Deondre Starling, a former Cambridge boys’ basketball player, has become well-known in the city for his local organized basketball tournaments that help bring the community together. On Saturday, Starling succeeded in his most ambitious endeavor yet: a one-day event pitting MIAA and NEPSAC all-star teams against each other.
The inaugural Ink Elite Classic took place throughout the day at Cambridge Rindge and Latin, with the best MIAA boys and girls’ teams meeting the best NEPSAC rosters in the evening’s championship games.
“[It] always crosses your mind, just that guys over there [in NEPSAC] are better than us,” Starling said. “There’s always the back and forth chat or talk about it. So I just wanted to put it into play — just paint that picture, give them a chance and a platform to showcase their talent.”
Saturday’s slate featured four boys’ MIAA rosters and four with NEPSAC players, plus two apiece on the girls side, who battled through single-elimination brackets in front of a portable jumbotron and DJ. Area coaches drafted the rosters March 12 and the results made for some entertaining teams.
The tournament finished with a tightly-contested public school win: a 67-61 boys final between Team Roger’s MIAA team and Team Enayo’s NEPSAC squad. Big names like Marius Canery (Lawrence), Ryder Frost (Beverly), and Jaeden Roberts (Burke) went toe-to-toe with college-bound talents including St. Sebastian’s Trevor Mullin (headed to Yale) and Rivers’ Jayden Ndjigue (UMass).
By the end of the final, coaches were arguing with officials and players were pressing full-court. Roberts, who played three games over the course of the day, scored 23 points and earned MVP honors. The sophomore felt proud that he proved himself against star-studded competition.
“It was very exciting,” Roberts said. “I had to play my heart out until the last buzzer.”
Belmont girls’ basketball coach Shantell Jeter led Team Shantell, with MIAA stars including Natalia Hall-Rosa (Bridgewater-Raynham) and Ashlee Talbot (Dracut). Jeter, a former Brighton basketball player, says it’s natural for MIAA players to feel a chip on their shoulders against prep schools.
“I think that prep schools just have a reputation of being better, and I love that underdog mentality,” Jeter said.
Team Shantell won the girls’ final, 46-27, over a NEPSAC team led by Thai Davis, though it also had several MIAA players due to roster dropouts. Tournament MVP Hall-Rosa said that she loved the supportive energy in the gym, and though she enjoys competing with and against different standout players, she feels it’s all love between MIAA and NEPSAC talents.
“I just feel like people make it kind of a rivalry, trying to pit us against each other, but it’s all just fun. You don’t really think about it,” she said.
Starling also used the spotlight to launch Scholar Before Athlete, a new nonprofit aimed at young student athletes. The organization is receiving $15,000 in grant money from the Bob Moses Fund and is supported by MathTalk, another local education-based organization, as well as the Mark Wahlberg Foundation.
“For people who know [Starling], they see him doing this work every day,” said Nina Berg, a friend of Starling who helped work the event. “It’s just what he does naturally. And so I’m personally really excited to just see how many people are going to support him to do even more.”