Virginia’s 757 Elite Has Packed Experience into 18 Months
A lot can be accomplished in 18 months. If USA Basketball Licensed coaches Randall Johnson and Jamaar Hawkins didn’t believe that before, they certainly do now.
In January 2017, the two men first heard USA Basketball would be holding its first-ever national championship in the 14-and-under age group that summer. It didn’t take long for Johnson and Hawkins to realize that while there are organized teams in the U14 age group in the area of southeast Virginia they call home, there definitely wasn’t a national event.
They decided to try to put together a team made up of kids from several communities in the area. They announced a date for tryouts and spread the word, mostly through social media.
Players came from Hampton, Suffolk, Virginia Beach and Norfolk, and spots in between, and the first 757 Elite U14 team was formed, coached by Johnson. The “757” represents the zip code in the area.
After being approved to participate in the 2017 U.S. Open Basketball Championships, the team traveled to Westfield, Indiana, to compete in the June 30-July 3 tournament that Johnson and Hawkins had targeted six months earlier. The team lost its first game, but then ran off seven consecutive victories to capture the championship in the inaugural event.
“The value of the tournament, it meant a lot to the kids,” Johnson said. “A lot of them have been playing elite ball. So, they’ve been traveling a lot, but USA Basketball, by it only being one tournament, it meant a lot to them.
“Once we got there, the kids looked at it like a business trip. They really played how they wanted to play.”
Johnson and Hawkins did their best to make it a unique experience.
“I think there was a lot of bonding with the kids,” Johnson said. “Representing their city and representing Virginia well. I remember one kid told me it felt like they put Virginia on their back, and they followed through with it.”
757 Elite is returning to Indiana this year to compete in the U.S. Open Basketball Championships for boys from July 19-22, albeit with almost an entirely different group of players. There are only three holdovers from last summer.
In the year since their victory, Johnson said interest in USA Basketball in their area has dramatically increased. He said he consistently fielded questions from interested parents and young players almost every time he found himself in a gym over the past year.
Winning a national title only a few months after forming a team for the first time is bound to get attention, and Johnson also believes the USA Basketball brand carries some weight with players and their parents, who see some of their favorite NBA stars competing for the men’s and women’s national teams and like to be a part of the team.
Johnson said players are required to be making satisfactory progress in school to be a part of the 757 Elite team. He and Hawkins and assistant coaches consistently emphasize the power of making good choices when they talk with the players, hoping to keep them focused on the opportunities that lie ahead.
“We talk to them about decision making and how the decisions you make, it could change your life, especially in the environment where we stay at,” Johnson said. “They have to stay on their Ps and Qs at all times.”
With three players who have been on a national champion in the past, this version of 757 Elite already has something more than the first version did. But beyond that crucial bit of experience and leadership from those players, Johnson said he believes this year’s team is better than the team he brought here a year ago.
At least part of that is because he and Hawkins knew through experience what they’d be getting into this time.
“We’ve been preparing them for some time now,” Johnson said.