To the unaccustomed player, the biannual basketball tournament held at Richard Grossley Junior High School—better known as IS-8 (as in Intermediate School 8)—can be intimidating. For starters, it's a taxing trip to the Jamaica, Queens-located school; without the aid of a car, the journey from the nearest NYC borough can take over an hour.
Added to the stress of reaching the school is the actual size of IS-8’s gym. Its physical dimensions give off the vibe of an era where fouls were only called if blood was drawn. Translation: The tournament has an old-school feel. In the 40 years that IS-8’s founder, Pete Edwards, has been watching basketball at the school, the gym’s physical dimensions have only changed slightly. “When I was a kid, the gym was even smaller," he says. "At one point, I extended the floor on each sideline another two feet to make more room.” Second translation: The crowd is intimate—and vocal.
And then there is the nature of the tournament’s slogan: Bring Your Game, Not Your Name. The six-word mantra, coined by Edwards in the early 1980s when the tournament was in its beginning stages, is everywhere. From the coaches who evoke it on the benches, to Edwards and the other MCs who spontaneously create nicknames while also providing occasional commentary, to even the final words when one reaches Edwards’ voicemail, the phrase is simple and direct: If you don’t show up to play, you will be embarrassed and everyone will know about it. However, Fordham coach Tom Pecora says Edwards is very respectful when he calls a kid out. Take, for instance, the NBA’s current king, LeBron James. The superstar was a highly regarded 17-year-old when he showed up in Jamaica in 2002. The IS-8 masses knew James could play but, in Edwards’ words, “weren’t scared of him.” James only scored 15 points in two games and did not have a nickname-worthy run.
That history and environment will permeate throughout this spring season and while local NYC kids play through the two-month grind to make it to the 'primised land' - the IS 8 Semifinals and Championship - some teams have a history of bringing in the best players from around the country (like LeBron) for the finale. In fact, everyone remains tight-lipped about who might show up on the court this season.
Though most acknowledge that IS-8 as we know it started in 1984, the gym has been home to basketball tournaments since the early 1970s. As a child, Edwards recalls watching the adult leagues that paced the court and vividly recalls officials being forced to bend back rims after an Al Skinner dunk. After graduating college, Edwards returned to the neighborhood that, he says, was in sore need of a recreational outlet. So with the help of the a city councilman, Edwards was able to form a tournament for kids in the area.
Edwards’ intentions were noble but the tournament circa 2011 is in not reflective of what was around in the early 80s. Simply put, just like the gym, the tournament was a small affair back then. “I grew up in Long Island,” says Gary Charles, the New York Panthers’ director and coach of the outfit’s IS-8 squad. “Pete Edwards or someone tried to reach out to me but I had never really heard of IS-8 before.” Charles and the rest of the NYC-area based coaches quickly learned, though, that Edwards’ tournament was a must-attend event. “One of the first summers we played, we sent a younger team to play and they got their butts kicked. We realized this was a good tournament. We needed to bring the big boys,” recalls Charles.
And that has led to incredible growth. LeBron's team—Juice All-Stars, coached by Lincoln H.S.'s Tiny Morton—included Sebastian Telfair, Chris Taft (Pittsburgh), Ramel Bradley (Kentucky) and Jermareo Davidson (Alabama). They lost to a team coached by Charles that included Daryl "Showtime" Hill (St. John's), Taequan Dean (Louisville) and the Villanova trio of Curtis Sumpter, Allan Ray and Jason Fraser, which came back from 22 down.
Over the past five years, the event has continued to morph into a national affair. LeBron’s attendance in 2002 was just the tip of IS-8 becoming nationally relevant; the big deal came in 2006, when half of the UConn’s 2006 recruiting class (Hasheem Thabeet, Stanley Robinson, Jerome Dyson and Doug Wiggins)—all from outside NYC—faced off against Wayne Ellington and Gerald Henderson, high school teammates in Philly who went on to UNC and Duke, respectively. The even draws plenty of talent in the crowd; “We never did advertising,” says Edwards. “But it’s more national now. Players and coaches hear the word all over because they all want to come to New York to play.”
Charles agrees with Edwards’ assessment and believes the proliferation of future college teammates on the IS-8 court has helped ease college coaches’ anxieties about not being able to attend each weekend. “When I saw Thabeet play in those 2006 games, I called a UConn assistant and told him not to worry if Josh Boone declared early for the draft. They didn’t need him; Thabeet was going to be that good,” remembers Charles.
All the buzz raises the question of what Edwards might do next. Could he give up his day job with the New York Housing Authority to pursue a full-time career running other basketball-related endeavors? No way, says Edwards. "At work, I am still called Mr. Edwards. I wear a shirt and tie and I don’t see that changing any time soon."