Interview: The Top High School Basketball Players Talk Sneakers, Hoops, and MJ at the Jordan Brand Classic

We catch up with world's best high school hoopers and get a surprise from Drake and CC Sabathia.

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Complex Original

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Written by Bryan Horowitz (@SportsAngle)

The best high school basketball players in America descended on the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Saturday for the Jordan Brand Classic, which over the past 11 years has become a mandatory rite of passage on the way to bigger things. The past six No. 1 NBA Draft picks played in the Jordan game as high school seniors, as did hoops royalty Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant. In his final game as an amateur, an 18-year-old LeBron James scored a Classic-record 34 points; three days after his final NBA game, Michael Jordan observed the boy who would be King from the MCI Center owner’s suite.

Indeed, what sets the Jordan Game apart from other more established competitors is the cool factor from being affiliated with the greatest player of all time, not to mention a variety of unmatched amenities. For kids who grew up coveting anything emblazoned with the Jumpman logo, they get a backpack full of fresh gear and sneakers to take home. There was also a weekend full of activities all over the City, such as a tour of the historic Gleason’s boxing gym and a private film screening with Spike Lee. The players were treated to a fireworks-laden postgame concert from Drake, who shouted out Canadian prep star Andrew Wiggins and brought the entire Jordan All-American team on stage for “Started From the Bottom.” And best of all, up-and-coming players hoping to emulate Jordan’s rise to greatness get to show their stuff in front of MJ himself, who watched from a skybox.

That said, while players like LeBron grew up watching and idolizing Jordan, Wiggins had just turned eight years old when Jordan played his final game 10 years ago this Tuesday. Events like the Classic and the Jordan Brand’s efforts in the community continue to spread the gospel to new generations, but today’s players are still definitely more accustomed to seeing Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony in J’s than the man who made them famous.

Which begs the question: What do Jordan and his iconic, eponymous brand mean to today’s future superstars? As the Classic came to Jordan’s birthplace for the first time, Complex polled 10 of the nation’s finest up-and-coming players about the importance to them of playing in the game that bears his name. As a bonus, we also solicited takes from two notable courtside spectators: Kentucky-bound junior Karl Towns, certain to be a Jordan Brand All-American next year, and Yankees ace CC Sabathia, a longtime member of Team Jordan. Click through to see the rest of the story.

Kasey Hill

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A major reason Montverde Academy finished the season as the No. 1 team in the country, Hill scored 12 points with seven assists and three steals in the Jordan Brand All-American Game. A pure point guard, Hill will join longtime AAU teammate Chris Walker at the University of Florida next season.

Favorite Air Jordan: “The IV’s (he was wearing Military Blues) or XV.”

How’d it feel to play in this game with Jordan up in the skybox?

It felt great. He’s the best player ever, and having him watch you, it just feels great. It’s an honor.

Have you been able to go back and follow his career?

Oh yeah, of course. I’ve watched all the Jordan videos. I obviously couldn’t follow his career at the time since he was so much older, but I’ve watched all the videos.

What strikes you the most about him and sets him apart?

I mean, he really loved the game. Every time he talked about it, he described how much he loved playing and how much he put into it.

How’d the XX8 feel for you?

Oh, they felt great. They were really comfortable, and nice to play in.

You said you’re a little young to really watch Jordan live, but you’ve seen some other players wearing the brand, like Carmelo Anthony, who was here tonight. What would that mean to you to be a part of his team down the road potentially?

Of course I’d want to be a part of his team. (Laughs.) That’s a huge honor. People like that are extremely blessed to be a part of that, so I’d definitely want to be a part of that someday if I can.

Kennedy Meeks

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Andrew Harrison

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The top-ranked point guard in the Class of 2013, Andrew and his brother, No. 1 ranked shooting guard Aaron, head for Kentucky as part of one of the most talented recruiting classes in history. Harrison, who many feel will be a Top 5 NBA pick as soon as 2014, led all players in the Jordan game with eight assists.

Favorite Air Jordan: “The Black Cement III’s.”

How did it feel to play in this game wearing the Jumpman all over, while Jordan himself was watching you play?

It was a fun game. A lot of great players played in it, so it was an honor.

How did you enjoy going around New York City with the Jordan Brand and everything?

It was cool. We didn’t get to go around that much, but we saw a lot, and I really enjoyed myself. 

What’s been your favorite experience besides the game this week? 

