There’s something that pulls some of the best high school basketball teams and players every year to the Spalding Hoophall Classic in Springfield, Mass., and it’s not the chilly New England weather. This year’s Hoophall Classic begins today and continues through Monday.
The tournament comes on the long Martin Luther King Day weekend, making it easier for top teams to travel. But it’s the tournament’s reputation, television exposure and connection to the Hall of Fame that’s the real draw.
The event began as the Basketball Hall of Fame High School Invitational in 2002, but it really took off in 2006, the first year some of the tournament games were televised and the year that players the level of Kevin Durant of Montrose Christian (Rockville, Md.) and Nolan Smith of Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) were involved.
“There were three or four years, where we were invited but we didn’t come because we were going elsewhere,” Oak Hill coach Steve Smith said. “Then I realized what type of event it had become. First they started getting the top players. Now, it has evolved to where they get the top teams every year. You can’t find a tournament anywhere that has that many of the top teams in it. Plus, they get some great matchups, a lot of years, where they had No. 1 versus No. 2.”
This year’s event includes 13 teams in the Super 25 boys basketball rankings, including teams No. 1 through No. 4.
Greg Procino, the director of events and awards for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, said getting the top teams is a matter of research and sometimes, fortune.
“We do a lot of things way in advance,” Procino said. “Some of it is just by luck. What we look for is which teams are most successful with the most amount of underclassmen and the most amount of top-ranked players. Those teams fit the mold of what we’re looking for. Certainly we have the anchor programs, like Oak Hill or DeMatha, that will be good no matter what. It’s more about which teams were successful the year before and have a lot of players coming back.”
This year’s event includes four games that will be televised Monday on ESPNU (all times ET): No. 3 Wheeler vs. No. 25 Bishop O’Dowd (Oakland) at 11 a.m.; No. 6 Oak Hill vs. No. 11 Villa Angela-St. Joseph (Cleveland), 1 p.m.; Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas) vs. No. 4 Montverde (Fla.) Academy, 3 p.m. and Chaminade (St. Louis) vs. Paul VI (Fairfax, Va.), 5 p.m.
In last year’s NBA draft, 12 of the players in the first round had played games at the Hoophall Classic. In addition to top teams, this year’s event also includes 15 of the top 25 seniors in ESPN’s Top 100 list, including Ben Simmons of Montverde Academy and Jaylen Brown of Wheeler, considered the No. 1 and No. 2 recruits in the country.
One of the big draws for teams is a trip to downtown Springfield for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, which includes a high school section.
“I think it helps that the Hall of Fame sells itself,” Smith said. “Springfield is known as the birthplace of basketball and even if the players don’t know that, the coaches tell them. We have a locker in the Hall with some details on Oak Hill. I hear it is going to be updated with more recent pictures and stats. I don’t tell the players, but when they walk in, they say, ‘Coach, you got your picture in the Hall of Fame!’ The players all get a kick out of seeing that. I like the fact that the Hall includes high school basketball.”
The first two years, the event was held at the Western New England University in Springfield, but since 2004, it has been held at 2,000-seat Blake Arena at Springfield College, where James Naismith once coached. Procino said, even though the arena has to turn fans away, there’s been no talk of moving the event to a larger building.
“What makes Springfield college work is we can still maintain the high school environment with the smaller arena,” Procino said. “You can see how big and fast the players are. Having a full building helps create a buzz, plus, obviously, there’s a connection between here and the Hall of Fame.”