by RENALDO

Day one is always the most intense.

For the last 15 years, during a three-day stretch in April, the St. George’s Jaguars’ Gymnasium undergoes a transformation from a regular high school multi-purpose complex, to a venue for hope trafficking in its purest form. This may not be the genesis of these hoop dreams, but this is where those dreams begin to manifest into reality. “Off for ball” is no longer a lofty unattainable pipe dream. It’s right there, literally within arms reach with dozens of scouts are just feet away with an eye trained on your every move.

The Darrell Sears Showcase has become a rite of passage for some of the top basketball players in the country on their path toward playing the game at the next level. Teammates become competitors, rivals become cheerleaders and intentions get crossed between support and cutthroat dream chasers as they all chase a limited number of potential scholarships.

Groups of players hopped off a flight and headed straight to the gym with just enough time to grab a jersey and throw on sneakers before their name was called to hit the floor. When chasing a dream, there’s no room for excuses and delayed flights or little to no rest no longer matter when you walk through the St. George’s doors. It’s an opportunity to show and prove. Right away, you get the sense that competition becomes family…until the first jump ball.

Sears (center) shares a moment with his Jaguars team during the Grand Bahama championship series

In the mid-1990s, Sears, the longtime coach of the Jaguars, began the practice of travelling with his team to the United States to gain exposure for his players. Since then, he has been able to forge a network of connections that now affords a greater number of players those same opportunities by showcasing their skills at home.

“An idea turned into a dream from years of travelling to the United States for the sole purpose of helping young, talented basketball players. We attended the Gerald Snider’s events in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama in 1998. We also attended Ken Littlefield’s event in Atlanta, Georgia in 1999,” Sears said, “Along with coach Greg Munroe, we took a group of kids to our first basketball showcase. Over 150 college coaches were present at this event. We also took a team of kids along with coach Kenton Rolle to Kansas to attend one of Jerry Mullen’s showcases. This is where we learned what a showcase was all about. We learned a lot from Ken Littlefield and Jerry Mullen in terms of exactly how to run a successful showcase.”

In 2002, the group created a showcase of its own and brought a new take on the recruiting culture to the Bahamas.

What makes this year’s group special is that this is the first generation that has known nothing but the showcase being the standard bearer for spring recruiting. Most of this year’s participants were toddlers when the first showcase took place so they grew up wanting this moment. Since then they’ve seen some of the top players in the country earn their first opportunity at advancing their careers based on their showing at this event. To them, it’s now commonplace to be able to showcase their skills to foreign coaches in a home atmosphere. The showcase generally includes underclassmen, seniors and unattached post-graduate players with eligibility remaining. The reason they keep coming back and is because the results speak for themselves.

Showcase alumni include some of the most recognised names in Bahamian basketball over the past 15 years and in particular, the best players out of Grand Bahama.

Some of the past participants in the showcase include  Magnum Rolle, Kadeem Coleby, Kentwan Smith, Garvin Hunt, Buddy Hield, Lourawls Nairn Jr, Kentwan Smith, Prince Cooper Jr, Travis Munnings, Nathan Bain, Kenneth Taylor, Andre Sands and Dwight Coleby. Scores of other players have received scholarship opportunities to join high school, junior college, division II and division III programmes across the United States.

Nashad Mackey competed at the 2016 showcase. This past season he was named the Mid-Florida Conference Player of the Year and was also named First team All-State in the conference for the Daytona State Falcons.

Of all the alumni to participate in the showcase over the years, no name garners more attention and is more critically acclaimed than Buddy. Hield participated in the Sears showcase when he was a member of the Sir Jack Hayward Wildcats. He received a scholarship opportunity to join Kyle Linstead’s Sunrise Christian Academy Buffaloes in Witchita, Kansas and eventually earned a Division I scholarship to join the Oklahoma Sooners en route to the NBA.

When he accepted the Oscar Robertson Award during Final Four weekend in 2016, Hield touted the showcase as his big break. He followed through by connecting with the 2016 group of participants at the apex of his fame and media attention as he prepared for the NBA Draft last summer.

“It all started for me there six years ago and all these things that came to me it didn’t just happen, I had to work for it. I thank God for coach Sears and the showcase and the timing. I’m in a position where everyone wants to be but I couldn’t do it by myself. I had a lot of help, family, a lot of coaches and God as the main focus of my life,” Hield said to the group, “I’m thankful for Coach Sears having this showcase where I was able to go out there and perform. All it takes is two days to play well and it can give you a chance. This has all been a blessing.”

The connection to the alumni and their belief in the showcase process helps with brand recognition and continues to attract the top players. This year, Cooper, Munnings and Smith sat in the stands for much of the event, sharing stories, critiquing players and acting as a tangible reminder to the participants of what do you once you’ve made through the programme  – you give back.

Smith’s performance at the showcase led to a scholarship opportunity to join the Piney Woods School in Mississippi and eventually a successful career at Stetson University. He currently plays with BC Nokia in Finland’s Koriisliga.

“The showcase helped me a lot. They give you a lot of exposure that you don’t really get in the Bahamas so it really helped me to get seen to get off to school and helped to progress my career,” he said, “These kids have a lot of raw talent and you can see it right away. They just need a little guidance and a little skill development, but they have a lot of potential. What they need first of all are the exposure and more opportunities.”

Munnings just completed the best season of his collegiate career with the University of Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks where he and Cooper spent the past two seasons as teammates. Another showcase participant, Calvin Anderson, will join the Warhawks programme this fall.

