This award is typically given to the player who had the best individual game. In most sessions, one player’s performance sticks out, and makes it relatively easy on us to decide a winner.
Session four was different.
On Saturday during a game at EYBL Hampton, the world lost James Hampton, a junior guard for Team United and a young man full of life and energy. Hampton's loss was a shock to everyone, and has left the grassroots world in a state of extended mourning.
Team United had their two final session games only 16 hours removed from losing their friend and teammate on the court during a game. They could have elected not to play. Not a soul on earth would have blamed them.
“We were all hurting,” Ed Cooke said, longtime coach of United’s 2019 group. “We got the news and everyone was telling us not to play. I told the kids to sleep on it.”
If they elected to play to honor Hampton, absolutely no one would have faulted them if their minds were not on the game. A loss in that situation is completely meaningless, given the enormity of the loss they experienced on Saturday. Cooke spoke to the team in the morning.
“They all told me ‘yeah’,” Cooke said when he asked his team. “I told them we have a chance to do something special, and honor a teammate in the best way we knew.”
What happened in their first game on Sunday, however, was simply astounding. Team United, a most apt name for this group of Mid-Atlantic hoopsters, took the court and displayed a mental toughness from another world. Electing to play was the decision of Hampton’s teammates, who wanted to take to the court for James.
Following a moment of silence between the two teams at mid court, the game tipped off and what followed was hard to believe. They put all of their emotion into one of the singular most impressive games that has ever occurred on an EYBL court. They took the court to honor their fallen teammate 16 hours after losing him, and proceeded to win the game.
“It’s all toughness,” Cooke continued. “You build a man through adversity.”
Their resiliency had another payoff, secondary from honoring their teammate by playing their tails off; Team United clinched a Peach Jam.
Led by junior swingmen Juwan Gary and Khalil Robinson, Team United banded together to earn a scrappy win over All Ohio Red. All 10 rotation players made an appearance in the game, combining to put forth one of the most impressive defensive performances of the year.
After trailing by 14 early in the first half, a timeout was called by Cooke.
“I knew we had no life in us, so I got into them,” Cooke explained. “In the timeout, I felt my energy come back. I knew if I brought energy to the guys, that they would bring it back to me. “
Cooke reminded his team why they were there, and why they were playing.
What happened next, was brilliant.
United rallied behind Gary’s 24 points & Robinson’s solid overall floor game (9 PTS, 4 REB, 3 AST), showcasing some of the most inspired defense you will ever see. United completed a 28-point first half turnaround, carrying a 14-point lead into halftime,. They maintained their lead ever looked back. For 32 minutes, these young men got an escape from the previous day’s tragic reality.
Heading into Sunday’s emotional matchup against All Ohio, United knew they needed a win to reach eight victories, and an automatic berth to July’s grassroots Super Bowl - Peach Jam.
A trip to Peach Jam is always the ultimate goal, but Saturday’s events understandably made it an afterthought.
Sure, a win was important for the program. Qualifying for Peach Jam isn’t easy, and takes a lot of hard work and discipline. Now, they’ll get the chance to compete on grassroots basketball’s biggest stage, a year after going 0-16.
“We were 0-16 last year, 2-14 the year before that,” Cooke said. “This program needed this, we work way too hard not to be there (Peach Jam).”
However, that feat pales in comparison to what Team United accomplished this weekend. Sunday morning gave them opportunity to play for their fallen teammate, put their emotions into the game they love and experience a brief escape from the heartache that will follow this unfortunate event.
Team United showed a strength and a resolve on Sunday that will never be forgotten.
The thoughts and prayers of everyone at D1 Circuit and SportsEngine are with the family, friends and teammates of James Hampton, and with the Team United Basketball program.