The "Reebok Basketball Breakthrough Challenge" is a free open tryout for athletes to be accepted to a national talent showcase.
I've been working in sports in the Washington metro area since 2008, starting with an internship at ESPN (formerly Sportstalk) 980. The following summer, I earned an internship in the New Media department for the Washington Mystics.
Working for the Mystics was an incredible experience. I did what I do here (learn and drop serious knowledge on sports) with some pretty awesome people (one of which I continue to work with here at WUSA). One such person was a local D.C. kid, through and through, who was born and raised in the District and was attending Howard University during our internship.
This kid knew everybody. We connected through our shared love of women's basketball and hip-hop music. We still talk to this day, well after a year after we graduated and two years since our internship.
My buddy has a habit of randomly messaging me over Facebook. Knowing about my job of delivering the most interesting perspectives and giving the most dynamic analysis of local high school sports, he asked if I wanted to check out a basketball combine hosted by Reebok. I figured I'd check it out since I could get more exposure to the younger ballers in the area as well as my daily basketball fix (it was an off-day during the NBA Finals).
The Reebok Basketball Breakout Challenge was implanted to be a way to boost the profile of less-visible high school players. In over 14 try-outs around the country, the top kids at each site are then invited to the national showcase at Philadelphia University, where they are evaluated by college coaches where they hopefully raise their recruiting profile and get on the radar for some schools. The Washington, D.C. try-out at Coolidge High had plenty of players battling out for an invite to Philly.
"There are some real tough-nosed kids playing real hard, showing their ability to play the game at the elite level, which is what we're definitely looking for," said Amos Leak, an event coordinator with Grassroots who helped organize and evaluate the tryouts with Reebok.
While the national challenge sounds like every other basketball showcase sponsored by Boost Mobile, Under Armour, NesQuik, and the local Thai restaurant up Wisconsin Ave., the FREE (players interested just need to register for their area's tryout online) open invites to the tryouts make the Reebok Breakout Challenge stand out from the crowd. The best way of putting the spirit of the Headliner tryouts: "finding that diamond in the rough."
"John Wall is a perfect example, he wasn't a big prospect coming out of high school and he needed the opportunity to blossom and become the player we all know he is now," said Leak.
A lot of the big time summer basketball showcases have deep ties with sponsors. The summer showcase culture has become so intertwined with corporate dollars that the showcases have evolved into mini All-Star games. With the kind of money sponsors pour into these showcases, the sponsor expects the best of the best playing exciting basketball, which can distract from the evaluation exercise. And often, these elite players are already being looked at by 30 schools or have already committed.
So for some players who are just beginning to make a name for themselves and don't have the AAU machine that's necessary to motor along their recruitment, the Breakout Challenge proves the perfect opportunity for players like Rockville High's sophomore point guard Ty White. White heard about the Breakout Challenge through a former teammate.
"I'm just trying to get my name out there and get coaches to look at me. I want to show I can be a good point guard that can lead a team, get my teammates in the game, and score when I need to," said White.
By the time I rolled into Coolidge's gym, the tryout was in the midst of fitting in as many games as possible. Free throws and ticky-tack fouls were tossed out as the goal of the tryout was to get players like White as many games against as many different players as possible.
Now the tryout invites players to the national 5-day camp in Philadelphia on a need-only basis. Over the weekend, the camp decided to select five players and one alternate. One was Obie Oleka, a power forward out of Prince George's County with great hops. I caught up him with after he dominated one of his games, and you can check out my interview with Oleka and some of his highlights in the video.
But you've got to give credit to the brain trust who thought up a free tryout for high school players to have the chance to attend a high profile national camp. You also have to hand it to the players for getting out there and pushing toward their future. College recruitment is a tough process where a lot politicking and schmoozing are critical elements and it's refreshing to see the process be decided on the floor.
"(The players) need the opportunity to prove themselves, it's not about politics, it's about playing the game," said Leak.
Like a wise man once said, "Ball don't lie."