Slam Dunk to the Beach Returns to Lewes
To get the NBA-caliber gist of Slam Dunk to the Beach, one need only throw out first names like LeBron and Carmelo. After an 11-year hiatus and the arrest and prosecution of its founder, the tourney is back—and Sussex County couldn’t be happier.
Jordan Howell of the Cape Henlopen High School boys basketball team.
Every December from 1990 to 2003, giants walked the streets of Lewes. Giants in both the literal sense—future NBA stars like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard and Tyson Chandler—and in the figurative sense—legendary coaches like Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Louisville’s Denny Crum. They were drawn to the tiny coastal town and its Cape Henlopen High School gym by Slam Dunk to the Beach, a basketball tournament that showcased the nation’s top schoolboy talent. But Slam Dunk was more than basketball. It was a five-day extravaganza, a cultural phenomenon, a happening—a 700-strong tip-off banquet, a 190-player golf tournament and 30-plus games that ran from dawn to midnight. Annual crowds totaled 60,000, which pumped nearly $3 million into the local economy. It was a 186-page, full-color program, a gym festooned with the banners of corporate sponsors. It was the Grotto Pizza mini-blimp floating above the crowd, Washington Redskins cheerleaders cavorting about the court, and bands blaring music during timeouts. Most of all, it was Robert (“Bobby”) Forrest Vandergrift Jacobs III, creator, organizer and ringmaster of all the hoops and hoopla. A 5-foot-9, barrel-chested bundle of hyperactivity, Jacobs was everywhere, shouting into his microphone, changing his suit between games, posing for pictures with coaches and players. And talking—always talking. As one local sportswriter put it, “This guy makes Dick Vitale sound like a mime.” Another dubbed him “The Tasmanian Devil,” and Jacobs even took to calling himself “The Taz.”
The longtime Milford resident is the son of the late Forrest “Spook” Jacobs, a second baseman who had a short career in the Majors. A three-sport athlete himself at Lake Forest High School, Bobby earned baseball All-America honors at Virginia Wesleyan College. After a few years in the minors as a player and an umpire, he went back to school, earning a master’s in sports marketing from the University of Virginia. He parlayed that into a job as public-relations director for Delaware’s State Department. Jacobs didn’t return phone calls requesting an interview for this article. But the story goes that he started Slam Dunk on a dare from a friend, after they’d watched the 1988 Atlantic 10 Tournament in Philadelphia. His government connections helped him acquire funding, and two years later, the best prep basketball tournament in the country began its remarkable run. Its budget reached $750,000 per year, with as much as $100,000 coming from taxpayer money. It all ended abruptly and ignominiously in November 2004, when Jacobs, citing health issues, canceled the event. Vendors and businesses quickly came forward to say they hadn’t been paid for the 2003 tournament. After an intensive investigation by the Delaware Auditor’s Office, improprieties were uncovered. In the meantime, Jacobs disappeared.
In September 2013, at a press conference in Rehoboth Beach, a committee announced the rebirth of Slam Dunk to the Beach. The media event featured several political heavyweights, including U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, Gov. Jack Markell and Alan Levin, director of the Delaware Economic Development Office. Levin expressed the hope that “Delaware businesses will realize what a chance they have here with Slam Dunk.” “By offering their support for this tournament, they will be investing in the economic potential of the state itself,” said Levin. A spiffy new logo (basketball at the top, ocean waves at the bottom) was unveiled, and Slam Dunk to the Beach 2.0 was launched. It would be held Dec. 27-29, 2014, again at Cape Henlopen High. This past June, the Slam Dunk Committee announced a field of 14 teams. The list includes nationally ranked schools like Sunrise Christian Academy (Wichita, Kan.), Our Savior New American School (Centereach, N.Y.), Christ the King High School (Middle Village, N.Y.), Gonzaga College High School (Washington, D.C.), and Ss. John Neumann-Goretti High (Philadelphia). Also on the list is LeBron James’ alma mater, the St. Vincent-St. Mary Fighting Irish of Akron, Ohio. Delaware high schools will also participate, among them Sanford, St. Georges Tech, Caesar Rodney, state champ Salesianum and host school Cape Henlopen. “This will be a great field of high-profile teams to showcase some of the top basketball talent in the country in Delaware,” says Marc Steigerwalt, vice president of Position Sports, the company charged with managing event operations and helping to recruit teams.
