I have grown up watching the McDonald's game every year. It was a must-watch event for myself and many young basketball fans across the nation. This game is the showcase event as to who will be the next stars in college and the NBA. When it was announced the game would be in Chicago, Illinois, I knew it was a great opportunity to attend high school basketball's most exciting event.
As the high school basketball recruiting analyst for InsideIllini.com, I was granted access to the entire week of McDonald's activities including the practices, slam fest, media session, and the game. I will take you with me on a trip of the entire week's activities.
The players arrived in Chicago over the weekend, and their first event was a visit to the Ronald McDonald House. The players get to understand the true meaning of this game while interacting with kids who are the game's benefactors. Players commented throughout the week how it truly put the game in perspective for them.
It was then on to Attack Athletics for the first practice. I arrived about 40 minutes before practice and was surprised to be the first media member or scout in the building.
Attack Athletics is a first class facility and features four courts divided by curtains that come down from the ceiling. Both the boys' and girls' teams would be practicing on the four courts. On the first day, the two boys' squads would be on the middle courts. I grabbed a prime spot where I could catch both teams at the same time.
I realized many of the top talent evaluators including Scout's Evan Daniels and Brian Snow would be on hand. What I didn't expect was every NBA general manager and hundreds of pro scouts in the building.
On the first day, the one and only Larry Bird of the Indiana Pacers sat by me evaluating the talent. Approximately 10 of these players will be selected in the first round of the 2012 NBA Draft, and this was the first opportunity for many of the player personnel decision-makers to scout them in person.
The players walked in front of us, and right away people started writing down notes on body types. One of the funnier moments was when one of the girls glanced up at the bleachers and saw Larry Bird. She stopped and yelled "That's Larry Bird! I'm from Indiana and a huge Pacers fan!"
Famed trainer Tim Grover ran the players through a warm-up exercise. It might seem meaningless to some, but you can tell the difference in attitudes of the ones taking it serious and others just going through the motions. These are little red flags important to evaluators and scouts, showing work ethic.
They then broke up into teams and began installing base offenses for the week. The coach of the West squad was Westchester St. Joseph High School coach Gene Pingatore. He is one of the truly great coaches in the state of Illinois. He has coached the likes of Isaiah Thomas, Evan Turner, Demetri McCamey, and current Illinois 2014 prospect Paul Turner.
The East team was coached by the staff from Mt. Vernon High School in New York. They would not arrive until the middle of the Monday practice.
Right off the bat, the player who stood out was Adonis Thomas. Thomas shot the ball well and used his athleticism to get to the hoop. Chane Behanan looked impressive physically and had several monster dunks. Michael Gilchrist showed he has all the intangibles you could ask for in a prospect and is a winner with toughness.
After practice, the preliminaries for the dunk contest to be held Monday night at the Jam Fest were held. The players crowded around the half court line and one by one would attempt dunks for about half an hour. The athleticism and creativity was high. Problem was, the field goal percentage of the dunks made might have been 20%.
Day two of practice began bright and early at 9:30 am Monday morning. The setup would be different than the previous day. The boys would be on the two opposite far courts. This meant the media and scouts were to either run back and forth to watch both teams or focus on one team.
I sat in the chairs lined up on the sides of the court along with the NBA scouts. It was exciting to look down the line at all the decision-makers in the NBA and scouts who will make decisions affecting these players' futures.
At the start of the practice, I focused on the East squad. Bradley Beal of St. Louis Chaminade High School is effective shooting off the bounce and in catch-and-shoot situations. North Carolina commitment James McAdoo was particularly impressive on Monday, making several nice mid-range jump shots including some bank shots from the wing.
I then ran over to the opposite court to check out the West squad, and Kyle Wiltjer was lighting it up from the perimeter.
The next event on the agenda was the Jam Fest at Chicago State University. The competitions start before the ESPN cameras start rolling. They have preliminaries to narrow the field down before the television viewers see the competition.
The first drill was the skills competition where the boys ran through a course of shots, passing, and ball handling. The winner was Michael Carter-Williams. What viewers at home didn't see in the preliminary round was Carter-Williams struggling on the top-of-the-key shot, which cost him valuable time.
He then went to a spot where he was supposed to pick up a ball, but it was not placed there. There was confusion when he finished the drill. They decided to allow him to re-do the course, and he qualified in the top group. He went on to win it in the finals!
In the three point competition, Wiltjer continued his smooth stroke into the contest and took home the trophy.
Then the real event, the dunk contest, began. Marshall Plumlee showed the athleticism I had witnessed in the practices. He made a couple impressive early dunks, including one with the assist of future teammate Quinn Cook.
Austin Rivers took off his jersey to reveal an old-school Atlanta Hawks jersey of his father and current Boston Celtics head coach Doc Rivers. He then did an impressive windmill dunk on a pass from himself.
In the finals, Oklahoma State commit LeBryan Nash brought out a big orange OSU Cowboys hat to wear when he did his dunk. He would win the competition.
Overall, the dunk contest was filled with many bad passes by other All-American teammates and guys attempting dunks they couldn't really complete. After the contest was over, fans ran on the court to get autographs.
Day three began with another early morning practice at Attack Athletics. I again sat with several NBA scouts and general managers along with Scout's Evan Daniels and Draftexpress's Jonathan Givony. We chatted about feelings on the top prospects.
