WINONA LAKE – The first thing you notice in the gym are the sounds. Balls bouncing. Sneakers squeaking. Boys laughing. Buzzers sounding.
The game of basketball has evolved much over the past 50 years. Styles and strategies adapt to the times.
But the one constant with basketball will always be the sounds.
At Grace College, the second constant is Jim Kessler. The legendary NAIA Hall of Fame men’s basketball coach is at the center of Lancer Basketball Camp. He is directing the 50th consecutive year of operations, celebrated this week with this summer’s last week of camp.
The 70-plus boys in attendance this week for camp are brimming with excitement. They sweat their sweaty smiles alongside their friends, racing to complete timed dribbling and shooting drills.
This year in particular, Lancer Camp is a bit of a throwback, an homage to the timeless aspects of the game. Kessler and the counselors, mainly current and former Lancer players under Kessler, wear replicas of the earliest camp shirts. Plain white t-shirts with “Lancer Basketball Camp” inscribed in red, along with red piping on the sleeve ends and a red collar.
Additionally, the founder of Lancer Camp is in attendance. Chet Kammerer, Kessler’s coach at Grace, is now the Vice President of Player Personnel at the NBA’s Miami Heat. But once he recognized this to be the 50th year of Lancer Camp, Kammerer knew he had to attend.
“I cannot believe it’s been that long. It hit me a year or two ago,” Kammerer said. “I started it and got it going, but really this camp is a testament to Jim [Kessler]. He took over and sustained the camp. If there’s any credit, it should go to Jim.”
Kammerer was inspired to start Lancer Camp after spending a summer in western Pennsylvania with a coach named Ron Galbreath. Coach Galbreath’s camps were unique at the time, focusing specifically on basketball fundamentals while also seeking to develop each camper on a personal and spiritual level.
Kammerer returned to Winona Lake and debuted Lancer Camp in 1968. The first year saw close to 200 campers. Within a few years, the camp neared 500.
“Lancer Camp gained popularity very fast,” Kammerer noted. “We made our camp strictly basketball, which a lot of camps did not do at that time. We sold the idea that if you really want to learn the game, you have to stress fundamentals.”
That legacy has continued for 50 years. Kessler assumed the reins of Grace’s program in 1977 and has maintained the mission of Lancer Camp.
The camp’s track record of fundamentals has built a reputation in the state. Many high school coaches send their kids to Lancer Camp because “they want their kids to learn how to play the right way,” Kessler said.
Kessler regularly brings in big-name high school coaches to speak to the campers, including former state champions, winners of Indiana Mr. Basketball, Marvin Wood of “Milan Miracle” fame, and local legends Al Rhodes and Doug Ogle.
But beyond the game, Kessler and Kammerer have strived to make Lancer Camp about life. While Grace’s camp will always be fundamentally driven, the two men have ensured the week will be spiritually grounded as well.
Kessler’s goals for campers now are simple. He wants the kids to have fun while learning basketball fundamentals.
He teaches the necessity to work hard in life. “If you want to be good at anything in life, it takes hard work and dedication,” he said.
But he also wants the campers to know that there is more to life than basketball — to impact the soul while also teaching sound principals of the game.
“There’s no question. It’s an outreach,” Kammerer said. “We use basketball to teach things about life —how to go deeper in your faith, how to be a good teammate. That has been and will always be an important part of Lancer Camp.”