Reborn Delaware basketball tournament pushes toward the big time

 Maret School of Washington D.C. (black jerseys) takes on Phladelphia's Roman Catholic High School (white) during day two of the Slam Dunk to the Beach basketball tournament. (Avi Wolfman-Arent, NewsWorks/WHYY)

Maret School of Washington D.C. (black jerseys) takes on Phladelphia's Roman Catholic High School (white) during day two of the Slam Dunk to the Beach basketball tournament. (Avi Wolfman-Arent, NewsWorks/WHYY)

Among a certain segment of basketball obsessives, the name Slam Dunk to the Beach still has a mythic quality.

From 1990 to 2003, the holiday high school basketball tournament in little Lewes, Delaware was a national showcase featuring the likes of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwight Howard. When the tournament ended suddenly in 2004 after its founder and longtime organizer disappeared (he was eventually arrested for theft), many in the Mid-Atlantic basketball community were devastated.

A decade later, the Delaware Sports Commission revived the tournament under the same name. Their ambitions were lofty–to make the rebooted version of Slam Dunk to the Beach as popular and prolific as the original. And they wanted to do it in the same little beach town that first hosted Slam Dunk at the dawn of the 1990s.

Last year, Slam Dunk 2.0 debuted to wide acclaim. The tournament attracted a solid roster of top teams and players–one from as far away as Kansas. Still, the question lingered heading into Year 2:  Could Slam Dunk once again become one of the nation’s premier holiday weekend high school tournaments?

To help answer that question we turned to the people who know this landscape best:  the hoops nerds. The scouts. The analysts. The guys who spend more time watching high school basketball than you probably spend watching everything else.

Guys like Brian Snow, national recruiting analyst for Scout.com.

Snow jetted in from Indianapolis to see Slam Dunk in its reconstituted form. And when we caught up with him on day two of the three-day tournament, he said he liked what he was seeing.

“I think this year’s field is really good. You’ve got some of the top teams from the area,” Snow said. “I think it’s coming back. It’s one of the better events this year.”

Randy Miller, a contributing writer for the famed SLAM Magazine, offered a similar appraisal.

“Right now I would give them a B,” Miller said. “I think they’re doing a very good job bringing it back.”

Among those we canvassed in the hardcore basketball community–the types who attend scores of events like this–consensus emerged on three major points. One, Slam Dunk had already reemerged as a tournament of note on the national scene. Two, Slam Dunk’s second-year lineup of teams was better than its first-year lineup. And three, the tournament could not yet be considered among the nation’s very best.

The 2015 version of Slam Dunk features three teams who were in ranked among the nation’s 25 best in a preseason USA Today poll. Four players in the tournament cracked the top 100 in ESPN’s ranking of the best seniors. And the list of standout sophomore and juniors is even more impressive.

Still, those accolades aren’t quite in line with what one expects from a cream-of-the-crop high school tournament. And it will be difficult for Slam Dunk to summon the prep tournament mountain given how crowded the marketplace has become.

“There’s way more competition than there used to be,” said Miller. “For a while this was the premier event for this particular time of year.”

There are big-time holiday weekend tournaments in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Palm Springs, California, Raleigh, North Carolina, and Torrey Pines, California. Plus, just one week ago Fort Myers, Florida hosted the famed City of Palms Classic.

All those sites boast something Delaware typically doesn’t this time of year, warm weather. The basketball buffs also noted that while Lewes is a convenient middle point for teams traveling by bus from the Mid-Atlantic states, it isn’t close to a major airport. That makes it hard to lure top teams from outside the region.

But that doesn’t mean it will be impossible. And the tournament appears to be trending up after a solid first showing.

In addition to upping the quality of play, tournament organizers tried to augment the on-court entertainment. They added an MC to help engage the crowd and hired a DJ to spin tunes. The spectacle didn’t rival that of the old Slam Dunk, which was known for its over-the-top off-court attractions. But there was a sense at least of forward momentum–a sense that Lewes, Delaware, the unlikeliest of basketball Meccas, could be an unlikely basketball Mecca once again.

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