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Hawks gives the average kid a chance for tournament play

Team Impact’s Oddyssey Murray (center) tries to break through Blitz’s defense for a score during the Atlanta Hawks Youth Classic at the LakePoint Champions Center. Photo by Phil Skinner
Team Impact’s Oddyssey Murray (center) tries to break through Blitz’s defense for a score during the Atlanta Hawks Youth Classic at the LakePoint Champions Center. Photo by Phil Skinner

Two Atlanta Hawks executives wanted to give a basketball tournament experience to young players — regardless of their athletic talents, years on the court, or their family’s ability to pay.

And they scored big when more than 1,000 youngsters showed up in Bartow County for the state’s largest, free-to-register, inclusive, three-day youth basketball showcase that ended Sunday.

The Atlanta Hawks Youth Classic tournament featured 80 basketball teams of youths 14 and under from metro Atlanta and across Georgia, including Macon, Columbus and Savannah. Some out-of-state teams participated, too.

It was just what Jon Babul, Hawks vice president of basketball development, and Chris Jacobs, director of the team’s basketball academy, were shooting for.

Babul said seeing the “positive spirit around the tournament” among players, coaches and parents were most enjoyable to him.

“There were lots of smiles, and a ton of community support with parents coming out and sitting in the gym all day,” Babul said. “It was a really positive environment.”

Both Babul and Jacobs said they have fond memories of tournaments they played in when they were young and just learning the game.

“I’m 42 years old, I’ve been around basketball my entire life, played my college ball at Georgia Tech, and I can still remember my first-ever travel tournament at 10 or 11 years old,” said Babul.

Commuting to an out-of-town tournament and hanging out with his buddies helped nurture his love for the game, he said.

Jacobs, too, said traveling to an away game, competing on the court and developing relationships were unique experiences for him, and he wanted to give these to other kids.

Tournament play is now the norm for youth travel teams, but the pay-to-play model isn’t accessible for every young athlete. It’s expensive – with team entry fees ranging $250 to $850 – and that’s leaving some kids behind, Babul said.

Jacobs said the Hawks Foundation wanted to generate excitement around youth basketball by sponsoring a first-class tournament and opening it for all kids.

The Hawks put the word out to coaches and youth leagues for sign-ups and quickly filled the 80-team limit.

The action took place on 12 hardwood courts at the state-of-the-art LakePoint Sports Champions Center in Emerson. Registration costs were covered by local attorney Ken Nugent’s “Score for Scholarship” program through the Hawks Foundation, and the Hawks donated T-shirts to all participants and champion game hats to division winners, among other freebies.

An Elite Division filled up with the more competitive travel teams, while an Open Division drew teams from YMCAs, parks and rec departments, and church leagues.

The Youth Classic also included an eight-team bracket of athletes from Special Olympics Georgia and special athletes from two other states. A team of special athletes from South Carolina made the trip in two Clemson University football buses, thanks to Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney, said Dean Keener, senior vice president of business development at LakePoint Sports.

While the tournament centered around basketball, it was much bigger than that, Keener said. “This created a lot of excitement around the state for youth basketball, but I think people came away with a lot more than just winning and losing,” he said.

Former Hawks player Tony Delk snagged one of the Open Division spots for his seventh-grade boys’ team. As a youth coach, Delk said tournament play gives his young players more exposure and helps them develop their game.

“When you go to these tournaments, it’s an opportunity to get closer as a team,” Delk said. “That’s what I enjoyed as a player. When you play with guys for a few months, they become like your family.”

Babul said the organization would consider making the Youth Classic an annual event. “It was a success for sure. We’re very happy with the final product,” he said.

WINNERS

Atlanta Hawks Youth Classic winners of each division:

• 14U Boys Elite – Tri-City Elite

• 14U Girls Elite – Strong Center 2024

• 14U Boys Open – Freeze

• 14U Girls Open – Georgia Pistols

• 12U Boys Elite – Relentless

• 12U Boys Open – 360 Ballers

• 12U Girls Open – FBC Blitz

• Special Olympics Georgia – Just People

Winners of the 14U Girls Elite (Strong Center 2024) and 14U Boys Elite (Tri-City Elite) qualified for the Jr. NBA Global Championship Southeast Regional, which is set to take place at LakePoint Sports Champions Center in June.