Chicago is home to a rich and storied tradition of high school basketball. It’s where Isiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, Anthony Davis and so many other pros cut their teeth in the game, and where powerhouse programs like Simeon and Whitney Young regularly sell out games.
Yet for every one D-Rose or A.D., there are thousands of Chicago hoopers with a similar passion for the game but without the attention and resources. It’s hard to get noticed in a city with more than 100 public school teams. For Division-I prospects, choosing between different college offers comes with fanfare. But for everyone else, any scholarship offer at all will be a game-changer, an opportunity to reroute young people and their entire families.
Daniel Poneman, a Chicago-based basketball scout, recognized this disparity when he was a high schooler covering the game for his own blog, illinoisHSbasketball.com. Eager to help young men and women reach college, and identifying how popular the Chicago basketball circuit was, Poneman founded the Undiscovered Showcase in 2009.
The concept was straightforward: get unsigned high school players from across Chicago on one court, invite coaches from junior colleges with available scholarship spots and see who fits together. Now more than a decade old, the event has helped more than 600 graduating seniors in the city reach colleges around America. From humble beginnings in a crowded gym to funding partnerships with NBA players and brands, the showcase has become a vehicle for community empowerment in Chicago.
“This is an event that is very close to my heart, something I will keep alive for as long as I possibly can,” Poneman said. “I feel like I have an opportunity to look out for the kids that other people maybe aren’t looking out for. I truly believe what we are doing here serves a really important purpose.”
Held at CSO Sports Multiplex in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, the 2021 Undiscovered Showcase drew more than 75 college coaches looking for talent. For Presentation College assistant coach Kenzie Krowiorz, the trip from Aberdeen, South Dakota was well worth the time.
“Having an event like this is great, it allows these kids to get the exposure that they need. Seeing them showcase their skills allows us to get a better idea of what a kid may bring to our program,” Krowiorz said. “With the COVID pandemic, we’ve had to rely heavily on film, but an event like this allows us to get to know these athletes and start to build a relationship where it can hopefully blossom into an opportunity.”
Poneman said that last year’s event netted 52 scholarships, worth more than $2.3 million. This year’s showcase was especially vital to the seniors, as COVID-19 completely warped the high school scouting circuit.
Case in point: Hillcrest High School senior Jakobi Heady. The athletically-built, 6-foot-6 wing put up impressive numbers during a shortened 2020 season, including 15 points and eight rebounds in a regional final win. But the offers didn’t come like he had hoped. Heady entered the showcase unsure of where his future was heading; he left committed to Wabash Valley on a full scholarship.
“The event really meant a lot to me,” Heady said after the competition. “It really gave me a chance to showcase my individual talents in front of a lot of important people, and I’m just thankful I had the opportunity.”
Poneman said that the Undiscovered Showcase setup is replicable in other American cities. The problem that the showcase is combatting is not exclusive to one place. But Poneman said that as long as he’s in the city of Chicago, there will be an Undiscovered Showcase every year. The event vividly illustrates how playing Division-I college basketball is not the only way to create a better life through love of the game. Perhaps more importantly, it shows how neighborhoods can be bettered through investing in young people and offering nontraditional paths to success.