Story by Theresa Smith
Photos by David Kadlubowski
GCU News Bureau
The ball is hoisted by the 6-year-old to the sure-handed 6-foot-7 athlete who playfully dekes the duo of pint-sized campers earnestly trying to guard him. It is a moment among millions at the individual youth session of the Dan Majerle boy’s basketball camp, and it symbolizes the cycle of the Grand Canyon University men’s basketball program.
The hustling youngsters improve their skills, connect with the coaches — student-athletes and coaching staff of the 2018-19 men’s basketball team — develop an interest in and love for Lopes basketball, and become fans of the program, if not future members of the team.
Exhibit A: the five friends, including two sets of brothers laughing and learning on Tuesday morning at the Lopes Performance Center. Lesson No. 1, according to Ashton Hollenberg, “Do not be a ball hog. Do not shoot if you’re not open.’’
His friend, Evan Engstrom, expressed a similar sentiment.
“I’ve learned how to be a good teammate,’’ said Engstrom. “Coach is basically teaching everyone how to be a good teammate and how to share the ball.’’
Brothers T.J. Lyons and Connor Lyons are digging the shooting drills.
“It feels good to help score,’’ T.J. said.
Connor added, “I learned how to shoot better; the games we play help us shoot better.’’
The games bring out the competitive nature of the approximately 180 players, ages 6 to 12, at this week’s camp. The boys take them incredibly seriously, cheering on and exhorting each other to win agility races and dribbling duels, and the camp coaches show their understanding by posting daily standings, per age group, of the winners of each contest, from bump (also known as knockout) to hot shot, one-on-one and free throw shooting.
Using eight permanent baskets and four temporary baskets in the Lopes Performance Center, the camp starts at 9 a.m, but the gym is nearly packed by 8:30 a.m. with campers taking shots and current GCU players patiently rebounding. Twenty-four coaches are scattered among the players.
“Get warmed up, big day today,’’ bellowed GCU assistant coach Chris Crevelone. “You don’t want to pull a hammy.’’
Dutifully, approximately 180 campers line up in straight rows to stretch their legs and work their abs. GCU graduate assistant coach Johnny Hill inspects the leg lift exercise intently, insisting on one more round. Running races begin with spirit, energy and voluminous cheering. Players run one-quarter of the court, turn to run backward, resume running facing front and finish sideways: a combination of speed and agility. One young camper on a “do-over’’ is no longer solo as a GCU player runs alongside him, shouting encouragement. The races are hotly contested and ties lead to rematches. Finally, two teams declare victory, prompting one GCU player to pick up the anchor camper and joyously hold him aloft.
Subdivided by age and separated by numerous courts, the camp shifts to timed station work: shooting layups, shooting jumpers from the elbow, dribbling, man-to-man defensive slides and overhead passing. The campers strive to impress, soaking up the demonstrations by their adult and student-athlete coaches and replicating the form to the best of their abilities. Engagement is at 100 percent level, and there is not a cell phone or video game to be found.
“I am learning shooting, dribbling and passing — I’ve learned a lot,’’ said Blake Hermes. “Right now, we’re just playing and they are seeing how we are doing. We are forming teams for a tournament. I like the tournament the best.’’
His father, Greg Hermes, enjoyed watching part of camp.
“I thought it was outstanding,’’ he said. “The whole community was outstanding. It has been a great experience.’’
Carla Logan, mother of camper Declan Logan, was pleased to see the smile on her son’s face and his repeated comment, “I love the competition and the games.’’
“He’s having a really good time,’’ Carla Logan said. “He is learning new skills and making friends and developing his game. He is 6-years-old and this is his first experience at camp.’’
The coaches share in the fun, as attested by Keonta Vernon, a 2018 member of the GCU basketball team and an April graduate.
“It’s fun to give back and it’s fun to see the kids happy and fun to see them love the game like I love the game,’’ he said. “From my first year until now that I’ve graduated, I see so many more kids come out, and some of the same kids over and over. They know my name now. It is always good to see a familiar face when you come out to a camp like this. They are not as nervous as they would be if they were coming out here for the first time.’’
Although Vernon was a prolific rebounder, his emphasis is on an attitude rather than a skill.
“I emphasize having fun and making sure you are doing the right thing, and having the right character as a child of this age, knowing the right thing to do,’’ he said. “The right thing will come as long as you stay faithful to the game.’’
Lopes assistant coach T.J. Benson has been working the GCU camp for five years, shepherding the growth from one session of 60 to 70 campers to three sessions of approximately 200 campers each, including June 18-21 and June 25-28, at multiple locations.
“These kids start coming here when they are 6, 7, 8 years old, and I have the NBA group, so I am with the 12-to-14-year-olds now,’’ he said. “So to see them grow and develop, it is really cool to be a part of that. Now we’re reaching out to Scottsdale and the East Valley to get kids who might not be able to drive the opportunity to be in a camp closer to them.’’
Benson buys into the cycle of building the program through the community.
“That’s the idea behind all of this, to give these kids the opportunity to play basketball at the camps and then see our games,’’ he said. “Some of the Lil Lopes are ball boys. That’s one reason why we love having our players work these camps because these little guys hopefully are going to be our players. That’s something that we love to see and something we’ve done a great job on.’’