Fattal: Juju Watkins, Sierra Canyon girls basketball disappointed in lack of ‘prime time’ spotlight

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SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Sierra Canyon’s Juju Watkins received a standing ovation Saturday as the Spalding Hoophall Classic public address announcer thundered the USC-bound star’s stat line over the loud speakers.

She had 29 points, 14 rebounds and five assists in 26 minutes despite playing the second half with a severe ankle sprain.

She stood on the court draped in a robe she received for being named the player of the game after guiding Sierra Canyon’s girls basketball team to a 67-55 win over top-ranked Sidwell Friends of Washington, D.C.

Watkins was being showered with praise, chants and there was a flattering mob of young fans who wanted her autograph and picture.

As Watkins walked off the floor and headed for the locker room underneath Springfield College’s Blake Arena, things got a lot quieter.

Watkins, the nation’s No. 1 recruit and heralded as the next big star in women’s basketball, walked with Sierra Canyon coach Alicia Komaki to the postgame press conference area, where they were met by just two media outlets: the Los Angeles Daily News and The Springfield Student, Springfield College’s student newspaper.

No Yahoo! Sports. No 247Sports. No BallisLife. No Sports Illustrated. No Bleacher Report. No Los Angeles or New York Times.

Komaki was disappointed to learn that after playing on ESPN, just a few miles away from the Basketball Hall of Fame, her program and players weren’t getting the media attention they deserve. And they hadn’t been given a time slot they deserve.

“I didn’t study the layout of every matchup (Saturday), I know they’re really good, but I can’t imagine that there’s one better than this,” Komaki said. “(Sidwell Friends) is the defending national champion, started the year No. 1 in a lot of polls. We have the best player in the country, there were three USA basketball kids playing in the game. …”

Komaki continued to make her case: “What surrounded this, for a female basketball game, is as high as it gets and for it to be the 1:30 p.m. game is ridiculous. This should’ve been a 6 p.m., prime-time game. And we proved it, too. It was a high-level, elite, athletic, great skilled basketball game.”

“It’s a shot at women’s basketball.”

Watkins led Sierra Canyon to a CIF State Open Division title last season and has the Trailblazers unbeaten this year through 19 games. She isn’t just one of the nation’s best high school players; she’s also doing unprecedented things off the court, including signing an NIL (name, image, likeness) deal with Nike, starring in TV commercials with LeBron James and has been seen working out with NBA stars like James Harden and Kevin Durant.

Watkins is making waves, but maybe they’re not big enough?

Sierra Canyon girls basketball player Juju Watkins answers a questions from a reporter as Sierra Canyon holds its annual media day event for both girls and boys basketball programs October 12, 2022. (Photo by Andy Holzman, Contributing Photographer)

“There is a glaring difference between women’s and men’s basketball,” Watkins said. “I feel like it’s very unfair. I’m working and my peers are working every day to break those barriers, and it needs to be respected. I do think there’s been progress.”

Watkins could be right.

Greg Procino, the vice president of events for the Basketball Hall of Fame, weighed in on Komaki’s gripe and explained what goes into an event like the Hoophall Classic, which boasts the best boys and girls basketball teams and players from all over the country in one weekend.

“Putting this event together is an enormous puzzle piece,” Procino said. “We have so many teams that come from so many different states, combined with the logistics of each team’s travel demands, we view all of the spots in the schedule as premium spots.”

Procino, who’s been working at the Hall of Fame since 2005, said the Hoophall Classic used to have a day reserved specifically for girls basketball games, but learned through the years that weaving the marquee girls games in and around the boys games creates a better atmosphere. The Sierra Canyon-Sidwell Friends game was played after the nation’s top-ranked boys team, IMG Academy (Fla.), played Newton High (Ga.).

“This is the first time, in a long time, we’ve had a women’s game on a Saturday and on an ESPN platform,” Procino said. “We at the Hall of Fame have been attempting to do more for the women’s game. … It’s not lost on us that the promotion of the women’s game is important to our mission because that’s what our Hall of Famers expect.”

Sierra Canyon is ranked No. 1 in the CIF Southern Section and in the CalHiSports.com state poll. The Trailblazers beat Duncanville (Texas), Lone Beach (Utah) and La Jolla Country Day (San Diego), all nationally ranked teams, before taking down Sidwell Friends.

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“At the beginning of the year, we’re told we’ll be on ESPN, but it’s ESPN-plus,” Komaki said. “They see the draw she gets. If you’re not going to put one of the best players who’s ever going to play (high school) in the national spotlight then when are you going to do it?”

Procino said that he’s always open to feedback. Maybe a girls game will get a prime-time evening slot in a future Hoophall Classic event, but the question is: When is the next time another Juju Watkins-type player will come around?

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