The basketball gym at Riverview Park in North Augusta, S.C., is nothing fancy. It’s the type of sprawling, multi-purpose gym you’ve been to a million times. A place to hold indoor soccer games, summer hoop camps, or a Friday night co-ed volleyball league. It’s your run of the mill suburban rec center that allows weekend warriors to shake off the dust of another long workweek and get out and run. This all changes, however, for one week every July. That’s when the best basketball players in the world under the age of 18 descend on North Augusta to compete in the most prestigious AAU tournament there is. They call it the Peach Jam.
As you can imagine, for better or worse, NIKE has their fingerprints all over the Peach Jam. The flagship tournament marks the culmination of the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League (EYBL), which is effectively a group of prestigious AAU basketball tournaments run by NIKE designed to highlight the athletes NIKE hopes to one day sponsor. In the end, it works out for everyone. Nike puts on the tournaments, players get exposure, and college coaches get to see all the best talent of tomorrow crammed into one gym competing against one another.
Last year’s Peach Jam headliner was undoubtedly Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins. Widely considered the best high school player to come along since LeBron James, Wiggins fell one point short in the tournament championship. He lost to California-bound Jabari Bird.
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Playing for the Oakland Soldiers, an AAU team LeBron once played for extensively, Bird found his team down 50-49 with under 10 ticks on the clock. Bird was guarded by Wiggins on the left wing, when the ball came his way. Without hesitation, he rose up and fired off a three with everything on the line. Wiggins couldn’t help but commit a foul. Bird calmly strode to the free throw stripe, in a sweltering South Carolina gym in July, under the watchful eyes of the Mike Krzyzewskis of the world, and calmly drained the game winners.
Sure enough, before Bird could even board his flight back out to Oakland, North Carolina – Bird’s dream school -- came calling.
“My dream school growing up was North Carolina. I wanted to be just like Jordan,” explained Bird in his high school coach’s office. “They came on too late though. I remember right after we won Peach Jam, I’m on my way home, and I get a text from one of their coaches offering me a scholarship. It was kinda crazy. UNC was a school I always watched growing up. But I had to say no. It was too late.”
Indeed, the 6-foot-6 swingman, who’s always made sure to wear number 23, had worked his whole life to receive that text. For someone to offer him a chance to follow MJ’s exact footsteps and play for the Tar Heels. But Jabari is serious when he says it was too late. The Vallejo, Calif., native had promised to be a Golden Bear, and No. 23 is a man of his word.
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In order to connect the dots and fully understand where Bird developed his respectful demeanor, his cool confidence and his Jordan-esque smile, it helps to walk the halls of his alma mater, Richmond (Calif.) Salesian. Located in the heart of Richmond, the private school of 451 students shares a fence with the neighboring Richmond High School located just steps down the road. The quaint Catholic school features manicured lawns at the base of intelligent architecture. Students walk the halls in traditional school uniforms, while the administration is quick with a smile to the rogue stranger passing by. Principal’s Timothy J. Chambers popular slogan is “come and see,” and to be sure, the school’s excellence speaks for itself.
On the day I visited with Jabari, it was the second day of a new school year at Salesian. The back to school hustle and bustle didn’t stop Chambers from corralling me into his office for a chance to discuss the attributes of his latest student done good.
“He was great,” says Chambers with beaming pride. “I can say that without a qualification. He was a leader. In the hallway, in the classroom, wherever he was. His language, his style, he had no pretense to superiority at all.”
It would be hard to blame Bird for having said pretense, considering his presence on campus. The main entrance to the school opens up to the a trophy case featuring the State Championship trophy Jabari won as a junior in 2012. Down the hall, a conference room is adorned by a blown-up photo of Bird in a McDonald’s apron from a photos hoot he did following his selection as a McDonald’s All-American. Yet despite all this pomp and circumstance surrounding the 18-year old, it hasn’t seemed to have gotten to his head.
Bill Mellis, a former team manager for the Bears basketball team during the Jason Kidd era and current Pride head coach, jumps at the chance to speak fondly of his former player both on and off the court.
“I’ll just say that for someone that was as recognizable and in the limelight, he is very down to earth. He loved his senior class. Not just the basketball players, but all the way down to the teachers. He treated everyone with respect and didn’t walk around like he was better than anyone else. One of his first year’s here, during a spirit week, he came in a full on purple Teletubby costume. He can laugh at himself. He was never above anything.”
