The names weren’t as big and neither were the crowds. In fact, everything about Slam Dunk to the Beach was smaller – and that’s a good thing.
The holiday basketball tournament at Cape Henlopen High attracted some impressive high school talent and plenty of college scouts, but it wasn’t nearly the circus that it used to be, mainly became the ringleader was no longer there. When Bobby Jacobs started Slam Dunk to the Beach back in 1990 it became one of the best school tournaments in the country almost overnight. And it flourished for several years, bringing in dozens of future NBA players, including superstars like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard.
And it wasn’t just the basketball. This event used to be as much about hoopla as hoops, as Jacobs brought in outside entertainment and vendors and made sure everything was first class.
Then it all fell apart, or at least Jacobs did. In 2003 he unexpectedly announced that he was ending Slam Dunk to the Beach and then disappeared. Soon after that, it was discovered that Jacobs had been lining his pockets with thousands of dollars as well as filling the Cape Henlopen gym with thousands of fans. He eventually pleaded no contest to one felony count of misappropriation of property and was sentenced to two years in prison, with one year suspended.
If you don’t know Bobby Jacobs, well, let’s just say he’s unique. When his Slam Dunk was at its peak, and I was a sports columnist for the News Journal, Jacobs used to call me at home at 7 in the morning just to talk about the tournament and which All-American players and great teams he had lured to Lewes, as well as all the new attractions he was bringing in. It was, Jacobs always boasted, going to be bigger and better.
Those phone calls were an obvious attempt to curry favor with the media and it was obviously rude to call anybody at 7 a.m. on a Saturday, but it was hard to get mad at Jacobs because of his energy and enthusiasm and because everybody knew he had brought a world-class event to Sussex County in the dead of winter. It was a win-win situation for all involved.
Then it all fell apart when Jacob’s crimes were discovered and Slam Dunk disappeared from the local scene after 2003.
But even though Jacobs was misguided, his initial vision was good, so the Delaware Sports Commission – a non-profit organization – brought Slam Dunk back this year and it was an understated success. There were 18 teams in the tournament, including five from Delaware – Caesar Rodney, Cape Henlopen, Salesianum, Sanford and St. George’s Tech. And one big difference from the past was that almost all of the schools were just a bus ride away from Lewes. There were two teams from New York, two from New Jersey, two from Pennsylvania, two from Maryland and one from Washington, D.C. The two schools who had to travel a little further were nationally-known programs from Ohio (St.Vincent-St. Mary’s, which is LeBron James’ alma mater) and Kansas (Sunrise Christian Academy, which was ranked 14th in the nation last year by USA Today).
Also missing were the endless off-the-court festivities that Jacobs initiated. There were things to do – and local merchants made sure the visitors knew that – but it was very low key. The focus was on basketball and providing those young men with a positive and educational experience. You have to figure there were some kids from Kansas who had never seen an ocean before.
Now it will be interested to see how the new Slam Dunk to the Beach develops and how the organizers try to build on this year’s modest success. They seem to understand that the best way to build is to do so slowly and to make sure the focus is where it belongs – on the kids. Slam Dunk to the Beach still has a national reputation and the community still rallied around the event like it did in the tournament’s hey-day and those are great building blocks.
It’s obvious that the current organizers learned from the excesses of the past and now the future of Slam Dunk to the Beach once again looks bright.