Baddest Summer Team Ever
The best summer team of all-time? It's tough to argue against the 2006 SoCal All-Stars
Three years before he would be picked No. 10 in the NBA Draft, four summers before he would lead the Milwaukee Bucks to the playoffs as a rookie, Brandon Jennings showed a glimpse of the five-frames-ahead vision that makes him one of basketball’s best playmaking point guards.
It was back in 2006 when Jennings, then a rising high school junior, was asked about his AAU summer team: “In the next four years, all of these guys will be pros,” Jennings said.
He was mostly right. The players he spoke of comprised the core of the Southern California All-Stars, better known as the SoCal All-Stars. And in 2006, they went on an incredible run, ripping through the AAU circuit undefeated in 47 games. In the annals of summer basketball, SoCal put itself in the argument next to the 2003 Atlanta Celtics (Dwight Howard, Josh Smith, Randolph Morris) and the 2005 Speice Indy Heat (Greg Oden) as teams considered the greatest of all-time. To many, SoCal holds the crown as No. 1.
Led by head coach Joedy Gardner, SoCal beat the best teams the country had to offer. They beat teams who shouldn’t have been on the court with them. They beat teams hailing from everywhere from Alabama to Illinois, on courts from Oregon to North Carolina. Whoever, whatever was placed in front of them, SoCal always came out with the W.
“It was fun,” Jennings says. “Everybody was after you every game. A lot of people came to see us play. And it was fun to play with Kevin, Taylor, Malik, Daniel and Renardo.”
That would be then-senior center Kevin Love, who went from Lake Oswego (Ore.) High School to UCLA to NBA All-Star status with the Minnesota Timberwolves; senior wing Daniel Hackett, who went from St. John Bosco (Bellflower, Calif.) to USC to a pro career in Italy; sophomore forward Renardo Sidney, an All-American at Fairfax H.S. (Los Angeles, Calif.) who is projected to be an NBA draft pick whenever he decides to leave Mississippi State; junior wing Malik Story, who graduated from Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) and is a starter at the University of Nevada; and senior sharpshooting forward Taylor King, whose winding road took him from Mater Dei H.S. (Santa Ana, Calif.) to Duke to Villanova to this past season playing for Concordia University, an NAIA school in California.
Along with Jennings – who played at Dominguez High in L.A. before transferring to Oak Hill and then playing one year professionally in Italy before entering the NBA – they formed the deepest collection of teenaged talent ever assembled on one AAU team. And despite where their careers went after ’06, remember, all six core players were bona fide stars in high school. Had SoCal been an actual high school team, they could have challenged the legendary Dunbar (Baltimore, Md.) squad that boasted future NBA players Muggsy Bogues, Reggie Lewis, David Wingate and Reggie Williams.
|King was a high school star, but sacrificed his game for the SoCal team.|
With so much star power at their disposal, SoCal was able to play any style and succeed. “The thing with having so much talent is we had a lot of options,” says assistant coach Kelly Williams, father of former UConn and NBA point guard Marcus Williams. “We were able to adjust to whatever teams were trying to do.”
Kelly Williams also credited the team’s unblemished record to the character of the players.
"It’s tough to get all-star caliber kids to accept roles and take lesser roles for the betterment of the team," Williams says. "But they understood and were willing to do that. I believe that was the key to everything."
King and Hackett were prime examples of that team-first attitude. King had the entire offense run through him at legendary Mater Dei, yet with SoCal he was basically a spot-up shooter. Hackett averaged close to a triple-double for St. John Bosco, but often came off the bench for SoCal.
“Most AAU teams are put together with guys that are stars on their own respective (high school) teams,” Williams says. “It’s less structure, just rip-and-run and see who can score more points. That wasn’t our philosophy.”
Malik Story is familiar with playing on stacked teams. At Artesia (Calif.) High School, where he played before transferring to Oak Hill, the 6-5 scorer teamed with Sidney and future NBA Lottery pick James Harden of the Oklahoma City Thunder. At Oak Hill, he played with a number of Division-1 college recruits. At Nevada this past season, Story was one of four players on the Wolf Pack who tied for the team lead by averaging 13 points per game.“Basically, you just have to put your ego aside, put yourself aside, and do what you have to do to win games,” Story says. “It’s a lot more individual (in AAU play), with guys trying to get scholarships and stuff, but it wasn’t like that with us.”
King was the longest-tenured member of the squad, playing with SoCal his entire prep career. “(Before ’06) we didn’t practice a lot, we just showed up and played,” King said. “(In ’06) we concentrated on practicing, and it paid off.”
SoCal showed the full spectrum of its dominance at the Bob Gibbons Tournament of Champions in Chapel Hill, N.C. In the final game, they routed the always-tough New Jersey Playaz by 20 points. To a man, every SoCal player and coach interviewed for this story said the team hit its peak that weekend.
“We knew we were the best, we won every game, and we stuck together,” Love says. “I’d say the biggest thing for us was just coming out and playing as a team. We had the best chemistry out of any AAU team.”
SoCal’s other defining moment came at the Reebok Big Time Tournament in Las Vegas. Featuring almost 300 teams in the field, Big Time was the country’s largest summer basketball showcase, one of the crown jewels of the AAU system. Playing against a D-1 Greyhounds team led by future pro O.J. Mayo (Memphis Grizzlies) in front of a crowd of more than 5,000 spectators, SoCal took a 20-6 lead before winning an 84-53 clinic. Jennings was the primary defender on Mayo, and held the high school All-American to just 10 points while forcing seven turnovers.
In other games during its summer run, SoCal was known to destroy teams by 30 and sometimes 50 points per game.“It was ugly,” Jennings laughed, looking back. “It was real ugly.”
It wasn’t always easy, though. Playing against the D-1 Greyhounds another time in Oregon, SoCal barely won a game in which Mayo dropped 43 points. Another time they escaped Alabama’s SW Elite squad by just one point, a game in which they trailed by 17 in the first half. And earlier at the Reebok Big Time Tournament, SoCal edged out Chicago’s Mean Streets Express by six points, holding back future pros Derrick Rose (Chicago Bulls) and Eric Gordon (L.A. Clippers).
“They just have a loaded team,” said Gordon, whose AAU team had lost to SoCal three times that summer, five years ago. “Everybody is good … all 10 of their ballplayers are good. They’re loaded from the starting five to the five coming off the bench. Just from every aspect, they were off the charts.”
Understandably, the tons of highlights have in time blurred together over time for members of that SoCal team. “A lot of Kevin’s outlets, a lot of people knocking down threes in crunch time … me going through the lane and dunking on people. We did a lot,” Jennings says.
Inevitably, SoCal gained villain-like status on the summer circuit. Because just as the New York Yankees, USC football and Duke basketball can attest, everyone wants to see the top dog fall on his face.
“Everyone wanted us to lose,” Story says. “Especially at the (Kingwood) tournament in Houston and (Gibbons T.O.C.) in North Carolina. Toward the end of the summer, we realized people didn’t want us to win.”
Their wishes were never granted.