During pandemic, travel basketball makes its comeback in Atlanta

For the first time in three months, Ja’Heim Hudson banged for rebounds, powered his way to the basket and ran the floor on a fast break. A power forward from Wheeler High, Hudson played his first live basketball game since he helped the Wildcats upset Grayson High in the Class AAAAAAA state championship in early March.

“I definitely wanted to play,” Hudson said Saturday morning outside of Alumni Hall on the former campus of Point University in East Point (now located in West Point). He had just finished playing his team’s first game in an AAU tournament, held at two metro Atlanta locations. “It felt real good – the competition, the environment, everything. It’s our last year doing this, it’s like we’ve got to do it.”

A few hours later, standing outside the Suwanee Sports Academy on the other side of metro Atlanta, another young basketball player expressed similar satisfaction in his return to the hardwood. It was El Dunbar, a rising sixth grader from Lilburn. He likewise was playing in his first tournament since the coronavirus pandemic brought sports at all levels to an abrupt halt in mid-March.

“I missed being out there with my teammates playing basketball,” said El, whose Promise Elite travel team was one of more than 100 competing in the “Showcase of Champions” event.

The two had the company of hundreds of basketball players in at least three events in metro Atlanta this past weekend. While it’s a sport played in a confined space in which social distancing is impossible, competitive youth basketball in Georgia has made its return during the coronavirus pandemic. Travel basketball games have been joined by other organized youth sports such as baseball, softball, tennis and golf. Even before most professional and college athletes have returned to their games, younger counterparts have laced up and jumped back in with the permission of parents willing to accept the health risks.

“A lot of parents have made the decision that, ‘I’m not going to (wait) indefinitely,’” said Mike Eddy, president of Suwanee Sports Academy in Gwinnett County. “And so they’ve gotten to the point where they’ve said, ‘You know what? Yeah, we’re going to play again.’”

The event at Alumni Hall – dubbed “The Opening” – was the first event since the mid-March sports shutdown put on by On the Radar Hoops, an Atlanta-based tournament organizer and scouting service. The tournament attracted 29 teams, including entries from Alabama, Florida and North Carolina.

One of them was Atlanta Xpress, one of the most prominent AAU teams in the state. Coach Winfred Jordan said he agonized over the decision to enter his team, weighing the risk of exposing his players to the coronavirus against the benefit of giving them a different sort of exposure – to college coaches.

“We’ll use this as a vessel to get them seen a little bit, but it’s a very complex situation, choosing a $45 basketball over someone’s life,” Jordan told the AJC.

But on the other hand, Jordan went on, the potential reward for playing and being seen is a four-year full scholarship. Jordan said he would have his team play only three events total this summer and then shut it down.

When the NCAA stopped competition in mid-March, it also enacted a recruiting “dead period,” meaning that college coaches could not visit with or evaluate prospects in person. Aspiring high-school athletes in all sports have felt the impact, including basketball players who often play a series of summer tournaments where college coaches can watch hundreds of prospects in a weekend.

Tournament organizer Shun Williams devised a workaround – streaming the games so college coaches could watch them online. More than 150 college teams, including Georgia, Georgia Tech, Georgia State, Kentucky and North Carolina, signed up.

“I think we’re going to watch a lot,” Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner said. “What else are we going to do?”

With only uncertainty ahead for the rest of the summer and the high-school season, Jordan said that the kids enthusiastically wanted to play. The parents had questions, weighing the same risks and rewards that Jordan did, but none pulled out.

“It’s one of those situations where we are afraid, but we’ve got to do this because if we don’t, then what happens with a free education?” Jordan asked.

Perhaps the state’s most prominent team, the Georgia Stars, did not play in The Opening, although they likely will later this summer.

“We’re not trying to prevent them from playing,” coach Norm Parker said. “We’re just trying to protect them and make sure it’s a good situation.”

In the gym, the Atlanta Xpress and Game Elite teams demonstrated the skills, size and athletic ability that have made Georgia an abundant recruiting territory. Thunderous dunks, no-look passes and swished 3-pointers punctuated the action, a feast for college coaches.

There also was plenty to open an epidemiologist’s eyes. Players leaped, body on body, to grab rebounds. Ballhandlers dribbled into the lane, drawing contact. Players sat side by side on the bench. Coaches gathered players together during timeouts for instruction. Players yelled to each other, called out screens, shouted their approval from the bench when their on-court teammates made plays. Referees huddled together during breaks. Among game participants, none wore masks.