Probably the Drake concert was the best part.

What’d you think of the XX8’s?

They were comfortable. I mean, it wasn’t like… they didn’t feel like regular shoes, but they were comfortable all in all.

I know you’re kind of young relative to when he retired, but how much are you into studying Jordan’s career?

He’s definitely my favorite player of all time. I’ve gone back and watched a lot of him, especially this past year, studying his mindset, and the way he gets his shot off.


What do you think is the most important thing you’ve learned from studying his career and his life? 

Just the confidence that he had every time he stepped on the court. And how consistent he was with his effort. It’s just, every game was important to him.

Austin Colbert

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After teaming with Kyrie Irving, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Dakari Johnson on a loaded St. Patrick’s team, Colbert bounced around a bit before finding a home back in Jersey at Gill St. Bernard’s. The lanky 6-foot-9 forward/center scored eight points and had six rebounds in the Jordan Brand regional game. He brings a great motor and solid athleticism to the University of Illinois next year.

Favorite Air Jordan: “Tough to pick… Either the II’s or the VII’s."

You played for St. Pat’s for a while, which was sponsored by Jordan, so you’re no stranger to playing with his logo on your uniform. What does that mean to you?

Oh wow, this is an awesome experience. This is once-in-a-lifetime, not for everybody. I feel so fortunate and blessed to be a part of something like this, to have my name even mentioned at such a prestigious event and game, all of that.

You’re going to Illinois next year, the state Jordan accomplished the most in. What does he mean to you heading to play over there?

Oh man, he’s the G.O.A.T. He’s the G.O.A.T. Even though I’m young, I still know pretty much everything about him. I have all his DVD’s, a lot of his shoes. I mean, it’s Michael Jordan. Everybody knows his name, he’s a household name. He’s just an amazing competitor; people look up to him and want to be like him. That’s how much of an impact he had on me as a player, and really the whole world.

What’s it like playing in the Jordan XX8?

They’re smooth, they’re smooth! They kind of remind me of watching Russell Westbrook wear them. You have to have a little swagger to wear them.

Ben Simmons

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If you’re looking for the Next Big Thing, there’s a very good chance Simmons is just that. Just a sophomore, some have compared the native of Melbourne, Australia, to Tracy McGrady, while his coach Kevin Boyle at Montverde Academy likens him to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Way ahead of his time as a passer and defender, Simmons led the Jordan Classic International Game in rebounding with 11.

Coming from Australia, how do you find the sneaker culture over here at the camps and games you go to?

It’s always great to get all the sneakers and stuff, though I’m mostly here just to play and have fun. I’ve been going to a lot of events since I’m over here (in America) now, so I’m usually getting sneakers from Nike and stuff, the LeBron camp, Adidas – so I guess it’s just one of the things that comes with it.

Is getting Jordans a little more special than anything else?

I’d say so. It’s Michael Jordan’s event, so…

In terms of that, I know you’re a little young – even younger than the rest of these guys – but what does Michael Jordan mean to you?

I’d call him a legend, I guess. I haven’t really watched his games personally, though I’ve watched some footage of him… I just know he’s the greatest player to ever play the game, so he’s a guy I look up to. Like, LeBron plays on that physical level, but Jordan’s a step above him. I guess, if it wasn’t for Jordan, there would be no LeBron or Kobe, who plays like that.

What has been your favorite aspect of this week?

I guess it was just seeing my family, because my dad’s from New York, so I’ve got a lot of family over here.

Having had this experience, are you planning to go back and go watch some film of Jordan?

Maybe a little bit… I’ve definitely got some footage on my phone of him.

Chris Walker

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Something of a YouTube sensation, Walker led Holmes County High School in tiny Bonifay, Fl., to its first-ever state title as a senior. Walker plays above the rim on both ends, scoring the first four points for his Jordan Classic team on dunks en route to 14 points. Walker, who credits his mom for setting him up for success, is heading three hours down the road to the University of Florida next season.

Favorite Air Jordan: Air Jordan III

How’d it feel to get off to a fast start against so many great players, scoring 6 of the first 8 points for your team?

It felt great. I just wanted to come out and play with a lot of energy and compete with all of these top players. I don’t feel like I really did that good overall, but I did all right.

You have high standards for yourself, don’t you?

Yeah, pretty much.

How’d it feel knowing that Michael Jordan was up there in a skybox watching you?

