CHICAGO — The McDonald’s All American Game roster is full of accomplished seniors ready to play for the best teams in the NCAA, but at one time, they were just young kids learning to play the game.
Some of the players, like Blackman’s (Murfreesboro, Tenn.) Crystal Dangerfield and Muskogee’s (Okla.) Aaliyah Wilson, got their start playing with their siblings. Bellevue’s (Wash.) Anna Wilson first time on the court was with her brother, but it was before she was even on a team. She was just three years old.
“My brother Harry was in a game, and I had run on to the court in the middle of the game,” she said. “They were in transition, and Harry picked me up, ran me over to my mom and ran back into the game!”
Marques Bolden (DeSoto, Texas) now stands at 6-foot-10. His towering height is one of the reasons he switched from football to basketball.
“Really, I didn’t even want to play basketball at first. I started out as a football player. My parents kind of had to push me into basketball because I outgrew the sport of football,” Bolden said. “My earliest memory is just learning how to play, learning how to run. I was always bigger than everybody else. It started at a young age.”
For a few of the All Americans, their talent was evident early. DiJonai Carrington (Horizon Christian Academy, San Diego) tagged along as her parents coached a high school summer team during the summer before third grade, and begged to play on the short-handed team. Her mom said no, at first.
“A player fouls out. Another player fouls out. Another player fouls out. I said, wellll, you’re down to four, I’m here,” Carrington said. “I scored 18 points or something ridiculous. I was about to be a third grader, and I said, ‘You should have put me in earlier!’”
“When I was six years old, I was playing up with 8 or 9 year olds, and I was the youngest guy on the court but I could shoot. It was fun! I was just the shooter. I had big feet, but I was little,” said Markelle Fultz (DeMatha Catholic, Hyattsville, Md.).
Other All Americans found their talent a bit later in their career. Kaila Charles (Riverdale Baptist, Upper Marlboro, Md.) shot the ball over the backboard at her first tryout. Nadia Fingall’s (Choctawhatchee, Fla.) first team didn’t win a single game.
“I did everything for the jersey. When I got my first uniform, I put it on and I stood in front of the mirror for like, an hour. I was so happy to have the uniform,” she said.
With a height of 6-foot-11, it’s hard to imagine a time when Udoka Azubuike (Potters House Christian, Jacksonville) couldn’t dunk a basketball. It was when he was in eighth grade, and he couldn’t help but smile when talking about the accomplishment.
“It was fun! I tried it up to 20 times before I was able to dunk. It was in practice. I was just screaming and excited! Everyone was happy for me,” Azubuike said.
Fultz said he will sometimes watch old videos of his young playing days that his mother has saved.
“It’s fun to see myself grow. Seeing how much I’ve improved showed me all I’ve got to do is work hard and believe in God and I’ll get where I want,” he said.