Balls were bouncing in every corner of The Ross School gym. The state of local youth basketball sounded strong on this comfortable summer Saturday in East Hampton.
There were 75 boys and girls ages 7 to 17 dribbling, shooting, scrimmaging and listening to coaches and some familiar names from the NBA.
The pros, past and present, gave talks, answered questions, signed autographs and struck happy poses with the campers.
“Mental approach, having a good attitude and maintaining your level of passion and enjoyment is really, really important,” Hall of Famer Chris Mullin, the former St. John’s star and coach, told all those kids sitting in front of him.
Mullin, former Knicks great Carmelo Anthony and former NBA vets JJ Redick, now an ESPN analyst, and Kenny Smith, now a TNT analyst, were among those on hand at this second annual “The Program NYC Hamptons Skills Camp.” They’re all investors/advisers with “The Program,” which plans to upgrade the state of youth and high school basketball in the New York City area.
But what about the state of basketball for the three biggest teams in the city? It’s a mixed bag right now.
The Knicks showed promise with their run to the Eastern Conference semifinals, where they bowed out in Game 6 against Miami. The Nets are resetting after the spectacular flameout of the Big 3. And there’s huge excitement over St. John’s prospects with the arrival of Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino.
The camp offered the opportunity to seek out opinions from the experts. For the Knicks, there was hope.
“I don’t think the Knicks are that far away, to be honest with you,” said Redick, a guard for 15 seasons in the NBA. “The way Jalen Brunson played this year, I thought he was in the conversation for All-NBA. I think they maybe are a piece away from being a championship team, but they certainly are in a good spot right now.”
Orlando guard Cole Anthony, who grew up in Manhattan and whose dad, Greg, used to play for the Knicks, thinks so, too, especially because the NBA is defined by parity these days.
“They’re very good,” he said after speaking to the kids with fellow NBA player Hamidou Diallo, a former slam dunk champ. “They’ve got some really good players, Julius Randle, Jalen Brunson, obviously. They’ve got a good team. I think they’re headed in the right direction . . . I think anyone can contend for a title. The direction the league is going in — we were kind of one of the bottom teams. But we were pretty good.”
Smith, though, said a lot goes into contention.
“Do they have the eggs and milk for the cake? Yes,” he said. “Now there’s a lot of layers to that that they’re still developing that they quite don’t have.”
The Nets were supposed to be championship contenders with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden. It didn’t work out, and they’re all gone. So now they’re building around forwards Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson. Smith sees some hope here, too.
“They’ve very similar to what they were before KD and Kyrie came,” Smith said. “Very similar. Now they’re just one guy away because they got Mikal and Cam. Those are really good pieces.”
Ben Simmons has gone through mental health and back issues, but Redick thinks his former 76ers teammate can regain his three-time All-Star form with the Nets if “he’s in a good spot mentally and physically.”
St. John’s appears to be in a really good spot. Pitino came over from Iona to replace Mike Anderson and almost completely remade the roster with promising talent.
“He’s an amazing coach, one of the best college coaches ever,” Mullin said. “So I think they’re in good hands. It should be a successful run.”
St. John’s last won the Big East and an NCAA Tournament game in 2000.
“Everything’s cyclical,” Mullin said.
Mullin, who does pregame and postgame shows for telecasts of one of his former teams, Golden State, guided St. John’s to 21 wins and an NCAA Tournament ticket in 2018-19. Then he stepped down after four years with two years left on his deal.
“We had a nice run,” Mullin said. “We improved each and every year continually. The last season was a lot of fun. It was just time for a change for me.”
Griffin Taylor and Jared Effron want to bring change locally. So they co-founded “The Program.”
Their plan is to open a youth basketball training facility next year in the city and “create some type of prep school or academy for the best players in the New York area to now have an opportunity to stay home,” according to Taylor.
Effron said the goal is for that to happen in the next three to five years. This would include boys and girls teams. Taylor said they hope to attract Long Island players among the mix, but he also said that “in terms of the state of New York basketball,” they feel the city has fallen behind in producing high-level talent.
“And so Jared and I as lifelong New Yorkers, die-hard basketball fans, we looked at our respective networks and skill sets and said there’s a hole in the New York basketball market,” Taylor said, “and we feel like we’re really well-positioned to help fill it.”