Slam Dunk organizers include (seated, from left): Bob Cilento, Matthew Robinson and Jerry Kobasa. (Standing, from left): Jerry DuPhily, David Arthur, Martin Donovan, Linda Parkowski, Marc Steigerwalt and Chris Giacomucci.
Four of the participating teams finished last year ranked among the country’s top 30, and all of the non-Delaware entries have at least one player holding multiple Division I scholarship offers. Five players ranked among the nation’s top 100 seniors, and three were among the top 50 juniors. Tyus Battle, of Gill St. Bernard’s School (Gladstone, N.J.), is the No. 1 shooting guard in the Class of 2016. Also scheduled to appear are Isaiah Briscoe, a senior at Roselle (N.J.) Catholic, who was selected to the USA Men’s U18 National Team, and V.J. King, a St. Vincent-St. Mary junior ranked No. 6 overall in the class of 2016.Out-of-state coaches seem enthusiastic about coming to Delaware—particularly those from distant schools. “We’re a Nike school, and those people strongly recommended it to us as a good tournament,” says Kyle Lindsted, who’s in his 16th year as head basketball coach at Sunrise Christian, which has 15 players signed or committed to Division 1 colleges. “This will be a different neck of the woods for us. I’m looking forward to enjoying some seafood.” Gonzaga’s Steve Turner participated in the first iteration of Slam Dunk as both a player and a coach. “Looking at the teams they’re bringing in, I think you’re going to have some great games and great competition,” Turner says, while noting that some of the Jacobs-inspired bells and whistles may be missing. “Based on Position Sports and other events they’ve run that I’ve been a part of, I think it’ll be first class.” Joe Arbitello rode the bench for Christ the King in the 1994 Slam Dunk. He’s now the head coach there, and his New York state champs boast several Division I-caliber players holding scholarships from basketball powers like Indiana and Kansas. Arbitello predicts that this Slam Dunk may actually be “a little bit better” than the original—at least in the caliber of play. “They’re bringing in more national teams, which will make the competition better, which will make the tournament better.”
In July 2007, after a 14-month nationwide manhunt, Bobby Jacobs was tracked down and arrested by U.S. Marshals in Miami. Extradited to Delaware, Jacobs looked to have aged dramatically behind his beard and long hair—a sharp contrast to his former clean-shaven self. A Kent County grand jury indicted him on one count of theft greater than $50,000 and 12 counts of conspiracy. Jacobs pleaded no contest to one felony count of misappropriation of property for taking thousands of dollars from the Slam Dunk fund. Sentenced to two years in prison, with one year suspended, he was ordered to pay $400,000 in restitution. But Jacobs wasn’t through. In June 2009, he was charged with stalking three people associated with the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association—all formerly involved with the tournament. He had sent letters to their supervisors, alleging a variety of misdeeds by the three, who had aided police in their original investigation of Jacobs. He pleaded guilty to two counts of stalking and was sentenced to two additional years in prison in December 2009. Earlier that same year, the Delaware Sports Commission (DSC) was formed, and it soon became apparent that Slam Dunk’s positive legacy overshadowed the ugly way in which it ended. Governed by an all-volunteer, 30-person board of directors, the DSC is a nonprofit corporation charged with attracting and hosting regional and national sporting events to enhance the economy and promote Delaware “as a destination for amateur and professional sports.” Sound vaguely like a basketball tournament that used to be held in Lewes? That’s what the DSC thought, too. A six-member Slam Dunk Committee was formed. With an $80,000 grant-in-aid from the state, they brought in Position Sports, a Phoenix-based company that runs other basketball tournaments and has connections with many of the nation’s schoolboy powerhouses.
