Watching skilled players is a nice perk that comes along with the high school basketball playoff tournament. And with the tournament entering the third round on Saturday, opportunities to consume prep hoops are dwindling.
The Eastern North Carolina All-Star game will fill that void when the third annual installment of the event returns to the area on March 21 at Nash Central High School.
“This year will be the most epic year out of all three,” said Tizzo Johnson, committee chair for the ENC All-Star game. “Just judging from the reaction on social media when we announced this, people are excited. We will have a sellout crowd, if not close to it.”
The event will feature a boys game and a girls game populated by 40 of the top seniors in the eastern part of the state — 20 girls and 20 boys. There is also a full day planned for the high school athletes that includes a community service portion in the morning, followed by a welcome luncheon with a guest speaker before the games begin in the evening.
New this year will be the addition of food trucks and a third basketball game played by Rocky Mount first responders.
The food trucks will begin serving food at 3:30 p.m., and the first game — between the police and fire departments of Rocky Mount — will tip at 4 p.m. Admission to the gymnasium is $10 and kids 8-and-under are free.
Johnson expects this year’s version to be the most inclusive yet.
“We thought that it would be a good time to have a small food truck rodeo to provide dinners for the community,” Johnson said. “The other advantage to that is a lot of individuals might want to check out the food trucks that might not otherwise come to the games.
“We wanted to make each year more community-based and to bring as many different people together as possible. The main event is the All-Star games, but again you have some people that might not want to sit in the gym, but enjoy the fellowship and social engagements that come with the food trucks.”
Seven different food trucks have agreed to set up shop. Concessions like popcorn, candy and drinks will still be available inside.
Johnson and the fellow organizers wanted to take the best ideas from previous years when deciding how to plan the event. This year, Johnson said that a Year 1 success will return as the athletes are scheduled to help out in the community on the morning of the game.
The players will split into groups where they will spend time at the Boys & Girls Club, the Wright Center, and a homeless shelter to serve food.
“That was a big piece that was missing last year,” Johnson said of the community service aspect. “And that bothered me more than anything.”
The athletes will then head to Word Tabernacle for a welcome luncheon where they will hear from guest speaker Anthony “Ant” Atkinson, a former Harlem Globetrotter from Wilson.
From there, it’s onto the games.
First responders will kick off the day by playing the first game at 4 p.m. The two departments have been known to play spirited pickup games, and making that contest public is the start of what Johnson hopes will be a long chain of yearly games.
Johnson has plans for the two departments to play for a traveling trophy with the winning team holding onto the award — and bragging rights — throughout the year.
“We heard about them playing pickup at the local gym and we thought it would be great to get these guys out,” Johnson said. “Depending on how this year goes, I’d like to have a cup for them to play for. Say, each year the winner can take it back to their place and when the time comes to defend it they can bring it back and play for it again.”
The girls game is next and will tip at 5 p.m, and the boys will follow with a tip around 6:30 p.m.
Southern Nash girls’ coach Jordan Bass will coach one team, and Wilson Beddingfield’s Debra Pegram will coach the other. Bass will coach against one of his players, as Rayna Bailey is playing for Pegram.
The boys will be coached by SouthWest Edecombe’s Shelton Langley and Wilson Hunt’s Dwight Taylor. Radford-bound Cougars senior Keishon Porter will play for team Langley, along with fellow SWE senior Zach Sledge.
The players will receive jerseys, an upgrade from T-shirts worn the past two years made possible by 323 Sports out of Garner. Also confirming sponsorships are U.S. Cellular of Rocky Mount, Joey Griffin Kia, Chick-fil-A of Rocky Mount and Radiant Delights.