In 1996, Rick Meyer was told how big the Nike Peach Jam tournament would become in North Augusta. He just didn’t believe it.
Then at 8:30 the first morning, big-name coaches like Roy Williams started streaming into Riverview Park Activities Center to watch the future college and NBA talent.
“I said OK, I guess this is for real,” said Meyer, the North Augusta director of parks, recreation and leisure services. “We were just blown away. And it seems like the talent level keeps getting better and better.”
As the Peach Jam enters its 20th season this week, the talented players continue to make people like Meyer marvel. Throughout the Peach Jam history, players like Dirk Nowitzki, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin have played in North Augusta.
Some Peach Jam participants have become No. 1 draft picks in the NBA Draft. Others have gone on to Hall of Fame careers in the NBA. Others are current basketball superstars.
And it all started in 1996, with the likes of Nowitzki and Elton Brand. The 37-year-old Nowitzki, a longtime Dallas Mavericks power forward, won an MVP award in 2007 and won the NBA Finals MVP four years later. He is a 13-time All-Star who ranks seventh on the NBA career scoring list.
“He was a gangly, tall kid who could shoot the ball pretty decent,” Meyer said. “But the European team just wasn’t that skilled. Dirk Nowitzki turned out pretty good after all.”
Nowitzki didn’t steal the show in that first Peach Jam. Instead, it was Brand’s Riverside Church (New York) team that won it all. Brand teamed up with Metta World Peace, aka Ron Artest, for the championship.
Brand later became the 1999 college basketball player of the year and was the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft. Peace was named the 2004 NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
The Peach Jam featured several other great players in its formative years. In 1998, 7-foot-6 Yao Ming had to duck his head to enter the North Augusta gym. Yao was an eight-time NBA All-Star for the Houston Rockets before retiring because of injury.
“He was so tall,” Meyer said. “Very nice young man. Very well-mannered. He had a nice career unfortunately cut by injury.”
NBA stars Dwyane Wade (1999), Tyson Chandler (2000) and Carmelo Anthony (2001) all played in the Peach Jam’s early days. And back then, those players might not have gotten the recognition they would’ve gotten today.
“I wonder how many people realize Carmelo played here,” Meyer said. “When he was here, he was just another very good basketball player.”
On the flip side, Meyer knew all about Blake Griffin when he came to North Augusta. And Griffin, an NBA All-Star in each of his five seasons, didn’t disappoint.
“He was just an absolute stud puppy,” Meyer said. “And yet his team ... a lot of times the best players didn’t play on a team that won the Peach Jam. It’s still a team game.”
In 2007, the star-studded Mean Streets Express dominated its way through the Peach Jam, winning every game. Of course, the team featured the backcourt of Derrick Rose and Eric Gordon.
“Their team was good, but those two were incredible,” Meyer said. “That team could not be stopped.”
It’s evident the tournament isn’t slowing down any time soon. Two-time NBA All-Star John Wall played in the event in 2008. Andrew Wiggins, the reigning NBA Rookie of the Year, played in 2013.
And, Meyer said, coaches certainly understand why North Augusta has become the place to watch amateur basketball team. The stands fill up. People stand on the track. And when the week begins, the place is buzzing.
“It was a great concept that Nike came up with,” Meyer said. “Of course it’s being copied by adidas and Under Armour, and rightfully so. But it’s a concept that works.”