Daniel Poneman knows basketball. He should, the game has been a part of his life since he was a kid. However, Poneman's relationship with the game is markedly different than that of your average AAU player or high school starter. While the path a celebrated basketball player takes is well-documented, often ending up somewhere in this month's March Madness tournament, Poneman's journey from the end of the bench on his traveling team to being one of the pre-eminent college scouts by his teenage years is far from typical. In high school, while lining up next to some of the top talent Chicago and the country at large had to offer, Poneman was smart enough to recognize the resources around him and began blogging about local talent on social media and eventually SwagAir.com, a site that later caught the attention of college coaches across the country and led to headlines from outlets like ESPN and the New York Times. A catalyst for NBA players like Anthony Davis, Jabari Parker and Jahlil Okafor, Poneman is continuing to invigorate the local hoops community, this time in the form of his SwagAir Showcase.
The non-profit event is the brain-child of the Evanston native aimed at helping talented players from Chicago and nearby areas to earn a chance to be seen by scouts that can lead to a college scholarship. Offering an opportunity to put their game in front of decision makers that can change their future is just the latest endeavor from Poneman developed with the interest of pushing the right players into the right situations. A profession that has largely been dictated by stuffy older men scouring the country for 13 and 14-year-old with impressive jumpers, Poneman was instantly recognized as a sort of anomaly in the game that allowed for a unique kind of bond with the athletes he was keeping an eye on. His notoriety grew with media attention and he has parlayed his face value by continuing to work with players on the rise to find them the right home and connect the dots where they weren't before. It's like the basketball version of what we do here at TheseDays or at any music blog, the names and faces that Poneman worked with early on are now dictating the larger culture of the game itself. At this year's SwagAir Showcase you might just be able to take a peek into the future once again.
We had the chance to catch up with Poneman to get a deeper look into the showcase and what it means to the city and those who end up participating in the game.
TheseDays • What is the SwagAir Showcase?
Poneman • Not every kid who's good at basketball is going to make the NBA - very few are - but many of them can use basketball as a vehicle to get a free education. Every year as the season comes to an end, I talk to all the high school in Chicago and have them nominate seniors who have the potential to play college ball, but aren't getting the attention from college coaches that they deserve. We get about 120-150 of these kids in the gym for a one day event, where they play in front of 50+ college coaches, recruiters and scouts. Last year we had 140 kids play in the showcase and over 75 of them went on to play college basketball.Thats over $5 Million in scholarship dollars awarded to these young - mostly black - kids from Chicago. Though we would like to think that all of these kids would have a chance to go to college anyways, thats just not the case. For some of these kids the SwagAir Showcase is their last chance to go to college. The whole event costs about $10k to put on and the benefits for some of these kids are huge. Even if only one kid earned his first and only scholarship offer that day, the whole thing - months of hard work putting it together - was well worth it. The SwagAir Showcase isn't about finding the next D-Rose or Anthony Davis - it's about finding the kids who could be future coaches, teachers, or leaders in their community, and giving them a chance to earn a free college education by playing basketball.
TheseDays • Explain a bit what your role here in the Chicago basketball scene is.
Poneman • I've been a scout, connector, recruiter - ambassador of Chicago basketball - for about 10 years now. I started my first high school basketball website in 2006 when I was a freshman at Evanston high school. Since then Chicago basketball has been my life, passion and career. As a journalist, I've written hundreds of articles for over a dozen media outlets, made hundreds of highlight videos, and have youtube interviews for days. As a scout I've worked with hundreds of kids on their journey to play college basketball and have even seen a few of those guys make it to the NBA. It's been a fun ride and I've got to work with some amazing people. I feel honored to say that I am Chicago Basketball and Chicago Basketball is me.
TheseDays • Why host a game like this?
Poneman • Through the years I've played a small role in the careers of some incredibly talented players - I made the first ever highlight videos of Jabari Parker, Anthony Davis, and Jahlil Okafor when they were barely teenagers. As I got older I came to the realization that those guys would have made it to the NBA with or without my help, but were a lot of kids over the years who I helped get into college that might not have made it without my influence in their life. What I'm most proud of in my career are those instances - the kids who's lives I've really impacted. So I decided to start the SwagAir Showcase as a way to help those kids on a large scale. This showcase is sort of a match making event for talented players - and colleges who have scholarships to offer for talented players. If I find another Anthony Davis one day that would be lovely, but when I die one day, I know I'll be remembered for the kids who's names people don't know - the kids who used their basketball scholarships to earn a degree and eventually came back to help their communities. That's what the SwagAir Showcase is all about.
