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CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Jamil Barney tried everything he could to pierce Yongsan Garrison’s seemingly impenetrable defense.

First, a drive from the right side. Next, a fadeaway in the lane. Then a drive from the left side. Each with the same result. No points for Barney, who twice in that sequence found himself on the floor.

At 6-foot-2 and nearly 200 pounds, Barney, a Kadena High School junior, is more accustomed to the role of banger. But in last week’s 14th Martin Luther King Invitational Basketball Tournament, he became the bangee.

Never mind that along the way, he made history by becoming the tournament’s first high school player to be named MVP. What Barney learned, he said, was far more valuable than any piece of hardware.

“It’s an education. It’s intimidating. They’re bigger than me,” said Barney after his Panthers fell 78-60 to Yongsan, a Korea post team.

Marine Corps Community Services regularly extends an invitation to Kadena and Kubasaki high schools to the tournament, designed in 1992 for base teams.

“They come here to get good, solid gametime preparation for their Far East tournaments,” said Steve Rowland, longtime director of MCCS Semper Fit, which oversees the tournament.

Call it a “basketball school of hard knocks,” Barney said.

“It’s early learning, preparation for the big show,” Barney said.

Among the things learned: How to play bigger than his size. How to use his arms, push off a little more, assert himself underneath. Be more emphatic when boxing out or going to the basket.

“It helps us in game situations that we don’t get to go through” at the high school level, particularly against shorter Japanese teams, said Monica Hayes, a senior guard for the Kadena girls team.

“Here, we get a chance to play against taller, more physical people,” said Hayes, who, like Barney, was named to the All-Tournament team.

“They’re smart, they’ve been playing a long time, they’ve learned the nuances of the game,” Kadena boys coach Robert Bliss said of his military opponents. “Any time we can play against more experienced players, the better we become as a team.”

The Panthers boys went 3-4 in the tournament, becoming just the third high school team to qualify for the MLK’s double-elimination playoffs. The other two teams, by coincidence — Kubasaki in 1997 and Kadena in 1999 — went on to win the Class AA title.

Kadena’s girls also qualified for the playoffs and sent Yongsan’s women’s team home on Hayes’ buzzer-beating shot 35-33 on Sunday.

Kubasaki’s teams were invited to participate, but, citing a prior commitment to play two games each on Saturday against Japanese teams, declined the invitation.

Each Kadena team experienced all kinds of game results, close margins, blowouts, last-second defeats and triumphs — and earned much respect along the way.

“They hustle. They play together. They never quit. They never give up. They have heart,” Yongsan men’s point guard A.J. Haskins said.

“They’re really scrappy,” said center Lia Green, a former Alabama-Birmingham college player now with Korea’s Camp Humphreys Bulldogs. “They can rebound. They have a couple of players who will go far.”

Barney’s play, in particular, made an impression on some.

“He’s a young up-and-comer,” Yongsan forward Gregory Bowie said. “He’ll be something to reckon with when he develops.”

Putting high school players up against adults might, on the surface, seem to include an element of danger, but players, coaches, even school administrators feel the learning outweighs the fear of injury.

“There’s always a concern of that, but that’s weighed against the preparation” they get in the tournament, Kadena assistant principal Regina Hendrix said. “I don’t see that great a risk.”

“It can happen to anybody,” Rowland said. “I worry about anybody getting hurt, not just high school players.”

“Not really, if they play under control,” Bliss said. “I’ve seen physical play, but I’ve never seen anything over the top.”

Even in situations when a team would grab a big lead on Kadena, the military players made sure to make it productive for the prep players.

“Give them some leeway,” said two-time All-Army guard Laurie Aaron of Korea’s Camp Red Cloud. “We used to be high school players ourselves. We tell them to keep their head up. This is a learning experience. We didn’t get this good overnight. There’s really no other way to learn.”

Sometimes, during a break, one of the adults would take a Panthers player aside and give them pointers to help their game, Bliss said.

Playing against base teams “has really helped Seoul American over the years,” Bliss said of a team that won two Class AA titles and and reached the finals two other seasons after playing in post-level tournaments.

“We hope to get the same thing here. It’s a win-win for us. It’s a fantastic experience,” Bliss said.

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Dave Ornauer has been employed by or assigned to Stars and Stripes Pacific almost continuously since March 5, 1981. He covers interservice and high school sports at DODEA-Pacific schools and manages the Pacific Storm Tracker.
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