Base teams provide a school of hard knocks for H.S. players
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — The ball whizzed upcourt into the hands of guard Donnell Haynes of South Korea’s Camp Casey Runnin’ Warriors.
Nothing stood between him and the basket except Orlando Bell, a senior guard for the Kubasaki High School Dragons of Okinawa.
Haynes leaped, windmilled the ball in his right hand, then dunking it with a loud rattle of the rim in Bell’s face. Fists clenched, Haynes landed and yelled triumphantly.
All Bell could do was stand and applaud quietly.
“He made a good play on me,” Bell said with a shrug after the Warriors pounded the Dragons 67-29 in round-robin play last week in the 13th Martin Luther King Pacificwide Open Basketball Tournament.
Boys against men, girls against women; the Dragons and Kadena High Panthers have entered the regionwide interservice event since Marine Corps Community Services first extended invitations to the high school teams since 1997.
They’re not expected to win. But sometimes they surprise their competition.
The girls teams went well into the double-elimination playoff round this year, with Kadena capturing the bronze medal and Kubasaki finishing fourth, the best they’ve ever done.
The boys teams took a beating, with only one win during round-robin play.
Players and coaches say the reward and experience gained from playing in military or open tournaments far outweighs the one-sided losses and the physical play they find at that level.
“It’s a great opportunity for us,” Kubasaki girls coach Bob Driggs said.
To begin with, the tournaments offer the high school teams more court time.
And Kadena boys coach Brian Hill calls the inside banging and pounding they get from playing adults a “physical education” they don’t get against tiny but fleet Japanese teams, or even in games Kadena and Kubasaki play against each other.
“It’s more physical. The kids have to play a lot tougher,” Hill said. “It’s a reality check.”
John Zivic, who has refereed high school and military ball in the Far East since 1971, echoed Hill’s feelings.
“The so-called high school ‘stars’ find out how good they may not be,” Zivic said. “It brings them back to Earth.”
The kids agree.
“You have to be tougher to hang with these people,” Kadena senior point guard Theresa Gittens said. “It shows from all the bumps and bruises.”
Kadena senior boys guard A.J. Morgan said the games prepare them to play against other students.
“This gets us ready for Far East,” Morgan said, noting that Far East tournaments for boys and girls are just around the corner in February. “We get the knowledge of playing really big men.”
Teens-versus-adults matches are not limited to Okinawa.
Taegu American’s girls played in the Korea-wide post-level holiday tournament last month, while Nile C. Kinnick of Japan took on the Misawa Jets women’s base team at Misawa Air Base, Japan, earlier this month.
They went winless, but coaches Michelle Chandler of Taegu and Kinnick’s Henry Falk didn’t mind.
“It gives my girls more of an edge,” Falk said.
In Korea, larger schools such as Seoul American and Osan American play smaller schools such as International Christian Schools in Uijongbu and Seoul. Pusan American’s enrollment barely crests at 50. The larger schools win by whopping margins, but gain little from it.
“Any time we play a military team, it doesn’t matter how we’ve fared, when we come back and play a high school team, we play stronger,” Seoul American coach Steve Boyd said. “It gives you a different look. You play more aggressive, physical-type people. It just toughens you up.”
After Osan American High School played in the Osan Pacificwide Invitational last year, its boys team won the Far East Class A Tournament and the girls finished second.
By regulation, servicemembers are prohibited from playing high school students, but area commanders can waive those regulations to permit competition.
Kadena sophomore center Marvin Myrick is 6 feet 5, 165 pounds; he went head-to-head with Okinawa Heat’s James Burnett, the same height but 265 pounds.
Why take such risks? Why bend the rules when kids could get hurt?
B.J. McKay, basketball commissioner for the Okinawa Athletic Officials Association, likens refereeing such contests to “walking a tightrope.”
“Safety is always paramount,” McKay said. “You have a size difference, people banging inside, so you have to protect [the kids] a little bit. But you have to call the game the same way.”
“They’re not expected to excel. They’re here to learn,” Zivic, the referee, said. “The adults treat them well. They don’t run up the score on them. They look at them as good players and it’s neat to have them there.”
Heat coach Kevin Spivey said high school players learn from the adults.
“We use it as a teaching tool, to help them know what they have to achieve to get better,” said Spivey, a former All-Marine.
“We tell them how to play better defense, tell them to box out, give them a chance to work the ball around, encourage them, give them confidence, so when they go back and play high school ball, they can say, ‘Hey, we hung with them.’”
As Kadena’s athletics director, Hill said he’d rather see the high school teams play their peers.
“I’d rather play high school teams. But that’s not an option here. What are you going to do?” he asked. “But this fills the schedule. It’s better than practicing, practicing and practicing, and my kids are getting some good things out of it. We need games. This gives us games.”