Jalen Suggs had talent at young age.
On a hot August day in the late 2000s, the 6’4” guard, who was the number-five overall pick in the 2021 NBA draft last week, gave people a glimpse of was to come years before he starred at Minnehaha Academy and Gonzaga University.
There was already a buzz about Suggs’ ability when he was in elementary school, and Derek Reuben gave a crowd of 1,100 a chance to see what all the hype was about. The place was Gangelhoff Center on the campus of Concordia University-St. Paul.
Reuben, himself a former basketball star at Minneapolis North who was Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball in 1988, oversaw the Inner-City All-Star Classic (ICASC).
The ICASC was a showcase created in 1994 by Reuben and former North teammate Ralph Crowder as a protest because no one from Class A champion St. Agnes and Class AA champ Minneapolis Washburn was selected to play in the coaches’ annual all-star game featuring the state’s top players.
St. Agnes’ seniors (Marlon McCoy, Jhamai Phipps, Char Davis, Lester Jackson, Craig Vaughn) and Washburn’s seniors (Akeem Carpenter, Aaron Boone, Byron Suttles, Eric Minea and Adrian Patterson) were all Black. Ironically, Reuben himself was selected to play in the coaches’ game as a senior.
The ICASC, which ran from 1994-2017 with a girls’ game coming later in 2001 and finishing the same year, was in full swing by the time Suggs got his chance.
Back to the game: It was ending when Reuben checked a young Suggs, who was either a 3rd or 4th grader, into the game. The crowd exploded and Suggs, who was nowhere close to the powerful force he would become, dazzled them with his ball handling, passing and scoring.
The minutes he played were brief, but the secret was out. Suggs was a player with a bright future.
Of course, we all know what happened later. There were the three state championships at Minnehaha Academy, the sellout victory over Sierra Canyon at the Target Center, and a runner-up finish in the NCAA Final Four as a freshman at Gonzaga.
But perhaps the most telling memory I have from watching Suggs hold his own against some of the metro area’s top seniors was the reaction from a fan I was sitting next to. “Why is he even playing?” the fan quipped. “What makes him so special?”
I think we now have the answer to that question.