It was like a scene from Hoosiers, a 1986 sports film that tells the story of a small-town Indiana high school basketball team that wins the state championship.
The North Carolina Tar Heels were pretty much what I expected as they went through their pre-game routine – stretching, drills, swishing jumpshot after jumpshot, enough dunks to make the crowd at the gym start the “oohhs and aahhhss” before the game even started.
The Providence Storms, the local team on the other side, looked like three dudes shooting around, completely nonchalant.
You would never guess that they were about to play the five-time national champions.
It was just a few minutes before tip off and the Storms had enough players to suit up and put together a semblance of a bench.
In races this tall, lanky athletic kid who seemed to get bigger and bigger as he approached the court. “He’s here,” I said.
“Who is?” John replied, setting up his camera at the same time and not bothering to look up. “Ayton.”
He hustled to change into his uniform, awkwardly fumbling over himself in the process trying to sheepishly apologise to his coach and explain why he got to the game so late.
It’s almost as if he’s totally oblivious to the fact that he’s playing in a summer league exhibition game back home and is about to have the entire basketball world in the palm of his hand.
He’s nearly 7’0 feet tall, 220 pounds. He’s just about to go into the 10th grade. He’s one of the best basketball prospects in the Class of 2017. He’s Bahamian.
This is DeAndre Ayton…and this is how legends are born.
Ayton got pushed around in the paint early on as you expected any high school kid to be playing against polished collegiate upperclassmen, but once he got his feel for the game going, he finished with 17 points and 18 rebounds to lead the Storms to a shocking 84-83 win over the Tar Heels.
No one could contain him on the boards.
Not projected 2015 lottery pick Justin Jackson (Freshman: 19-years-old, 6’8? 190 lbs), not top returning rebounder and projected first round pick Brice Johnson (Junior: 20-years-old, 6’9? 210 lbs) and not Kennedy Meeks (Sophomore: 6’9? 280 lbs).
JP Tokoto led the Tar Heels with nine boards, exactly half of Ayton’s total.
On the offensive side of the ball, Ayton scored in every way possible – dunks, putbacks, jumphooks, midrange jumpers and even a three pointer during a late 7-0 run as the Storms staged a late rally for the comeback win.
I spoke to Ayton after the game and his humbling, unassuming personality is nearly the polar opposite of what his game is like on the court. He’s also started to say a lot of the cookie-cutter basketball interview catch phrases that all great players have.
“It was great competition. I’m a really competitive person. We fought through it, we had to dig deep and really challenge ourselves, but we were home so it’s good that we were able to fight back and get the W.”
Superstar cheap pops! It’s like the second step to success in a 10-step process.
It’s been a whirlwind tour for Ayton on the grassroots summer basketball circuit which included stops at the Nike Peach Jam, Fab 48 tournament and the Lebron James Skills Academy, but said it’s always a pleasure playing the game where it all started for him.
“It mean’s alot. I like playing at home. This is where I’m from, it’s my roots” he said, “I just try to represent and use what God gave me to give back. That’s it.”
Entering the 10th grade at Balboa Prep in San Diego, California, Ayton has shot up the recruiting ranks and has become the most sought after by every major division I NCAA programme.
Despite all that being thrown at a teenager from the Bahamas, Ayton remains grounded.
“I just put God first in everything that I do. I try not to get big headed and to slow everything down. I’m young, but it’s good for us to start from young and build our game up through the young kids here. That’s the only way we will get better.”
He has the physical tools that places him somewhere between a wing and a big as he still figures his game out and grows into his frame.
Ayton has the ideal frame and physical gifts for a big man prospect and the kind of coordination that you rarely see out of a kid that size and age.
But he has got a long, long way to go in his development.
I’ve been hearing anecdotal tales about this kid since he was 12 years old at the Jeff Rodgers summer basketball camp. When Ayton was just a towering spectacle for all the other sixth graders.
There’s a picture on Facebook of a 12-year-old Ayton at the camp in a Ricky Williams jersey. He recently commented under the pic on Facebook “I’m waaayyyyy better at basketball now.”
A slight understatement.
The UNC game was my first time to see him in person and what a first impression it was.
Best case scenario – I become the Howard Cossell to his Muhammad Ali, the Marv Albert to his Reggie Miller, the Brian Windhorst to his LeBron.
Worst case scenario – My son Kaizen and I become lifelong Ayton fans complete with the ultimate fandom package: “father/son” trips to games, jerseys, shoes, signed memorabilia and the first of what I hope is 1,000 personalised stories.
“Remember the time Ayton ran in two minutes before tipoff and dropped 17 and 18 and beat North Carolina. He wasn’t even a high school sophomore yet.”
I’m just here to see what happens next, and to record this legendary tale one feat at a time.