Doug Robinson: High-flying Knights shatter hoops stereotypes while doing things 'the right way'
One of their victims, No. 3-ranked Chester (Pa.) High, brought a 61-game winning streak into their game against the Knights. They lost 73-50. After a string of such wins, the name of the school became a verb: If you got thumped by the Knights, you got "Lone Peaked."
It would be wrong if you're envisioning a team of overachievers. The Knights are talented. Four of their players — Mika, Emery, TJ Haws and Talon Shumway — will have scholarships waiting for them at BYU, the latter to play football and the other three to play basketball. Conner Toolson likely will win a scholarship somewhere as well. The team boasts good DNA. Toolson's father played for BYU, as did Emery's brother Jackson and Haws' father, Marty. The Knights have had a member of the Haws and or Emery family on the court every year during their current run of six state championships in nine years, accounting for three Mr. Basketball trophies and another one expected later this month.
Once the game begins, all preconceptions formed by the eyeball test are crushed. The Knights, eschewing the half-court game favored by many teams of their skin color, unleash a high-flying game of alley oops, dunks, fast breaks, 3-point shots and an unrelenting, up-tempo offense that leaves opponents gasping for air.
Tyrone Slaughter, who coaches a nationally ranked Chicago school, told the New York Times, "(The Knights) play like inner-city teams, how blacks consider black teams play. I don't know any other way to put it. So many times we see the predominantly white teams play a conservative style, a precise style of basketball. When you see this team play, it is completely different."
Says Lewis, "All five of our starters are athletic and that's what is surprising to people out of state. We run more than they do."
What is equally shocking to basketball aficionados is that the Knights are a neighborhood team. Powerhouse public and private schools tend to build their teams by stacking rosters with players from outside the school boundaries. According to Brown, 14 of the 15 players on the Lone Peak roster live within the school's boundaries, and the lone exception grew up in the area before moving out because of family issues. Most of them have been playing basketball together since grade school.
"Some people can't believe we are a public school and then they can't believe we're a closed school," says Brown. "They'll say, 'You're a closed school and you're that good?'"
The years together have engendered a certain esprit de corps that fosters unselfishness, chemistry and work ethic, whether it's daily 6 a.m. individual workouts throughout the summer or checking their egos at the door. A year ago, Mika, the team's 6-foot-10 star center, was forced to sit out the season after transferring from a private school even though he never moved out of Lone Peak's boundary. He spent the season serving as the team's water boy and ball boy.
"We have photos of him with ball bags slung over his shoulders and carrying water," says Lewis. "He was humble enough to do it."
Some of the team's stars have seen their scoring averages decline each season as other players have improved and roles have changed. Emery — one of the team's Big Three (along with Mika and Haws) — has seen his scoring average decline each year since his freshman season. Shumway, MVP of the state championship game as a sophomore, was told by Lewis at the outset of this season that his scoring average would decline because he was needed as a playmaker and defender. That's a hard sell for most prep players who believe they have to score to win scholarships, but Lewis says they eagerly embraced other roles for the good of the team.
Says Lewis, "I've cut kids who are more talented than the kids I kept because these others guys understand or want to do what it takes to have the team be successful."
Following one national tournament, Lewis received phone calls from two coaches who told him, "That's the best high school team I've ever seen. I love how you share the ball and play the right way."