA scouting departments not parachuting into town — the result of the league’s 2005 edict that bans high school seniors from early entry — many players from the talent-rich T of C eventually make it to the game’s top level.
The three-day, eight-team high school event returns to Missouri State University starting Thursday for its 29th edition. And, given a star-studded field that includes a team ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in national publications, it’s all but a sure bet that blue-chip recruits will find their way to the association. And perhaps soon.
In fact, fans who have watched Springfield’s showcase tournament for the past 28 years can now say they have seen a player from each of the NBA’s 30 franchises. In all, 36 future NBA players have come through the T of C.
Now the same event that brought Alonzo Mourning, Tyler Hansbrough and John Wall to the Ozarks could have its next batch of stars.
Take the Montverde (Fla.) Eagles. Usually, each team has one star. For the Eagles, it’s the whole lineup. Montverde has three of the event’s eight five-star recruits, according to Rivals.com and ESPN. Which explains why coach Kevin Boyle’s team is ranked No. 1 in the country by ESPN and No. 2 in the USA TODAY Super 25.
Back in 2001, Tolliver watched blue-chip recruits Julius Hodge and Wayne Simien go up against his Kickapoo schoolmates, when Tolliver was a still-developing sophomore. Hodge starred at North Carolina State, Simien at Kansas and both had brief NBA careers.
Then, as a senior, Tolliver went up against highly touted Houston high schooler Ndudi Ebi, who jumped to the NBA a few months after the 2003 T of C. In fact, he was selected by Minnesota in the first round, 25 slots behind an Ohio high schooler named LeBron James.
“After watching and playing in the T of C, it was a reality check,” said Tolliver, after playing a game for the Atlanta Hawks this week, before hopping on a plane to his next NBA city. “Ndudi Ebi was ranked third (nationally) in our class, and I did pretty well (against him), so it boosted my confidence.”
A late-bloomer in high school, college and the pros, Tolliver used some of that fuel to get where those touted players were. Now, with 204 NBA career games played through Thursday, he has outlasted Hodge, Simien and Ebi in NBA games played — combined.
Overall, it speaks to the fact that Springfield is a stop on the road to the big time. Otherwise, you would have to travel almost 300 miles to the southwest (Oklahoma City) or southeast (Memphis) to see NBA games live — and those cities have only joined the league within the past dozen years.
Take it from a fan’s perspective.
Stan Jinks, who played at Parkview and Southwest Missouri State in the 1970s, attended the first Tournament of Champions in 1985 after then-Springfield Public Schools athletic director Edsel Matthews and Bass Pro Shops started the event.
Jinks, who has missed “one or two” T of Cs, vividly remembers Mourning in 1987 — two years before he took the Georgetown Hoyas to the brink of the Final Four. He starred in the NBA for 15 years.
“It was really when he got here that,” Jinks said, “you saw a 6-foot-9 guy that he could do what he could do. It was pretty amazing.”
“It’s really exciting to see that kind of talent in high school kids that we don’t really get the chance to. We think our area players are good, and they are,” Jinks added. “But to see the unique physical abilities with those players… they get to come here and we get to watch them.”
The talent in Springfield has been more like offseason AAU trips than winter battles across the Ozarks, in the words of one NBA alum. That was one of the T of C’s positives.
“It reminded me of the summer, of the caliber of players that I’d be playing travel (AAU) with,” said former Branson 7-footer Steven Hill, who played in the 2004 T of C and went on to play in one 2008 NBA game for Oklahoma City after a successful career at Arkansas.
“It was a very prestigious tournament, and it was an honor to be invited. It’s just more fun to go up against the competition that you’re going to face at the next level.”
Scouting the T of C
While the Tournament of Champions has maintained its reputation, one thing has diminished in recent years: The presence of NBA scouts.
As more showcase basketball tournaments popped up throughout the country and more players skipped college altogether, professional scouts had to keep close tabs on events like the T of C. During those days, tournament director Mark Fisher said, the occasional NBA scout would visit Springfield looking for talent.
It made the NBA scouting game difficult, said Billy McKinney, the director of scouting for the Milwaukee Bucks.
“The most difficult part of it was being at a high school game, and comparing how different what you were looking for was from that high school game,” said McKinney, a former seven-year NBA player and veteran executive.