The committee is headed by Matthew Robinson, who also serves as the current chair of the DSC. Robinson is a professor and director of the Sport Management Program in the University of Delaware’s Lerner College of Business and Economics, so he knows sports and marketing. “Slam Dunk is a brand,” he says. “And there are a lot of people who have strong feelings positively about it. Our goal now is to rebuild the brand, and bring back positive associations with it.” Another key member is Linda Parkowski, the state’s director of tourism, who was the first chair of the DSC. “Sports and tourism. The role of a sports commission is to bring those two entities together,” Robinson says. Soon after the field for the new Slam Dunk tournament was announced, Jacobs demonstrated that prison hadn’t sapped all of his chutzpah. Now living back in Milford, Jacobs sent a cease-and-desist letter by certified mail to the DSC, the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association and some of the schools scheduled to participate. Written and signed by “Robert Forrest Vandergrift Jacobs III,” the letter claimed that he owned all rights to the tournament and its name, logo and tag lines. It threatened legal action against anyone who continues “as a participant in the renewal of the Slam Dunk to the Beach tournament.” The letter also claimed that the Cape basketball court was short of regulation dimensions and that “a major construction and architectural debacle” had reduced seating from “the previous 3,200 ... to less than 1,850.”But the tournament committee had done its due diligence. Robinson says they had full rights to the Slam Dunk to the Beach name and its new logo. Regarding court size and seating capacity, Jacobs was way off on the numbers. Cape Henlopen athletic director Bob Cilento told The News Journal that the court was well within regulation. “The old building [seating capacity] was about 2,300,” he says. “And in the new building, we’re at 2,200.”
Jordan Howell (right), David Kwan and the rest of the Cape Henlopen High School boys basketball team will compete in Slam Dunk to the Beach in the comfort of their own gym.
As for the cease-and-desist letter, it can hardly be called an “order,” since no administrative agency was involved. As a result, it caused only a ripple of concern among the committee and the teams. “[The letter] did kind of shock me for a second,” says Sunrise Christian’s Lindsted. “But I called the people at Slam Dunk to the Beach, and they said there’s nothing to worry about.” Not surprisingly, the tournament committee has distanced itself from Jacobs. “We’ve decided that the best path forward is to focus on what’s ahead, not what’s in the past,” says Scott Klatzkin, media coordinator for the event. A “shoot-first” high-school point guard, Robinson fairly rubs his hands in anticipation of the upcoming tourney. Thanks to Position Sports, he says, “We’ve got the right teams.” Unlike the previous version, the new Slam Dunk has a predetermined schedule, with no brackets. The goal is to create the best matchups, not crown a tournament champion. “We want every game to be an exciting game—no team getting beat by 30 or anything like that,” Robinson says. “It’s going to be good hoops, the best going against the best.” And the word is out that Slam Dunk is back. Robinson says Notre Dame’s Mike Brey (a former UD head coach) is among those who’ve indicated they will have a staff member at the games.
Robinson is also looking toward next year. Some teams who weren’t able to come in 2014 because they were already booked for another event “are eager to participate in 2015,” he says. Bottom line: The tournament should provide a bump to the Sussex County economy, helping offset the usual winter doldrums. A 2002 study by UD’s Center for Applied Demography and Survey Research estimated that the 20,000 in total attendance that year generated $3.5 million for the local economy. At the initial press conference, Robinson boldly noted that, while Slam Dunk’s previous iteration brought in thousands of fans and infused millions of dollars into Delaware’s economy, “we fully expect that performance to be repeated and, in fact, surpassed.” Recently, he added, “I don’t want to put a figure out there, but we’re going to measure it this year.” The Slam Dunk Committee’s first goal, however, is to present a high-quality experience for players, coaches and fans. “A lot of parties have put their faith in us to do it the right way, and we take that seriously,” Robinson says. “We want to live up to those expectations, and we want it to be done in a first-class way.” Visit www.slamdunktothebeach.com.