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By JANA WARD

At whatever age a non-Kentuckian marries into a UK alum family, basketball takes on a new perspective in life and a much more major role in day to day conversation. I used to think that basketball was a late fall, winter and maybe on a good year, early spring activity.

I would never have been considered an over-the-top, gotta see every game, fan of basketball, but even in my pre-Kentucky affiliated days, I attended and enjoyed many Seattle Sonic games, and the acquaintances made through it. I had no idea those times would come back to play a part in my life 20years later. In my post-Kentucky affiliated days, I have come to realize that I have never really understood the game, which is much more than getting the ball into the basket. I was also unaware of recruiting, signing, training, pre-season or Madness and mayhem as major events.

At our house, which is 2000 miles away from Rupp Arena, Kentucky basketball is alive and well. When we ran into an old Seattle Sonics basketball acquaintance, Michael Cage, at the NBA Rookie Camp two years ago, Michael and Hugh connected. Kentucky basketball and mutual friends were the catalyst. We met his 14 year old son, MJ, whom Michael had brought to the camp at that time. Over the last couple years Hugh and Michael have periodically chatted basketball. Earlier this fall, Michael suggested that we attend the 2013 Tarkanian Classic Tournament in Las Vegas to watch MJ play with his Mater Dei High School Team. We accepted that invitation and on December 18th headed off to Bishop Gorman High School to see what I expected to be a typical high school basketball tournament. Fun if you have a pony in the race.

Over the three days we spent sitting on typical high school basketball bleachers, I discovered that there is basketball and “Basketball”. It quickly became clear that this was basketball with the CAPITAL B. Serious matters were taking place here. Winning was important and there truly was agony in defeat.

Since it was impossible to watch all of the 44 teams play, we focused our time on games played at Bishop Gorman High School. Hugh’s plan was to watch specific players in which Coach Calapari has expressed an interest; some of whom were playing at the Bishop Gorman site. That worked well for me because seeing the same players several times helped me better understand who they were and the way they played.

Initially, the make-up of the people around us was confusing. The crowd was surprisingly sparse, but everyone seemed to know everyone else, greeting and shaking hands as if they had not seen each other for some time, chatting for a bit then moving on to the next person. Most frequently they were men who were of an age to have sons in high school. I suspected they were parents of the players, and some were. It became clear when the game started that they knew most of the kids on the floor because they would shout out advice to a player on one team and then to a player from the other team. Through our daily attendance, we met the other people who were also there every day. I didn’t last too long before I asked the man sitting near me, “What is going on? How is it that everyone knows everyone else?” He was Terry Austin, the father of Paris Austin, an 11th grade player from Bishop O’Dowd High School. He told me that most people were parents or coaches from the Amateur Athletic Union teams, non affiliated basketball leagues for kids that play during summer months.

Many of the AAU team mates play on competing high school teams. Apparently, a high percentage of future college prospects hone their skills during these summer games too. The same supporting cast of coaches, parents, friends and family surround these players on their pursuit of excellence. I began to see what I now refer to as the “basketball culture.”

In my humble, female-of-average-stature observation, “tall” is one of the attributes of a large percentage of members of this culture – average height of the participants and spectators alike being well over 6 feet tall. Former or perhaps more “senior” league players abounded. Very tall, very physically fit, mostly male spectators gathered in the stands encouraging and advising their favorite players and teams. It was a very interactive process.

The male/female ratio was around 8 to 2 in favor of male among the spectators, but three particular females who sat around me were actually more participants than spectators. Two were mothers of players and one was a 10 year old sister. The role these individuals played there, and, I imagine, play all the time, is major to more than just their family member.

Lori Zimmerman, Stephen’s mother, is “Den Mom” to many on the Bishop Gorman High School team. Player after player stopped to give and take a hug from this clearly warm-hearted woman. She is the sort of person from whom you would expect a kind word on her worst day and always an encouraging one on your worst day. I would have loved to really have interaction with Lori, but with Hugh dressed like a Kentucky alumi, that was a known no-no by both of us. If Stephen does play ball with UK, she will follow in the footsteps of Tywanna Patterson. It is a win-win situation for any team that Stephen Zimmerman chooses.

I cannot discuss Lori and Stephen without mentioning his little ball-of-fire 10 year old sister, Kiley. There was nowhere in that gym that she was not at home. She sat at the end of the Bishop Gorman bench to bring a drink to a tired player; cleaned the smudged sweat off the court during time out; retrieved balls during warm up and tossed them back to the players with significant force. No namby-pamby balls tossed there! Late in one game, I looked across the floor to the table where the tournament officials gathered. There sat Kiley, head and shoulders below the tournament director, pointing out something to them on their laptop. Can you say, “Future Athletic Director?”

Then there is Karen Taylor. For many people, that says enough. Karen was a former college all-star basketball player and professional player, and is in the hall of fame. Currently, she is an AAU coach and the mother of Mater Dei Senior, Stanley Johnson. I met Karen in the stands as she coached all the kids – she knows them all. She didn’t know it, but she was educating me too. There are more good words than available space when discussing what Karen Taylor brings to the game of basketball and will take with her when (The Amazing) Stanley Johnson goes to Arizona.

What I took away from the tournament is that this sort of event takes place all over the United States. It was truly, as my grandchildren say, awesome. These games are available for every basketball fan to see. This far exceeded the basketball I expected. It actually fit somewhere between high school and college ball. The players were highly talented, well coached, and extremely well supported by family, friends, and coaches alike. This event and others like it are well worth attending. It absolutely provides the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” as well as the suspense of a glimpse into a possible UK basketball future.

 

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