High school national champion Lone Peak players value Mormon faith, service

Published: Thursday, Jan. 30 2014 5:00 a.m. MST

“People would say they look so clean cut, they are such gentlemen and so respectful. We loved hearing that,” Debbie Lewis said. “Some people asked questions about the LDS Church because Eric Mika and Nick Emery had talked about going on missions. … I loved that everywhere we went, we stood out to people.”

The Knights caught Zack Samberg’s attention when Lone Peak won against Archbishop Mitty (Calif.) in the Hoophall Classic in Springfield, Mass., in January 2013. Samberg, then an eighth-grader, was amazed to see “this unassuming, small team from Utah” dominate star player Aaron Gordon (now a freshman with the No. 1 Arizona Wildcats) and his team by almost 40 points. The young New York native researched the Knights on his cellphone during the game and wanted to meet the Lone Peak players afterward but assumed they would be overwhelmed with media. To his surprise, all the cameras and reporters followed Gordon. Samberg was able to speak briefly with Emery, Haws and Mika as the team hurried out to catch their flight home.

“I knew there was something special about this team,” Samberg wrote in an email to the Deseret News. “I knew there was a story to be told.”

In the weeks that followed, Samberg became consumed by the idea of filming a documentary about the Knights. With his parents' permission, the ambitious 14-year-old tracked down an email address for coach Lewis and pitched his idea.

The coach agreed. The finished product, a 21-minute film co-directed by Ben Altarescu and titled “The Book of Lone Peak,” was recently released on iTunes.

Samberg was impressed by how long the team had played together and how well it competed against top programs despite having an overall smaller lineup. Another unique aspect for Samberg was Mormonism.

“I learned a lot about Mormonism from doing this project, and I honestly think that played a huge role in Lone Peak’s success,” said Samberg, now in ninth grade. “Being a high school kid, I know what goes on outside of school, and for the most part it isn’t good. Being Mormon, according to the kids, really kept them in check and kept their priorities straight. They weren’t getting into trouble and doing bad things on weekends because they were working and playing basketball.”

‘T-Payne’

One special memory for LeeAnn Payne was seeing her son Tanner cut down a piece of the net after Lone Peak won a state championship at the Dee Events Center in Ogden.

Tanner, affectionately referred to as "T-Payne," had been around Emery, Haws and Conner Toolson since elementary school and loved the game of basketball. He had followed the Knights' program for years, and after watching his older brother Kimball win back-to-back state titles in 2007 and 2008, he dreamed of the day he would cut down his own piece of the net.

With the community cheering and cellphone cameras recording, T-Payne climbed the ladder, but he was unable to cut the net.

Before he was born, Tanner Payne suffered a stroke that resulted in cerebral palsy and a seizure disorder. But he became the Knights' team manager and performed his daily duties at a high level.

Seeing his buddy's struggle with cutting the net (Payne has difficulties with fine motor skills), Emery climbed the ladder and assisted T-Payne in securing his souvenir.

LeeAnn Payne captured a photo of the priceless moment, but the scene will forever be etched in her heart.

“That encapsulates these boys,” she said. “They were there for Tanner. They made him feel like a teammate. That's invaluable to a kid that looks up to a group of boys like Tanner did. They were a unique group, a sweet group.”

In a letter she wrote, LeeAnn Payne thanked the players for the kindness they showed her son.

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