Slam Dunk to the Beach Returns

After a 10-year absence, the legendary tournament returns to Lewes with a lineup of national powerhouses

Jerry Kobasa still remembers the buzz that pulsed through the cold beach air in December of 2001—the year LeBron came to town.

“From the coaches, the people in the community—it was, ‘did you see this guy?’”
For four days, the future NBA megastar took his talents to Lewes, Delaware, where he and his high school team, the defending Ohio Division III state champion St. Vincent–St. Mary Fighting Irish, came to play in one of the toughest, most high profile basketball tournaments in the country: Slam Dunk to the Beach. It was one year after Carmelo Anthony played in the tournament, and two years before Dwight Howard.
“You think about that—little old Delaware,” Kobasa says. “And you look back and think—jeez, LeBron was in Delaware playing basketball. Any basketball fan would be excited about that.”

Kobasa, the head coach of Wesley College men’s basketball team, didn’t miss much of the excitement during the initial, highly popular run of Slam Dunk to the Beach, which ran each year around Christmastime from 1990 to 2003 at the 2,300-seat gymnasium at Cape Henlopen High School. During its 14 years, the tournament grew into one of the nation’s premier showcases for young hoops talent, attracting some of the best teams and blue chip players in the land, and transforming a quiet beach community into a basketball hotbed once a year.

After a 10-year absence, the tournament has returned. Tipoff is scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 27, and play continues through Monday, Dec. 29.

In 2004, Slam Dunk’s founder and CEO Bobby Jacobs unexpectedly pulled the plug on the tournament and disappeared to Florida. As Slam Dunk’s unpaid bills piled up, Jacobs was arrested in 2007 in Miami and pleaded guilty to forgery and theft. In January 2008 Jacobs was sentenced to two years in prison, with one year suspended, and was ordered to pay $400,000 in restitution after pleading no contest to one felony count of misappropriation of property for taking thousands of dollars from the tournament fund.

In the years that followed, Jacobs dragged Slam Dunk’s legacy further into the abyss. He feuded with the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association, and sought vengeance on former collaborators who he believed helped reveal his accounting scams to authorities. He mailed threatening letters to some, and in June of 2009, he was arrested again—this time on three counts of felony stalking.

The tournament seemed dead. But this June, the fledgling Delaware Sports Commission announced that it had grabbed the rebound. Launched in 2009, the commission is a not-for-profit think-tank focused on state tourism, economic development and athletic events. The group was instrumental in attracting the Delaware 87ers as well as the U.S. Women’s National Team exhibition later this month.

Cheick Diallo and Our Savior New American School (Centereach, N.Y.), ranked No. 9 in the nation last year by USA Today, will also appear at this year’s Slam Dunk. The 6-foot-9 Diallo is one of the top front-court prospects in the U.S. (Photo by Jon Lopez)

“We kept hearing from people wanting an event down in Sussex during the winter,” says the commission’s chairman, Dr. Matthew Robinson, a professor of sport management at UD’s Lerner College of Business and Economics. “So we revisited the tournament, did our legal diligence and decided to do it.” And though the Slam Dunk name might’ve been tarnished, it still had major brand recognition.

“And now we have to bring back only positive associations,” Robinson says. “We have the opportunity to create our own history.”

Slam Dunk 2.0 is already off to a solid start. With recruiting help from the Phoenix-based marketing firm Position Sports, this year’s tournament has lined up a slate of nationally ranked powerhouses like Sunrise Christian Academy from Wichita, Our Savior New American School in Centereach, N. Y., and Gonzaga College High School from Washington, D.C.

And just like its predecessor, the tournament will give Delaware schools a share of the spotlight. Salesianum, St. Georges, Sanford, Caesar Rodney and Cape Henlopen are set to participate. And LeBron’s alma mater, St. Vincent-St. Mary, will be back.

Organizers hope it’ll be enough to recapture the old Slam Dunk atmosphere. Besides Anthony, James and Howard, the first iteration drew future NBA talent like Tyson Chandler, Kendrick Perkins, J. J. Redick, Kris Humphries and Tayshaun Prince, as well as college and NBA scouts and coaches (Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Louisville’s Danny Crum famously attended).

“When it was in its heyday, the atmosphere was awesome,” says Kobasa, who was entrenched in every tournament during its first run, first as a caterer with his Sail Loft Restaurant, then as head coach for Sussex Tech High School.

“The gym would be lined with major college coaches and scouts checking out the talent. And you would see a lot of people that would get there at eight in the morning, set their chair down and not leave until after the last game at 10. Other than to get up to stretch their legs, they were there for the duration.”

The games also generated valuable tourism dollars and publicity. A 2002 study by UD’s Center for Applied Demography and Survey Research estimated 20,000 in total attendance for the tournament, and a $3.5 million bump to the local economy.

“What we want it to be is an event that’s all about high quality basketball,” Robinson says. “A positive experience for the student athletes and the people of Delaware. But what it’s also about is driving business into Sussex County during the winter.”

The community, the fans, and the basketball world stand poised for the re-launch, while prep school wunderkinds like Tyus Battle, Rawle Alkins and Cheick Diallo prepare to show Delaware a new superstar.

Says Kobasa: “Anytime you see talent like that, you just marvel at it.”