Farewell Philly…

by February 05, 2008
By Aggrey Sam
Contrary to popular belief, absolutely nothing has happened on the high school scene since the last time I posted. No games, no college commitments, nothing. Actually, that’s not really the case. In fact, I’ve seen and heard a whole lot in prep hoops since before the new year, but I haven’t had time to write about it. From a neighborhood rivalriy and OT thriller like Ben Franklin vs. Dobbins, to a matchup of Catholic League and regional powers Roman Catholic and Neumann-Goretti, to seeing an emerging national star and a team full of talented young prospects when Glen Mills faced off with South Philly High, I’ve seen plenty of good ball this high school season.But while my adopted hometown of Philly and its outskirts are always strong, I must say that the DMV (DC, Maryland, Virginia), my home region, has the best high school hoops in the nation on a consistent basis. For example, I was in DC last month (I also saw Georgetown beat UConn on that absurd, last-second trey by 7-2 Roy Hibbert and the first of the Wizards ‘ back-to-back upsets of the Celtics a few days earlier; not a bad day to catch some games live in DC) to see the area’s top-ranked team, Gonzaga, host perennial powerhouse DeMatha. Although I got to the game on time, I had to wait 20 minutes to get into what was a raucous, standing-room only gym. It was a little sloppy at times, but you’ve never seen so many hard-playing, well-coached, physically talented and fundamentally-skilled kids on one court at the same time in your life. I won’t give you a full recap of the game, but I was extremely impressed by several players on both sides.
For Gonzaga, seniors Max Kenyi and Cameron Johnson stood out the most. Kenyi, a long, slender and athletic 6-5 wing headed to Harvard (the excellent student was also seriously recruited by the likes of Marquette and other high-major programs), was defensive demon in the passing lanes, on the ball and as a shot-blocker, as well as slashing and hitting jumpers on offense. Tommy Amaker got a steal. Johnson, a powerful and skilled 6-4 wing, who’s headed to Virginia on a football scholarship, was an inside force who kept the Purple Eagles alive on the boards with junior big man Ian Hummer (he’ll have better days) in foul trouble. Tyler Thornton, a 6-2 sophomore, led Gonzaga’s trio of jet-quick guards (the others are senior Rodney Gould, a tough and heady floor leader who is also a top football prospect, and sophomore Cedric Lindsay, a smart, opportunistic combo) with several big plays at key moments in the contest. Remember Thornton’s name because his high basketball IQ, tremendous quickness, nice stroke, unselfishness and defensive instincts will take him a long way.DeMatha graduated McDonald’s All-American Austin Freeman, a starter at Georgetown, Iowa starting point guard Jeff Peterson and Clemson forward Jerai Grant, among others from last year’s squad, but storied program doesn’t just rebuild, they reload. Two transfers from Baltimore-area schools, highly-touted sophomore Josh Selby and junior Naji Hibbert, are their two marquee players. Selby, a 6-2 scoring point guard (him, Thornton and UNC commit Kendall Marshall have to be the three best young point guards in one league across the nation) is an aggressive, shoot-first playmaker with good size, who can also distribute and has plenty of heart. Hibbert (not related to the aforementioned Roy, as far as I know) is a 6-5 wing, who showed he could shoot, slash and finish, despite a wrist injury. Marcus Rouse, a 6-1 junior guard who didn’t get much burn on last year’s loaded team, was a nice surprise as a scoring guard who didn’t force shots. But Kenny Tate, a 6-4 senior who’s also the nation’s top wide receiver prospect in football, was the difference for the Stags. The monster athlete didn’t scored much, but he dominated the paint with his physicality.In the end, DeMatha prevailed, 45-42 (forget the score, it was exciting) in front of a hostile crowd on the road. And as hard as both teams played, all of the players showed a high level of respect for each other. Thanks to Gonzaga coach Steve Turner for having me as a guest. Long story short–and I know I haven’t seen every high school league in the country–I’ll put the WCAC (DC’s Catholic League), top to bottom, against any other conference in the nation. I’m not going off one game, either, trust me.Wow, that was a lot longer than I intended. This post was really supposed to be about be about how much I’ll miss basketball in Philly. I definitely can’t name every reason why, but here are a few, from A-Z:

