By H. Esteves
In terms of my core memories in sports, there is nothing that stands out to me more than the Jr NBA tournament that we won back in 2019. Containing over 40 schools, the immense tournament has had three seasons here in Brazil: 2017, 2018 and 2019. There are over 700 athletes participating each year aged between 12 and 14, coming from public and private schools in Brazil. The only restriction is that athletes from official clubs cannot play—the ones that are ‘federados’, as we commonly say in school.
Other than its sheer size, it is also set apart by other competitions because it mimics every minute detail from the NBA; there is a combine, draft, season, playoffs and an award ceremony. In the earlier years there was even an all-star event with a full game, three-point contest and dunk contest! You can get attention from scouts whilst playing too, and if you play extremely well, you might get called up for the global Jr NBA to compete against other countries. This means that the tournament not only provides huge opportunities to athletes, but does it while producing great propaganda for the NBA. And not to mention that it is really fun.
The first event is the Jr NBA combine where, just like the NBA, the athletes have their photos taken and their physique and abilities tested. I still remember walking into the large stadium, having my wingspan measured, my height, my 50-meter sprint time, even my vertical leap. Every test you could possibly think of is done on that day.
What follows is the draft. There, rather than the team picking players in a lottery-determined order like in the NBA, the situation is reversed. The NBA team is assigned to the school on a random lottery. It’s all incredibly official-looking, just like the combine, and it truly feels as though you are about to enter the NBA. In the draft there is a large, cinema-style screen displaying the teams that are about to be decided, and the schools watch eagerly in rows of chairs in front of the screen. In the year we won, we were assigned the San Antonio Spurs team, which might seem meaningless, but we celebrated the announcement since as a team we had always looked up to the Spurs selflessness and teamwork in their peak NBA years.
The ceremonies were done for now, and the games began. It was an intense season, beginning in late April with the final played in June. In 2017 and 2018, the St. Paul’s teams had not been able to get into the playoffs, due to the unforgiving short five-game regular season—it’s all or nothing. With four close wins and one loss, we managed to push through to the playoffs.
The playoffs are even tougher. We played a barrage of games at home and away, and we were incredibly close to classifying to the finals. By the time we played our last game, we were depending on two different teams playing amongst themselves! If one of them won, we’d go to the finals, but if they lost, well, we would be eliminated…
But they won.
And fast forward a few weeks of training, we were at Graded for the final. The biggest crowd I had ever seen for a school game lined the stands and the tension was in the air. The game was against the reigning two-time champs Bandeirantes, and after four grueling quarters, we beat them.
Nothing felt more rewarding than winning this roller coaster of a tournament. I had a feeling that simply getting past the season into the playoffs was an impossible feat, and here we were, celebrating the championship victory.
Later, we received NBA-style championship rings, and to this day it reminds me that if you work for something, it can be done, and that will forever stay in my mind, as one of my core memories in basketball.
Official NBA Brazil account tweeting about St. Paul’s winning the tournament in 2019.