It’s no longer the only camp around, but today’s Campbell Basketball School is still about fundamentals
Ten-year-old Nicholas Avery of Angier was born two years after Michael Jordan played his last professional basketball game. He’s never heard of Pete Maravich, Ralph Sampson or the other big names who made Campbell Basketball School world famous.
But the fundamentals stressed by Fred McCall, Bones McKinney and those many, many stars who taught generations in Buies Creek are still the focal point of what is now the nation’s longest-running basketball camp. So, too, are the life lessons.
Asked to share what he learned most from his camp experience at Campbell, Avery didn’t hesitate. “Always have a good attitude and always give your best effort.”
The message has changed little. Very little else has remained the same.
Entering its 60th year next year, Campbell Basketball School no longer boasts the biggest names in the sport. The cramped, musty gymnasiums spread throughout Harnett County have been replaced by the cool, modern confines of the Pope Convocation Center, which houses a practice court larger than Carter Gym’s wood floor. Buies Creek was once the temporary home to about 1,000 young men per week in the camp’s heyday. This year’s weeklong camp hosted about 75 students, with similar numbers attending various weekend and elite camps spread throughout the summer.
Run today by third-year head basketball coach Kevin McGeehan, Campbell Basketball School isn’t a one-of-a-kind experience anymore. It isn’t the only camp around. In fact, it’s one of hundreds in North Carolina alone. It’s a reality McGeehan has accepted, but it’s by no means a reality that can’t be overcome.
“I think to gauge success by your numbers at this time is silly,” he said. “We’re focused today on continual growth. We want this year’s camp to be bigger than last year’s, and next year’s to be bigger than this year’s. I hope we’re in a situation in a few years where we’re hoping Buies Creek Elementary isn’t refinishing its floor, because we really need that extra gym to house another group. I want to get back to a point where our courts are full, and we’re looking for the next place to teach these guys. I still want it to be a quality experience that kids are excited to be a part of.”
McGeehan has kept the overnight camp, though it runs four nights now instead of six. To work around busy schedules, year-round high schools, summer vacations and competition from other schools and camps, McGeehan added two “elite prospect” camps for high school recruits to not only showcase their skills, but get to know Campbell University as well. A weekend day camp was added for pre-teens and teens who aren’t interested in overnight stays, and a “mini- Camels camp” was created for young boys, ages 5-10.
“I saw the writing on the wall when Billy Lee was coach here [in the mid 1990s]. We had a player from Carolina — and he wasn’t even one of the good guys — come down to speak to the kids and sign autographs. I remember he came down, sat in his car, rolled down the window and signed autographs. They paid him good money to come down and be a part of this camp, and he wouldn’t even get out of his car.”
By the mid 90s, attendance at Campbell Basketball School began to dip. By that time, the big three basketball programs in the Triangle were hosting their own camps (modeled after Campbell’s), but Stan Cole — who was still fairly new to his role as Campbell’s sports information director at the time — said new rules preventing camps from paying athletes more than other counselors played a big part in keeping the big names away.
“For years, a lot of the kids who visited our camp would not only come here to learn basketball, but if they were a Carolina or State fan, they also got to meet players like Danny Ferry,” Cole said. “When Campbell ceased to be able to do that, that was the first hit.”
Then in 2005, another hit. The NCAA passed legislation barring coaches from other colleges and universities from speaking at another school’s basketball camp (for fear of “increased access” to prospects and unfair recruiting advantages).
The boys’ camp soldiered on thanks to tweaks along the way. In 2005, after turning away coaches like Herb Sendek, Jeff Lebo and Dave Odom because of the new NCAA regulations, former Campbell head men’s basketball coach Robbie Laing added a “father-son” camp that drew more than 100 that year.
The girl’s camp, which peaked at about 450 to 500 campers in the 1980s, was not as fortunate. Wanda Watkins, who notched her 500th win as head coach of Campbell’s women’s team in 2014 and a long-time instructor and eventually director for the girl’s summer camp, once attracted the state’s top coaches to her school, legends like the late Kay Yow and UNC’s Sylvia Hatchell. But she shut down the camp in 2012 after enrolling barely 40 girls that year.
“It got to the point where there were so many other camps around and so many kids were involved in summer leagues like AAU, we just felt like it was time to give it a break,” said Watkins, who added that the rise in other women’s sports like soccer, volleyball and lacrosse also played a part in the declining numbers. “To say it’s totally deceased right now wouldn’t be accurate. Our camp was around for 41 years, and took quite an effort to keep it going.”
“When I was hired by Campbell, there wasn’t a person I met after who didn’t bring up the camp. Every single person. I’d be in a restaurant, an airport … Indianapolis, Orlando, Virginia beach … everybody would say, ‘ah, Campbell. The basketball school.'” —John Wooden.
Current men’s head basketball coach Kevin McGeehan
McGeehan wasn’t thinking about summer camps when he accepted the challenge of turning around a program that hasn’t seen an NCAA Tournament bid since 1992. But he soon learned that just about anybody with a connection to Campbell basketball had a connection with the Basketball School. And many others who had no connection with Campbell still either attended the camp or had an uncle or father who attended.
In his first year, McGeehan looked at the feasibility of continuing the camp or possibly even doing away with the “overnight” part of it. But the history was too important, he said.
“We’re in such a basketball-rich state, 25 to 30 miles from Carolina, Duke and N.C. State,” he said. “The history is unbelievable, and for me, when you think of our camp, I feel like, ‘Gosh, we have a piece of that.’ There is a cool, rich tradition in this state, and Campbell is part of it.”
To keep the legacy alive, McGeehan continues to focus on the fundamentals at his camps. His most recent overnight camp included 3-on-3 drills where each possession had to begin with a pick-and-roll. The students also witnessed skill-development drills performed by current Campbell athletes — a fast-paced 25-minute workout that included fast-break passing and lay- ups, shooting drills and more. Later in the week, the students were put through the same regimen.
“You’d be amazed at how even guys with college scholarships get better by doing that high-intensity warm-up every day, all the time while they have four coaches’ eyes on them, correcting them when mistakes arise,” McGeehan said. “We try to give that to the kids. It gives them a taste of how it’s done by athletes at the next level. It shows them how hard you have to work to get to that point. Not every kid who comes to our camp is going to be a college basketball player, but for those who dream of it … this is what it takes.”
McGeehan said he is also a firm believer in charting progress. If his 9-year-old son is in the driveway practicing, he’ll ask him how he did. Whether or not he got better.
“If I made 25 of 50 shots in the driveway today, tomorrow I’m going to aim for making 26,” he said. “If you don’t have those goals, it’s hard to focus on improvement. And to get better, you focus on the fundamentals.”
It’s the same message delivered by Fred McCall and Bones McKinney in Carter Gym 59 years earlier, and it’s the reason there will always be a need for Campbell Basketball School, according to Watkins.
“Campbell will always be known for it,” she said. “I can be in California, wearing a Campbell shirt in an elevator, and someone will see it and tell me about their son or daughter who attended our camps.
“It still happens. It will always happen.”