Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Meet the biggest 'Mouth' in basketball

    Let's have a pickup basketball game.
    I'll take players who went to high school in Mouth of Wilson, Virginia. You can have the whole rest of the country.
    I've got Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Rajon Rondo, Josh Smith, Ty Lawson, and Brandon Jennings. That's 101 points per game in the NBA this year, plus two of the league's four leaders in assists.
    They all come from that overflowing fountain of hoops at the mouth of Wilson CreekOak Hill Academy. 
    Mouth of Wilson is only an hour's drive from Boone, so several of us made the trip Monday night to experience Oak Hill basketball in person. Courtside seats cost just $5, where you can get splashed by the sweat of future millionaires who are still playing for the joy of the game.
    So here we are deep in Appalachia, 12 miles from the nearest traffic light, sitting in a 300-seat gym, listening to a student play the national anthem on a clarinet, and watching the No. 1 high school basketball team in the country. Eight national championship banners adorn the far wall. Behind the basket on the left hang the college jerseys of dozens of Oak Hill graduates, including several who won national championships at Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse, and Maryland.
The jerseys behind the basket represent a Who's Who of college basketball.
The Warriors have lost only once in this gym in the last 18 years.

     In a nice effort to keep things in perspective, the media guide ... What? Your local high school basketball team doesn't have its own media guide? 
     As I was saying, in a nice effort to keep things in perspective, the media guide includes this message from Oak Hill president Dr. Michael Groves: "Basketball is one of the things we do well at Oak Hill, but it is not what we do best." 
     Unlike many of the small private schools and random upstarts that have come to dominate national high school basketball in recent years, Oak Hill's roots are deep and humble. In fact, the academy is actually 13 years older than the game itself. 
     Oak Hill was founded in 1878 by Baptist churches in the New River Valley who were concerned about the lack of educational opportunities following the Civil War. It has become a boarding school serving 150 students and "offering a highly structured curriculum that focuses on accountability and self-discipline." 
     We can all admire the values Oak Hill embraces in its educational philosophy:
1. Deep down inside, all children are good.
2. Regardless of academic ability, every child is capable of success.
3. All children would rather succeed than fail.
4. Once a child gets a taste of success, he or she will want more.
     Those noble standards apply to the basketball team, tooexcept that we're not talking about children anymore. These are full-grown blue-chip student-athletes who have already been through the meat market of college recruiting. They've come from seven states and two other countries, leaving behind their families, friends, and hometowns to spend their final one to three years of high school here on "The Hill," polishing their college credentials. 
     The team flies to games all over the country. Last weekend, they played in a Nike tournament in San Diego. This coming weekend, they're off to Nebraska. In between, they have three home games scheduled, including the one we're watching against Hamilton Heights Christian Academy, a Chattanooga school that's no older than its seniors. Hamilton Heights has only 75 students but has attracted basketball players from Africa, Europe, and the Caribbean.
     The game is close for most of the first half, but Oak Hill's talent is overwhelming. Dwayne Bacon, a sculpted 6-foot-6 Florida State recruit, is Oak Hill's highest-scoring player since the aforementioned Brandon Jennings, who was a first-round NBA draft pick one year after he graduated from Oak Hill. Daniel Giddens, a 6-10 Ohio State signee from Georgia, rebounds relentlessly and dunks acrobatically. Andrew Fleming, a 6-5 Iowa recruit from Tennessee, drains three-pointers. Jennings' half-brother, 5-11 whirlwind Terrence Phillips, is headed to Missouri. 
     Two juniors, 6-7 Joe Hampton and 6-5 Joshua Reaves, are already committed to Penn State. Looking at Hampton's 280-pound physique, you may think it's a shame Oak Hill doesn't play football.
     Oak Hill's rotation also includes players standing 7-0, 6-9, and 6-7.
     Hamilton Heights has several college-caliber players, too, but they don't have a chance. Nobody does in Turner Gymnasium, where the Warriors have lost just once in the last 18 years. Oak Hill dominates the second half, wins 83-55, and raises its record to 38-0.
     The Warriors can't lose for winning. If you saw them lose on ESPN last month in Memphis, you need to know that their opponent used an ineligible player, so Oak Hill won by forfeit and regained its undefeated record.
     Presiding over this juggernaut is Coach Steve Smith, an Asbury College graduate whose 30-year record is 973-63, surpassing his golf buddy Dean Smith on the list of most victories by coaches named Smith. After Dean died this past weekend, USA Today called Steve for his memories. It's worth reading
     The fact that he's accomplished all this at Oak Hill instead of some city school says a lot about how the high school basketball landscape has changed in the 30 years since USA Today launched its Super 25 national rankings and shoe companies got their foot in the door. If you grew up with the notion that you could watch the rise of a basketball star at your local high school, you're dating yourself. Nowadays, it's rare for elite players to finish their careers at the schools where they grew up. Instead, they matriculate to places like Oak Hill.
     Mouth of Wilson is not a townjust a post office a couple of miles from campus. There's not even a crossroadsjust a couple of abandoned country stores at the T intersection where Highway 16 from Jefferson, North Carolina, intersects Highway 58 between Galax and Damascus, Virginia. The "mouth of Wilson" denotes the little delta where Wilson Creek feeds into the New River. 
     If you're hungry for a McDonald's, there are none within 20 miles of Oak Hill, except for the 28 McDonald's All-Americans during Coach Smith's tenure. (Want fries with that? Down the river from Mouth of Wilson, there is a little town named Fries, but they don't have a McDonald's either.) 
     If you're thirsty for a draft, you may not be able to buy one in Grayson County, but at halftime you can step out of the stands and shoot at the same hoops as 28 NBA draftees have done.
     If you're serious about basketball, Oak Hill should be on your bucket list. 


