Ryan Kalkbrenner has a simple hope when he folds his 7-foot frame in half and steps into a commercial airliner.
“You pray for an exit row seat and if you don't get it then it's trouble,” Kalkbrenner said.
A soon-to-be senior at Trinity, Kalkbrenner has hopped several flights this spring and summer to play with the Under-17 Mac Irvin Fire, an Elite Youth Basketball League program based in Chicago. Nike's grassroots basketball league, the EYBL features 40 teams from across the country. Between the end of April and the end of May, all those teams come together three times at three different locations to compete against each other over long weekends. The aim is to win enough games to qualify for the Peach Jam, the end of season tournament that will determine the league champion. This year, the EYBL hosted its three sessions in Atlanta, Indianapolis and Dallas.
That meant Kalkbrenner was eyeing the exit row to and from Atlanta and Dallas. He'll also be on the lookout when he and his Mac Irvin Fire teammates fly into North Augusta, South Carolina, home of the Peach Jam July 10-14.
The Mac Irvin Fire went 10-3 in the EYBL, finished second in their division and locked up their Peach Jam slot.
Davion Bradford, Dylan Branson and Luke Kasubke will see Kalkbrenner at the Peach Jam. Bradford and Branson, soon-to-be seniors at Mehlville, and Kasubke, a rising senior at Chaminade, qualified with the MoKan Elite, a Kansas City-based program.
MoKan Elite won its division with a 10-3 record and will be the top seed in its pool.
These four players are the only locals that have a shot at the Peach Jam championship. Bradley Beal Elite, formerly the Eagles, went 4-9 and did not qualify for the tournament.
EYBL rules allow programs to accept players from states that border its own. That's why Kalkbrenner can run with the Mac Irvin Fire and Bradford, Branson and Kasubke are playing for MoKan Elite, which has to declare Missouri or Kansas as its home state before the season. This year it chose Kansas.
All four players chose to play out of town and all have flourished, none more so than Kalkbrenner. This is the 7-foot and 225-pounder's first foray into the EYBL and he's dominated. He leads the elite league in blocks with 58, an average of 4.5 per game. He also averaged 7.7 points, 8.9 rebounds and hit on 83 percent of his free throws by knocking down 25 of 30 attempts.
Kalkbrenner knew the EYBL was good but he didn't realize how good until he took the floor with the Mac Irvin Fire for the first time.
“I'd heard about it but once you get in it it's another level,” Kalkbrenner said.
It didn't take Kalkbrenner long to make an impression. He showed up, showed out and was named the most valuable defensive player of the first EYBL session in Atlanta as he showcased his big-time shot blocking ability.
“Nobody knew me and I was out there holding my own,” Kalkbrenner said.
One of the biggest selling points of playing in the EYBL, instead of the myriad of other offseason club teams, is the attention the league receives from college programs. Kalkbrenner averaged 14.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 4.1 blocked shots during his junior season at Trinity but managed only three college scholarship offers at the end of the season.
By the time he was through with his first EYBL session, his recruiting stock had exploded. He now counts 17 offers including Illinois, Missouri, Kansas State, Stanford, Creighton, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Tulsa, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and most recently Ohio State.
“It definitely got me a lot more attention,” Kalkbrenner said.
Kalkbrenner chose to compete with the Mac Irvin Fire after he declined an invitation to play for the Bradley Beal Elite.
“I wanted to do something different and go to Chicago,” he said.
Kalkbrenner was never a part of the Bradley Beal Elite. The MoKan trio, however, all played for Bradley Beal Elite when they were younger, including Branson and Kasubke who were part of the team last summer.
All of them had their reasons but only Kasubke plays his home high school games in the same gym where Bradley Beal's retired jersey hangs. He took his talents to MoKan because he felt they were better suited to be displayed with that team.
“I felt it fit me best as a player,” Kasubke said.
A 6-5 shooting guard, Kasubke has been a long-range bomber for MoKan. He's averaged nearly 13 points and just less than three rebounds and three assists per game while hitting a team-best 25 3-pointers.
A pure center, Bradford (7 feet, 265 pounds) is good for 6.9 points, 4.1 rebounds and a block per game. Branson, a 6-5, 220-pound point forward, is chipping in 6.6 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game.
And while all three of them have had success with MoKan, it has come at a price.
Much of it in gas money.
You can live in St. Louis and play for MoKan but you still have to practice in Kansas City — a lot.
“In the spring time it was hard,” Branson said. “It was 14 weekends in a row we were out of town for practice or games. It got to be hectic.”
Bradford, Branson and Kasubke would take turns carpooling to Kansas City where they would arrive for practices on Friday, Saturday and early Sunday, then return home only to do it all over again the next weekend.
“It was hard but you find ways to do your homework,” Kasubke said. “When we're in Kansas City, they treat us real well.”
All the time together in the gym has given MoKan a serious shot at winning the Peach Jam. Practices are rigorous and there's film study every weekend.
“We had to get used to new people and a new team,” Bradford said. “It wasn't that hard. We're getting something out of it.”
MoKan's methods are tough, especially on the out-of-towners, but there is a payoff. MoKan most recently won the Peach Jam in 2016 when Michael Porter Jr. and Trae Young, both top-10 picks in the 2018 NBA draft, led them. They also had Webster Groves graduate Carte'Are Gordon on the roster.
“The goal isn't just to make it to the Peach Jam,” Bradford said. “It's winning the Peach Jam.”
Bradley Beal Elite won't get to compete for the top prize, but the EYBL brings all its programs to North Augusta for the final weekend of the season. Those that did not qualify for the Peach Jam play in the Peach Invitational, the PIT.
“All is not lost not making the Peach Jam,” Bradley Beal Elite U17 coach Corey Frazier said. “The goal is for each player to get recruited and have a chance at the next level.”
Bradley Beal Elite's roster should draw plenty of attention at the PIT. Local standouts Caleb Love (CBC) and Cam'Ron Fletcher (Vashon) have become two of the hottest soon-to-be seniors on the recruiting trail.
Love, a 6-3 combo guard, just wrapped up a training session with Team USA as he tried out for the U19 World Championships team. Fletcher, a 6-6 wing, impressed national scouts at the National Basketball Players Association Top 100 camp this past weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia. Both recently added North Carolina to their lengthy list of scholarship offers.
Bradley Beal Elite's roster included Arkansas native and top national prospect Moses Moody, a 6-5 small forward.
So how did a team with so many talented pieces stumble through the EYBL?
“Our chemistry, we never could get on the same page,” Frazier said. “We failed in the chemistry department.”
Chemistry will be key for any team that manages to win enough games to claim the Peach Jam championship. The local MoKan trio have been there with the lower level programs at the Bradley Beal Elite. This will be Kalkbrenner's debut. He's not sure what he's in for but he's looking forward to finding out — whether he gets an exit row seat or not.
“You approach it like any other tournament, you always want to prepare your best,” he said. “Everyone who's been there has told me it's awesome.”
MEMORIAL SET FOR BASKETBALL ICON GRAY
St. Louis Eagles founder Rich Gray died April 28 after complications from cancer surgery. He was 65. The founder of the St. Louis Eagles Basketball Club, Gray was one of the most influential and important basketball figures in St. Louis. He will be honored with celebration of his life from 2-4 p.m. June 29 at the St. Louis Gateway Classic Foundation.