TAMPA — As one of the nation's top high school juniors, Clearwater's Okaro White spent most of the summer flying across the country with his AAU team, Nike Team Florida, trying to gain exposure.
Late last month, the 6-foot-8 White orally committed to Florida State, choosing the Seminoles over Florida, Miami and Clemson. While White found exposure through club ball, the Tampa Hoops Classic, a second-year holiday basketball tournament, hopes to turn the national spotlight on Tampa by drawing some of the nation's top high school teams, including a few locals.
"Over the summer, basically you're flying out every weekend for tournaments and the plane just gets me every time," White said. "So this, it's real good. It's just a 20-minute drive to play with the same competition I was playing with over the summer, so I'm happy about that."
Last year, the Tampa Hoops Classic drew about 1,500 fans a day. Steering committee member Donnie Wilkie, who organized the field for the prestigious City of Palms Classic tournament in Fort Myers, drew an impressive mix of national and state teams.
"Ten years from now," Wilkie said recently, "this tournament could be bigger than City of Palms."
The Classic, which runs Saturday through Tuesday and includes top bay area teams Sickles, Clearwater, Berkeley Prep and King, as well as teams from Chicago, Brooklyn, Cincinnati, Tennessee and suburban Washington, D.C., has the tools to grow. It has financial backing in a time when sponsorships have dwindled, a strong field, is an ideal winter destination and games on the final two days will take place at the USF Sun Dome instead of high school gyms.
"It's a no-brainer," Wilkie said. "The basketball fans are out there to support this event. They're just not quite sure what to make of this yet because generally speaking not many events come at you with a field like this straight out of the gate."
The 16-team field includes four teams ranked by ESPN Rise, including top 50 national teams Orlando Olympia (No. 34), the tournament's defending champion, and Brooklyn Thomas Jefferson (No. 48).
High school players headed to schools such as Florida State, Ohio State and South Carolina— as well as national No. 3 prospect and North Carolina signee John Henson of Sickles — headline the field.
"It's really special when you can get this done at home," said Sickles coach Renaldo Garcia, who has battle-tested his squad in the past with tournaments across the state. "It's one thing to go four hours and do this, but when you can do it right in your back yard and bring in some of the top teams in the state and the country it's a great opportunity."
The hope is to keep the focus of the national high school sports scene in Tampa after the City of Palms ends tonight — and give more exposure to local standouts while giving the area an event that brings together some of the best high school basketball players.
"The big time is what you make of it," Clearwater coach Allen Carden said. "If you want to take your program big-time, you have to treat it big-time. This is a steppingstone to not only national recognition and state recognition, but it's also a great training ground for the second part of the season, your district championship and your state championship.
"This is a honey hole if people would just come and recruit it. That's the biggest thing. The talent is here, you just have to come look at it."