The Russell Hoops tour to Dallas, Texas was an incredible experience, in which 11 wonderful young men put their heart and soul into 10 days of intense basketball, team bonding and life experiences. There were many moments throughout the tour that the players, Ben and I will remember for a long, long time.
Before the tour began we met with all the players to discuss their personal aims for the tour, as well as speaking to the group collectively. Ben named Jonathan St. Hilaire the tour captain, which was a great decision based on the character and positivity he demonstrated throughout the tour. We emphasised what we believed the tour was for, which was to open their eyes to the incredible level of basketball that is played in the USA and inspire them to push themselves harder than they ever had before in order to achieve their basketball dreams. All of the players were college eligible apart from James Cummings, with whom we had extended talks about his current professional career and how he can continue to make positive strides. James is a very inspirational young man who is doing something that very few have achieved, and we thoroughly enjoyed spending time with him. Having the chance now on the plane home to spend some time thinking about the future, I think its safe to say we have 11 young men who are inspired to take the next big step on their basketball pathway.
We began the basketball side of the tour with skill development, to assess where the players were at and offer some suggestions as to how they could further improve their skills, from ball-handling to shooting and footwork. While the tour was very much playing-orientated, we also wanted to them to bring home with them some specifics as to how they should be practicing and what they should be focusing on. Stephen Akpan showed amazing willingness to learn and take on what the coaches were offering, an incredibly mature trait from one of the youngest players on the tour. We put them through a variety of scenarios, such as using a down screen, a ball screen and movement off the ball on penetration. The boys responded really well and practiced with intense focus and work ethic. As well as our RH practices, they were also put through their paces by Nike ProSkills Coach Josh Feemster, who runs one of the best AAU programs in the country. This was a very physically demanding practice that left the boys questioning how hard they should be working on a daily basis, and to what level they should be pushing themselves. Throughout this session we saw a huge transition made by Wesley Moore who went from lagging to leading, the latter being something he has the potential to be very, very good at. We really emphasised how important it is to learn how to push yourself to your limits rather than relying on someone else to do so for you – back at their respective clubs in the UK they may not be training at the American level and intensity and must bring forth that effort from an internal source.
Pre-tournament and post-tournament the team had a chance to take on local AAU set-ups, facing BIQ Basketball, RM5 Elite and Nike ProSkills, all of which are top level clubs in the area that routinely have major success on a national scale. We had a shaky performance against BIQ, with the boys adjusting to the speed and physicality of the American game, but played much better versus RM5 Elite and Nike ProSkills, coming away with two solid wins. The Nike ProSkills team we faced was their u15 team, who were incredibly skilled and quick, and showed our boys that even the younger players in this country refuse to back down when the lights come on. Throughout every single scrimmage and game that we took on, Stanley Howard was incredible in his relentless positivity and selflessness in encouraging his teammates and working hard for the collective group.
The Great American Shootout was one of the key events in the tour schedule, and an opportunity for the boys to showcase their abilities to prospective college coaches, as well as being a chance to assess where they stand in comparison to elite American players. Its fair to say that we struggled in the tournament as we came away with a 1-3 record, but what the tournament did for our players extends far beyond the wins and losses column. We won our first game of the tournament against Vipers Academy, playing with passion, selflessness and a tremendous energy that stemmed from the players on court all the way down the bench. We spoke with Aig Ojehomon about being aggressive every time he caught the ball around the basket and he absolutely blossomed, scoring 7 points in strong and powerful fashion.
After a poor loss to 3D Nation, a team that we could have competed with, Ben and I had some very stern words for the boys about their toughness. They responded with tremendous character in the next game versus UC Hoops Gold, an incredibly hard-working and well drilled team. Despite losing the match-up, we performed at a high level and left everything on the floor, in doing so drawing the attention of quite a few spectators. Robin Bedford shone in this game and played with a fearless tenacity that defines him as a person.
It would be unfair to question the boys’ work ethic and efforts at any point in the tournament, which also extended to our final loss which knocked us out. We played as hard as we could, but not necessarily as smart as possible, and in an end to end shootout we didn’t convert like our opponents the San Antonio Dynasty did. Billy Smallwood hit some huge shots from downtown and really started to find his confidence, much to the delight of Ben and I who knew that he had it in him once he found his feet.
The GASO tournament was viewed by the coaches of Kentucky, Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona and many more top D1 schools, as well as mid-major D1’s, D2, D3 and Juco coaches. This event offered EVERY player the chance to show what they can do, and some of the games we had the chance to watch were of unbelievable standard.
Every morning Ben and I offered the boys the chance to join us for an “early bird” weight room workout at the local gym – shout out to Robin who was there at every opportunity bar the first day! Towards the end of the tour I shared my personal basketball journey in an effort to teach the boys some key life skills that I learned along the way, in the hope that they can implement these things both into their basketball careers and their lives for the better. I also discussed the college basketball “to-do” and what they need to get done off the court if they want to play college basketball in the USA, including advice on SAT’s, being eligible with the NCAA and more.