Munnings’ went to Sunrise Christian following his showcase appearance and Cooper followed Smith to Piney Woods.

“This is the start for a lot of guys, so the showcase is huge. There aren’t any fans, but you still learn to really play under pressure because these games mean so much because it gives you a chance to really start to think of a basketball career outside of the Bahamas,” Munnings said, “That’s why it’s important for us to just be here and to give back and to just make ourselves available to them if they have any questions concerns or want to know anything about the process, because we’ve done it. For us to be here and for them to see what the sport can do for you I think it shows that these aren’t just dreams, but you can make it a reality if you work at it.”

Approximately 60 players participated in this year’s showcase, which featured scouts, coaches, and representatives from 25 high school and collegiate coaches in the United States, ranging from JuCo to Division I. It hosted coaches from Robert Morris, Southern Mississippi, Arkansas State, Stetson, Arkansas-Little Rock, Louisiana-Monroe, Stephen F. Austin, Texas A and M Corpus Christi, St Petersburg Junior College, Miami Dade Junior College, Paris Junior College and Edward Waters University. There were also four high schools out of the US and a representative from a Canadian college in attendance. In addition to the players to receive offers, an additional 10 drew strong interest and are on the fast track for future opportunities if they are unable to capitalise immediately.

This year’s tournament also had another new addition as a pair of former participants signed their letters of intent to attend institutions in the United States.

Shaquillo Fritz signed on to join the Arkansas State Red Wolves while Qyemah Gibson made it official with the Miami-Dade Sharks.

Sears has a John Calipari like aura about him when he talks about the true measurement of the showcase and his entire programme’s success by the number of young men that have made the progression to play basketball at a higher level.

It takes a less than five-minute conversation with him to tell how he acquired this network of coaches. Like Calipari, he has a natural gift of gab that compels you to listen to his message and once he’s in, that message resonates.  While other coaches want to preserve some semblance of the game’s traditional measurements, Sears has embraced the now and acquired that coveted “players’ coach” unofficial title.

“I’m never going to be the coach that has the record for winning the most national titles, or Hugh Campbells or get to be the head coach of the most national teams. Those things are great and they make for a great resume but that’s not what I think makes you a successful coach, a successful mentor to these young men. I don’t need the stories saying coach Sears led a team to win this or win that, but I want them to record how many players got an opportunity to play at the collegiate level and earn an education or to play professionally because they were seen at this showcase. That’s how we measure success here. If we don’t win another title but we get 10-15 young men to capitalise on their opportunities and fulfil their dreams through basketball, that’s successful.”

Sears (right) accepts the national title trophy from BBF President Charles Robins (left) surrounded by his Jaguars team.

The similarities between Sears and Calipari don’t end there.Both are lamented for not reaching the arbitrary goal of “enough” titles to settle barbershop arguments.  After years of coming up short with promising teams in the Hugh Campbell and finishing as runners-up in last year’s National Championship, Sears led the Jaguars to the 2017 national title.

Ahmard Harvey emerged as a star for the Jaguars alongside Howard Hinzey, the Nationals MVP. Both players rose to the forefront after Sherman Robinson left to complete high school in the United States.

“Many of these guys can stay and we would be favourites to repeat, but that’s not what any of this is all about. That doesn’t help their future. Sherman could have stayed, but if he did then we don’t see what Ahmard turns into, maybe we don’t see Howard win the MVP. Davonte Jennings can stay another year, but he’s young and talented, he made his impact and it’s time for him to go,” Sears said.

Coaches and scouts sit elevated (literally) taking notes, watching intently through every scrimmage, every drill and the way the players carry themselves off the court.

Sherman Robinson at the 2016 showcase. He partcipated again in 2017 after spending last season playing in the US.

“We are excited because a lot of kids got opportunities this year. We were concerned it wouldn’t come off the way we anticipated, but God is so good and he just allowed good things to happen. We had more than six kids offered scholarships on the spot at this showcase and that has never happened before. Usually, the process is coaches go back and reevaluate what they have to do, but this year was different with offers on the spot, that was a first. Just like it was a first having the signings here with Shaquillo and Qyemah. We are excited about the growth,” Sears said, “We have done our job as local coaches. I’ve been here long enough to say I’ve heard coaches say ‘Oh my God the kids from the Bahamas are so athletic, but, the skill level is not quite there,’ now I’m hearing the skill set is improving. I know our programme at St George’s is making a concentrated effort to make sure we develop those areas and the other local coaches have as well. We used to hear ‘they don’t understand the terminology’ now guys are really understanding the game. It lets us know that the Bahamas is moving in the right direction, all we need now is a true sports development programme. I applaud coaches doing their own thing but we need a plan. We cannot wait until they become Buddy Hield but we need a true concentrated effort to get those results.”

With the weight of their future on their shoulders and under a trial by fire for three days, you forget the fact that these are just high school kids and they just want to play. Literally, all day long. You learn most about them in the down time when impromptu games of 1-on-1 breakout with no concern for actual rest periods in between the games that actually count.

Each generation has their proving grounds. Our fathers and grandfathers had the Priory and the Darell Sears Showcase is gaining an equal level of reverence with this generation. The first two days are for the scouts and getting noticed enough to make the cut as the number is reduced to about 24 participants for the final day. Day three is all about trash talk and bragging rights, for the selected few, the few that earn the right for that final look.

By then, most scouts have made their decisions and this is the day you set out to prove them either right or wrong playing your best among the best.

To get there, to reach the brink of realising a hoop dream turned reality….you have to get by day one first.

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