It was the summer of 2001 and I had just finished my junior year of high school. I received a phone call on my family’s home phone in Milwaukee, Wisconsin — it was a representative from Adidas. They called to invite me to be a participant at the famed ABCD Camp.
A prestigious camp held in Teaneck, New Jersey at Fairleigh Dickinson University, the ABCD Camp was established in 1994 and would continue to go on until 2006. The camp was sponsored by Adidas and run by legendary shoe company executive Sonny Vaccaro. Sonny’s main claim to fame was his role in the development and execution of Michael Jordan’s brand by Nike, Air Jordan. After leaving Nike he joined Adidas, where he was able to get the ABCD Camp rolling! Each year the camp was comprised of the top high school players in the country. In 2001, the NBA had not yet set the age limit restricting high school players from declaring for the NBA draft following their senior year of high school. Because of this, not only was every prominent college coach at this event, so were all of the NBA scouts and front office personnel. Needless to say, this was a big deal. At this point in time, the ABCD Camp was the mecca of high school basketball.
I was beyond excited to be invited to this camp, but I must admit, it was somewhat intimidating. Luckily I wouldn’t be going alone, as several of my good friends were also invited to the camp as well. My roommate at the camp was Dan Grunfeld, who was and still is one of my best friends. Dan is the son of Ernie Grunfeld who, at the time, was my dad’s boss and the general manager of the Milwaukee Bucks. Dan would go on to be a star player at Stanford, lead the (then) Pac-10 conference in scoring his junior year and have a successful career playing in Europe. Our good friend and my high school teammate, Coby Karl, was also with us. Coby is the son of George Karl, who was the head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks at the time. Coby would go on to play a few years in the NBA after starring at Boise State. The three of us were also teammates on the AAU team: Friends of Hoop.
Also with us from Milwaukee was Steve Novak, who has been a friend of mine since we were teammates on the AAU team: Wisconsin All-Stars — all the way back when we were in middle school. Once Steve and I got to high school we had some great battles our freshman and sophomore years when I was at Shorewood High School and he was at one of our conference rivals, Brown Deer High School. Steve would go on to team up with Dwyane Wade at Marquette and have a long successful career in the NBA. Milwaukee was definitely well represented at the ABCD Camp that year.
For whatever reason, I didn’t fly with my friends from Milwaukee. Instead, I flew by myself to La Guardia Airport in New York. When I landed I was met by an Adidas representative who drove myself and another player by the name of DeAngelo Collins to the hotel in New Jersey. DeAngelo Collins is probably not a name that will ring a bell for many people, but at the time he was a well-known player. As soon as I saw him I knew exactly who he was, although we had never met before. DeAngelo was one of the top-ranked players in the country and would go on to be a McDonald’s All-American and enter his name in the NBA draft after his senior year of high school. Unfortunately, he went undrafted, reportedly due to concerns of some off-court issues, and wound up having only a short professional career overseas. Regardless, I was impressed at the time to be sitting next to him in a van heading to the camp hotel. My nerves kicked up another notch thinking about the fact that at the end of that ride awaited the rest of the top high school players in the country.
When I arrived at the hotel, my friends from Milwaukee were there. We had to sign in, collect a bag full of Adidas gear, and have some photos taken. I remember when Dan Grunfeld and I finally got to our room we had a moment where we addressed how excited we were to be there. The whole experience was very exciting and fun, but intense at the same time. Whether it was the top-ranked player in the country or the last guy invited, we all wanted the same thing: to improve our stock. This was the biggest stage any of us played on at this point in our careers. It was an opportunity to move up in the player rankings which would subsequently lead to more scholarship offers or even interest from NBA teams for some.
Coby, Dan, and I had somewhat similar backgrounds in regards to having grown up around the game, as our dads and families all had careers working in the NBA. As I was growing up, my dad would often suggest that I “get some shots up” or do my “Pistol Pete” ball-handling routine instead of playing video games, but generally my family never really put a lot of pressure on me to be a great player. I never got the impression that Coby or Dan’s did either. However, I think I can speak for the three of us in saying that as a result of our family backgrounds, we all put a significant amount of pressure on ourselves. And at the ABCD Camp, I certainly felt the pressure, but had to shake off the nerves because it was “go time!”
