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Holding court

With bleachers pushed in and doors closed tightly, Wharton's gym buzzed with teenage dreams of round-ball glory.

The noise was neither loud nor crass, not from pounding, dunking, leaping or lunging _ not even a subtle ooh for some quick release worthy of stealing the game. The boys just dribbled, a monotonous cacophony of bouncing basketballs. Two apiece, one for each hand, together at the same time.

The drill, designed to develop ambidextrous, ball-handling skills, made for a pleasantly imperfect scene. Some picked it up quickly. A few stopped, then started, struggling to master the rhythm.

"Every year I get better, and every year I work harder and harder," said Neil Allman, 17, a senior at Wharton this year. "It takes a lot of practice."

No one worried about making a mistake, or looking bad. They came to Tommy Tonelli's basketball camp from July 9-13 to learn the game, not show off. No scholarships were awarded that week, and none of the teens expect to be millionaires next spring. Just a room full of players and three coaches having fun.

Around the country teenagers of all skill levels attend summer basketball camps hoping to improve their game. But in recent years, tighter restrictions on college recruiting during the school year and the recent surge of prep stars jumping directly to the NBA have turned many camps into some of the most frenzied scouting events.

Not everybody is 6-11 with a 48-inch vertical leap. Some players still simply dream of making their high school team. And that takes disciplined play.

Many at Tonelli's camp are Wharton students with hopes of some day making his varsity team. A few come from other parts of Tampa with a common goal at their own school. All pay $90 for the week. From 6 to 9 p.m., Tonelli lets them experience what a season on his team could be like.

"It gives them a taste of the level and talent you need to have at the high school level," said Tonelli. "(The players become) familiar with the drills we do and the intensity of how we do things. I try to coach them competitively."

In his fourth year hosting the one-week summer camp, Tonelli guided 45 teens through drills and games. They learned to shoot and dribble with weak hands, practiced set defenses and hustled up and down the court. They also played plenty of three-on-three, and five-on-five.

"There are a lot of things you can't just work on in pick-up games," said Marlon Maxwell, 16. The 6-foot junior guard, who hopes to make the team at Wharton this year, was attending the camp for the second year.

Last year, he attended a camp at Eckerd College where college scouts from small schools sat in the stands. He found Tonelli's camp to be more worthwhile.

"At those camps, you just play all day, five-on-five," he said. "They don't have suits on, but you know they are watching you. You start at 10 in the morning and play all day until 6 at night."

Maxwell also hopes to play college basketball in the future. But he realizes that will take some improvement. He spent the summer working on his mid-range jump shots and has seen progress.

So has Ryan Misiak. The junior forward hopes to make the varsity team at Tampa Prep this year. He even attended Duke University's prestigious two-week camp, led by legendary Blue Devils Coach Mike Kryzewski. Even though the players at Duke included some of the nation's best prep players, he said the camp centered around recruiting for the stars and others often got lost.

He found the games at Wharton every bit as competitive, and he got to play more. And Wharton has its own legendary coach in Tonelli, a former star guard at the University of South Florida.

"A lot of these kids go to Wharton and they are trying to make an impression on Coach Tonelli," he said. "There's a lot of competition and these guys can play."

Not everyone is trying to make the team. Allman played varsity for Wharton last year. His goal is to make the starting five.

"It helps with unity," he said. "Just being able to work with the coaches, being in my own gym and practicing with guys from the team."

This is his third year attending the camp, and Allman helps out during the day coaching younger players at Tonelli's other sessions. Each year, he gets better.

But the senior, who in addition to being a talented athlete is currently ranked fourth academically in his class, knows that basketball is a game, and games are supposed to be fun.

"You have a good time," Allman said. "Instead of just playing, you are meeting guys and goofing off, even though you shouldn't be."

With that, he returned to the group, and the droning, this time from laughter, ensued.

Michael Sandler can be reached at (813) 226-3472 or sandlersptimes.com.

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