If our location for an interview was any indication (cramped in the back corner of Mellis’ “under-construction” basketball office) Jabari’s reputation for humility in the face of humungous hype certainly seems to hold weight. With his never ending legs and Inspector Gadget arms coiled up like an accordion on his old coaches’ couch, Bird is at ease discussing the long arch of his basketball career.
The son of a San Quentin Prison guard, Jabari had his old man around in the afternoons to rebound for him when he was itching to get some shots up in the family’s backyard. That’s because his dad, Carl Bird, worked the graveyard shift, in part to have more time to spend with young Bari. It also didn’t hurt that Carl knew his way around a basketball court himself. A 6-foot-8 forward who led Cal in scoring twice during the 1970’s, Carl was drafted by the Golden State Warriors and eventually cut out a long career for himself in professional leagues overseas.
“My dad always worked with me in the backyard. It would then go to HORSE, and he would always beat me in HORSE, then it went to one-on-one. I’m a little kid, and he’s like 6-foot-8, 240, a big guy, but he wouldn’t let me win. He wasn’t about letting me win. That definitely helped me with my competitive edge.”
Not only did Jabari benefit from patterning his game after his father, he also remembers becoming infatuated by the Greatest Of All Time, Michael Jordan, at a very young age. It just so happened that the youngster grew up to be the same height as MJ, with a similar body-type and style of play.
“Growing up I just watched Michael Jordan videos all the time. I mean, who didn’t want to be like Mike? I remember watching him in the Finals versus Utah. Just as a little kid next to my mom, imitating his moves on the couch, trying to do whatever he did. I even watched Space Jam all the time. I had all his DVD’s. Everything.”
Inspired by Jordan like so many his age, Bird became consumed with the game of basketball, playing any chance he got. Whether it was an outdoor playground in Vallejo, inside at the Mare Island Sports Center, or at an AAU tournament with the Vallejo Hustlers, Bird was rarely seen during his youth without a basketball under his arm.
When it came time to pick a high school to attend, Bird chose Benicia High. A relatively unknown program, Bird’s reasons for attending Benicia were threefold. The school was relatively close by, all his friends were going there, and the coach was the son of Al Attles. The same Al Attles who drafted Carl Bird onto the Warriors decades earlier. After experiencing a five inch growth spurt the summer leading up to his freshman season, Bird became a breakout player for Benicia averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds playing against guys four years older than him. It wasn’t long before he got his first call from the Oakland Soldiers.
“I remember the Soldiers called me after my freshman year, and I knew who the Soldiers were. Carl Foster called me. I was super nervous at the tryout. When I walked into the tryout I saw all these elite guys like Jabari Brown, Dominic Artis, etc., and I was thinking, ‘I’m not supposed to be here.’ I don’t want to say I was star struck. But there was just a lot of talent in the gym, Aaron Gordon, everyone. Initially, I didn’t feel like I belonged there.”
Whether Bird felt he belonged or not, he turned in a great performance at the tryout and was able to make the squad. With an alumni list of players that include LeBron James, Drew Gooden, Chauncey Billups and the like, there was no understating how big of a deal it was for Jabari to become a Soldier. For the next three summers, Bird would tour the United States, stopping off at an array of elite tournaments to play the best talent the team could find. Alongside him the entire way was Aaron Gordon, the current Arizona Wildcat who won California’s Mr. Basketball award twice while at Archbishop Mitty in San Jose.
“I was motivated. On the Soldiers I was never known as ‘that guy.’ When people talked about the team I played on, in my age group, it was always about Aaron Gordon. And Aaron is a good friend of mine, but at the same time, I see him as a rival. Any accolade he got, I wanted it too. Being on the same team as him pushed me to work hard because I wanted everything he had. I wanted be seen on the same level as him.”
It was during that first summer with the Soldiers that Jabari met point guard Mario Dunn. An electrifying player in his own right, Dunn had just finished his first year at Salesian, and continually sung the praises of the school and the basketball program in front of Bird. Because Bird’s coach at Benicia had recently been let go, Jabari figured why not head over to Salesian and chase down a state championship with his buddy Mario. He eventually achieved just that, but not before being embroiled in an alleged recruiting violation.
In what by all accounts was a mix up in the bureaucratic paperwork of the California high school athletics governing body, it was deemed illegal that Jabri had talked to Mario about Salesian before enrolling in the school. Forced to succumb to the “Pre-Enrolment Contact” rule, Bird’s Salesian team had to forgo six of their wins that they earned at the beginning of the season. Coming back from a brief suspension, Bird, Dunn and current Oregon point guard Dominic Artis were able to make it all the way to the Division IV State Championship game only to fall short at Arco Arena. The next year, with Artis gone to a Las Vegas prep school, Bird broke through and brought home the elusive State Championship trophy back to Richmond.
