by Troy Sparks
In some team sports, at all levels, doers practice to the whistle; doers practice as hard as they play. And whatever the outcome, you get out of it what you put into it.
The Wisconsin Playground Elite 13U girls AAU basketball team won a lot of games over the last two summers, losing none. What they lacked on a national level was respect.
There was only one way to get national respect: Win the AAU 13U National Tournament in Orlando, FL.
At a practice in June at Mount Mary College in Milwaukee, the young women were hard at work and preparing for the tournament.
They like playing together, and they get along on and off the court. Coach Kevin Johnson put together a collection of players who were willing to check their egos at the door and play for one common goal: To bring home the championship trophy.
“A lot of these girls are stars on their own (school) teams,” he said. “So what I did was go out and recruited a lot of them who are the best players on their teams. And once I put them all together, they collaborated well. They like playing with each other. They’re very unselfish, and they all are winners.”
Imagine being on a team that haven’t lost a game in a tournament in a long time. Winning breeds confidence, which these girls will need as they prepare to play for their high school teams in the fall.
According to Johnson, the best player on the team is Arike Ogunbowale. She will play at Divine Savior Holy Angels as a freshman. Ogunbowale is already receiving Division I interest, even before walking through the doors of DSHA.
Of the 12 girls on the team, seven live in Milwaukee and the remaining five are from Brookfield, Brown Deer, Verona, Burlington and New Berlin, respectively. They treat each other with respect, regardless of their backgrounds.
“I like Playground Elite a lot because the girls come from a lot of different places,” Nicole Holstein of New Berlin said. She will play at New Berlin West next season.
Shakeela Fowler of Brown Deer loves the team chemistry. “You get to know each other. Once you get familiar with everybody, you try to stick together. We all love each other. It’s like a big family.”
Fowler is headed for Rufus King. Johnson said that she will start at point guard. His daughter, Alona Johnson, he said, has early interest from Marquette, North Dakota and South Dakota.
One look at the roster, and you would think that this undersized team isn’t big enough to contend with bigger teams. An observer watched a game of a spring tournament and found that their quickness overcame the lack of size.
“We stay on our man,” Alona Johnson said. “We call out picks. We call help side (defense). And we do what we have to do.”
The Playground Elite team came out swinging in that game in St. Louis. Their pressure defense forced turnovers, which turned into points on their end of the basket. They lost the lead briefly before getting it back and barely survived, pulling out the win.
Their two-year undefeated streak was tested in one game. Playground Elite were down by 20 points at halftime to a team from Illinois, the same team they beat for the 6th grade national championship. Johnson calmed the girls down and told them to believe that they were the best team on the floor. They turned a 20-point deficit into an 18-point win.
“We all play together,” Milwaukee Riverside-bound Amani Wilborn said. “And even though we were all not playing well, we still stick together.”
With the upcoming trip to Orlando on his mind, the fourth year coach was looking for respect.
“We won a lot of games,” Johnson said. “We won two national championships in two different national tournaments. If we can bring this (national AAU championship trophy) back, this is like bringing back a state championship.”
“I’ll be extremely excited,” said Allazia Blockton, who’s headed for Whitefish Bay Dominican. “That means we’re ranked No. 1 in the nation.”
At the AAU 13U National Tournament at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, FL, July 5-7, the Playground Elite team accomplished what they set out to do by winning the national championship over a tough North Tartan (MN) team, 60-58, July 7. Blockton had 17 points and played the entire 32-minute game.
“We had some mental breakdowns, but we still finished the tournament as champions,” Johnson said days after the game. “We are the only team to come to this event and win it on our first trip here, and that says a lot for this team. They have worked so hard and it paid off.
We are the No. 1 team in the country, and we’re from Milwaukee, WI.”
If Playground Elite win the North Tartan Meltdown Tournament in late July, they will keep their unbeaten streak intact. “We don’t want to let people down,” Alona Johnson said. “When we come out, we come out strong. We don’t like blowing people out, but I guess that’s what we have to do to win.”
29th Street Alumni Basketball Camp The 29th Street alumni basketball team will hold a camp at North Division for ages 9-12, July 29-30, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Call Calvin Rayford at 688-1396 or Daryl Banks at 899-9569.