From Unknown to Unstoppable
For these five players, the summer circuit was the chance to announce their arrival
MICHAEL JORDAN, Laney (N.C.), Class of 1981
Everybody knows the story of how a 5-foot-11 Michael Jordan was cut from the Laney High varsity squad as a sophomore. Everybody knows how MJ used that snub to push himself to unprecedented heights. But often glossed over is the reality that the man they would later call G.O.A.T. didn’t go straight from JV to All-American without another game-changing experience.
In the summer between his junior and senior seasons, Jordan attended the Five-Star Basketball Camp in Pittsburgh and took his talents to another level. “The camp changed how I felt about basketball and my future,” Jordan would later say. “It was the turning point in my life.”
Still a developing teenager and still two years away from hitting his first famous game-winner for UNC, Jordan didn’t have the unstoppable turnaround jumper and wasn’t dunking from the free throw line (yet). In fact, MJ had to wait tables for fellow campers and coaches just to earn his spot at Five-Star. But that summer, as much as the famous story of not making his high school team, was really the beginning of what would become the most storied career in basketball history.
TRACY McGRADY, Mount Zion Christian (N.C.), Class of 1997
No player has ever made a name for himself as suddenly and as explosively as McGrady. T-Mac showed up at the 1996 Adidas ABCD Camp in suburban New Jersey—as the story goes—with $25 in his pocket and a reputation that meant nothing outside of little Auburndale, Fla. Over the next four days McGrady became a star, owning a camp that featured Lamar Odom, Quentin Richardson, Al Harrington, Schea Cotton and then-BMOC James Felton, considered one of the top players in the country that summer.
Dropping buckets that would foreshadow his two-year reign as the NBA’s leading scorer, the highlight of T-Mac’s breakout performance was a nasty windmill cram on Felton that has since reached legendary status. “After I made that dunk, I had chills running through my body,” T-Mac later told ESPN. “It put me on the map.”
But McGrady had more than just one dunk that week. Atlanta Hawks assistant coach Bob Bender, who was coaching the University of Washington at the time, told the Seattle Times, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone dominate quite like [McGrady] did. Every time he was on the court, he dominated. Literally, he took over the show every day, every period … You knew you were watching something special.”
AMAR’E STOUDEMIRE, Cypress Creek (Fla.), Class of 2002
Stoudemire busted out at the Nike camp and hasn't looked back since.
It was easy to see how so many people didn’t notice Amar’e Stoudemire before the summer of 2001. He didn’t start playing organized ball until he was 14 years old, then embarked on a journey that took him to six high schools before finishing at Cypress Creek. It was understandable that he’d get lost in the shuffle. But after the summer of 2001, nobody would overlook Amar’e again.The 6-foot-9 man-child raised eyebrows and created skeptics when he showed up to Nike camp in Indianapolis flanked by a pro bono publicist handing out 8 x 10 glossy portraits and news clippings of Amar’e to anybody who would take one, but Amar’e backed up the hype once he took the court and did, well, pretty much what he does today for the New York Knicks.
ERIC GORDON, North Central (Ind.), Class of 2007
Gordon might be the best “sidekick” in summer basketball history. Before his sophomore season at North Central, Gordon played in the shadows of Greg Oden with the Spiece Indy Heat AAU juggernaut. The summer before his senior year, Gordon hopped the state line to play for the Chicago-based Mean Streets Express, where he shared the backcourt with Derrick Rose. That pre-senior summer of ’06, however, Gordon definitely didn’t play like anybody’s second fiddle. He dropped 49 points on the Atlanta Celtics at the Bob Gibbons Tournament of Champions in North Carolina, and in three games against the SoCal All-Stars—the team that went undefeated for the summer and boasted future pros Brandon Jennings and Kevin Love—Gordon averaged 28 points per contest.
|Gordon thrived while playing alongside Rose.|
“In past summers, I haven’t shown all of my talent,” Gordon told Dime Magazine shortly after his Mean Streets run wrapped. “People always tell me I’m a good three-point shooter, but that if I learned to create I could do even better. I started doing that, and it made me hard to guard.”
LANCE STEPHENSON, Lincoln (N.Y.), Class of 2009
Of course the kid nicknamed "Born Ready" couldn’t even wait until high school to blow up on the national scene. In the summer between his eighth grade and freshman seasons, Stephenson went to the Adidas ABCD Camp and wrecked shop. As his father, Lance Sr., told Dime Magazine in a 2008 cover story, “Lance ran through all those other guys in the camp: Mike Conley, Corey Stokes, Taylor King, Scottie Reynolds … Lance outscored them, outplayed them. Out-toughed them.”
But the game that made Lance Jr.’s name was when he went head-to-head with O.J. Mayo. At the time, Mayo was arguably the best player in the country despite being just a rising junior. Although Mayo outscored Stephenson, many observers thought the freshman-to-be got the better of the reigning superstar. “It seemed like everybody was scared of O.J. or something,” Stephenson said in that Dime feature. “I’m like, ‘What are you scared about?’ When I got on the court and played against him, I just wanted to destroy him."
The New York City hype train ran almost out of control after the camp. Stephenson was on the front page of NYC newspapers that summer, and throughout his career at Lincoln was a national star and local superstar as he would eventually break Sebastian Telfair’s state scoring record, make the McDonald’s All-American Game, win Big East Rookie of the Year at Cincinnati, and fulfill his NBA dreams.