For every James or Kobe Bryant, there was a Korleone Young or Leon Smith, who fell through the NBA cracks before cashing in on NBA riches.
So, NBA commissioner David Stern, owners and the players association agreed in 2005 to a new rule designed to prevent high school players from jumping directly to the league. To enter the NBA Draft, a player must be 19 and a year out of high school.
“This will encourage our scouts to spend time in the (NBA farm system) D-league gyms rather than high school gyms,” Stern told The Associated Press when the deal was made.
Now, NBA scouts are only permitted at about five showcases, all where players don’t play with their high school teams, including the spring’s McDonald’s All-American Game.
Still, big-time college coaches have often made the T of C a recruiting stop over the years.
Coaching luminaries Bill Self, Roy Williams and John Calipari are among the names who have come to Springfield seeking players for their storied programs.
And it has proven to often be a fruitful stop, as recent college stars Wall, Hansbrough, Greg Monroe and DeMarcus Cousins are now making a name for themselves in the pros.
Those players recently dazzled T of C fans, but a former Southwest Missouri State assistant coach remembered Anthony Peeler’s 1989 showing this week when quizzed about the tournament’s origins.
Back then, John Hammond was watching for players who could help coach Charlie Spoonhour’s program.
Hammond was then hired by McKinney in 1989 to work for the expansion Minnesota Timberwolves. But Hammond, whose wife Marsha is from Springfield, said fans will know the elite talent when they see it.
“I really wasn’t watching players in that kind of mindset,” Hammond said. “We would just kind of evaluate: Was he a major college player, a mid-major player, a low major, a non-Division I player?
“But when you see an NBA guy against high school guys, you know them.”
T of C-to-NBA facts
* Ten of the 36 T of C-turned-NBA have played for the Miami Heat franchise, which is only 25 years old. Alonzo Mourning and Wayne Simien helped the franchise win its first championship in 2006, and Mario Chalmers was a starter on the LeBron James-led team that captured the crown last summer.
* When Branson’s Steven Hill, a former Arkansas Razorback, played in a Nov. 12, 2008, game for the Oklahoma City Thunder — his only NBA appearance — he also made T of C history. The 7-footer became the first T of C alum to play for the franchise, which was formerly in Seattle. The Thunder/SuperSonics franchise was the final NBA team to have a former T of C player play for it.
* Interestingly, a former T of C player has never played for the Memphis Grizzlies, the other NBA franchise closest to Springfield. However, when the franchise was in Vancouver, Kansas City native and former Missouri Tiger Anthony Peeler played for the Grizzlies from 1996-98.
* Former T of C players have made eight All-Star appearances, with seven made by Mourning. Jayson Williams made one appearance as a member of the New Jersey Nets in 1999.
— Matt Schoch
This year’s Bass Pro Tournament of Champions five-star field with their Rivals.com prospect rankings. Class of 2015 players are ranked by ESPN, as Rivals does not rank sophomores.
Class of 2013
2. Julius Randle, Plano (Tex.) Prestonwood, considering: Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina State, Oklahoma, Texas*
9. Kasey Hill, Montverde (Fla.), signed with Florida
13. Dakari Johnson, Montverde (Fla.), committed to Kentucky
16. Isaac Hamilton, Bellflower (Calif.) St. John Bosco, signed with UTEP
17. Bobby Portis, Little Rock (Ark.) Hall, signed with Arkansas
Class of 2014
10. D’Angelo Russell, Montverde (Fla.), considering Florida, Indiana, Louisville, Missouri, North Carolina State, Ohio State
Class of 2015
4. Mickey Mitchell, Plano (Tex.) Prestonwood, considering Duke, Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Texas*
9. Marcus Derrickson, Fairfax (Va.) St. Paul VI, considering Georgetown, Indiana, Maryland, Miami (Fla.), North Carolina State, Rutgers, Villanova, Virginia Tech
* – not expected to play in the tournament because of an injury
Reserved seats on the lower level are $36 for the weekend. Single-night reserved seats are $12 . General-admission seats are $30 for the weekend, $10 a day. Students are $21 for the event, or $7 a day. Call 836-7678 or 476-7849.