What first came to mind, walking into the Park District of La Grange gym last Saturday, was a simple two-day basketball camp with almost 180 kids in mesh jerseys.
On three courts and 18 hoops, campers stood in line, waiting their turn to dribble at a foldout chair before hitting the inanimate object with a crossover, or spin move, or stutter step, ultimately ending with a lay-up, sometimes a dunk.
After rounds of this, a coach would blow a whistle, bark instructions at the players huddled around him, and then a new drill would commence.
Nothing about the atmosphere suggested high stakes.
Then Dinos Trigonis blew his whistle and called for all the campers to sit in the middle court, Court #2.
Trigonis started his brand on the West Coast. He has run Fullcourt Press, a recruiting publication and service, for almost two decades. His camps are held in all parts of the country, such as this one, the Pangos All Midwest Frosh/Soph. Alumni of Fullcourt Press events include LeBron James, James Harden, Carlos Boozer, and Dwight Howard. The staggering list can be found in its entirety on the Fullcourt Press website.
In other words, Trigonis knows high school basketball.
So when he stood on Court #2 and talked to the mass of freshmen and sophomores, everyone listened, even the parents. When he asked number 201 (campers were numbers) to stand up, 201 meekly, but immediately, got to his feet. When Trigonis chastised 201 for cutting in line during drills, 201 hung his head.
One parent clapped and thanked Trigonis for setting the kid straight.
These camps, after all, are mostly about getting noticed by people that know high school basketball, like Trigonis and the camp's sponsor, Ballislife.com.
It's hard to get noticed when someone's cutting in-line and stealing your shots.
For those campers who have already been noticed, such as Ben Coupet Jr. (number 100), these camps are about solidifying yourself as the best.
Ben arrived with a South Side contingent. There was his teammate Zack Norvell (89) from Simeon; Charlie Moore (84) and Alonzo Chatman (110) from rival Morgan Park High School; and Jarrin Randall (65), who played for Simeon last season but recently transferred to Morgan Park.
For the next three years, these five sophomores will participate in one of the most heated rivalries in Chicago sports.
But all that could wait.
On Sunday, there would be an all-star game. Out of the 180 campers, the top 60 would be chosen to play on Court #2. 31 to 60 would play first, 1 to 30 would be the main event.
Now, it was Saturday and Trigonis had to split the campers into teams.
Jarrin Randall doesn't have a mixtape yet. You can't YouTube him and find highlight videos set to hip-hop instrumentals, like you can with his friends Ben, Zack, Charlie, and Alonzo.
Quiet and laid-back, he's spent much of his young career in the shadows of his more heralded teammates. Last year, it was Ben and Zack. This year, Charlie and Alonzo.
He wanted to make that all-star game. 31-60 wasn't good enough, either. He wanted to be in the main event.
In one game, his parents lost track of how many steals he had. He passed freely and intelligently (qualities that can be hard to come by on a court filled with teenagers wanting mix tapes). He showed off his three-point range and attacked the basket when necessary. For long stretches of time, he was the best player on the court.
Then the games ended, the players sat on Court #2, and everyone listened.
Here's how Trigonis wanted it to go down: Walk over to the far wall, where the all-star teams were posted, check for your name and number. If it's not there, line up to hand in your jersey and use the disappointment as motivation. If you're 31-60, report to Court #2. If you're 1-30, report to Court #1.
Last year, Jarrin had to stand in-line with his jersey off. This year, the all-star game felt like absolute certainty.
Ben made the 1-30 game, as expected.
Zack, Charlie and Alonzo, too.
When Jarrin's family walked back from the lists, the disappointment looked heavy.
They hugged and talked about fairness. Last year, it felt like politics. This year, it felt worse, like cheating. Sometimes this stuff happens, they reasoned, life is like this and it's good that he's learning this now.
There was talk of fueling fires and working harder.
I wondered if life should be so closely associated with basketball. Then I realized where I was: looking at a line of sad teenagers, jerseys in hand, bracing themselves for a long ride home.
I told Jarrin's parents not to sweat it.
I thought about fairness on my way to the parking lot.
Ben got another mix tape two days later.