Givony is a big fan of several players at the game and their ability to be high draft choices in 2012. We also talked about how he helped me with a school project about the NBA Draft when I was in high school. Neither of us could believe it had been six years since we first met.
The battle for the top spot in the country would be on full display between Anthony Davis and Rivers. Rivers is a cold-blooded scorer who lights it up with his jump shot. Davis is an athletic big man who can finish around the hoop with tip dunks.
Plumlee is more athletic than I thought and showed that by running the court great and finishing with strong slams, doing pull-ups on the rim.
After the final practice concluded, everyone headed over to the United Center for Media Day. Media Day is an informal lunch/interview session with the players where they sit down and eat lunch with the media. There are several areas set up for television interviews, or the press could go up to the players' table.
I talked to most of the players throughout the week at practices but spoke with many of the players again at the media day. The players receiving the most media attention were Rivers and Davis.
One of the surprising aspects of Media Day was the attention the Canadian players received and how many media from our neighbors up North came to the game. It was fun to see the future of basketball and all members of the media in the same room chilling out over sandwiches and talking hoops.
Wednesday was the big night. I arrived about an hour before the girls' game was to tip and checked in at the media entrance. I headed down to the floor to get a feel for the atmosphere of the game.
I ran in to Northwestern's Scout reporter Chris Emma on the floor. We headed up to the press box where our seats would be for the night.
This was the first time I had worked in a professional press box at a major venue. We grabbed a prime spot in the first row next to Canadian Tariq Sbiet and Floridian Joey Brander. The girls' game tipped off at 6:30 pm with the stadium about ¼ filled.
The boys' game began around 9:20 pm. Beal started off hot with seven early points. Rivers would respond in the battle of the top two shooting guards in the nation.
The real story was hometown product Wayne Blackshear stepping out on the floor in the starting lineup. The previous day I had seen his arm in a sling, and the diagnoses was a dislocated shoulder that occurred earlier in the week. He played only eight minutes, but it was great to see him out there.
There was a point in the first half when it hit me: I'm at the McDonald's All-American Game, which I have watched since I was five years old. The pace of the game was up and down as all-star games tend to be.
At half time, I went down to meet with 2013 super recruit Jabari Parker. Walking around the concourse on my way to see Parker, I ran into many of the top young prospects in the state of Illinois including Illini recruiting targets Billy Garrett, Paul Turner, and Milik Yarbrough. It was good to see Chicago's finest young talent out to see where they want to be down the line.
I caught up with Jabari and his parents. We chatted about the first half, Simeon's state title, and his plans to play with the Ferrari 17 and under AAU team this summer. There is no doubt that Parker will be one of the headliners of the McDonald's Game in two years.
I headed back up to the press box to catch the beginning of the second half. During one of the television timeouts, they brought out the "next big thing" in Chicago hoops for a dribbling display. He is 5'-2" 6th grade phenom Jaylin Fleming.
He appeared on Lopez Tonight, crossing over NBA legend Reggie Miller. Stories have been written about him on national websites, in newspapers with millions of readers, and on other television shows. I went down to talk with Fleming about the experience at the McDonald's game.
"It was real fun. It felt like I was Derrick Rose because I was on the United Center floor."
He also discussed how he is handling all the publicity.
"I think I have good family members that guide me to be humble about this stuff."
He is extremely mature for a middle school kid and has handled all of the hype in stride. I then headed back to the press box to catch the remainder of the game. The East team would go on to win 111 to 96.
The game's co-MVP's were McAdoo and Gilchrist, who scored 16 and 17 points respectively. After the game I headed down to the press room, and on the way I ran into the infamous William Wesley who is better known as World Wide Wes.
He is said to be the most powerful behind-the-scenes man in basketball and has strong ties to many of the top players in high school, college, and NBA. There was much talk this past summer about him playing a major role in LeBron James's free agency decision. I also saw Boston Celtics head coach Doc Rivers on the way to the media room.
The press conference began with the five top players in the nation Rivers, Davis, Beal, McAdoo, and Gilchrist taking the podium. This was another one of those moments when I realized these five players have been battling against each other for the top spot in the class of 2011 for years and now were sitting together at the McDonald's All-American Game.
There were hundreds of media members and television cameras gathered around the table to talk with the players. You could tell that even with all of the attention these guys have received over the years, a few were still a little nervous about the situation.
After the press conference, several hundred media members gathered in a small hallway outside the team's locker rooms. As the players walked out they would grab players and start doing interviews in the tight quarters.
Players I spoke with after the game included Davis, Rivers, Myck Kobongo, Khem Birch, and Blackshear. Blackshear said the doctors told him if he wanted to he could play limited minutes, but to just be smart out there.
I said goodbye to fellow media members Daniels, Dave Telep, Givony, and Dan Poneman as they headed their separate ways on flights across the country. Emma and I made our way up the elevators one final time and headed to the parking lot. The McDonald's All-American Game week was finally complete.
I have to say it was truly one of the best experiences of my life to mingle with the top players and media members in high school basketball as well as many NBA scouts and general managers. I'd like to thank all of the people who helped me throughout the week, especially the head of media for the game Brittany Gorniewicz and her staff for doing such a great job all week.
This game is a first class event. I hope you enjoyed this behind-the-scenes look at the most prestigious game in high school sports!