A is for Aaric Murray, who I first wrote about last year and is now making me look really good. The 6-10 junior could be one of the best stories you’ve never heard about: A North Philly kid who never played organized ball until a little over a year ago, Aaric was sent to the court-adjudicated Glen Mills School in PA for truancy. Through his natural ability and a lot of hard work by an unknown workout guy, he’s quickly developed into, in my opinion, one of the best 2009 prospects (LINK) in the nation. The area’s best-kept secret is starting to be let out, as schools like Villanova, Marquette, Indiana, Pitt and West Virginia, among others, are recruiting him. Making the story even better, Aaric is thriving academically and has already reached a qualifying score on the ACT. Not bad for someone who recently told me, “I wasn’t really the school type before.”

“Now I’m taking college-prep classes,” he continued. “I look at everything from a whole different perspective now. I still wanna get money, but I wanna do it from basketball and doing things the legal way. A year from now, I see myself as a much better player and person.” He’s well on his way.

B is for (Miguel) Bocachica and Brandon Brown. “Boca,” a 6-6 senior wing at Imhotep Charter in Philly, is considered one of the top snipers in city. However, it’s the Long Island University commitment’s improvement in the classroom, not the court, that makes me proud. Prior to his senior year, like many talented players, he was coasting in school. But as a 12th-grader, he’s stepped up his academic game, getting a qualifying score on the SAT and making the honor roll the first semester.

Brandon, a junior combo guard at the University of Idaho, who should be the poster child for all high school players in Philly who go the junior-college route. When I first saw Brandon play as a 11th-grader, he was an extremely raw 6-1 power forward who got by on his strength, ridiculous athleticism and heart, but couldn’t really shoot or handle the ball. One more high school season, a year at an in-state juco, a redshirt year and a season at a Cali juco later, he transformed his game into a polished guard prospect who made first-team all-state, was recruited by a variety of D1 schools and most importantly, got it done in the classroom. Make sure you always thank Sool for his help.

C is for Chester High School. The Clippers, who I mentioned briefly earlier, are the best in PA this year and the No. 6 team in the nation, having only lost to former No. 1 St. Benedict’s at Christmas tourney in Florida. Pitt signee Nasir Robinson is the marquee name, but fellow senior Karon Burton, a lightning-quick point guard who, at 5-8, might be the toughest pound-for-pound high school player in the country, is the unquestioned leader, while athletic 6-6 junior wing Rahlir Jefferson may have the most potential for the perennial PA power, the alma mater of Orlando Magic guard Jameer Nelson.

D is for Donald Hunt, one of the nicest people you ever want to meet and the man who helped get me where I am today (him, too). Don is a longtime sports reporter at the Philadelphia Tribune, the author of several books and simply a basketball lifer. When I was a wet-behind-the-ears college intern and later a copy editor for the paper right after college, Don took me under his wing, introduced me to Philly’s high school basketball scene and the rest is history.

E is for Engineering and Science, particularly the girls varsity basketball team, coached by my man Dave Hargrove. Led by DePaul commitment Keisha Hampton, the Lady Engineers have been in the last three Public League championship games, only to fall to rival Central High School, which, until recently, owned a historic winning streak in the Pub. Well, this may be the year to do it for E&S, as the senior-laden team will have no other opportunities to get it done. I’ve known these girls since they were freshmen, so you know I’m pulling for them.