Following his subsequent Peach Jam title over Andrew Wiggins, Bird returned home last summer with the world at his fingertips, literally. Virtually any school in the nation had their doors wide open for Jabari, should he have chosen to walk through. Ultimately, he chose to be a Cal Golden Bear, becoming just the fifth McDonald’s All-American to come to Berkeley, joining the likes of Shareef Abdur Rahim, Leon Powe and Jason Kidd.
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“Cal was the first college to offer me a scholarship when I was a freshman at Benicia. Honestly, that meant a lot to me. I came into high school as an unknown player, and as soon as I started putting up numbers, Cal came calling and offered me. After that, Washington and Arizona and other schools started calling. But I was always the type of guy who knew he wanted to stay close to home.”
By staying home, Bird became the most heralded Bay Area high school senior to stay local for college since Leon Powe went from Oakland Tech to Cal. Stanford and Cal’s rosters have largely been made up of talent from Southern California as of late, not to mention St. Mary’s looking all the way to Australia to fill out their roster. Last year’s NBA Rookie of the Year -- Damian Lillard -- from Oakland High, ventured out to Utah to play for Weber State in lieu of staying local. It’s a trend Bird is excited to try to change.
“That is one of my goals. To show kids from the Bay Area following in my footsteps that you don’t necessarily need to go away to play college ball. You can be an All-American, stay close to home, and still accomplish your dreams. Jason Kidd did it, Leon Powe did, I want to do that too.”
While not every superstar from Northern California stays local like Bird, there will be a host of local hoopers doing damage in the PAC-12 this year. Artis from Salesian will be running the point for Oregon, Gordon is poised to dominate at Arizona, and Darin Johnson from Sacramento is set to breakout at Washington.
“The Pac-12 should be awesome to watch this year,” says Jason Lincoln, a videographer from the hit YouTube site Yay Area’s Finest. “I’ve watched a ton of basketball in the Bay Area over the years, and this is definitely one of the best senior classes I’ve ever seen.”
Lincoln, along with Yay Area’s Finest head honcho Travis Farris, has been filming highlight videos of Bird, his boyhood friend, for as long as he can remember. It’s a passion project that Farris and Lincoln have pushed to become what is now a famed YouTube channel that attracts a cult following of basketball lovers.
“Those guys have been filming me since I was in the ninth grade. I’m all for it and I love supporting it. I think its cool because people say they have all these highlights and want them to get out and Travis and Jason are always there. If you put on a show, YAF is going to put it out.”
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Highlight tapes aside, Jabari knows full well that if he expects to send Cal to the Final Four, or find himself on an NBA roster, he has his work cut out for him. Bird’s best attribute is his mid range game. Using his length and smooth athleticism, Bird should have little trouble in college getting off one dribble pull up jumpers and finishing lobs in transition. But there are still some holes in his game that he must fill in order to play at the highest level. Namely defense and ball handling. Two things Coach Mellis believes Jabari will sure up, so long as he buys into Mike Montgomery’s no nonsense style over in Berkeley.
20 years ago, Bill Mellis shared the huddle with Jason Kidd as the Cal Bears knocked off the two time defending National Champion Duke Blue Devils. He watched the magician that is J Kidd pick apart a seemingly helpless Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill. Duke’s chance at an historic three-peat evaporated, while Cal marched on to the Sweet 16. The Sports Illustrated cover photo from that game is prominently displayed in the Salesian basketball office still to this day.
As I finish talking to Bird and he uncoils from his seat in his coaches’ office, Jabari lets out one of his signature smiles as he discusses his Unit 1 freshman dorm arrangement at Cal. Mellis has walked those dormitory halls a thousand times. Eaten at Top Dog down the street, gone to Memorial Stadium every Saturday. More importantly, he’s seen and heard the Harmon Gym crowd explode with noise and spill over onto Bancroft Avenue after another “You had to be there” performance from Jason Kidd. As Mellis and Bird embraced each other a week before Jabari headed off to college, they both knew. They knew the story of the coming years about to unfold was going to be filled with unexpected twists and turns, gut wrenching defeats and historic victories. They both knew it, and were ready for it to begin. But for now, the two could just smile.
Connor Buestad is a former catcher for the Cal baseball team, and currently publishes Section925.com.