West Henderson alum Sam Smithson (44) closes in for a rebound as teammate Matt Costello of Michigan State grasps for the ball, versus ACC All-Stars in 2016. Both return for Crossfire. Photo by Pete Zamplas.
The game, which sold out last year, is again in UNC-Asheville’s Kimmel Arena at $10 per ticket. Tip-off is slated for 4 p.m. Doors open an hour ahead. The exhibition series has been fast-paced, high-scoring and close over 25 games. ACC stars won 13 times, and Crossfire 12.
A pair of Tar Heel stars headline the ACC squad for the second year in a row. Last year it was all-America forward Brice Johnson and star point guard Marcus Paige.
This time, the dynamic UNC duo is Kennedy Meeks (6-foot-10, 260) and Isaiah Hicks (6-9, 242) The two big men have pledged to play in the game. Tar Heel reserves Nate Britt, Kanler Coker and Stilman White are also on the roster. UNC (33-7) defeated Gonzaga 71-65 April 3, scoring the last six points in the final two minutes to pull away. This was UNC’s sixth national title in men’s hoops. The Heels reached the title game a year before, too. When Gonzaga beat South Carolina in a semifinal, it prevented an all-Carolina title game.
Other Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) touring all-stars from in-state schools include Duke’s Amile Jefferson and Matt Jones; N.C. State’s BeeJay Anya, Chris Brickhouse and Terry Henderson; and Austin Arians and Trent Van Horn of Wake Forest.
Many players sign autographs before the game. ACC All-Stars are always seniors, not underclassmen. Their participation is contingent upon health and any pro basketball commitments.
Matt Costello debuted with Crossfire last year, when he was a Michigan State 6-9, 245 senior. The NCAA tourney battle-tested Christian returns to the squad for strength in the post. Bubbly Costello told The Tribune “it’s so important to have this platform, to impact lives for the Lord.”
Crossfire players familiar in the area include some 20-point prep scorers in 1988 A.C. Reynolds grad Willie Battle and 2007 West Henderson grad Sam Smithson, who both played for Western Carolina Catamounts, and Pisgah (’06) and Brevard College star Jonathan Whitson.
Smithson, 6-9, told The Tribune “the most important way to play basketball is to play for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” This is his fourth year on Crossfire.
Whitson has played with Crossfire for all of this decade, since 2010. He helped lead Pisgah to the 2-A state hoops title in 2005 — the most recent of any WNC boys’ squad.
Two other big men contemporaries were conference rivals to Henderson County teams. John Cannon (6-10, 240) finished with UNCA a season ago. He blocked a state-record 606 shots for Mountain Heritage in four years.
Jackson Simmons, 6-7, was a UNC Tar Heel reserve. He graduated two years ago. He starred for Smoky Mountain’s dynasty. His mother Cindi led the Lady Mustangs to four state titles. After his UNC career, Simmons promptly began coaching at UNC-Charlotte. He said he learned from Roy Williams a team can feel amongst itself both competition and caring.
Crossfire players who both played at UNC-Asheville won the two marquee contests last year. Slam dunk champ John “Jet” Williams, a former Harlem Globetrotter now 30, still has much of his 45-inch vertical leap. He beat Brice Johnson among others. Matt Dickey, now 27, sank 21 three-point shots to win that contest over Paige and others.
In his peppy sermon, Crossfire co-founder Randy Shepherd warned people to avoid trying drugs — which can readily destroy mind, body and soul. “Some will hand you marijuana, pills or cocaine and say ‘it’ll make you feel good,’” he cautioned youths. The Asheville native, now 52, said he drank when at UNCA, but turned his life around as “born again” and respects the body as a “temple.”
He also urged youth to shun “garbage” rap, heavy metal or other music with sinful lyrics and also lying, stealing, racist pride, and lack of faith.
“Are you right with God?…for spiritual life,” Crossfire co-founder Jamie Johnson asked the crowd, pre-game. Dozens flooded the court at halftime to take Shepherd’s challenge to declare a life for Christ, then were counseled in a room.
Also, the two Crossfire founders received the prestigious Naismith Legacy Award, for using basketball to advance values of “honor, respect and integrity.” Crossfire has traveled to 45 states and 67 countries.
Tickets outlets include Kimmel (258-7900), and Leicester Flooring in Asheville (254-8937) and Hendersonville (233-0500). For more on Crossfire such as summer camps, check crossfireministry.com.