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Aspen hoops academy has big dreams

Jon Maletz
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado

ASPEN ” In years past, campers who took part in the Aspen Basketball Academy had the chance to share the Skier Dome floor with NBA stars David Robinson and Tim Duncan.

Accomplished coaches ” the Spurs’ Greg Popovich, the Warriors’ Don Nelson and Steve Fisher, architect of Michigan’s “Fab Five”, among them ” have visited Aspen to impart hardwood knowledge and words of wisdom.

The academy, which has offered instruction to girls and boys from kindergarten to high school nearly every summer for the last two decades, clearly has distinguished itself. Camp director and Aspen High boys basketball coach Steve Ketchum said Wednesday that won’t stop him from continuing to aim high.

“I think we’re becoming the best camp in Colorado,” said Ketchum during one of his rare breaks in the midst of a busy 21⁄2-week long, three-session camp schedule that began June 30. “Our goal is to become the best camp in America.”

Campers from the Roaring Fork Valley, the Front Range, and as far away as Missouri, New Mexico and Minnesota are coming to Aspen this summer to literally and figuratively elevate their games, Ketchum said. One high schooler from Sweden will be in town for next week’s high school boys academy.

“Sometimes I’m shocked at how well it’s going,” Ketchum said.

Aspen and the academy seemed liked an ideal fit from the start.

In 1990, current Spurs general manager R.C. Buford first came up with the idea upon visiting the valley. He conferred with Popovich, a former Air Force assistant coach who has guided San Antonio to four NBA titles. At the time, the two were Spurs assistants under Larry Brown.

During ensuing summers, the two coaxed San Antonio players to come train in Aspen and talk to campers, Ketchum said.

Because of the Aspen School District’s extensive construction projects, the camp ceased to exist for three years earlier this decade, Ketchum said. He and Kevin Pritchard, point guard on Kansas’ 1988 NCAA championship team, former NBA player and current general manager of the Portland Trailblazers, refused to let the academy die, however.

“Kevin hooked on with the Spurs as an international talent scout, and he was talking to Pop and Buford and he said, ‘Didn’t you used to do something in Aspen?'” Ketchum said. “They said ‘Oh yeah, we started the ABA, but it just kind of died … He asked them, ‘Would you mind if I bring it back to life?’

“They told him to do it with class and style, to do it right.”

Pritchard took the reins, and leaned on Ketchum for his local and state connections. Soon, they were back in action, following closely the Academy’s proven blueprint for success ” attracting big-name speakers and stressing fundamental basketball.

“Skill development is a lost art in lots of sports. Americans are falling behind with shooting, ball handling and team play. There’s a reason for that,” Ketchum said. “We combine skill work with competition and team play. … We want every player to leave camp with a renewed sense of confidence in their own skills and confidence in their abilities.

“We do hold kids accountable and make them work hard and motivate them. We also want them to have a lot of fun.”

Since bringing the academy back, Ketchum said the number of high school boys participants has doubled ” from 60 to 120 for next week’s session. Guest speakers for the session, which runs July 14-17, include former Olympic bronze medalist Chris Klug and Jim Harrick, who won NCAA Coach of the Year honors in 1995 after leading UCLA to the national championship.

Ninety high school girls are taking part this week, Ketchum said. Tuesday, they listened to guest speaker Mark Randall, a Cherry Creek High School graduate, a member of Kansas’ 1988 squad and an eight-year NBA veteran.

“How often do you have a high-level camp in your own backyard that attracts NBA players and coaches, Division I players and coaches?” Ketchum said. “Pretty amazing for a small mountain town.”

Guest speakers during the three sessions also include former campers. Megan Zeigel, a former academy All-Star game MVP and player at Bethany College in Kansas, was slated to talk to the high school girls Wednesday.

Drake University-bound Cory Parker, the 2008 Co-3A Player of the Year who led the Aspen boys to the school’s first Final Four berth last season, addressed young campers and even signed a few autographs during the June 30-July3 session. So did fellow Western Slope first-teamer Michael Taylor.

“They talked a lot about how hard they had to work coming through this camp,” Ketchum said of his former players. “I think it was very successful.”

Ketchum is no stranger to hard work, either. Organizing the academy and pursuing guest speakers is a year-round proposition, one he has to balance with his job as coach and teacher as well as father ” he and his wife recently adopted a third child ” but it’s a labor of love, he said.

He and Pritchard show no signs of slowing, either. The academy is tentatively scheduled to take its game to the international level in 2009, when 25 players will travel overseas to learn the European system and compete with club teams. Plans are also in the works for coaches clinics in Europe, too.

True to form, the academy and its organizers continue to dream big.

“In five years from now, I expect this camp to be the best in America,” Ketchum said. “We want the best players from all over the U.S. and Europe, and the best coaches working the camp. Our goal is to be the best we can possibly be.”

jmaletz@aspentimes.com


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