TheseDays • How do you go about scouting talent differently?
Poneman • These Days when I scout talent, I'm not only looking for skill and potential on the court but off it as well. I still get excited any time I see a six foot nine high schooler who can jump out of the gym just beginning to scratch the surface of his potential. But I also get excited when I see a natural leader on the floor, a kid who could make a great coach one day. College coaches aren't just looking for talented athletes - they want kids who are coachable, good teammates, good leaders and good followers. If we can help a kid get to the NBA through the SwagAir Showcase thats awesome, but what might be even more awesome is when our kids go on to become coaches. One great coach can impact the lives of thousands of kids. If we have five great future coaches per year graduate from the showcase, our impact can be exponential. So I guess, to answer your question, I'm not only scouting basketball talent - but life talent as well. This past year we had a college coach at the showcase - Demarko Nash - who had played in the very first SwagAir Showcase in 2010 as a senior point guard from Lincoln Park High School. The joy I got from it all coming full circle is indescribable.
TheseDays • Who are you especially excited to see at the showcase this year?
Poneman • I'm relying heavily on my network of scouts and coaches in Chicago to nominate the best kids. Everyone's going to be a surprise this year. I've heard good things about Darnell Latham from Prosser, Kendrick Robinson from Harper, Tyresse Williford from Marshall, and Justin Robinson from Holy Trinity, just to name a few. Really I'm excited to see anyone who's tall. If you're six-six or taller - even if you can't walk and chew gum at the same time - I can find a school that will take a chance on you. I always get excited when some big skinny kid who I've never seen before walks into the showcase, and walks out with 5 scholarship offers.
TheseDays • What's the best game you've caught this season.
Poneman • Best game I've caught this season was Warriors vs Wizards. I drove to DC for the game. Steph had 51, Wall had 41 and Draymond had a triple double. I wish I could say it was the Evanston vs Simeon City-Suburban Classic game that I went to, but my Evanston Wildkits laid an egg and stunk it up against the city powerhouse. Evanston had every bit as much talent on their roster as Simeon - if not more - but they just weren't ready to compete on that stage. I'm still hoping they go downstate and get another chance to beat Simeon in the state championship though. This time we'll get em.
TheseDays • With as much talent as Chicago has, how important is it to make sure unsigned players are getting recognized?
Poneman • Basketball runs so deep in Chicago, and the talent pool is so rich, you never know where the next great one will come from. When Anthony Davis was in middle school he wasn't even a starter for his AAU team - he didn't get his first scholarship offer until the end of junior year. Robert Covington forward for the Philadelphia 76ers - only had two offers when he was a senior at Proviso West - from Tennessee State and Western Illinois. Richaun Holmes - who also plays for the 76ers - had zero D1 offers as a senior at Lockport high school. He had to go to junior college just to get his first D1 offer. And now he's in the NBA. Talent comes from everywhere in Chicago - some peak early and some bloom late - it's best not to underestimate anyone.
TheseDays • What can fans and attendees expect at the showcase?
Poneman • Competition. Chicago kids are tough. They play hard. They've got fight in em. Even though the wins and losses don't mean anything at the showcase, these kids have pride on the line and are gonna want to win every time they step on the floor. You'll see south side kids on the same team as west side kids and suburban kids playing along side city kids. It's all about coming together and competing! And I should mention that Chicago has some of the most athletic young people you'll ever see. So dunks will be plentiful. It's free to watch as a spectator, so please feel free to stop by!
TheseDays • Anything you'd like to add?
Poneman • The showcase is free for all participants, but that's only possible with your support! Please consider donating at CrowdRise.com/SwagAirShowcase. Your small contribution could help a kid earn a life changing scholarship. If you know of a basketball player who deserves a chance to play in the showcase, nominate him at SwagAir.com/showcase. Feel free to join us and watch the action on April 10th at Chicago Westinghouse High School. Games run from 9:00AM - 3:00PM.