F is for the Fellowship House, one of the most beautiful rec centers I’ve ever seen and the site of the Donofrio Classic, a spring AAU tournament held in Conshohocken, Pa., right outside of Philly. Conshy is one of the better regional AAU events, as just about everybody who is anybody from the Philly area has participated in the tourney during their high school careers, as well as out-of-towners from Jersey and Delaware. On the short court, the fast-paced, high-scoring affairs become a proving ground for young up-and-comers, a coming-out party for sleepers trying to prove their worth, a test-your-manhood contest for big names and an opportunity for college-bound seniors to leave their mark.

G is for (Simon) Gratz, alma mater of the likes of Rasheed Wallace, Aaron McKie and Mardy Collins. The Bulldogs, known for the intense D under legendary former coach Bill Ellerbee, had an absolute stranglehold the Pub from the late ’80s until recently, and were considered a national juggernaut, as well. While many observers around the city have speculated that this season is the end of their dynasty, I wouldn’t count them out just yet.

H is for (Eddie) Hurtt, a man who gets far too little credit around the city. Ed, who runs a youth hoops program out of the King Center at 25th and Cecil B. Moore streets in the heart of North Philly, has been impacting the lives of young ballplayers and young people in general for years in that neighborhood.

I is for Isaiah Coleman, the first kid I ever worked out in Philly. Whether or not Zay ever plays organized ball again, I have no idea—but if he gets that college diploma from Norfolk State, he’s good with me.

J is for John Hardnett, the best workout guy in the city. Johnny H. has worked with Philly high school players for decades now, and every summer pros like Aaron McKie, Marc Jackson, Cuttino Mobley, Rasual Butler and countless others come back to learn from his tutelage.

K is for (William) “BJ” Kearse, the point guard at Ben Franklin HS. I won’t tell you he’s the best player I’ve ever worked with, but I will say this: BJ’s toughness, physicality and defensive-mindedness embodies a Philly ballplayer. On top of that, he’s a humble kid who lets his game do the talking.

L is for Lewis Leonard, the leading scorer in California juco basketball this season. Lew was a hell of a player at Frankford HS in Philly, but never got his academics together. Fortunately for him, he’s made quite a turnaround at San Bernardino Valley College and is now heavily recruited by a variety of D1 programs. Keep up the good work.

M is for Mike Ringgold, a freshman starting at the four for MAAC-leading Rider University. Ring isn’t one for all the attention, but anyone who’s ever seen the former Catholic League MVP knows he’s about his business. Perfect example of a key whose contributions can’t be measured by the box score.

N is for Nurideen Lindsay, the top scorer in the Pub. A 6-2 junior at Overbrook High School (alma mater of Wilt Chamberlain and Will Smith, among others), “Nore” can definitely put the ball in the hoop. But being a class act (on and off the court), keeping those grades up and working on his all-around game will really take the early La Salle commitment to that next level as a player and a person. Keep listening to my man E. Hood.

O is for (New) Orleans, where I now live. Although I’ll still be writing for SLAM, I’ve accepted a position as a Program Director with PeacePlayers International. I’ll still be on the high school scene (as well as college and pro), just from a different perspective. More on that later, if you get through this novel.
P is for the Palestra, the on-campus arena of the University of Pennsylvania and the most historic gym in the nation. No college basketball experience tops a competitive Big 5 game at the Palestra. The fans are hype throughout the contest, there are generations of tradition and there’s not a bad seat in the house.

Q is for the questions college coaches ask me about Philly ballplayers (attitude, grades) and the ones they don’t (toughness, competitiveness). I won’t name names, but it would take me forever to list all the talented players out of Philly who didn’t make it because of their grades or negative actions on or off the court. However, I can probably count on my hands the players from Philly who weren’t successful because they lacked heart.

R is for Roman Catholic, my favorite high school program in the city, home of Pitt freshman Brad Wanamaker, Indianapolis Colts receiver Marvin Harrison and the late Eddie Griffin, among others. The Cahillites had hit a dry spell for a minute, but last season’s thrilling Catholic League championship game win over archrival Neumann might have brought them back to their previous dominance.

