Owen McCue (@Owen_McCue)
It was the kind of scene Lewis Leonard says his camp thrives on.
On a Monday afternoon in late August at the Dorothy Emmanuel Recreation Center in Mt. Airy, the competition level began to ramp up set after set.
As players rotated in and out of a 5-on-5 drill, matchups started to form. ‘I have him,’ someone shouted out, trying to avenge a loss from the previous rep. Even five-star Kentucky commit Justin Edwards cranked up the intensity level after a younger opponent got the better of him.
The Lewis Leonard Elite Camp, which took place last Aug. 22-26 for the sixth time, is built around competition.
Lewis Leonard takes in the action at his Elite Camp. (Photo: Owen McCue/CoBL)
The former area standout and current trainer runs a middle school and high school camp each August to try and give the young players of the city an opportunity to improve and compete before heading back to school.
“You gotta bring your game and not your name,” Leonard said. “We big on that. We let these guys get after it. … We’re guaranteeing guys are gonna get better and we take that personally.”
Leonard played his high school hoops at Frankford High before playing at St. Bonaventure (2008-10) and playing professionally in Bolivia, Peru, Brazil and Saudi Arabia, where his pro career ended in 2019-20.
Leonard always appreciated giving back when he returned home and injuries had him in the Philadelphia-area working out during various points of his career.
He started training around 2013 or 2014. Some of the local high school products included Dame Wall (Constitution/West Chester), Daiquan Walker (Constitution/UCF), Fatayn Wesley (Imhotep/Rosemont) and Denelle Holly (Martin Luther King/ Rosemont).
“It started from me coming home, everyone who knows me, knows I work hard,” Leonard said. "So I would come home and they would want to work with me. So I was just like, ‘Wait, pass me the ball, and I’ll work out with you afterwards.’ That’s how my workouts got so big. I worked out a lot of top players. I really started from the ground up, so I developed a lot of players too.”
“Through my injuries I started giving back more and that was my passion, training the kids.”
Leonard teamed with former Strawberry Mansion standout Maureece Rice to host a skills camp in 2014. He began his own camp in 2015.
The camp includes skill work and drills and time to compete. Leonard and his staff also feel it’s important to go over concepts like the pick & roll and help defense before players return to their high school teams.
Top competition, however, is the main ingredient Leonard hopes sets his camps apart.
Among the list of players to come through Leonard’s Elite Camp over the years include Sam Sessoms (Shipley/Penn State), Eric Dixon (Abington/Villanova), John Bol Ajak (Westtown/Syracuse), Elijah Taylor (Imhotep/Quinnipiac), Dante Scott (Imhotep/Maryland), Dahmir Bishop (Imhotep/St. Joe’s), Ed Croswell (St. Joe’s Prep/Providence), Rahsool Diggins (Archbishop Wood/UMass) and Chris Duarte, a first round pick by the Indiana Pacers last season.
“I wanted to have a camp, but I wanted to have one of the top camps, have the top kids here,” Leonard said. “It’s been great. A lot of guys came throughout the years, a lot of big names. … It’s been great. Only six years, it’s been great. We’ve got a great level of guys to come. I think it’s going to get bigger and bigger.”
Leonard’s former St. Bonaventure teammate Jonathan ‘Wop’ Hall has been there from the start. Hall also trains many of the area’s top players, including Edwards.
Their former assistant coach with the Bonnies Dino Presley had his son Bryce, a freshman at Germantown Academy, attend camp this week for things to come full circle.
“I took my style from Dino and how he tortured us in college,” Hall said.
Jonathan 'Wop' Hall, left, gives instruction to a camper at the Lewis Leonard Elite Camp. (Photo: Owen McCue/CoBL)
Like Leonard, Hall thinks the competitiveness and talent-level distinguishes their camps.
“There’s not a lot of camps like this in the city where kids from different AAU programs can come compete against each other and kind of test each other and see where they’re at,” Hall said. “I feel like that’s the best attribute that the Lou Leonard camp has.”
“I usually like to see if anyone feels like they’re better than another person and put them on the spot in front of everybody.”
Current West Catholic head coach Miguel Bocachica often helped out before taking over for the Burrs. Former Temple star and NBA player Dionte Christmas, who played his high school ball at Samuel Fels, has been a fixture at the camp the past two summers.
“I give a lot of my time to a lot of things in this city, but Lou is special,” Christmas said. “Me and Lou kind of grew up in the same era. I’m the type of player, type of person that Lou is, so any time Lou has anything I’m always there and always willing to help out, just giving back to these guys.
“Lou’s tapped in with a lot of the top young guys in the city, and I like to be around those guys and just give them my knowledge and give them everything I know and keep them on the path that they on. Because it’s easy to get distracted in our city. These kids are here everyday 9 in the morning, working out, going hard and some of these guys actually leave here and work out with Lou. And Lou’s not doing this like half-assing it. It’s not a money grab for him. He’s here. He’s dedicated and he’s passionate about teaching these kids and showing these kids the right way.”
Wesley was a frequent face as a camper at the Lewis Leonard Elite Camp during his playing days at Imhotep and even before. Now headed to Rosemont College this fall, he was back to chip in his help at camp.
“One thing I can say Lou brought to me is toughness and always playing through adversity and stuff like that,” Wesley said. “That’s one thing I can say Lou taught me through this camp and high school basketball and on my way to college.”
Like is often the case, Wesley thought today’s campers had it easier than him.
“I feel like Lou is someone getting a little softer on the kids,” Wesley said. “I remember when camp first started we were outside everyday in weather that was like 110 degrees, not caring, running hills.”
Through his connections Leonard had former and current influential members of the basketball community come talk to his campers like Imhotep coach Andre Noble and former St. Joe’s Prep and Maryland standout and NBA player Mo Howard.
With both his camps complete, Leonard is back at it training his guys for their respective seasons.
He wouldn’t have it any other way.
“This is my calling,” Leonard said. “This is where I really want to be.