For a handful of area basketball players, the season never ends.
When high school competition finished up in March, the Gainesville Wildcats’ season was only just beginning.
“There’s no down time,” said Lee Chapman, who has coached the team for six years. “The minute high school finishes up, we start practicing.”
The Wildcats are an AAU basketball team based out of Gainesville. The team practices twice a week and competes in national tournaments on the weekend.
It traveled to Orlando, Fla., on Wednesday and will begin play in the Memorial Day Classic beginning Friday at Disney’s Wide World of Sports. The Classic is a national tournament that will host around 400 teams, and will be watched by nearly that many college scouts.
It’s a schedule most of the players have become accustomed to, having been a part of the team since middle school.
The team is comprised of players from a number of area high schools: Brian Edwards, Hayden Chapman and Daniel McCravy from East Hall, Ebo Smith from North Hall, Keelan Passmore from Chestatee, Chase England and Reed Tipton from Gainesville, Coby Durden from Buford, Tyler Dominy from Dawson County, Connor McCullough from Habersham Central, and Hunter Atkinson from West Hall.
Edwards, who has been on the team since sixth grade, said there’s nothing else he’d rather do.
“We love playing basketball,” he said. “It’s fun being able to play year-round. We work on our skills and get prepared for the high school season. It’s great.”
Despite the devotion to the sport throughout the year, the players say that what they gain is well worth the hours spent.
While many AAU teams stockpile top-notch talent and put it out on the floor like a pickup game, the Wildcats are full of talented players that are still looking to improve at the game.
“Our coach is really good,” Smith said. “He pushes us. A lot of teams just go out and play, but we’re actually working on fundamentals. We can always tell a major difference when we get to the high school season.”
And that’s the goal, Lee Chapman said. The coach said that he gets good players, but none of his guys are the tallest or fastest players on the court.
“We like to work hard and drill, and it helps,” he said. “For example, East Hall played a game against Eagle’s Landing this year, and they’ve got a kid that’s about seven feet tall. That would intimidate guys that had never faced that type of competition, but my guys are used to it because, every time they step out on the court, they’re being pushed around by guys bigger, faster and stronger than them. It makes them better. They aren’t intimidated.”
More than the on-court experience, though, the players experience friendships that will last a lifetime, Lee Chapman said.
Four of the players have played together since they were in sixth grade, seven others since seventh grade, and the team has picked up a couple others even more recently than that. But the majority have played together for at least five years, longer than their respective high school teammates.
“These kids love being together,” Lee Chapman said. “They’ve established friendships across their schools and have great experiences that they can take with them into college. We’re going a day early to Orlando to go to Disney World. Some have never been, so they’ll get to experience that and then play a minimum of four basketball games.”
And the experiences they share continue into the high school season as well.
“We love playing against each other,” Smith said. “We know each others’ tendencies, and we love talking trash to each other. It gets physical, and there is nothing better than beating each other in a game.”
As they inch closer toward closing the book on their high school careers, many of the players have college ball on their minds, too.
That’s the benefit of playing in these tournaments, they said. At national tournaments like the Memorial Day Classic, a number of scouts turn out to watch some of the higher-rated players in the country.
The Wildcats, who play some of those highly-touted teams, get their opportunities to shine, as a result. Many scouts who watched a game for a player on another team end up asking about some of his players, Lee Chapman said.
“We’re trying to be in a position where we have a chance to get looked at,” Edwards said.
And they’re willing to put in the work to get that opportunity.
“Personally, I want a college scholarship,” Smith said. “I want to be a Division-I athlete. And I know you have to love the game and bust your butt to do that. We want to play college ball, and we know how to get there.”