Doug Robinson: High-flying Knights shatter hoops stereotypes while doing things 'the right way'
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
OGDEN — It wasn't until after Lone Peak High School's sensational boys basketball team dispatched Alta by the fairly routine score of 72-39 in Saturday's 5A state championship game that their timing and best-laid plans finally failed them.
Their celebration needs work.
They waited behind the locker room door in ambush, armed with containers of water, to give coach Quincy Lewis the traditional victory shower — and waited ... and waited ... and waited.
Minutes passed. More minutes passed. "Where is Coach?" the players asked.
More minutes passed. Assistant coaches repeatedly peeked in the door to tell them their coach would arrive soon. Eventually, the players began to chant "Coach! Coach! Coach!"
Twenty minutes later, Lewis finally made his entry, and the celebration began, making a small pond out of their Dee Events Center locker room. Eyeing his wet clothes, Lewis shouted "Look at me!"
Everybody is already looking at Lewis and the Knights, who are a national sensation, and their latest victory will do nothing to dampen that. With Saturday's win, the Knights are arguably the greatest high school basketball team in state history. They can also stake their claim on the national championship, but that won't be made official until the other states have completed their state tournaments.
More waiting. Meanwhile, the curiosity of the nation's media will resume.
Let's face it, the reason the Knights are all the rage at the moment is not merely because they have run roughshod over some of the country's best basketball teams or spent weeks ranked No. 1 in the nation. It's because, in the words of their own coach, "We're a different animal."
High school national champions get attention, but not like this. They don't go on the "Today Show." They don't get an invitation from "Good Morning, America." They're not interviewed by Sports Illustrated, the New York Times and National Public Radio.
The Knights have stolen the national spotlight because they're a dominant basketball team that doesn't look the part. In a wrap, here's what just happened: A bunch of public-school, clean-cut Mormon boys from a small town in Utah stormed through the basketball season and destroyed everyone's stereotype of what a championship basketball team is. Too white, too slight, too small-town, the Knights were literally laughed at when they entered the gym. They were an oddity in a game traditionally ruled by black inner-city teams.
"We flunk the eyeball test," says Lewis. "We have one guy who looks imposing and after that we don't look like much. If you were to walk in our halls, you couldn't pick out those guys. We're different than what's out there."
"We hear what other teams say about us and what is written in social media," says senior guard Nick Emery.
"What's the chess team doing here? I've heard that comment," says assistant principal Kenley Brown.
"We get a lot of funny looks," says center Eric Mika. "Like, 'Really? These are the guys we're playing?' One team was literally laughing at us when we were warming up. We beat them by 50."
Says Lewis, "I could tell you about more than one time we walked into the gym and the other team looked at us and said 'Who are these guys?' These teams don't have a lot of respect for us. Our guys thrive on that."
And how. They finished with a 26-1 record while beating their opponents by an average of 28.5 points (ridiculous average score: Lone Peak 72.7, Opponent 44.2). They were 9-1 in national tournaments, beating teams from Chicago, Denver, Las Vegas, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, North Carolina and California by an average of 23 points. Five of those teams were ranked No. 1 in their states as of last week.
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."
The Knights are nothing if not a product of their culture — which is to say Utah and Mormon — which close observers say contributes to the chemistry of the team. A quick glance at the team's media guide is revealing: Most of the players list plans for church missions, marriage, family and to be remembered as "a good kid, friendly," or "happy, nice to everyone."
Three of the team's five seniors — Emery, Shumway and Braden Miles — have already received calls to serve missions for the LDS Church and will leave this summer. Most of the Knights' players list the Book of Mormon as their favorite book or the last book they read.
"Part of the reason for our success is how good the guys are off the court," says Mika. "We don't have any of those problems off the court — drugs, alcohol, immorality. It's the way we've been raised. We have those expectations."
The players hang out together off the court to play Halo like other teenagers, but they also make trips to the Mormon temple together, either early in the morning or after practice.
"We do that once in a while," says Emery, who leaves on a mission to Germany on May 1. "I mean, we have three temples within 10 miles here."
On road trips, the Knights don't use an unfamiliar town as an excuse to miss church.
"We flew into Boston for a tournament and before I could even ask, (Emery) said he had found a church they could attend at such and such a time and located at such and such a place," Lewis said. "A group of them went to church the next day."
For their part, the Knights are still trying to take it all in. They have claimed three consecutive state championships and likely a national championship while earning nationwide media attention and notoriety.
"This is a movie," Mika said. "I don't think we realize what we've gotten ourselves into. What is going on? We were on the 'Today Show'!"
Anticipating the media attention at the outset of the season, Lewis asked his players not to read their press clips or watch their TV coverage. Mika and Emery insist the players have complied. In return, Lewis assigned a parent to collect all articles, TV shows and video highlights about the team to present to the players when all is said and done.
"Then they can read it and enjoy it to their heart's content after the season," says Lewis.
It should prove to be enjoyable reading for the rest of their lives.