Up close: A first-hand view of Bennett Ball

PULLMAN -- My dad tells me stories about going to Cougar Cage Camp back in the 70s. One of the best tales is how George Raveling would rip UW shirts off the backs of any camper dim enough to wear purple on the Palouse. I recently left our home in Chelan to attend Tony Bennett's Cougar Basketball Camp, hoping with all my heart that it would be just as good as its famed predecessor.

Coach Bennett didn't remove anyone's t-shirts, but I can tell you he awoke the echoes of those great Raveling cage camps.

The camp was outstanding.

The first thing that hit me as I walked into the gym was the number of kids that were chuckin' up threes and dribbling around. There were a lot of bodies walking around in hightops.

"Our first year here we only had about 60 kids and every year we have gone up about 10 people," Coach Bennett told me in a gym-side interview. "As we head into our sixth year, we have about 140-150 kid campers. It has been very exciting to see."


The old Raveling Cage Camp was "the" camp in the Northwest.

"People still talk about it (Cougar Cage Camp) -- they had huge numbers and it was the camp to go to in the state of Washington," Bennett says. "Those types of camps aren't as popular now just because kids have so many other things to do, so we try to run a high-quality camp."

He says he's kicking around some possible changes.

"We are thinking about making it an overnighter or even a 3 on 3 camp that leads into the Spokane Hoopfest."

As camp progressed, I noticed how involved the Cougar players were and how much they enjoyed being around the campers.

My dad shares memories of having breakfast with 7-foot-2 James Donaldson and being coached by former Cougar point guard Brad Jackson (who, by the way, has more than 400 career victories as head coach at Western Washington).

Now I have stories of my own to tell.

"I love being around kids and making them smile," first-team All-Pac-10 performer Kyle Weaver told me. "When I was little, I know that I looked up to the older guys at camps and I am just trying to return the favor."


Weaver even refereed one of my games. He seemed to be all over the camp. So did Derrick Low, Robbie Cowgill and Daven Harmeling.

"I just love to help kids improve their game. I love being around kids, love watching people who love the game. It takes me back to when I was a kid and it is fun to watch the little kids because they have so much energy," said Cowgill.

Harmeling, as a kid, tried to go to as many camps as he could. "I loved playing just a week straight of basketball. All the competitions just brought out the best in me and I just the loved the competition aspect of it, the free throw contests, all of the contests I just loved being competitive."

Coach Bennett said the camp is as important to the staff and team as it is to the youngsters. "It helps us stay in touch with the kids who are our fans -- it's important for them to have contact with the players and it helps kids learn how to play the game."

IT'S EASY TO SEE WHY the fundamentals are so obvious in a Bennett-coached team. At the camp, the focus was on fundamentals. There's not a camper out there who won't hear Coach Bennett's voice in his head this season: "Legs, Elbow, Reach."

That's the three-step process to developing good shooting form. Coach Bennett was so committed to instilling this into our heads that the autographed photographs he handed out were inscribed, "Tony Bennett, L.E.R."

We also did plenty of ball handling drills and basic shooting drills to improve our fundamentals. The drills were not always the most entertaining, but we knew that if the Cougs did them then they would directly benefit our overall game.

The one part of the camp that hit me the hardest was the closing ceremony on the last day. All of the counselors brought us together and told us to walk down the hallway to Bohler Gym. Once we were all there, they dimmed the lights and turned on the music that teams use when they introduce players.

Then all the Cougar players lined up at the middle of the court in a little "tunnel" and one by one each of the 150 campers were introduced. For me it was exciting to see the look on my little brother's face as his counselor announced, "...and now from Chelan, Washington ... Travis Eller." Travis then ran through the tunnel and high-fived all of the Cougar players. After each camper was introduced Coach Bennett shook their hand and gave them a basketball. The closing ceremony solidified in my mind that this camp was one of the best camps I have ever been to!

While I obviously wasn't able to attend the old Cougar Cage camp run by George Raveling like my dad, I do feel that the current program under Tony Bennett has put together a camp that will one day be just as legendary. I think that when I have kids they will wish that they could attend the camp of the coach who turned around Cougar basketball. GO COUGS!!!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Hayden Eller, 14, is a ninth-grader-to-be from Chelan, Wash., where he's a multi-sport standout. His addiction to crimson and gray started six years ago when he attended his first game at Martin Stadium, a Cougar win over Idaho. His father, Jeff, is a 1985 WSU graduate. Hayden has named his dog Butch, and currently is working to turn his little brother and mom into avid Coug fans.


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