Spring has got to be one of my favorite times of year, except for fall, of course, when training for the upcoming season starts. That’s partly because for 15 years, I’ve had the distinct honor of serving as a member of the coaches’ and players’ selection committees for the annual McDonald’s All American Games as well as the player and coach manager for McDonald’s game week itself for five years. It means I get to work with exceptional players and coaches from all across the country, and it’s truly something special.
Proudly, my wife Terri Lynn Wootten has also been heavily involved, serving as the administrator of the nominations and selection committee for the games for eight years. Stay tuned for a future post from her about the rigorous process associated with getting the game week together.
This year’s event, which took place from March 25 through the 30 in Chicago, was no less exciting than ever. Here’s my rundown of how the first three days went.
Day 1: Arrive in the Windy City
Terri Lynn and I arrived in Chicago on Friday for the staff dinner prior to the games week. Each department gave updates on their roles, and we heard from the media, security, and the legal teams. Then the director of the games, Douglas Freeland, and I gave a report on the players. I covered who emerged late and who to watch out for. I also gave insight into the process of selecting the team and the importance of the evaluations that begin the week for each player.
Day 2: Players Arrive
The players were welcomed with the incredible hospitality of the black and white room set up by Adidas. Each player had their own locker with a uniform and nameplate. Throughout the week, they received new items in their locker…many of them a surprise.
We started the afternoon with a one-hour coaches’ meeting. We covered the events of the week and, most importantly, we covered each player, the match-ups for the game, and what we wanted the coaches to do in practices. We wanted these practices to be competitive, fast-paced, and demonstrative of players’ ability, skill, feel for the game and coachability.
Following the coaches’ meeting, we had our welcome meeting for the 24 boys and 24 girls who were the 2016 McDonald’s All American players. They were greeted personally by Douglas Freeland.
I then spoke to the players about hitting the “reset button” for the week. They had all strived to be McDonalds All Americans, they had worked hard, they had become the best of the best. This week represented a new chapter — the opportunity to hit a “reset button” — where the evaluations start all over again.
Every single NBA team had two or three scouts at every practice who were watching and evaluating everything. I let the players know that the practices and the games were the #1 event where they would be evaluated prior to the draft.
A McDonald’s All American player has more than a 60 percent chance of having a significant NBA career. The next closest indicator is around 20 percent. These scouts watch for everything.
Why? Because this much talent won’t be together again before the draft — not in a college game, not in the Final Four. Remember that 60 percent of these players will have significant NBA careers! The same can’t be said of a college game or even the National Championship.
The scouts wanted to see how players do against the best. I warned these young athletes that they were no longer the biggest or the strongest. I asked, “Will you still be able to get your shot off? Will you know how to move, cut, space the floor? Can you show that you can play with the pass? Can you display your natural competitiveness?” Again, the scouts watch everything!
The evening concluded with a trip to Chicago’s famous Harry Caray’s restaurant and history museum and plenty of interactive games for the kids to unwind with. One of the nicest things is that most of the players knew each other from camps, tournaments, etc., and they always seem to enjoy making new friends.
Day 3: Why We Play, the First Practice and Rock ‘n’ Roll McDonald’s
The day started with an optional Easter service that was attended by more than half of the players.
We then headed over to the Ronald McDonald House just a few blocks away. The players heard from a father with a very sick son. He talked about how the house allows them to feel like a normal family as they spend most of their days at the hospital. His son even received a text message from Ben Simmons a year after he played, just checking in and saying hi.
The McDonald’s game raises money for the Ronald McDonald charity. During the 39 years the games have been held, over 12 million dollars have been raised. Our players then spent the next two hours making cookies with the children, getting a tour of the house, and talking to the families who live there. Later, many players told me they felt this visit was the most impactful event of the week.
From the Ronald McDonald House, the teams headed to the gym to start doing the practices we designed for them in the coaches’ meeting. Players competed hard and adjusted to the talent level that they were playing with and against. Some struggled to get their shots off against the stiff competition.
Some surprised the scouts with their elevated level of play. All showed they belong. We limited breaks to one minute and we went hard for two straight hours. It was clear by the end of the day: for both the boys’ and girls’ teams, this was a deep class of McDonald’s All Americans.
After practice we headed to the Rock ‘n’ Roll McDonald’s downtown, which features a wall showing the history of the iconic restaurant. The players had tray after tray of fries, chicken nuggets, and apple pies waiting to tide them over until their individual orders were ready.
After eating, we made our way to the Chicago Theater, where a basketball court had been built over the seats for the POWERADE Jamfest. The look on the players’ faces when they saw the court inside a theater was one of awe. They had a walk-through for the dunk contest, the 3-point shootout, and the legend’s challenge.
Then, the night ended with more food in the hospitality room and a focus group with Adidas to get the players’ insights on style for shoes and clothing.
It was a busy few days, but the kids did great. I always feel proud of these young men and women when we get together for what is surely an intimidating time in their careers.
Want a peek in to what the McDonald’s All American Games are really like? Check out this interview from last year’s events, and stay tuned for my play-by-play of days 4, 5 and 6!