The Russell residence was filled with energy and laughter for the entire 10 days, and both Ben and his wife Aspen worked incredibly hard to ensure the boys were well-rested and well-fed for the entirety of the trip. At the residence the boys ate a variety of foods, from chicken, baked potato and salad to late night pizzas and cookies. On most evenings they were very sensible about getting enough rest for the following days activities, especially throughout the tournament when they were returning to the residence absolutely exhausted! Outside of the home we ate some tasty food, from Chinese buffet to classic American breakfasts such as chicken n’ waffles and steak and eggs. The highlight of our restaurant trips had to be the dinner at Hooters for Robin’s birthday, where Robin was treated to a birthday cake and forced to do 17 hula-hoops by the Hooters girls. Ope Afolabi also took on the hot wings challenge, and cheered on by his friends and teammates, absolutely demolished the 5 wings in front of him.
The boys were treated to some off-court experiences that left them all with huge smiles on their faces and an eagerness to be a part of this kind of trip again in the future. We spent a day at Six Flags Hurricane Harbour, which was filled with huge water slides, a wave pool and a ton of water-based fun. We were also joined by a young member of Aspen’s family named Joey, who was taken under the wing by Guy Atoun, a very thoughtful and caring young man who was always looking out for others throughout the tour. The boys left the park almost as exhausted as they’d left each game of the tournament, beaten down by the excitement of tall slides and the hot Dallas temperatures. We were all very proud of Coach Ben for his efforts in taking on the highest slide in the park despite his fear of heights, well done Ben! The boys also spent a lot of time in the beautiful local swimming pool, where they threw an American football to each other, wrestled and generally made themselves well known to the local residents
A major highlight of the entire trip was the visit to SMU, one of the most beautiful college campuses in the USA. This experience showed our players what potentially sits on the other side of hard work, dedication and opportunity – if this wasn’t a motivating factor for a young basketball player, we would struggle to find what is! We saw an incredible gymnasium, American football field, state of the art workout facilities, personalised locker rooms and much, much more. We were so lucky to have this opportunity, something that very few young players outside of those being recruited by the school get to do.
For our players with a desire to spend their hard-earned pocket money, we went to the local shopping outlets to check out the latest Nike, Adidas and Under Armour shoes, as well as all the fashion brands. We also visited downtown Dallas and took a fun, albeit very sweaty tram ride around the city before driving past the location of JFK’s assassination on the drive home. A little bit of culture and history for our basketball-obsessed players
The bonds that were built between the players on this tour were so amazing to see come together. They spent much time demonstrating their musical abilities to and from practices, with freestyle battles amongst the group and sweet melodies being belted out by Enoch Quarcoo, a man of many talents both on and off the court. Ben and I offered Wesley and Stan the chance to “take over” the Russell Hoops and South Coast Elite Instagram stories respectively in a battle to see who could produce the best media. The boys stayed up late into the night on off days chatting and laughing, and we didn’t go a day without hearing James yell “Oh my goodness fam” or Steven shout “You’re dead fam” which made Ben and I chuckle each and every time. Despite some of the boys being complete strangers at the start of the tour, they finished it as comrades and brothers.
James Cummings was hilarious from start to finish and showed sides of himself that Ben had never seen before in the 5 years he’d known him. He was the team joker off the court and the hard-working enforcer on it, an absolute joy to spend time with.
Guy Atoun was a selfless and thoughtful leader that thought deeply about all the experiences that we had throughout the 10 days, and offered insightful feedback about everything from basketball to the off-court trips. Guy is going to be incredibly successful in whatever he chooses to pursue.
Ope Afolabi was the quiet and composed member of the group who was always incredibly polite and respectful. He really came out of his shell on-court and showed many glimpses of what he’s capable of, which is a tremendous amount!
Wesley Moore was loud and energetic in all areas, bringing his amazing character with him wherever we went. He showed so much gratitude for the trip, proved how hard he can work and played with masses of passion and love for the game. We are really excited to see the progress he makes over the coming year.
Aig Ojehomon was a quietly confident and funny individual that absolutely blossomed on the court, from a player reluctant to catch the ball to an aggressive scorer that demanded it! We were so proud of the strides he made in his 10 days in Dallas.
Billy Smallwood showed big heart, from struggling initially to find his confidence to putting on an MVP-like performance in the final two games of the tour. Billy is a grafter that’s only going to get better with time.
Stephen Akpan was too funny, making everyone from his teammates to the coaches chuckle everywhere we went. On the court he played with passion and physicality and was very, very coachable, a testament to his strong character.
Enoch Quarcoo’s potential is limitless and he had spurts of his huge ability throughout the 10 days, which he needs to make more consistent moving forward. Off the court he was a joy to be around with his radiant smile and warm personality, making friends very quickly with the rest of his teammates.
Stanley Howard nearly didn’t make it after leaving his passport at home on the first morning! Thank goodness he did, as he brought with him masses of positivity, energy and enthusiasm even during the most adverse moments. Any team would be very lucky to have this young man be a part of it.
Robin Bedford was tough, gritty and never willing to back down, a testament to his entire basketball career so far. He woke early almost every morning to get stronger, put everything on the line in each and every game, and gave it his all no matter what he did.
Jonathan St. Hilaire was the captain of the group – a respected and well-liked leader who conducted himself like a gentleman, played the game fearlessly and set the tone for how to approach off court and on court situations. We were really thankful for his presence on the tour.
This experience was so rewarding on so many levels for everyone involved, and our one to one meetings on the final day revealed 11 incredibly inspired and excited players now ready to battle adversity and put everything on the line to achieve their dreams. The boys hit the ground running in Dallas from the very first day they arrived, being exposed to so much on and off the court in what most of them proclaimed as one of the best experiences of their entire lives. Their journey is only just beginning and we cant wait to watch it unfold.