It felt good. Knowing that the G.O.A.T. was there, and Carmelo was there and Amar’e, Drake… all these celebrities watching all of us young kids trying to put on a show.

Do you feel it changed your game at all there to know all these great players were in the crowd?

No, it didn’t change my game at all. I did the same thing I do every time, just compete and run the floor and battle.

How’d the Jordan XX8’s feel?

The ones we were just wearing, right? Those are the XX8’s? They felt alright. I think they kind of look like boots a little, but they played alright. The cushioning was straight.

If you could take one thing from Jordan and apply it to your own career, what would it be?

Man, that’s a good question. There’s so much stuff. Probably just the way Jordan used to go out there and compete. In practice or in games, he’d compete the same. That’s how I want to be.

Noah Vonleh

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Ranked eighth in the class of 2013, Vonleh is a multitalented power forward from New Hampton Prep in Massachusetts. He’ll join fellow Jordan Brand All-American Troy Williams at Indiana University next season, where the two are expected to immediately step into major roles.

What are your thoughts about playing in a game that Michael Jordan sponsors?

It’s a great opportunity to be here. There have been a lot of great players that have played in this game, like Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Rudy Gay and a lot of other players I look up to.

After your experience here, if down the road, the Jordan Brand called and asked you to represent them, how would you react?

The Jordan Brand is the No. 1 brand I like to wear. It’d be a great opportunity. The top brands are Nike and Jordan, so it would be a great honor to be under one of those brands.

What does Michael Jordan, the man, mean to you?

He’s the greatest player to ever play the game. He was a great scorer. I love watching highlights of him and all of the great things that he’s done. Honestly, I just love everything about him; I love watching him, I love wearing his gear.

How would you compare the Jordan Game to the other similar games you’ve been a part of?

I also played in the McDonald’s All-American Game, but I really like this one. We get a lot more gear; Jordan takes care of us. And we’re playing against a lot of the other top players in the country, so it’s good to get in like a family type environment with them. I’m going to see a lot of these guys for years to come, so it’s great to build relationships with them.

Matt Jones

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A 6-foot-5 shooting guard from Desoto, Texas, Jones is one of the purest jump shooters in the nation. He hit two three-pointers en route to 14 points in the Jordan Brand Classic, which tied him for fourth highest in the game. Ranked fifth at his position by ESPN, Jones will follow in the lineage of past Duke marksmen such as Trajan Langdon and J.J. Redick. 

Favorite Air Jordan: Air Jordan XI "Concord"

Are you excited about taking the next step?

I’m very excited about going to Duke. Just playing for Coach K, and feeling the vibe that Durham has to offer, I’m excited. All the players that have played in the Duke-Carolina game – of course, that includes Michael Jordan, one of the greatest that ever played – so I’m definitely excited to be able to say I played in that rivalry.

How does it feel to play in a game with Jordan’s name attached?

It’s great. Just great. I just feel so blessed and grateful to be here, and to be hand-picked by Michael himself to play in a game that he sponsors and has his name on. I definitely feel grateful and blessed to be here.

You’re not old enough to have really watched him play with the Bulls. Have you gone back and studied his game at all?

Sometimes, I just go and look at highlights and see some of the things he did back then, and I still have a lot to learn. But what I’ve seen from him, I’ve just been amazed at how great he was.

What would you ask if you got to talk with him?

I wouldn’t know. (Laughs) I’d try to collect myself, but at the same, I’d be too excited to even spit words out.

Nigel Williams-Goss

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The first four-year starter in the history of basketball powerhouse Findlay Prep, Williams-Goss is a versatile point guard and a sneaky-good scorer who is ticketed for the University of Washington next season. His marquee moment came against No. 1 Montverde Academy at the 2013 Hoophall Classic, when he scored 26 points and hit a game-winning three-pointer.

What does playing in a game with Jordan’s name attached mean to you?

Oh, it means everything. I was just thinking on the bus ride over here, I’m just so thankful, so blessed to be here. I think the collection of talent is unbelievable; they did a great job selecting all these guys. And I’m just so honored to be here, like you said, with a guy like Michael Jordan being a part of it, it doesn’t get any better than that.

Have you gone back and watched his career at all and studied it?

Oh, definitely. I went back and watched a lot of it. I think with the NBA Classics and the NBA TV, you get to see a lot of the greats. They show them and try to keep them relevant, which isn’t hard to do when you’ve had a career like Michael Jordan’s. I definitely know a lot about him, and I’ve watched him very closely.

