The Holiday Invitational regularly attracts the top high school basketball programs around the country and Canada and it was no different in its first year of being sponsored by Raleigh native and NBA All-Star John Wall.
There are plenty of options around the country for the out-of-state programs, but North Carolina’s deep-rooted hoops culture draws them back year after year (the food doesn’t hurt either).
The nickname “Hoop State” has emerged on social media in recent years from proud promoters of the Old North State’s rich history, and the Holiday Invitational was a good showcase.
With Pete Maravich’s jersey prominently displayed in the front of Holliday Gym, the games inside were played under Wall’s name and divided into brackets named after Garner alumnus David West and former Riverside High, Word of God and N.C. State player T.J. Warren.
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Almost every player has a favorite North Carolinian star they look up to.
Balsa Kopravica, of Fort Lauderdale’s University School, is from Serbia. He thinks of No. 23 when he thinks of the Tar Heel State.
“A lot of good players play here and obviously there’s Michael Jordan and he’s the greatest player,” said Kopravica, ESPN’s No. 11 sophomore prospect.
Tampa Catholic’s Tai Strickland, son of former 17-year NBA veteran Rod, ran off a list of more recent products.
“Bam (Adebayo), Harry (Giles), Kwe Parker, you know there’s some great players from the state of North Carolina,” Strickland said.
Virshon Cotton, a senior at Hillcrest Prep in Phoenix, was motivated by Wall.
“I like playing with a chip on my shoulder just like the way (John Wall) played with a chip on his shoulder before he got to the NBA,” he said.
Players were left with good memories of the state’s appreciation for good basketball. The crowd at the Holiday Invitational rarely shows favoritism for a single team, but instead raves over the individual plays no matter who makes them.
It buzzed for nationally-ranked players like DeAndre Ayton and Kevin Knox, but did the same when Millbrook’s Patrick Dorsey hit five 3-pointers in a single quarter.
“This is my first time being (in North Carolina) but I can see with the crowd why they call it the ‘Hoop State,’” Cotton said. “The whole game, the crowd was never on one side or team, they were always on whoever did the move the impressed them, whoever was creating the right play of the game.”
Ayton, the top-ranked senior in the country who’ll play at Arizona next fall, said the crowd brought the best out of him on the court. Ayton’s coach, Kyle Weaver, said the stands were the most packed they had been for any tournament his team had played in.
“It’s live out here,” Ayton said. “Every little move there’s the ‘Oohs’ and ‘Aahs’ and I love atmospheres like this, it makes me bring my ‘A’ game. I have a big chip on my shoulder when I come out here and I know everybody is watching me.”
Many of the top players like taking visits to North Carolina, Duke and N.C. State while in the Triangle.
Weaver and Kopravica were in awe of how prevalent college basketball was.
“They love basketball here,” Weaver said. “You go around town and you see basketball.”
Kopravica added: “It’s like everyone is a fan of the colleges here.”
While the teams didn’t have a lot of free time, playing three games in four days, there was one thing that every out-of-state player or coach seemed to agree was a highlight of the trip: the food.
Cotton is from Milwaukee, but he was warned ahead of time of what he needed to do.
“My mom used to be down here a lot and she said the barbecue down here is off the hook so I had to check that out,” he said.
Nobody seemed more excited for the food than members of Thornlea School. Freshman Cashius McNeilly was eager to get Jimmy John’s – which isn’t southern, but is apparently not available as far north as Ontario.
“Our first day, we got to try Chick-fil-A,” Jonathan Kitenge said. “It was so good.”
Hillcrest Prep hit up The Q Shack – which Ayton called the best barbecue he’d ever had – and made numerous stops to Bojangles.
“We went to The Q Shack today and I got the pulled chicken and pulled pork and the barbecue beans, mac and cheese and hush puppies, it was phenomenal,” Weaver said. “We had Bojangles, and I eat on the healthy side, but our kids want that every meal for the rest of their lives. They love Bojangles. Their eyes were glowing when they got the fried chicken.”
Now you know why Hillcrest Prep, fueled by Bojangles, won the T.J. Warren bracket.