The mission of developing young basketball talent is yielding powerful results.
From the outside, High Performance Academy in Eagan looks like a spruced-up warehouse. So why, on a Friday night, is the large parking lot surrounding the building filled, with attendants protecting the VIP spots and people streaming across the four-lane street to queue at the front door?
Why is North Carolina coach Roy Williams rubbing elbows with Missouri's Frank Haith while the best young players in the country, from Chicago's Jabari Parker to Apple Valley's Tyus Jones, show off for a packed house?
Thanks to Rene Pulley, the Academy this weekend hosted the best selection of basketball talent to congregate in Minnesota since the Timberwolves made their one playoff run.
The Nike EYBL tournament features 40 teams from across the country. Its presence in Minnesota is due to the large man wearing the Bluetooth earpiece and comfy-looking Nike flip-flops, standing at the baseline of one of the Academy's five courts.
Pulley is the executive director of Howard Pulley Basketball. He built it, and they came.
"People in Minnesota have never seen anything like this,'' said KFAN radio host Henry Lake, who grew up near Pulley in north Minneapolis. "He loves the kids. He's put a lot of time and effort into establishing Minnesota basketball as a great brand. For Nike to be here doing this, that tells you how far we've come."
The Academy is home to the Howard Pulley Pro-Am summer league and the Pulley prep program, both named after Rene's father. The building features more than 60,000 square feet, a concession stand and up to six full-length basketball and volleyball courts, plus classrooms.
"The original intent is a nonprofit sports complex," Pulley said.
"Also, we added classrooms to do tutoring, math, reading and science. We're not trying to be a charter school, we're trying to be an addition to the schools, because so many kids are not passing proficiency tests in high school.
"We thought this would be a great outlet to assist the schools. We put together a nice curriculum and we hope we can be of some help. And what attracts kids more than sports?"
Pulley teamed with Kathy Marinello, a former top executive at Ceridian who lives in Apple Valley, to get the Academy built. "She is really the financial backbone and visionary, along with myself, of putting this together," Pulley said. "I planned to bring national programs here so our slogan is 'Home of the Future.'"
The idea of an AAU basketball organizer worrying about kids' grades may make the cynical snicker, but Pulley's reputation is bulletproof.
"This is big stuff," said Dakota County Technical College assistant coach Ron Gates, who has been coaching locally for decades. "Minnesota's being seen all over. He has a lot of help doing this, but Rene is the daddy. He's doing a great thing for Minnesota kids. He's giving them exposure and experience they might not otherwise get."
The talent level in the gym on Friday night was stunning. Jones, looking mature beyond his 15 years, commanded the Howard Pulley Panthers during an easy victory over the Georgia All-Stars as fans packed the claustrophobic courts.
"Rene is pivotal in bringing this here, because they were one of the first AAU programs and had a lot of national players," said Chris Monter, the editor and publisher of College Basketball News and Monter Draft News. "Khalid El-Amin, Troy Bell, Kris Humphries, Joe Coleman, Royce White, Rodney Williams. ... Having this facility, now they can bring in a lot of national talent for fans to see."
Lake could barely contain his enthusiasm. "This, to me, is the best basketball you can watch at any level," he said. "Look at the atmosphere. You've got Roy Williams sitting next to Frank Haith. When has that ever happened in Minnesota?''
Even a 15-year-old knows it hasn't. "Once we built this facility -- they built this facility -- we thought this was a possibility," Jones said. "I'm very close with Rene. He's put his heart and soul into all of this. Without him, this wouldn't be possible. We thank him for that."
Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500-AM. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. • firstname.lastname@example.org