S is for summer leagues, where players bring their names, not their games. The most well-known league in the city is the Sonny Hill League, but the neighborhood leagues like Chew (Point Breeze), 25th and Diamond (Hank Gathers) and 10th and Olney (the Chosen League), as well as the pro-ams at Media and Drexel, all had their unique flavor to the city. Still, the Hill is where a lot of players make their reputations in high school and where college players get to improve their games.

T is for Temple, where it all started for me. I graduated a while ago, John Chaney retired not too long after that, the team hasn’t been a tourney contender in a minute and I haven’t had a workout there in forever, but the next time I set foot on that campus, I know it’s going to feel like 1999 all over again.

U is for all the other universities and the Big Five tradition. Temple, Villanova, Penn, La Salle and St. Joe’s (Drexel is a honorary member) are bitter rivals when they play each other, but fans and alumni of the other schools will support whatever school happens to be doing well that particular season, like during Jameer Nelson’s senior year at St. Joe’s or when Villanova made a run with the four-guard offense. I can’t think of another city where that happens.

V is for Victor Ellis, the knucklehead of all knuckleheads. Vic is the smartest dumb kid on the face of the Earth. Gifted on the court, naturally bright off of it, but scared of success on or off. Good luck back home. The sky’s the limit, as long as you’re ready to be an adult.

W is for (Maalik) Wayns of Roman Catholic, the best true point guard in the 2009 class nationally, in my opinion. The future Villanova floor general’s J has significantly improved to the point where I consider him one of the elite players in the class. But what’s best about is that you know he won’t stop working.

X is for X-factors, which is lame as hell, but what else could I come up with? There are no Xaviers that I know of doing well in the city this year. Anyway, this is for all the role players, second options and sleepers who could impact the balance of power in Philly. Kids like Eddie Frazier at Mansion, Manny Jordan at Communications Tech, Courtney Stanley at Roman, Anthony Reese at Southern and Shamyra Hammond at E&S. They might not be their team’s star right now, but they all could have big futures in college if they go to the right level.

Y is for youth, the up-and-coming underclassmen in the city. While the city isn’t producing stars like the loaded 2006 class with Wayne Ellington, Gerald Henderson and Co., kids like Philly native but Pittsburgh transplant Markel Walker, my man Will Adams from Imhotep, Cameron Ayers from Germantown Academy (yup, another one of Randy’s sons), Rakeem Brookins from Roman, Parrish Grant from Prep Charter, Jamir Hanner from Southern, Tyrone Garland from Bartram, Octavious Booker from Freire, Marcus Brown from E&S, Ashley White from Neumann and freshmen sensations like Juanya Green from Carroll and Aaron Brown from Roman show me the future is bright. Even the next kid on here.

Z is for Zaahir Smith, who’s as quick as a cat and can play D all day long, but might not see the big picture just yet. Keep those grades up, work hard on your game, don’t worry about the little things, stay out of bad situations and listen to your pop, big brother and Sool’s advice.

While I have a big soft spot for Philly, New Orleans has already shown that it’s going to be a fine replacement. I’ve already been to several games out here, and I’m feeling the squad at O.P. Walker, with Charles Hammork and the krewe, the most so far, but I like Russell Moore and the team at St. Aug (alma mater of Kerry Kittles and Avery Johnson), too. I’ll get out to see Greg Monroe soon, but Pat Swilling Jr. (son of the former Saints linebacker) at Brother Martin (DJ Augustin’s old stomping grounds) has to be one of the city’s top young talents. On the girls side, Theresa Plaisance is the truth for a sophomore and we still did “Baby Ballers” in the magazine, two-year varsity contributor Jenna Deemer, a sixth-grader at St. Mary’s, would definitely be in there. Damn, I could probably go from A-Z in the N.O. already. Thanks to Ben, Goody, Caputo, Sammy and everybody else who helped out with high-school coverage while I was M.I.A. Happy Mardi Gras!