Here's what the nearly 3,000 teens participating in the 2020 Jr. NBA Global Championship can look forward to in the coming weeks when the tournament officially begins today: Meeting and competing against other young basketball players from around the world, lessons in life skills, and discussions about social justice and other relevant topics. It's not much different from the first two incarnations of the JNGC, only this time everything will be virtual.
After COVID-19 shut down U.S. sports in March, the NBA staff almost immediately began discussing how they could stage the global tournament that highlights the Jr. NBA's four core values of teamwork, respect, determination, and community.
"We considered all scenarios, but we were determined to find a way to deliver an exciting event while prioritizing the health and safety of the Jr. NBA community," said David Krichavsky, the NBA's Head of Youth Basketball Development. For one, within a few weeks of the pandemic, the Jr. NBA team successfully launched its Jr. NBA at Home Program, which provided hundreds of videos teaching basketball drills and good habits to youth. Secondly, "we feel a responsibility to the Jr. NBA community," said Krichavsky. "They are passionate about basketball and we know the Jr. NBA Global Championship is an event they look forward to, so we pushed forward to deliver it in the best and safest way possible."
It took a massive effort that involved collaboration from departments across the NBA. The tournament, which has Gatorade returning as a partner, runs through mid-August. It features top teams of 13- and 14-year-old male and female players from eight U.S. regions (Central, Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, Northeast, Northwest, South, Southeast and West) and eight international regions (Africa, Asia Pacific, Canada, China, Europe & the Middle East, India, Latin America, and Mexico). All told, dozens of countries will be represented.
"The Jr. NBA Global Championship is an immersive experience, unlike any other tournament," said Adam Harper, NBA Senior Director and Youth Development Team Leader. "While the event will certainly look and feel different than years past, we are excited about the virtual platform and hope to provide impactful and memorable experiences to youth basketball players around the world."
The teams will compete in a series of virtual basketball competitions using HomeCourt, a mobile basketball training app that uses advanced artificial intelligence to track key performance metrics such as speed, vertical jump, shot accuracy, release time and ball handling. The boys and girls teams will participate in bracket-style competitions with the respective U.S. and international winners advancing to a global championship in August. Additionally, HomeCourt will power a digital Jr. NBA Global Championship Skills Challenge to extend the excitement of this year's virtual event to fans and players of all ages.
The activities will culminate next month with a Jr. NBA Day of Celebration as part of the 2019-20 NBA restart at ESPN Wide World of Sports, which hosted the two previous Jr. NBA Global Championships.
One of the teams competing this year is The Skill Factory, a metro Atlanta squad representing the Southeast. Bella Martin, 14, plays point guard for the team.
"I really like the virtual aspect and I'm most looking forward to competing against girls I've never seen play before," said Bella, who has used HomeCourt while at home. "If we win, that will be great. But just being with my team and competing alongside my teammates, I'm most excited to be a part of that."
She and her teammates haven't been together since the shutdown but their coach, Tad Spencer, has held weekly Zoom meetings to make sure the girls stay connected. "We're kind of used to the virtual world already," Spencer said. "The tournament is a wonderful opportunity to spread our wings and see where we stand as a team."
Competition isn't the only focus. The tournament will develop all aspects of the young athletes with a virtual campus where the players can use avatars to interact with the other players, no matter where they are in the world. The virtual campus will feature lifestyle, culture and music components, trivia, scavenger hunts and other interactive competitions as well as content from all NBA and WNBA teams.
"The virtual campus is one of the more unique components we have going on for this year's Jr. NBA Global Championship. The youth will be able to experience presentations and also connect with each other in the virtual campus," said Dawn Smyth, the NBA's International Grassroots Basketball Lead. "The Jr. NBA Global Championship is the only Jr. NBA property that has different regions interacting with each other. It's important that we're able to share this cultural basketball experience."
For their community service, players will also submit an image that represents their ideals of global unity and social change. Live Art International will use the images to create a mural that will be donated to a community organization. Players will also participate in leadership and life skills lessons, including conversations about social justice, race and mental health and wellness. While each region will tailor the presentation to their community, the overall focus will be on inclusion, diversity and equity. This year, however, does have a twist: JNGC alumni from the U.S. who played in 2018 and 2019 will participate in the life skills conversations alongside NBA and WNBA players. The dialogue will be led by youth facilitators and center on the opportunity for the next generation of players and leaders to drive collective action and create long-term change.
Candice Haynes said developing the young teens holistically is one of the most important aspects of the Jr. NBA Global Championship because many of the players hope to play basketball professionally. "We can let them know that there's more they can get from the game than just being a basketball player," said Haynes, the NBA's Domestic Youth Player Development Program Manager. "We are really intentional when it comes to mental health and wellness and developing the total athlete. When we explain why we are doing something, for instance, why it's important for you to develop your mental wellness and then tying it with their performance, it might resonate more."
The conversations take on an even greater importance this year, Haynes added. She called 2020 'a perfect storm' with the pandemic and the movement for social justice. "We've seen a lot of youth speaking out on how everything has affected them," she said. "For a lot of them, sports might be that safe haven and they don't have that this year. They lost their scholastic season, they lost their summer season, they're not around their coaches, their teammates. We really wanted to lean into that and be there for them as an open space for kids to be heard."