The first night all of the players went to the gym for a welcome speech by Sonny Vaccaro. He spoke to the group to set expectations for the camp and gave some general advice. We then split up to join our assigned teams and had a light practice. That allowed us to meet our teammates for the camp and our team coaches. During that practice, the coaches tried to implement some basic offensive and defensive principles that they wanted us to play with, however, in reality, the camp was “pickup ball” with some freelance referees. My team’s head coach was Chris Grant, who worked for my uncle Pete, who was the general manager of the Atlanta Hawks at the time (I don’t think that was a coincidence). Chris started his career as an intern for my uncle after playing in college at the University of San Diego. He worked his way up and went on to be the Cleveland Cavs’ general manager years later. The top player on our team was Josh Smith from Atlanta, Georgia. He was a year younger than me but he was highly touted. A couple of years later Josh was selected in the first round by the Hawks, directly out of high school. He would go on to have a successful NBA career and be one of the top players for the Hawks for years.
Following practice, we returned to our rooms for the night. Dan Grunfeld and I talked about our teams. He told me about how good one of his teammates was. I had never heard of him before — his name was Carmelo Anthony.
The next morning we had a few things to do before live games began. First, there was a guest speaker, but not just any guest speaker; it was Kobe Bryant. He talked to us about some of his personal experiences going through a lot of the same things we were all going through as high school players at the time. It was really incredible to listen to a player that was currently living the life that every single one of us dreamed about for ourselves. To say Kobe’s talk was inspiring would be an extreme understatement. Although just a young guy at the time, Kobe had such distinct confidence and determination about him. It was truly a privilege to meet Kobe and listen to him speak.
Following the session with Kobe, the players had to take a prep ACT and SAT class. We were seated at tables with about a handful of players per table. I remember sitting with Travis Outlaw, who was a really funny, nice guy. Travis declared for the draft after high school and was selected in the first round in 2002 by the Portland Trail Blazers. He went on to play in the NBA and had a very good career. At the table directly next to me was a younger player that I did not know. He clearly wasn’t interested in that class (none of us were really…). Halfway through picking out his braids and leaving half of his hair in an afro, he decided he would lay his head down and take a nap. The teacher wasn’t happy about that and kept lecturing him, saying things like, “this is important, your future is depending on this” — something along those lines. Finally, the player sat up and said, “I’m going pro!” and put his head back down. Soon after I found out the player’s name was LeBron James.
Finally, the real reason we came to town was about to begin. It was time to “hoop.” The games began and it was great! There was so much talent in each game. I had the opportunity to share the court with future NBA all-stars Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, LeBron James, and Deron Williams, plus a number of other future NBA players. The gym was buzzing and it was quite the scene. “Oohs and ahhs” could be heard left and right. The stands were filled with famous coaches, including Coach K, Lute Olson, and Rick Pitino. NBA scouts and media members were busy taking notes and trying to find the next NBA star.
The actual gameplay was pretty sloppy, as expected. In any showcase type event like that, players will play “to get theirs,” and without much practice time, there really is not much of a gameplan to be executed. That resulted in poor ball movement and limited opportunities for a lower-ranked player, like myself, to have the ball in my hands. However, I think I played pretty well considering the circumstances. I shot a high percentage and even had one game in which I scored 15 points and hit a handful of three-pointers. Due to the limited opportunities, I was allowed offensively, I made an extra effort to be as effective without the ball as I could. One thing that I noticed was that the referees were very quick to call offensive fouls during this camp. So I made an initiative to get in the lane when players would drive to the hoop in an attempt to draw a charge. My strategy worked well, as I was able to draw several charges successfully. However, in one game I tried this tactic and the player on the other end was LeBron James. He laid one of his now-signature tomahawk dunks right on me. I flew back probably ten feet and the gym went crazy. That was my formal introduction to “King James.”
The 2001 ABCD camp has been well documented as the moment LeBron really broke onto the scene and the whole media frenzy began for him. His legendary battle with the number one player in my class, Lenny Cooke, happened at this camp. Dan Grunfeld and I were sitting together in the bleachers watching that game. I am happy to say that I was a “witness” to the making of one of the greatest stars our game has ever seen.
All in all, I did really well at the camp and I was able to generate more interest from schools which was my goal. However, almost 20 years have passed since that ABCD camp and the most valuable part, for me, are the memories that I will cherish forever.