Best high school players in the country descend on Ratner

In a prelude to the McDonald’s All-American game at the United Center, the Ratner gymnasium was home to the dunking, three-point and skill competition among the men’s and women’s McDonald’s All-Americans.

By Bobby Butler

Last Monday night the Powerade Jam Fest returned to UChicago for the fourth consecutive year, preceding the McDonald’s All American Game. With it came the best high school basketball players from across the country. The event was a chance to showcase some of the players’ specific skills in a fun environment.  It included a skills competition, a three-point shooting competition, and the fan-favorite dunk contest to finish off the night.  As usual, some big stars were present to comment on the proceedings for ESPN, including former college and NBA talents Jalen Rose and Jay Williams, as well as Chicago Sky broadcaster Brooke Weisbrod.

Before the TV broadcast started, the first round of the boys’ and girls’ three-point and skills competitions were completed.  Moving on to the finals on the boys’ side in the three-point competition were southpaws Luke Kennard and Jalen Brunson, who will be attending Duke and Villanova respectively, along with LSU commit Antonio Blakeney.  Finalists on the girls’ side were Sophie Cunningham of Missouri, Kyra Lambert of Duke, and Asia Durr, a Louisville signee, who dropped in an astounding 24 out of 30 possible points—the best round by any shooter all night.

In the finals, the silky-smooth Kennard and the pure-shooting Durr pulled out victories.  They were subsequently pitted against each other in a duel between sexes, with Kennard emerging the overall three-point champion, never turning in a round of less than 20.  Coming in, Kennard was certainly the favorite, having recently broken LeBron James’s high school scoring record in the state of Ohio.

In a frankly less exciting skills competition, two of the female finalists were the familiar faces of Lambert and Durr, joined by Napheesa Collier of UConn.  Finalists for the boys were Brunson; Carlton Bragg, who is Kansas-bound; and Isaiah Briscoe, who will be joining John Calipari’s perennially young supersquad at Kentucky.  Brunson, a fan favorite due to his Chicagoland roots, was crowned champion, alongside Collier.

During commercial breaks and between events, several short pieces of entertainment were provided for the crowd.  The Bulls’ Stampede drumline joined the fun, and there were several fan competitions, including a hotly contested dizzy race between a father and son and a skills relay race involving some of the youngest ballers in the bleachers.  A cool addition to the festivities were Powerade-provided hoodies and shirts for each All American—which they seemed to enjoy greatly— reading “Just a Kid From [that player’s hometown].”

Finally, the main event came: the slam-dunk contest.  This year, only five players entered, but, as in 2014, one was a girl:  California signee Kristine Anigwe.  She took several attempts, with the last coming oh-so-close, but couldn’t quite jam one in.  The four boys involved were 6’9” Bragg, 6’6” Dwayne Bacon of Florida State, 6’6” South Carolina signee PJ Dozier, and the undecided seven-footer Stephen Zimmerman Jr.

Though three of the four dunkers moved on to the finals—all but Dozier—it was immediately clear that it was a two-horse race between the mega-athletic Bacon and the big man Zimmerman.  Bacon’s first dunk was a right-hand smash off the side-of-the-backboard assist from Isaiah Briscoe.  Zimmerman’s may have been the dunk of the entire night:  a between-the-legs backward bounce off the backboard into a windmill.  Insanity.

In the latter half of the first round, Zimmerman replicated the future Seminole’s first dunk with the added fury of a windmill.  When asked about the dunk after the round, Zimmerman said, “I had to one-up Dwayne Bacon…he’s a crazy athlete.”

In the finals, Carlton Bragg was quickly eliminated through his inability to complete his planned dunk.  He was forced into a simple two-handed flush reminiscent of an especially mellow Tim Duncan.  Meanwhile, Bacon was able to pull off a bounce lob into a 180 behind the back slam.  Zimmerman threw it down over West teammate Jalen Brunson, a feat seldom seen from such a giant.

However, the second dunk of the finals proved to be his demise.  He pulled the bystanding Ronald McDonald into the action, asking him for a lob in front of the rim.  Zimmerman perhaps should not have been so confident in the size 25 shoe-wearing clown; he was never able to make a slam.  Mr. Bacon was able to coax a tentative Jalen Rose out from behind the broadcaster’s desk.  Bacon soared over the 6’8” Fab Five member with a graceful ease that turned into nastiness as he rocked the rim.  Thus the champion was crowned.  Upon watching the replay from a safer perch, a relieved Rose quipped, “I can’t front, I was scared to death!”

The main event, the McDonald’s All American game, was held at the United Center last Wednesday night.