There were precautions taken. All entering the gym had their temperatures taken. All involved in a game, including spectators, were directed out of the gym through a side door as soon as their game ended. Mask wearing was encouraged. People with COVID-19 symptoms were told to stay home.

About 50 people watched from the stands – two sections of six rows along one side of the court. Perhaps one-third wore masks. Groups kept their distance from others. As soon as the game ended, one masked woman in a lime-green shirt quickly left the gym, evidently keenly aware of the risks inherent in sitting in the enclosed space.

Made aware of the conditions, Bob Bednarczyk, an assistant professor of global health and epidemiology at Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health, described the risk of the spread of the coronavirus by unmasked fans breathing out virus-containing droplets or asymptomatic players doing the same by calling out to one another in close contact.

He said that given the increase in cases in Georgia and neighboring states, there was “a high chance” that infected individuals may have been in attendance.

Game Elite won easily, led by Hudson, who showed a deft scoring touch while using his size to his advantage. Hudson, who holds five scholarship offers to mid-major schools, was keenly aware of his online audience, saying the opportunity to play before college coaches was necessary. As for the health risks he was taking on?

“No, sir, it wasn’t on my mind at all,” said Hudson, speaking through a mask. “Playing the game how I know how to play it.”

The Game Elite-Atlanta Xpress game wrapped up just before noon. A one-hour car ride later, the basketball action was similarly packed at the Suwanee Sports Academy, a seven-court facility covering 100,000 square feet. Upon arrival, so was the parking lot, where boys in uniforms filed out of different exits to the facility – like The Opening, teams and spectators had to leave after their games ended – for a debriefing from their coaches.

Most of the competitors at the event were not yet to the point of needing to play for scholarships. Jennifer Ellis, from Union County along the Georgia-North Carolina border, shared her and her husband’s play-or-not debate with her 13-year-old son Jude. There were health risks, she said, “but he loves to play.”

The Ellises took their precautions. They wore their masks in the stands. Jude took off his uniform when his game ended and sprayed it down with Lysol. He used hand sanitizer. His mother praised the social-distancing measures put in place at the sports academy.

“So for us, it’s helping him do what he wants to do, but trying to make sure everyone’s safe,” Ellis said.

Eddy, the facility owner, said that the sports academy was following guidelines set forth by the CDC and the state. Opening the gym back up, he said, was an accommodation of the demands of tournament organizers, teams and parents. He noted that the Georgia International Convention Center, owned by the city of College Park, was back running similar tournaments also, and that kids are convening at camps, soccer practices and in other more informal settings.

“Parents are ready and kids are ready to get back to some sort of normalcy,” he said.

On Saturday afternoon, Lisa McCoy of Snellville sat on the top of a bleacher, recording her 11-year-old son Rylan as he played for Promise Elite. She wore a mask and made sure Rylan washed his hands and had his mask on before and after the games. She also found comfort in the safety measures being taken at the gym and was glad to have Rylan back playing basketball.

“Kids just want to have fun, and they don’t understand it at this age,” she said.

At the tournament, there were about 115 teams from six states besides Georgia, with teams ranging from rising fourth-graders through rising high-school seniors. The tournament operator, Next Generation Sports, established social-distancing guidelines for those watching the games. In three-row metal bleachers, the middle row was taped off. Fans were required to wear masks, though it proved difficult to enforce.

After having her forehead scanned at the entrance, one woman walked into the facility and immediately pulled her mask off her face. Staff wiped down player seating between games, but not always the bleachers. At one point Saturday afternoon, there were 72 people watching games on two adjoining courts. Of them, 25 wore masks in proper form.

At any given time, there were 14 teams of perhaps 10 players each, along with one or two coaches. On top of that, there were perhaps 40 people watching each game. Courts were rotated about every 70 minutes. That meant that, at the busiest part of the day, waves of roughly 440 people were entering and leaving the facility. The event began Friday evening and ran until Sunday night.

There was no lack of eager participation. Bednarczyk, the Emory epidemiologist, wrote that he understood the desire to play for scholarships and to experience pre-pandemic normalcy. But he also stressed that it was not a time to let down one’s guard.

Wrote Bednarczyk, “As we keep seeing cases increase, I am concerned that large gatherings such as this will play a role in rapid spread of coronavirus to a large number of people.”