First Hoops Fest star never faded from memory

If you’ve been to any of the previous Hoops Fests over the years and watched the slam-dunk competitions, you’ve gotten to see some entertaining moments.

Last year at Potomac, Hylton’s Jamaal Lewis, sporting a pair of old-fashioned Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers, got things started with a little jig before his first dunk.

In 1998, Hylton’s Tommy Adams won the title on his home court by throwing the ball off the wall behind the basket, grabbing it on one bounce and slamming it through the hoop.

And the year before, Brentsville’s Clarence Hogan parted the crowd on the court at Potomac so he could get a clean running start from the other end of the gym toward the hoop.

All memorable.

But as I thought about all the different highlights over the years, there was one that stands out in my mind more than others. That was Tony Bazemore at Hoops Fest I in 1996.

It stands out because of the dunk that Bazemore did that night, but also because of what happened after. It’s a story that’s entertaining, yes. But more than any other, it’s also mysterious and sad.

Some background first. Bazemore was an extraordinary jumper from North Stafford High School. I had never seen him play, but he came highly recommended from another member of the paper’s sports staff who had.

Bazemore didn’t disappoint. On his final jump of the night, he clearly won the title after taking off from the free-throw line, jumping over a teammate, who was sitting in a chair, and then laying down a monstrous right-handed dunk that earned him a perfect 50 from the judges.

A Potomac News photographer captured Bazemore’s winning slam right as he was at his highest moment in the air. It’s quite a sight.

For one thing, the upper-half of Bazemore’s body is at least a foot or two above the rim. For another, the crowd in the background is on its feet, with at least one person’s mouth clearly wide open, awestruck by what he was seeing.

The image would become our logo for the next three years. Nike had Jordan. We had Bazemore.

But after collecting his trophy and accepting congratulations, Bazemore walked out of the gym, never returning to North Stafford. That’s where the mystery begins.

We knew something was up when someone from the Wolverines’ coaching staff called us, wondering if we knew where Bazemore was. He had never returned his jersey.

Actually, we were wondering the same thing. We had two Washington Wizards tickets to give him as well, a gift for winning the event and nowhere to send them.

There was talk he had gone to Virginia Beach, but no one knew for sure.

Curious if anyone had any updated information on Bazemore, I called his former coach Carl Hensley the other day. Hensley had not heard from Bazemore since Hoops Fest, but there were some things to report, although they too were dated.

At one point a few years back, Hensley said he had heard through Coby Burns, a teammate of Bazemore’s at North Stafford, that Bazemore had been coming back to the North Stafford area on occasion.

“Coby said Tony had gotten to be like 6-6,” Hensley said. “That was hard to believe, but he has no reason to make that up.”

Hensley also said that Burns, who was playing at Coker College (S.C.) at the time, had recommended Bazemore to the coaches, but nothing ever came of it.

That’s as much as Hensley knew, which isn’t easy because he remembers Bazemore as a great talent and a nice, easy-going kid, who he tried to help out without much success. Hensley still has the newspaper with the photo of Bazemore’s dunk at Hoops Fest and can, without hesitating, recall a moment he had never seen in his 33 years of coaching.

It was against arch-rival Stafford. Bazemore did not start the game for disciplinary reasons, but he started the second half.

In one play, Bazemore stole the ball at half court and went straight for the basket, where he dunked the ball with such authority that it bounced off a Stafford player’s head once it went through the basket.

“The crowd went wild,” Hensley said. “He was an amazing jumper.”

In a way, a legend has developed to fill the void. It’s like those old television commercials about Lamarr Mondane, the playground star everyone called ” ‘Money,’ ‘Cause when he shot, it was money in the bank.”

But just like there was a real Lamarr, there was a real Tony Bazemore, which is why there remains the hope that wherever he is today, he should know he will never just be defined by a dunk. He means more to people like Hensley than that.

“I will never give up on him,” Hensley said. “Maybe I can still be an influence to him somehow.”

David Fawcett is the sports editor of the Potomac News & Manassas Journal Messenger. Reach him at (703) 878-8052 or at [email protected]

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