Fort Myers (Fla.) native Deion Sanders hoped to bring his inaugural Prime Prep Academy basketball team to two national powerhouse high school tournaments. They take place just a short drive from his childhood home. They play over two weeks spanning Christmas Day.
Sanders now will have to settle for one tournament.
The Dallas-based Prime Prep, which was slated to play two games in the Sunshine Series portion of the 40th Annual City of Palms Classic on Friday and Saturday, Dec. 21-22, withdrew Friday from the University Interscholastic League, the governing board of high school athletics in Texas.
By withdrawing from the UIL, Prime Prep made itself ineligible to face Florida High School Athletic Association teams under FHSAA rules. It therefore cannot compete in the Classic. Prime Prep, however, remains eligible to compete against unsanctioned programs in the Gulfshore Invitational, set to be played Dec. 27-31 at Community School of Naples.
Had Prime Prep remained in the Sunshine Series, Bishop Verot High School, as the host, would have been fined $250 per game. That did not sit well with Classic tournament director Donnie Wilkie or with Bishop Verot athletic director Phil Dorn.
Wilkie officially dropped Prime Prep from the Classic on Thursday. He replaced Prime Prep with North Florida Educational Institute of Jacksonville, a school founded by former Classic Most Valuable Player and NBA player Stacey Poole.
“I wanted to do this for Deion,” Wilkie said of finding a way to keep Prime Prep in the Classic. “But we can’t do it this year, as much as I wanted to do it. There are just too many circumstances at this point.
“I don’t understand why they couldn’t have just stayed in the UIL for two more weeks. Then we would not have had this issue.”
Neither Sanders nor representatives from Prime Prep could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Wilkie originally envisioned Prime Prep in the 16-team tournament field until the UIL ruled three of the team’s better players ineligible, as they had followed coach Ray Forsett from Grace Prep, the runner-up in last year’s Classic, to Prime Prep.
“Prime Prep, when they created themselves, they procured themselves as a regular high school,” Wilkie said. “They were going to be a normal, regular school. So we didn’t think twice. I put them in the tournament.”
The City of Palms Classic also has a four-team Signature Series, created for non-sanctioned schools like Prime Prep is now — but wasn’t months ago.
“Had I viewed them as a non-member, I could have put them in the Signature Series from day one,” Wilkie said. “But now there are no longer spots available in the Signature Series. I’m not going to kick somebody out of the Signature Series.”
Sanders, who was working Thursday as a color analyst for the NFL Network, could not be reached for comment.
Sanders called The News-Press on Wednesday night, hoping to arrange a game for Prime Prep against his alma mater at North Fort Myers High School. Sanders said he hoped his team could play some games during the week before Christmas because his players and coaches already had booked their flights.
North Fort Myers basketball coach Mack Mitchell said he and athletic director Kathy Padilla would look into different scenarios. Mitchell said he talked to Prime Prep’s coach Forsett on Thursday about helping to arrange competition the week before Christmas, whether it be against North or other teams.
“I’m going to try my best, if I can,” said Mitchell, whose mother, Vera Mitchell, once tutored Sanders in math. “He graduated from North, and he’s done a lot for the community. So why not?”