From the Mouth of Wilson to the Big Apple

     Oak Hill pushed its record to 47-0 before losing to Montverde, Florida, 70-61, in the national championship game April 4 at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
     Montverde is a 112-year-old private school west of Orlando that has now won three consecutive national championships. Last year's star player, D'Angelo Russell, made first-team All-America as a freshman at Ohio State. This year's star, Ben Simmons, is headed to LSU. He scored 20 points against Oak Hill and forced Giddens, to foul out.
     It wasn't a total lost weekend for Oak Hill. One of its graduates won a national championship: Quin Cook with Duke. That's one more champion's jersey for the gym wall back in Mouth of Wilson.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Dean Smith and the Carolina Way

     Dean Smith was the reason I wanted to go to the University of North Carolina. Then Chapel Hill wait-listed me, Missouri accepted me, and I practiced journalism on coach Norm Stewart instead.
     Stormin' Norman probably got tired of my Carolina  perspective, but all I knew about basketball I learned from watching Dean Smith on the ACC game of the week. I admired the ways he innovated and integrated, how he used the four corners and the blue team, and how everything fit so neatly, from those V-neck jerseys to the almost-perfect graduation rate. I was naive, and it was the Carolina way!
    As far as I was concerned, Dean Smith invented basketball. In reality, he was only two generations removed from the creationhe learned the game from Phog Allen, who learned it from Dr. James Naismith.
     I am thankful that I had the opportunity to cover ACC basketball during Coach Smith's last five seasons, including the infamous feud with Clemson's Rick Barnes that climaxed with their courtside confrontation at the 1995 ACC tournament. 
     If you're looking at Coach Smith from the viewpoint of Clemson or ABC (Anybody But Carolina), I recommend this 2013 interview with Seth Davis, where Barnes goes into detail about their relationship and says that he wishes he had handled things differently.
     Two episodes from that interview reveal a lot:
     Reporters knew Coach Smith as the master of the backhanded compliment. When ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan summoned both coaches to his home in 1995 to work out a truce, Smith told Barnes, "You're the best coach I've ever coached against that can teach guys to foul without getting caught."
     "Really?" Rick said. "You think I'm that good? Tell you what, I'll write a book on what we do if you write the foreword."
     Two years later, in October 1997, the Barnes were at home in Clemson when the news broke that Smith was retiring. His 9-year-old daughter Carley asked, "Daddy, why did he quit?"
     "I told her I don't really know. I told her how great he was, and what he meant to me growing up in North Carolina. My wife told her, 'Why don't you write him a letter?' 
     "She wrote him a letter. And he wrote back a great letter and said wonderful things about me. He said great things."
     Barnes went on to say how much he respected Smith as a coach and as a competitor who did things the right way.
     You didn't have to be Rick Barnes' little girl to get a letter from Coach Smith. I found this out last March when I saw classic stories about Coach Smith by John Feinstein and Tommy Tomlinson and emailed them to a co-worker who graduated from North Carolina and is about the same age as Barnes' daughter. "You probably don't remember Coach Smith," I said.
     Oh, was I wrong! The next day, Hope surprised me by bringing in a package of Dean Smith treasures. As a little girl, she had written him letters, and Coach had responded to each one. In his last years of coaching, he didn't need to be cultivating little fans, but he did it anyway.
     It was the Dean Smith way. He would have called it the Carolina way. 
     If there was any mercy in his memory-clouding illness, at least Coach Smith was spared from seeing the Tar Heels tailspin from the Carolina way to the Carolina wayward. 
     None of that matters anymore. The Bible says heaven is a city built foursquare. Make yourself at home, Coach.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Extra! Extra! Read all about Stoneman's Raid

     I've written thousands of stories over the past 40 years, but none has fascinated me quite like Stoneman's Raidthe events in my backyard that hastened the end of the Civil War. I've launched a new blog, The Stoneman Gazette, to share the daily details of what happened 150 years ago.
      Newspapers and armies don't take a day off, and it will be a challenge to see if I can keep up, but I intend to post a fresh story or two every day through May 3. You're welcome to read along.