When Niles native Bernie Tarr held his first basketball camp in Belize in 1995, he was greeted by a ragtag group of athletes, many of whom showed up in bare feet or sandals. Asked to display their dribbling skills, more than a few began bouncing a basketball with their feet, soccer-style.
Nearly 17 years later, a new generation of Belize athletes hope to prove they are now ready to compete against the best of the best.
Later this week, a group of 15 Belize basketball players will take part in the King James Classic. The LeBron James-sponsored tournament features nearly 100 AAU teams from throughout the United States and Canada.
Games will take place Friday through Sunday at various locations throughout the Akron area.
The Belizean team arrived in the area on Saturday, and has spent the first part of its trip with a host family in Cortland.
On Monday, the players went through a two-hour practice session at Niles Middle School. Afterward, they were treated to dinner at the Niles American Legion Hall.
The trip to Northeastern Ohio was the brainchild of Tarr, who now serves as Belize's national basketball program development officer. Tarr assumed the role last summer following a highly-successful high school coaching career which saw him post a 258-154 record at Badger, Hubbard and Bedford St. Peter Chanel.
As Belize's Development Officer, Tarr in in charge of the country's national program, from youth basketball through the national team.
"Our goal is to give a few of these kids an opportunity to earn a college scholarship," Tarr said. "The King James Classic is one of the biggest and best recruiting tools out there. We want to showcase our talent to American college coaches."
Team Belize consists of high school players ranging from age 15 to 18. The group of players were selected from countrywide tryout sessions conducted by Tarr.
Tarr believes several of his players possess the talent needed to play in America at the collegiate level.
Currently, there are no Belizeans on any U.S. college roster at any level.
"I think Belize possesses some untapped talent, and the game is going international, so now was a good time to bring these kids over and let them showcase what they have," Tarr said. "The skill and athleticism has always been there. I saw it the very first time I visited Belize."
"It was just a matter of instilling fundamentals and teaching the game. A decade or so ago, basketball was a relatively new sport in Belize."
Prior to arriving in Niles on Monday, Team Belize spent the day visiting Mount Union College. Purple Raiders' football coach Larry Kehres and basketball coach Mike Fuline addressed the athletes and offered a tour of the campus.
The team will visit Youngstown State and Notre Dame College today. On Wednesday, they will be guests of the Cleveland Cavaliers when the Cavs host the Washington Wizards. Tarr noted that it will be the first-ever NBA game seen in person by any of the players.
On Thursday, the 15 players will spend the day shadowing a student at Chanel.
"This trip is all about exposing these kids to the highest level of basketball, and helping them get noticed," Tarr said. "At the same time, we want them to better understand life in America.
"And, we want them to enjoy the experience. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most of them."
Kashief Thomas, 17, recently scored 52 points (11 three-pointers) while leading Sadie Vernon High School to a victory in the Belize national championship. He expects to be challenged while playing in the AAU tournament.
"It will be rough. Here, we're facing the best," Thomas said. "My goal is to get a scholarship and play in the U.S., but I know the competition will be tougher than anything I've faced at home."
Devin Daly, 17, of Belize City, believes several of the Belizean players will catch the eyes of college recruiters.
"The biggest disadvantage we face is our height. I'm 6-3, and you don't see many guys taller than me in my country," Daly said. "From a talent standpoint, we're coming along. We're very athletic and hard-working."
Daly noted that he is anxious to play at the various gymnasiums throughout Akron, noting that "there are only two wooden basketball floors in all of Belize."
Brian White, 16, grew up playing soccer, but switched to basketball two years ago. His brother plays soccer for the Belize National Team.
"I didn't know anything about basketball. I went to a court with a friend, but didn't have any tennis shoes, so I just sat and watched," Daly said. "The next day, I played and I really loved it. The footwork I learned playing soccer really helps me in basketball.
Daly noted that he closely follows college basketball through television, and roots for Ohio State and North Carolina "because they play good team ball."
Zach Usher, 15, hopes to study law and business while in college. He knows that earning a scholarship "is kind of a longshot," but says the trip to Ohio is a reward in itself.
"I'm honored just to be here. This is something I will never forget," Usher said.
Like his teammates, Usher laughed when asked to share his thoughts on the Ohio weather. In Belize, January is generally the coldest month of the year. January highs average 80 degrees, while nighttime lows rarely dip below 65.
"This is like a blizzard to us. It would take a long while to get used to this. But I was hoping to see snow for the first time in my life," Usher said.
Ironically, Tarr's return home comes at a time when when several area high schools which he has ties to are looking for a head coach. He is a finalist for the Warren G. Harding job. Searches are also underway in Tarr's hometown of Niles, and in Girard, where he graduated in 1986,
"Warren was one of the very few places I would have left Chanel for," Tarr said. "They play in one of the best conferences in the state. And, Steve (Arnold) has built something special there. It would be an honor to carry on what he started."
Tarr also acknowledged that he would consider an opportunity to coach at both Niles and Girard.
"Anytime you have a chance to go home, you have to think about it," Tarr said. "I'm not a guy who goes out looking for jobs, but these are among the few schools that, if I knew they were interested in me, I'd consider.
"Right now, I'm happy doing what I'm doing. We're making great strides in Belize. This group received great national recognition on television and radio. It's an exciting time."