What does his brand symbolize to you?

The best. The best. Like as soon as you see the Jordan sign, it just instantly goes to the top, know what I’m saying? I think all the brands, they bring something different to the table, but when you’re talking about Jordan, it’s just on another level. The same thing with the shoes, you see any retro Jordan sneaker, and it’s kind of like, “OK, those are J’s. Those are the best.”

What would you do if you got to talk with Michael Jordan?

Man, it would be… I don’t even know, to be honest! I think it would be one of those things where you have to play it by ear and react how you react. But I just know, I’d probably freak out, and then ask for a picture, definitely.

Andrew Wiggins

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Arguably the top player in the country – depending on your opinion of Jabari Parker – the Canadian-born Wiggins is a lethal scorer who would probably be the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft this season if he could declare for the pros. Most likely, the Huntington Prep star will merely have to wait a year for that. A favorite of fellow Canadian Drake, Wiggins is undecided between Kentucky, Florida State and North Carolina.

Andrew, what did it mean for you going forward to have played in this game with Michael Jordan in attendance?

It’s an honor. I give cheers to the fact that all these celebrities came to watch us play. So I just appreciate that, and I’m blessed to be here, with the opportunity to play among the best players in the world.

Did Drake say anything to you?

No, he just shouted us out on stage, me and Tyler (Ennis) and Kasey (Hill.)

How’d the XX8’s feel?

(Smiles) They were good, pretty good.

Going to get a lot of shoes over the next couple of weeks at All-Star games and such, huh?

Maybe? I don’t know. (Laughs)

Karl Towns

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A Top 5 player in the Class of 2014, Towns was in the stands getting a first-hand look at an event he’ll almost certainly highlight next year. A 7-foot center with deadeye three-point range – and a 4.3 GPA – Towns has done something Jay Williams and Andrew Bynum couldn’t do, leading St. Joseph’s Metuchen to its first two New Jersey state titles in school history. Towns gained valuable experience playing for John Calipari with the Dominican National Team and has verbally committed to play for the University of Kentucky.

What would it mean for you personally to play in the Jordan Classic next year?

Oh, this is an excellent event. It’s crazy to see all the celebrities that have come out. It just shows how big and popular this event is. Maybe it used to be overshadowed by the McDonald’s Game, but it’s showing right now how significant it is. And I can’t wait to be in it next year, to play in this game and in this venue, and hopefully to play in front of the great one, Michael Jordan.

In terms of Jordan himself, what has he meant to you as an up-and-coming ballplayer?

You know, not even just to me, but just to the game of basketball. He’s revolutionized what our common knowledge is of a basketball player. He’s just done so much with his career for me, personally. He’s just given me so much motivation to be different. You just want to be that different guy, who stands out in the crowd, who’s mocked for being different but comes out as one of the greatest. A lot of times, people forget that being different is being great.

One of my favorite Jordan quotes comes from one of his ads: “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life, and that’s why I succeed.” What does that mean to you to know that someone like that who achieved so much has had to overcome adversity?

What it means is you can’t do anything without failing sometimes. Nobody in this world is perfect. I’ve never met anybody who’s completely perfect all the time. So what he was trying to say, even though he’s one of the greatest – matter of fact, he is the greatest player to ever play this game – is that nobody’s perfect. He’s going to fail, too. And that’s what you have to realize; sometimes you have bad games, games you didn’t want to have – but Michael Jordan wasn’t perfect either. So you just have to go into the gym and work that much harder and fix that area that wasn’t working for you.

Have you played in the Air Jordan XX8 yet?

No, I haven’t.

You looking forward to it?

Hopefully! (laughs) If they make Size 20 in the XX8, I’ll take it!

What’s your favorite Air Jordan?

I like the Olympic 7’s, but I’ve actually never worn a pair of Air Jordans in my entire life. Growing up, I never had the money to buy them. I haven’t even tried on a pair of Jordans at Foot Locker! So hopefully I can put my feet in some Jordans sooner or later.

I’m sure you know a lot of these guys. Are you planning to talk to them to see what this experience was like for them?

You know, I haven’t talked to anyone yet. I talk mostly with Dakari Johnson, we’re really good friends and go way back, and we always look out for each other and want each other to do well in life. Hopefully while he’s at Kentucky next year, he’ll be seeing me playing right here in the Jordan game.

CC Sabathia

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